Customers as curators: Going beyond simple reviews

My magazine reading is almost exclusively limited to what’s offered in my Next Issue subscription. If you’re not familiar with Next Issue, it’s an all-you-can-read e-zine service featuring more than 140 titles. Sports Illustrated, BusinessWeek and Wired are just a few of the magazines I read in my $14.99/month subscription.

I recently received an interesting email from Next Issue and it got me thinking about how customers are evolving into content curators. Every customer won’t do this, but a significant enough number will and it will lead to new forms of content discovery and consumption.

The email I got from Next Issue can be seen here. You’ll notice that a Next Issue employee shares a link to her favorite stories on the outdoors in that email. I’m not exactly the outdoorsy type but even I was intrigued enough to click and read the recommendations. Why?

I’ve gotten so numb to all the automated, algorithmic recommendations in emails and on websites (e.g., “those who bought x also bought y”) that I was curious to learn more. It just goes to show that human curation can still trump computerized curation.

Then there’s the passion factor. Recommendations from an actual person have a more genuine feel than the sanitized, generic messages we’re so used to seeing. Whatever your hobbies and interests are, you can probably create a more credible, click-worthy reading list than even the most sophisticated computer algorithm.

And let’s face it: We are a lazy society, so we want others to vet articles, books, blogs, etc., before we waste our precious time on them. If Next Issue sends me a recommended reading list, even if it’s based on my reading habits, it feels empty, void of any soul. But if that same list comes from an actual person, even an employee of the company, it has more credibility.

This all means that a publisher’s most enthusiastic readers can potentially become on of its most influential sales and marketing resources. It’s an opportunity for those readers to share their passion with others while also helping the publisher increase engagement.

This is the next evolutionary step for product reviews written by customers like you and me. Rather than having reviews sit passively on a website, waiting for prospective customers to arrive, they can be spun into active narratives, encouraging deeper engagement from existing readers/subscribers.

It’s all about the personal curation though, and having a name and face accompany the message. It’s also an opportunity for a publisher’s biggest fans to take on a new role, but only for those publishers who are willing to give up some of their precious content curation control.

How crowdsourcing will ultimately add value

Most publishers cringe at the thought of crowdsourcing. Publishers often believe they exclusively own the art of content curation and they feel threatened when they sense others encroaching on their turf.

It’s hard to argue with that logic, especially in our disrupted world where the publisher’s role is under attack from self-publishing, free content and authors with their own platforms. That’s why every publisher should rethink the role they play and determine how to remain relevant in the years to come.

I believe crowdsourcing will eventually be a very powerful tool for all publishers. One of the key problems with crowdsourcing today is that it’s little more than a buzzword and most crowdsourcing efforts are poorly coordinated and leveraged.

Imagine this scenario in the future: A newspaper publisher allows members of their community to create remixes of the paper’s original content. Additionally, they not only allow, but they actually encourage the community to integrate it with content from other sources, including the “competition”. These derivative works will benefit from the interests and curation skills of highly passionate community members. It’s a blend of bloggers and “professional” content, for example. 

What’s in it for the community curators? If the publishers are smart, they’ll create affiliate programs where the publisher sells access to these crowdsource remixes and the curators earn a share of the resulting revenue. This also helps those curators build brand names of their own, potentially ones the newspaper might want to hire full time. Think of it as a feeder system for new content talent.

Now let’s look at the opportunity for book publishers. What if the publisher allowed the community to create their own editions of books? Let’s say you want to read that new blockbuster book about marketing strategies. What if a marketing guru read it before you, highlighted all the critical elements and inserted additional, relevant notes from their years of experience? Now you have a book that has significantly more value than the original edition. The publisher can probably charge more for this edition and pay the marketing guru a portion of the incremental revenue. Over time you’d see multiple digital editions of books. Would you pay more for the “Seth Godin Edition” of that marketing strategy book, where Godin didn’t write it but he highlighted the important stuff and inserted a bunch of related insights?

Most existing publishers will balk at all of this, worrying about the additional layers of complexity, a modified review process, etc. As the incumbents reject it we’ll see yet another new chapter of The Innovator’s Dilemma unfolding right in front of us as startups will fill the void; after all, startups don’t worry about new processes and whether it’s OK to break the old rules.

Four key branding factors

My last article asked four important questions about your content’s brand and how it’s positioned.  Let’s build on that with four critical factors you need to consider as you look to extend or reinforce your brand:

Community – I believe this is the most important element of all and it’s become even more critical in the digital content world. Most of today’s biggest publishers built their brands in the print era and didn’t worry much about community. Books, newspapers and magazines have been, and largely remain, one-way communication vehicles. Author speaks to reader. End of story. Yes, there have always been “letters to the editor” and other ways of providing reader feedback, but it was always secondary. Highly engaging content brands of the future will feature community at their heart. Readers still want to hear from frontline reporters and subject matter experts but they’re increasingly more interested in also hearing from others in the community as well.

Directly accessible – Digital content represents a new opportunity for publishers to engage directly with their readers. Retailers still play a key role but they no longer represent the only way to reach a consumer. If your content relies exclusively on someone else to get it in the hands of consumers you’re marginalizing your brand. You remain secondary to the retailer’s brand and risk becoming invisible to the consumer; a good example is how consumers don’t know (or care about) book publisher names. Community and direct access go hand in hand, btw; community needs to be a core ingredient of your direct channel.

Platform and device agnostic – Most content can be consumed on all of the major platforms (e.g., iOS, Android, Windows & Mac) but is the user experience the same throughout? The industry has gotten too hung up on native apps to supposedly leverage the unique capabilities of each device. Does an ebook rely on whether the reader’s phone has an accelerometer or camera? Of couse not. And yet we see the various stores bursting with custom apps supposedly designed with the consumer and their specific device in mind. Ugh. HTML5 is the future, folks. And going with a browser-centric viewer model means your content is less dependent on retailer channels.

Highly discoverable – A wise man once told me that discovery is a problem for publishers, not for consumers. In other words, even though publishers are fretting over how to get more eyeballs on their content no consumer is sitting around saying, “gee, I wish I could find even more content to read.” So true, but it still doesn’t solve the problem of obscurity and undiscovered content. This, of course, is one of the reasons publishers are flooding the app stores with products; they figure that’s where all the discovery happens. But again, if you build a direct channel with community at its heart you control your brand’s destiny.

So how does your brand stack up on these four factors? Have you built a strong direct channel focusing on community and offering easily discoverable content with a consistent user experience across platforms and devices? My consumer experience says that almost every brand fails on at least one of these and most miss the mark on all four. The content brands that survive today’s industry disruption will thrive in part by scoring well on all four of these elements.

Community curation

With paywalls coming back in style readers are discovering more brands are clamping down on content access. Whether it’s accomplished through metering or subscriber-only access, a day doesn’t go by when I haven’t run into a paywall.

That’s OK. There’s too much content out there anyway and I certainly don’t need access to even more of it. What I really need is more curation and less volume.

I want someone else to read it all and then tell me what I absolutely need to read. They act as a filter and I pay them because they save me time and make me smarter.

I’ve written before about this content concierge concept but that was mostly for free content. The model has just as much potential for paid content though and could help publishers dramatically expand their reach.

Let’s say you’re a newspaper or magazine publisher. Assume for a moment that you’re willing to grant full, behind-the-paywall access to community content curators. There are sports experts, business experts, local community experts, etc. These curators are reading everything you’re publishing and picking the best of the best, the must-reads for the day/week/month. They in turn publish their lists to a whole new set of subscribers; these readers pay for access to only the content recommended by the curator, not the full editions. The best curators float to the top and drive more subscriptions than the others and you pay them a commission for each subscriber they bring in. Curators establish brand names for themselves, as in, “hey, if you’re into travel you need to subscribe to Bob Thomas…he finds all the best travel articles so I don’t have to.”

How do you price such a service? That depends on a number of factors including how much that audience values curation and time savings. For a professional audience, where time equals money, you’ll be able to charge more of a premium than for other audiences. Either way though you’re offering access to your paywall-protected content so this definitely isn’t a free service.

The model doesn’t end with newspapers and magazines. How can you save time for book readers? Think about summaries. There are a few book summary services out there and I wouldn’t recommend any of them, mostly because they’ve gone about it all wrong. Those summaries feel like marketing pieces for the books, not the valuable nuggets that make the book worth reading. Publishers are undoubtedly concerned about selling summaries that offer as much value as the full book but at a fraction of the price.

That’s where they get it all wrong.

Just because it’s shorter doesn’t mean it’s worth less. In fact, if you’re saving me time I’m willing to pay more, so these summaries, curated by community members, could have a higher price than the original ebook.

This is a model that requires publishers to take some risks and that’s the main reason it hasn’t been tested yet. But as newer, more nimble publishers dislodge some of the incumbents I think we’ll see this successfully deployed…and the older, less nimble publishers will do their best to adapt.

Direct sales and community building

JIIf you’ve been anywhere near publishing recently, you’ve probably been hit by the shrapnel of an exploding business model, a narrowing distribution network, or mind-numbing cutbacks. It’s fashionable for people who aren’t pouring their daily energies into words and stories to compare the changing ebook environment to the music industry. But it’s different.  Much more simple and complex at the same time. And I believe--even without gulping down an alcoholic beverage--that publishers and authors can come out on top when the dust settles.  

But it will require change. And partnerships. And innovation. We need to do what great authors do--draw readers in by telling an intriguing story and getting them involved. But this time it won’t be just into a book, but into the industry itself.

I’ve sat on both sides of the table, both as an author and an executive in the publishing industry. So I’m constantly viewing the future through the lens of a win/win scenario, where authors/publishers and readers thrive. And I believe that direct sales and community-building are an important first step. Having direct relationships and building audiences are instrumental to publishers controlling their own future. So let’s take a quick look at both...

Direct Sales

I recently had a conversation with a VP at a major publishing house and he/she said, “We’re not interested in direct sales. We have partners and retailers who do the selling for us.”  

Sensing that we were not speaking the same language, I asked a few poignant questions:

“Are you interested in having the contact information for anyone who buys your book?" 

“Well, yes.”

“Are you interested in better understanding the reading habits and preferences of your readers?”


“Are you interested in developing a number of creative marketing, sales, and promotional opportunity for your authors?”

“Of course.”

“Then you are interested in direct sales.”

As we began discussing further, we both realized there is a difference between building a direct sales channel and joining a direct sales channel. For the most part, “building direct sales” has been synonymous with “a publisher acting like a retailer and going direct.” In my opinion, publishers should not be interested in this type of situation. It is expensive, wrought with technical complications, and limiting for the end consumer. At a time when most publishers are pruning their teams, it is simply not a good strategy to tackle more with less. Moreover, readers accustomed to robust digital storefronts are not going to hunt down books at separate publishers.

But joining a direct sales channel is different. If a publisher can be part of a larger retail ecosystem but still enjoy the benefits of gathering contact information and staying connected to the end reader, it is the best of both worlds. Publishers can extend their reach from content acquisition all the way to consumption and feedback. Likewise, consumers can visit one location and find all the content they desire.

Direct sales is about visibility and transparency into the sales and consumption of a book. And who doesn’t want that? At BookShout!, we are making this a reality today. Working less like a traditional retailer and more like a retail portal and ecosystem, we are aggregating publishers together and allowing them direct access to the end reader. This includes allowing publishers to export contact information, create innovative marketing campaigns across social channels, and build author platforms.

Community Building

Seth Godin calls it “building your own tribe”. Others refer to it as “growing your audience.” Regardless of the terminology, community building is about bringing like-minded readers together and facilitating a discussion. 

Did you notice that I said “facilitating”, not “controlling?” Some of the most successful audience builders I know understand that growing an audience is like throwing a great party. Make sure there is enough food, the right music, a place to congregate, and a topic to discuss. Then stand back and just keep the conversation going. The community will strengthen as others step up and manage the discussions. Influencers will begin to emerge. People want to belong, and content communities allow for this.

We don’t all agree that the Yankees are a good team, but we all agree that word-of-mouth referrals are gold. When a friend recommends a great book to me, I’m ten times more likely to buy it than if I’m being sold by a third party. When we build audiences around verticals, brands, and authors, we can help passionate people share their experiences. Plus there is the added benefit that a growing tribe creates noise, which in turn, continues to grow the tribe exponentially. All of these things begin to move the needle on sales.   

Amazon didn’t buy Goodreads because they had an extra $150M+ lying around. They bought it because of the community aspect and the ability to tie these rabid readers closer to the buying experience. At BookShout!, we specifically built our platform around letting people create communities, what we call “circles.” We believe that if an author, publisher, brand, or book can establish its own community, they can better facilitate conversation, which in turn, develops more sales and marketing possibilities. It’s a self-sustaining ecosystem that can feed itself.

One thing is certain--you won’t get it right the first time. Building a direct channel and an audience is an iterative process. Give yourself the right to pivot, change directions, try new things, create micro-genres, and start conversations. We certainly don’t have it all figured out at BookShout! but we are actively listening so we can continuously improve. The one thing you can’t do is nothing. If publishers and authors do nothing, nothing will be all that’s left.

This article was written by contributor Jason Illian. Jason is the Founder and CEO of BookShout!, an innovative reading platform that empowers publishers/authors and builds community around books.  BookShout! is working closely with publishers and authors to re-imagine the future of books.