One day content will enrich itself

You’ve probably heard me say that we live in a print-under-glass world, one where we’re consuming dumb content on smart devices.­­ It’s true simply because, as Michael Bhaskar of Canelo Publishing stated it at BEA, “publishers treat ebooks as a secondary priority.”

It’s far too easy to quickly convert the print edition to a static e-edition and drive some incremental revenue. Meanwhile, more and more publishers are starting to report flattening ebook sales.

I believe part of the problem is due to the fact that many consumers who aren’t already buying ebooks are holding off because they’re satisfied with print and see no significant benefit of switching to e. The Bookseller recently reported that millennials are “least likely to buy ebooks.” We’re talking about a born-digital generation, one that has come to expect rich, immersive experiences in everything digital. It’s no wonder why they haven’t warmed up to today’s ebook experience.

Publishers and authors sometimes balk at the notion of creating anything beyond the static ebook. They question the ROI as well as the time and effort required. That’s a reasonable response, particularly given the various failed experiments with native apps and other digital platforms. Plus, some ebooks are perfect just the way they are; readers don’t want or need them to incorporate extra digital bells and whistles.

But there are plenty of other books and entire genres that would dramatically benefit from a deeper digital experience. Think reference and how-to content. Videos, photo galleries and any one of the various web widgets could add significant value.

So what’s a publisher to do when it’s hard enough just getting the manuscript from the author?

I think it’s reasonable to expect that in the next few years we’ll see content that self-enriches. The application or reading platform will handle the details and little, if any, human curator intervention will be required.

While it’s true that auto-enrichment might never match the quality of human enrichment, the former will be a huge step in the right direction, hopefully priming the pump for more of the latter to eventually take place.  


“What is code?” illustrates rich content potential

The painful reality is that we still live in a print-under-glass world, struggling to produce content that leverages our powerful phones and tablets. I was explaining this to a publisher recently and the phrase “escape velocity” came to mind.

In simple terms, escape velocity is what’s required for an object to break free from another object’s gravitational pull. For example, a rocket being launched from earth or, in this case, a publisher trying to create content that’s more deeply engaging than simply putting the print edition on a digital screen. In the latter case, everything from significant print revenues to industry indifference represent the gravitational pull that needs to be escaped.

The latest example proving we’re still in the print-under-glass era is a terrific Businessweek article called What is code?  The fact that rich and engaging pieces like this draw so much attention and are so few and far between proves we’re still only in the early innings of digital content innovation and evolution.

If you haven’t read the article I highly recommend you take the time and carefully go through it. If you’re not a programmer you’ll learn a lot. But even if you’re a coding master you’ll still learn a thing or two, including how content will eventually take baby steps away from today’s print-under-glass approach.

Here are the most takeaways I got from this Businessweek article: 

  • Measuring visits and reading time – I opened and closed it a few times before finally reading the entire piece. I found it interesting that a pop-up noted how many times I had opened it previously as well as how long I had already spent scanning it. This information may not be valuable for a magazine article but it would be very useful for tutorial content to see how long it takes to learn a subject. It would also be extremely valuable for publishers to discover where readers tend to spend the most time.
  • Dynamic visuals – Be sure to check out the circuitry animation that appears at the start of the second section. If you’re not familiar with the concept of logic gates, take a minute or two to read the callout and watch the animation. And have you ever wondered what happens when you press a key on your keyboard? There’s another animation for this and, as the callout notes, quite a few things happen behind the scenes before the key you pressed appears on your screen. Note that neither of these are “enrichment for enrichment’s sake”. Creating deeply engaging content like this requires a great deal of work, especially when it comes to figuring out exactly what type of dynamic visuals will add to the experience, not interfere with it.
  • Deeper dives, but only if you want them –Note the rounded rectangular numbered items interspersed throughout and how they’re used as pop-up notes. It’s not the best UI element but I love how they quickly provide more depth without taking the reader away from the current paragraph. A key here is to provide this additional depth unobtrusively. The best UI enables a smooth reading flow for readers who don’t care to read these pop-ups while ensuring the additional content is easily accessible for those who want it.
  • Annoying visuals – As good as this Businessweek article is, it would have been even better without the animated blue box character with the black hat and flower. The designer probably felt it added personality or maybe even gave the piece an attitude; in reality, it made the whole experience feel like a 1980’s experiment featuring a Walking Dead version of the Charlie Chaplin PC Jr. character. The lesson here is to focus on functional value rather than gimmicks.

If you read to the end you’ll discover another feature that combines something useful with yet another gimmick, which is unfortunate.

I applaud Businessweek and author Paul Ford for helping show the possibilities of a post-print-under-glass world. Here’s to hoping escape velocity is just around the corner and soon this sort of content will be considered standard, not edgy.


How curation automation is going to disrupt content consumption

The best content curators have extensive topic knowledge and a knack for reader interests and preferences. That sounds like something only a living, breathing human can do, right? While that’s largely the case today, I believe technology will drive the biggest advancements in content curation tomorrow.

Narrative Science is a terrific example. I met Kris Hammond of Narrative Science a few years ago when he spoke at a Tools of Change conference I helped produce. If you’re not familiar with them, Narrative Science is one of those companies that develop tools to automate story writing.

You may have read a computer-generated article or two this week and never even realized it. Think you can tell the difference between human- and auto-generated content? Stick around and take the quiz at the end of this article… 

Data is at the heart of the stories generated by Narrative Science but what exactly is “data”? In the current model, data typically consists of numbers, tables and other highly structured information. For example, the narrative summary of last night’s baseball game could be auto-generated using nothing more than the game’s box score, the data from the event.

As platforms like Narrative Science’s evolve, so will the definition of data. 

Last week I wrote an article about why all-you-can-read subscriptions need curation. We’re drowning in a sea of content and we need better tools to help us uncover and consume the must-read content. There’s a big difference between what you and I consider must-read though and that’s where the curation element comes into play.

A number of industry pundits criticized my thinking and pointed out the high cost of this sort of curation. I agree. Curation today almost always requires human intervention. But what happens when that’s no longer the case?

What happens when an application is able to rewrite and summarize the sea of daily content that’s most important to you? What happens when this tool, which knows your interests, your job responsibilities, etc., is able to deliver a fully-automated Cliffs Notes version of everything you need to read that day?

I think that will be a game-changer and will become an extremely important, real world application for artificial intelligence. Will it put writers out of business? No, not necessarily. After all, most of the original content still has to be written by someone. But it will help amplify the content that needs to be read, enabling it to rise above all the noise that surrounds it. 

Still think this is nothing more than sci-fi and wishful thinking? Take this short quiz and see if you can figure out whether each of these excerpts were human-generated or computer-generated.


Why all-you-can-read subscriptions need curation

The initial promise is compelling, especially for voracious readers. For $10-$15/month consumers get access to more content than they could possibly read in a month. That ultimately creates a bigger problem than the subscription platforms probably realize.

For more than a year now I’ve been a subscriber to both Oyster, for books, and Next Issue, for magazines. Both have slightly altered my reading habits but neither are serving their content in an optimal manner.

For Next Issue, it’s as though the U.S. Post Office backs up a truck and dumps 100+ magazines every month. Sure, there are many I enjoy and a few that I used to value enough to buy individually in the print days. Compare that large, unreadable stack to one thin magazine, The Week. If I had to choose between the 100+ Next Issue magazines and The Week, the latter wins every time.

What makes The Week so unique? Their editors are curating and quoting content from many other magazines, covering both sides of all the major issues. IOW, when I read The Week I feel as if I just read the Cliff’s Notes of all the top newspapers and magazines…and I can accomplish this in less than an hour.

The Week is efficient and Next Issue is bloated. When I finish reading an issue of The Week I feel like I got a thorough global debriefing in record time. When I close the Next Issue app I feel like I wasted much of the abundant content in magazines I never opened let alone read.

The Week has obviously invested in an editorial team to create this unique and valuable experience. The all-you-can-read services like Next Issue are simply throwing more content at you in its original container, hoping you’ll see the value. It’s like comparing a fine restaurant to The Golden Corral. I’ll overindulge on junk food from time to time but I certainly don’t want to do it every day at every meal.

I should point out that I still like my Next Issue subscription and find it valuable. But it could be so much better. Next Issue could offer a curated option like The Week and charge a premium for that model. In fact, I could see cheaper and pricier subscription models built off the Next Issue foundation. You like sports? Pay $5/month and get access to the curated, The Week-like version, of all the top sports stories every month. You want a curated version of everything? You’ll need to pay more than the $15/month Next Issue charges for their current premium option.

There will always be room for simple, all-you-can-read models like Oyster and Next Issue. But these platforms can attract even more subscribers and offer a variety of models by also embracing a curation model like The Week.


Debunking the discovery problem

Ever since ebooks gained traction the publishing industry has obsessed with what’s typically referred to as “the discovery problem.” The common wisdom is that discovery of the content will lead to fame and fortune.

What's next, now that ebook sales are flattening? Join me at a free webinar on April 28 to see how to drive revenue growth. Click here to register.

I believe digital content’s main challenge is more about efficiency, less about discovery, and my inspiration for this point of view comes from a totally unrelated business: the coffee industry.

A recent Businessweek article noted that single-serve pods (e.g., Keurig) have eliminated coffee’s biggest consumer: the kitchen sink. (Btw, Businessweek apparently doesn’t worry about content discovery as that article can’t be found on their website; it’s only in the print edition but I found a related version of it here.)

It turns out that with Mr. Coffee and other drip systems a great deal of product ends up going to waste. The net result is that as the single-serve devices gain momentum we’re creating a climate where total consumption is lower and excess inventories are leading to lower prices for coffee beans.

In short, the article notes that while Americans still drink a lot of coffee, they do it more efficiently. Each cup in the single-serve model is more expensive but in total we’re consuming and wasting far less coffee now.

What in the world does this have to do with digital content?

I don’t think anyone would argue with the fact that we have an excessive amount digital content today. A great deal of it is being produced but in many cases nobody is reading it. This has led to an overabundance of free and cheap content which is being both professionally published as well as self-published.

Wasted coffee goes down the drain but wasted content simply goes unread. In some cases, hoarders like myself have moved the content from online to local devices, but much of that content is never actually consumed.

Here’s a parallel from yet another completely unrelated industry: service provider recommendations. My wife and I recently cancelled our Angie’s List subscription because we discovered the Nextdoor social network. As you may already know, Angie’s List is battling allegations of fraudulent and deceptive practices and its reviews are typically posted by complete strangers. Meanwhile, Nextdoor offers reviews and advice from people you know or could easily introduce yourself to: your next-door neighbors. I’ve found these local reviews on Nextdoor to be much more reliable. In fact, I’ve hired two service providers in the past week based on Nextdoor recommendations. Best of all, Nextdoor is totally free.

Compared to Angie’s List, Nextdoor feels like a more highly curated and relevant service. Discussions and recommendations come from people you might already know and everyone lives right there in your neighborhood. In fact, many of Nextdoor’s members are going through the same situations you are (e.g., hail storm, wind damage, down trees, etc.)

Nextdoor offers what I refer to as a better “content efficiency” experience than Angie’s List. It’s what I’m looking for and the content is presented when I need it.

Just as nobody walks into a bookstore asking for the latest book from Macmillan, nobody is sitting around saying, “gee, I wish I could discover more content.” What we really need is more efficient delivery of content that’s highly relevant to our specific needs and interests. 

We’ve mostly given up on RSS feeds and let’s face it…Twitter is yet another fire hose that’s next to impossible to effectively manage.

At some point content efficiency will improve. I’ve referred to this before as the need for a “content concierge”, resulting in much better recommendations, tailored content streams and, yes, it will come at a higher price, just like the single-serving coffee pods.

We may end up spending just as much time reading efficiently delivered content but it will be highly targeted and we’ll pay more for the privilege of others (human curators and well-tuned, automated algorithms) helping us find the precious needles in the overwhelming haystacks.


Content, technology and the digital scrapbook of your life

Every year it seems our cell phones take on new roles in our lives. Long ago flip phones merely enabled you to make calls. Today’s smartphones are loaded with sensors to do everything from track your health to tell you about a sale at a local store.

I think it’s time for our phones to do even more and this involves the convergence of content and technology to automatically create the digital story of your life.

Imagine an app that constantly monitors your phone’s location to do the following:

  • Log where you were today and make assumptions about what you did in each location,
  • Gather and organize content relevant to where you’ve been,
  • Build it all into a living, growing record that you can edit and share with others.

Sounds fairly straightforward, right? Now let’s think about the results of this.

One day you went to see the Reds play the Pirates in Pittsburgh at PNC Park. The app logs the event and pulls in the box score along with a couple of noteworthy articles about the game from the Cincinnati and Pittsburgh newspapers. It also saves the weather information (e.g., “partly cloudy, 61 degrees at first pitch with a high of 68 degrees”) and provides interesting factoids about what happened in sports on that same day 5 years ago, 10 years ago, etc.

On another day you attend your child’s college graduation ceremony. The app checks the school’s calendar and determines you were indeed at the ceremony. This information is logged and because the school was kind enough to expose the graduation program to the app, it too has now been digitally preserved in your stream.

By the way, this imaginary app also offers a user network. So it knows that you went with a friend to that baseball game, and your friend is part of the app’s network. This tidbit is also preserved along with all the great pictures you both took at the stadium. No longer do you have to worry about uploading or emailing photos; your app settings were already configured for two-way sharing between you and the friend who accompanied you at the game. The same goes for the graduation ceremony; now all your friends and family who are members of this service all have access to each other’s pictures.

We could, of course, extend this even further… If you ordered food at that baseball game the information could be logged so you could easily track your diet. In short, any transaction that takes place on your phone could be wired into this app as well. Those transactions that aren’t made with your phone could still be easily integrated: just take pictures of the receipt and the phone does the rest.

The app’s goal is to provide every user with a digital scrapbook of their life. The key is to automate as much of this process as possible. Let your phone and the app figure out what to collect and you can always go in and tweak it later if you want.

There’s also an enormous content opportunity here. I mentioned how the app pulls in content from newspapers but, of course, the feeds could come from anywhere. Ultimately this is a way to redeploy content based on context and preserve it for years and years. After all, one of the reasons you want to gather this information is to remember and relive the events of last week or last year. It’s also an interesting way to build the story of your life, one that can be passed on from one generation to the next. I’d love to have this kind of information about my parents and grandparents, for example.

A variety of business models could be used here including free, advertising/sponsor-based and premium. Ancestry.com and other genealogy services have proven the interest we have in our past. People spend hours and hours sifting through all that historical data, making assumptions about family connections, how people met, etc. An app like this eliminates the guesswork and tells the life story you want to communicate with your friends and future generations.


How digital can be a companion for print

Congratulations, print publishers. You dealt with enormous disruption these past several years and you managed to avoid the same fate as your music industry counterparts. For example, most book publishers still generate 70-80% of their revenue from print. How many music labels can say they generate anywhere near that percentage from CDs?

Is the survival of print a good thing or a bad thing? Rather than worrying about that one, here’s the question we really need to think about: Why do we treat these two formats as mutually exclusive?

Depending on what they’re doing, why do consumers tend to use either print or digital but almost never use print and digital for the same product?

I’ll use myself as an example... Believe it or not, my wife and I still subscribe to our local print newspaper, the Indianapolis Star. Our subscription plan includes a digital version as well as print. When I’m at home I always read print and never bother opening the digital edition; when I’m on the road, of course, I’m limited to a digital-only experience.

Why do I never bother opening the digital edition when I’m home? Because it’s just a digital replica of the print edition I read over breakfast. OK, there might be a few extra bells and whistles in the digital edition but they’re not significant enough to get me to open the app after I’ve read the print edition.

The same is true for books and magazines. Digital simply replaces print, so there’s no reason to use both formats for any given title.

I think it’s time to reimagine digital as a companion to print, not simply a replacement for it.

Today’s digital editions are nothing more than print-under-glass. They’re digital replicas of the print product. As a result, we tend to buy one format or the other, but rarely both.

I used to publish technology books for IT professionals. Many of those books on programming languages and productivity tools had companion websites. The websites offered additional content, sample files and other goodies that didn’t come with the book. These sites also represented a way for the publisher to dynamically extend the original content with additional elements and coverage, some of which might not have been available when the book was originally published.

I’d love to see the industry evolve to the point where each print product has a digital companion, not just a print replacement. The digital companion would extend and enhance the print experience and would be an optional add-on to the print product. Some of these digital companions could be free but the more valuable ones could have a price.

Btw, publishers could offer these companions exclusively on their websites, converting print customers who bought from Amazon and elsewhere into direct customers. Promote them in the print product and bring those customers to your website where you can build a direct relationship, up-sell, cross-sell, etc.

A couple of weeks ago I wrote an article called Why Johnny doesn’t like e-textbooks. Maybe Johnny doesn’t want the print-under-glass digital edition of the textbook, but I’ll bet he’d be interested in a digital companion for the print textbook featuring notes from other students, cheat sheets for test prep, sample quizzes, slide decks from class lectures and better explanations of key topics from other students and teachers.

Textbooks aren’t the only products that could be further monetized with digital companions. Just about any type of content lends itself to digital extension and enhancement. We just need publishers and authors to start thinking of digital as a companion for print, not simply a replacement.


Finding the optimal streaming content value proposition

Have you paid much attention to the various pricing options used in the streaming content space? A recent article on re/code talks about the challenges the music industry faces as it wrestles with free, ad-subsidized streaming services. In short, the article says free is bad and paid is good. I’d add that’s true for everyone but the consumer, of course.

The problem isn’t perhaps so much about making free go away but rather making the paid options much more compelling.

For example, I’m a big fan of Spotify. At first I just used the free, ad-based version and created a bunch of playlists. The ads didn’t seem too intrusive but when I saw the opportunity to try a three-month, 99-cent trial of the paid version I couldn’t resist. For less than a dollar I could eliminate the ads and download as much music as I want to each of my devices.

I use Spotify much more frequently now but the three-month trial is about to end. Am I so hooked on the Spotify Premium that I’m ready to fork over $9.99 per month going forward?

No way.

Even though $9.99 sounds like a bargain that’s still about $120 per year, much more than I’m willing to spend for the service. Spotify would have better luck converting a freeloader like me if they offered something in between. For example, I’d sign up for $2.99/month for an ad-free version with no download capability. And I’d consider signing up for $4.99/month for downloads and no ads. They’ll probably never see another nickel from me as long as the options are limited to free and $9.99 though.

Spotify’s problem is the free version is just too darned good, at least for me.

This challenge isn’t limited to the music world though. My wife and I share a Premium subscription to Next Issue, the all-you-can-read digital magazine service. We pay $14.99/month for unlimited access to more than 140 magazines. At first it seemed like a great deal but I’m opening the app less frequently every month and $180/year is starting to feel quite expensive. The other challenge here is that with the right combination of bookmarks, alerts, newsletter subscriptions and RSS feeds, it’s possible to gain free access to most of the content I’m paying for via Next Issue. As a result, our Next Issue subscription is likely to end soon.

Let’s compare that to Oyster, the all-you-can-read ebook service. Once again, my wife and I share a $9.95 subscription and we couldn’t be happier. I’d probably be willing to pay even more than that and I figure the price will go up before too long because Oyster’s business model isn’t sustainable at $9.95/month. But there’s no legal free alternative to this ebook content, so Oyster has much more leverage than Next Issue when it comes to the threat of “free” cannibalizing “paid.”

If you’re thinking of jumping into the streaming content marketplace, be sure to study the results of comparable existing products and make sure your free option isn’t so good that most consumers will never consider upgrading.


How the Internet of Things (IoT) affects content

You’ve undoubtedly heard all the hype by now. Sensors will be everywhere and we’re about to sink in the sea of data they’ll produce. Don’t just view the Internet of Things (IoT) as how your coffeemaker connects to the web though. This phenomenon means so much more, especially for content creators and distributors.

Fast forward with me to a time where your car and house are connected via the IoT. You’ll no longer need to keep track of oil changes, tire rotations, furnace filter replacement dates, etc. You’ll have immediate access to all the particulars via a dashboard app or receive text alerts when something needs attention.

All that data will also help identify trends and the likelihood of something going awry. For example, based on your driving tendencies and those of thousands of other drivers, this data will help determine when you’ll need to perform future maintenance and repairs. These predictive analytics will help you avoid even costlier repairs down the road.

What does any of this have to do with content?...

I’ve just outlined a terrific opportunity for creators of how-to and DIY information. If your organization offers content for weekend warriors or anyone comfortable turning a wrench, well, the IoT could be a game-changer for you.

Those sensor vendors and app developers will want to offer more than just the raw data. The value of their products increases significantly if they can also help their customers with their maintenance and repair projects.

Think of this as a whole new distribution channel with plenty of interesting revenue model options. Freemium, premium, subscription, micro-transaction…they’re all viable models here, but don’t forget the need to share some of that new revenue with the companies providing the sensors and apps.

The IoT opportunity goes well beyond the examples I’ve mentioned here. Think about the type of content you produce and how sensors and the IoT will eventually open new doors for discovery and distribution. The possibilities are endless and the data is just the beginning.


Data-driven content recommendation

Which is better at assessing your content interests: a display ad on a random website or the app you spend hours reading magazines in each month? If my recent experience is any indication, the display ad is the winner, hands down.

I recently went on audible.com to explore audio books and picked one I thought I might be interested in. I was curious to experience the purchase process but I stopped before clicking “buy.” Later that same day three different websites featured banner ads from Audible with the cover of the book I almost purchased. The digital breadcrumbs I left behind on my audio book experiment probably still exist somewhere deep inside my browser’s cache.

Compare that to the fact that I regularly read sports magazines in my Next Issue subscription. So why doesn’t the Next Issue app use that information to recommend other sports content to me, right inside the app?

The answer is pretty simple: Online advertising services leverage data but content apps don’t. It’s amazing that in 2015 so few publishers and content distributors are utilizing the valuable data they gather every day.

The opportunity here isn’t just to get me to read more related content in the app I’m already in. Yes, that will increase engagement and serve as a win-win for publishers and readers. The real upside is around discovery and affiliate income.

Once Next Issue wakes up and starts recommending more sports content from its other magazines they should also recommend books in the same category. I’m not keeping a close eye on the newest ebooks about baseball and hockey, but Next Issue knows I read a lot of articles about both, so why not use that information to give me a heads-up about books I’m likely to be interested in?

This would be a terrific opportunity for book publishers to create an affiliate program within the e-zine app. Book and magazine publishers aren’t direct competitors, so why not work together to provide reading recommendations?

This is a two-way concept, btw; ebook publishers should be willing to serve up recommendations to relevant magazine content as well. An affiliate cut of any new revenue generated from these recommendations would be passed along to the recommending app/publisher.

First we need the app vendors to recognize and tap into the valuable data that’s right under their noses. Then we need to tear down the walls that exist between publishers so that data can be used to improve discovery and generate additional revenue streams. It will be interesting to see who figures this out and builds a truly data-driven content recommendation service.