Disney shows how to tear down walled gardens

Tired of dealing with the fragmented mobile marketplace that iOS and Android represent? The imagineers at Disney have come up with a terrific way to address that problem. It’s both a much-needed solution for consumers and also a clever way for Disney to maintain a direct relationship with consumers who buy indirectly.

I’m referring to the Disney Movies Anywhere initiative, which lets you buy a movie on one platform and watch it on either platform. Imagine a world where all those ebooks you bought on the Kindle platform could also be read now on the Nook platform, and vice versa. You’d be free to choose the lowest price, no longer worrying about ebook library lock-in, where you’ve bought so many titles you can’t imagine abandoning that retailer.

Sounds like a nightmare for the big retailers but a huge win for consumers and publishers.

Of course, how many publishers have the Disney muscle to force retailers into such a model? Very few.

But wouldn’t it be cool if one or more of the Big Five book publishers pushed for something just like this? The first thing a reader would see when they open that ebook from Amazon, B&N, or anywhere else is a message from the publisher thanking them for their purchase and showing the steps necessary to register the purchase with the publisher so the book can be read on any ebook platform.

The publisher not only does the reader a service, they also establish a direct link to all their customers. That leads to a better understanding of customer interests and trends as well as the opportunity to upsell other products directly.

Every retailer except the largest should support this concept as well. If you’re the distant #2 or #3 ebook retailer, you should totally embrace the opportunity to level the playing field with this; you’ll suddenly gain more relevance as all those books bought on the #1 retailer’s platform could now be read on yours.

Here’s another interesting byproduct: How long would the #1 retailer continue selling ebooks at a loss when every sale no longer reinforces consumer lock-in and, in fact, becomes yet another ebook the consumer can read on competitor platforms?


Ebook subscription services as publisher affiliates

I was at an event last week where an attendee described the following scenario: She discovered an author on the Oyster unlimited ebook subscription service, she read one of their books and then realized the author’s other books aren’t included in Oyster. She was then forced to buy the author’s next ebook somewhere else. The end result is the publisher still has no relationship with the reader and Oyster earns nothing from the sale of that next book.

We’re going to see more and more of this as publishers dip their toes in the ebook subscription waters, adding portions of their list but not their entire catalog.

This is a significant missed opportunity for the publisher...and the subscription provider (Oyster).

Here’s how the publisher and subscription provider can alter the model and both come out ahead: The subscription provider becomes a publisher affiliate, leading these interested and engaged readers to the publisher’s site where they then purchase that next book that’s not in the subscription plan. Maybe the publisher even sweetens the deal, giving the reader a special discount for being an Oyster subscriber. This requires the publisher and Oyster (or Scribd, for that matter) agree on affiliate terms, but wouldn’t they both prefer this sales model vs. losing that reader to some other retailer?

The publisher could take this a step further and have the purchased book placed in the subscription provider’s reader application. So now when I use my Oyster app I’m sometimes reading books rented through my subscription, and other times I’m reading books I own. The beauty here is that I’m using the same application in both situations so I don’t have to remember the idiosyncrasies of multiple apps.

If I was still a book publisher this is something I’d pursue immediately. The subscription model is here to stay and the startups in this space could use some help to stay afloat and not get crushed by the 800-pound gorilla.

For the sake of competition and keeping the dominant player honest, let’s hope Oyster and Scribd extend their services by implementing something like this.


The future of content recommendation services

If you’re overly concerned about data privacy you’ll want to stop reading right now because I’m about to give you a glimpse of the future that will make you bristle.

For the rest of you, I’d like to describe a vision I have of how content services will dramatically improve, become widely used, and even paid for, in the not too distant future.

You’re probably familiar with services like Taboola and Outbrain. They’re the technologies behind all the “You may also like” or “Sponsored content” blocks of links that have become ubiquitous on websites. They use sophisticated algorithms to suggest related content you might be interested in reading. 

Then there’s Google. My Android phone’s Google app does a terrific job presenting nuggets of information I might find useful. It’s equally awful at it too though. On a recent trip through Atlanta it suggested the CDC as one of the nearby attractions I might want to check out. I realize Ebola is a hot topic right now but is there really anything in my Google-accessible content stream that would suggest the CDC as an interesting destination for me? 

Google’s app, as well as its News service, are both casting an extremely wide net in the hopes that something in their recommendation stream will cause me to click. Every year I find Google’s stream suggesting fewer and fewer truly relevant articles for me. This, despite the fact that they have access to so much of what I’m doing, where I’m going and what I’m interested in.

What’s wrong with this picture? These services should be improving, not simply providing an even wider pipeline of content, most of which doesn’t interest me at all.

What’s missing is a service that pays much closer attention to who I am and what’s likely to engage me. That’s one of the things I always liked about Zite, the content service that recommends more content based on what you’ve previously read in the app. I used to spend a great deal of time in Zite every day. Then they got acquired and for some reason their stream just isn’t as engaging for me as it used to be.

What’s needed is a service that is much more closely aligned with everything I do, or as much of my life as I’m willing to let it access. I’m talking about my email in-box as well as the websites I visit and even my work and personal calendars. Here are a few use cases for the service I’d like to see: 

  • Prepare for trips – It’s nice that Google shows a card for this afternoon’s flight status, but they could do so much more. How about tracking my personal interests and serving up recommendations for downtime activities? Knowledge of my interests would hopefully prevent an app from suggesting I visit the CDC, for example. This service could also interact with my TripIt account, notice that I made a car rental reservation and suggest a better alternative (e.g., a better rate with another carrier, one that earns me miles on my preferred airline, or a better option like Uber or Lyft, etc.) How about a few facts and figures about where I’m heading? This destination info is available on Wikipedia, so it would be easy to tap into that content source as well as many others.
  • Provide news and research for upcoming meetings – The assumption here is that I’ll allow this service to access my daily calendar. When it sees I have a 2-hour meeting with XYZ Corp next week it begins early by creating and sending me a snapshot of the organization as well as noteworthy news about XYZ Corp. The detailed version arrives a week before the meeting, giving me plenty of time to become an expert on the company. The day before or the morning of the meeting I then get a shorter follow-up with any updates that weren’t available earlier.
  • Stay on top of the competition – The key here is to know the company I work for and the industry we’re part of. Better yet, if it’s a large, multi-sector company, it knows exactly which area I focus on and tailors everything around that space. The service then uses all the publicly available data sources to feed me updates and insights about the competition.
  • Tap into streams from leaders and celebrities – How would you like to gain access to the news and content streams being delivered to people like Warren Buffet or Jeff Bezos? Obviously they’ll want to filter their public version to avoid accidentally leaking confidential information, but there would still be enough content to make for some very interesting reading. Rather than waiting for Bill Gates to tell us what books he read and recommended from last year, let’s see what’s on his inbound content stream today.
  • All this, with no manual configuration required – Some elements of what I’ve described above are available today, if you’re willing to spend a lot of time configuring your keywords and splicing together multiple services. Don’t forget that your interests change over time…and so does your calendar, of course. I want a service that is always up-to-date based on what it sees me doing throughout the day and week. It needs to be fully automated and change as my interests and focus change.

I can see multiple flavors of this service. The simplest one is free and is funded by ads and sponsorships, just like many of Google’s existing services. A paid version eliminates the ads and comes with more bells and whistles. And remember that leaders/celebrities idea? Those could be structured as subscriptions to that individual’s feed. Plenty of people would pay a monthly fee for access to these streams. And although Warren Buffett doesn’t need this additional income, he could always have it flow to his favorite charity.

We’ve got a long way to go before we’ll see a service like this, but I’ll be among the first in line to sign up for it when one arrives.


How to convert indirect customers into direct customers

Every digital newspaper, magazine and book I’ve ever purchased from an e-retailer share something in common: None of them included a pitch from the publisher to lure me away from the e-retailer and go direct. Not a single one.

This, despite the fact that it’s never been easier, or more important, for publishers to diversify their channel strategy and focus on their D2C business. Pretty remarkable. It’s even more amazing when you consider that more and more publishers are finally starting to wake up to the importance of either building a D2C channel or fortifying it.

Here’s the easiest solution possible for publishers to remedy this situation: Make sure a compelling message from you is the first thing consumers see when they open the indirectly-distributed version of your product. What does that look like?

In general, it’s something like this: “Thanks for buying this e-paper/e-mag/ebook. Are you aware of the benefits of buying your next edition/product directly from us? Click here to learn more.”

Again, that’s the very first thing a reader should see when they open your product. When you do this you’ll be using the enormous power and reach of the retailer network to build your own D2C network.

Why doesn’t this happen today? The first reason is that most publishers probably haven’t even thought of this tactic. The second reason is that publishers are worried about retailer retaliation if they implement it. If that has you worried, consider this: Can a retailer actually dictate what content is and isn’t acceptable in your product? Although Amazon, for example, tends to be extremely bold I think even they would realize this would be overreach on their part.

Would that prevent them from making the publisher feel the pain? Probably not, but it could create a very interesting situation, both legally and in the court of public opinion. 

Simply inserting this D2C messaging is only step one, of course. Publishers need to deliver and provide a compelling reason for consumers to buy direct. Here’s a hint on how to solve that problem: Make sure the most valuable, feature-rich version of your product is only available direct from you, the publisher. That’s not too hard to do, btw. If you’ve ever subscribed to an e-newspaper through a digital retailer you know what I mean; the user experience is awful, particularly when compared to the full digital replica edition. Ebooks represent a similar opportunity; publishers should make sure the richest, most compelling edition is only available from them, not third-party retailers.

When will publishers wake up and leverage this approach? Some will, but most won’t, largely because of the fear factor noted earlier. The most successful, vibrant publishers of the future will make this a standard practice though and fear of retailer retaliation will disappear.


Content reuse: Five key questions to consider

In the print-only days, once content was published it was rarely considered for reuse. Sure, there were the occasional “greatest hits” or “all-in-one” products, but for the most part the original content was published and forgotten about.

In the digital era it’s a lot easier to redeploy content and drive more visibility and revenue with it. Every piece of content doesn’t lend itself to reuse, of course, and there are several factors to consider before launching a reuse campaign. Here are five questions that can help you formulate a content reuse strategy:

How much reuse value does your content represent?

You need to start with an honest assessment. Don’t just assume you can remix and suddenly create a significant new revenue stream. If your content is time-sensitive it probably has a shelf life that doesn’t lend itself to redeploying today’s content tomorrow. On the other hand, evergreen content is ripe for redeployment and probably an under-leveraged asset in your organization.

What are the products and channels for your redeployed content?

Related to the first question, you also need to think about the specific products and channels you can target for your redeployed content. Focus primarily on new channels these products might enable you to enter. After all, if you’re just pushing a remix into existing channels you’re likely to cannibalize your current products.

Was your content written with reuse in mind?

This is a question most publishers overlook. Since the original product wasn’t developed for potential reuse, publishers are forced to retrofit that content for redeployment. That requires more resources (and expense) than a model where the content was originally written with reuse in mind. Think about how granular and modular your content is, how easily it can be pulled apart and reassembled, like Lego blocks. Btw, if your current editorial model wasn’t built for reuse, how can you modify it to better prep today’s incoming content for reuse tomorrow?

How “reuse-accessible” is your content?

It doesn’t matter how much your content could be reused if it’s not managed in a way that easily enables reuse. Even granular content is sometimes preserved in a manner that doesn’t let a curator go back in and easily extract just the pieces they want. So the tools you have access to as well as the format the content is saved in will have a significant impact on how easily you’ll be able to redeploy it.

Is your goal to reach new customers or simply drive more revenue from your existing customers?

A lot of publishers try to fool themselves on the answer to this one. They think they’ll magically reach new customers with a reuse model when all they end up doing is trying to sell a slightly different version of the same product to existing customers. This is probably the #1 reason for content reuse failure. As noted earlier, the more a reuse campaign can open doors to new channels, potentially reaching new customers, the greater the likelihood of success.

We’ve been thinking a lot about content reuse at Olive Software. In fact, we’re about to release a reuse tool that enables our publishers to do some very cool things with their content. Stay tuned for more details in the coming weeks…


The marketing tool every publisher undervalues

Why are publishers so scared of free and sample content? Sure, most publishers offer at least one way to test drive their content but they could be doing so much more. I think free/sample content is the single most under-utilized customer acquisition tool out there. Here’s why…

Have you noticed that most newspapers and magazines don’t offer a free e-trial. Or if they do, they bury it on their site. Most of these publishers have always offered free trials of their print product, but free e-trials are almost unheard of. If they’re concerned about chronic freeloaders, why not just give the first few pages of the replica editions?

Even the stingiest publishers let you sample a few articles on their website. I’m sure they figure they’ll at least monetize the ad impressions during that sample period but the same philosophy apparently doesn’t hold up for replica edition sampling. Even if they can’t count those replica edition sampler impressions, why not mix in some interstitial ads between pages for samplers, thereby creating an entirely new revenue stream?

Btw, Amazon, the undisputed king of data and customer acquisition, understands the value of free and sample content; that’s why they typically offer two-week test-drives for newspapers and magazines. Why aren’t publishers following Amazon’s lead? Don’t forget the benefit of gathering prospective new customer names and email addresses; these readers may not opt in immediately but you’ll have a link to market to them in the future.

Then there’s the opportunity for book publishers… Why aren’t they creating super-sized samples available exclusively on their websites? The book samples available on the major retailer sites are generally the same ones publishers offer on their own sites. That’s a huge missed opportunity to establish a direct relationship with those customers.

I realize plenty of book publishers feel it’s hopeless creating a direct-to-consumer channel. They’re clearly not trying very hard though. Here’s another tip: The first thing a reader should see when they open your ebook is a note from the publisher thanking them for their purchase and a link to your site where they’ll find these exclusive, super-sized samples I’m talking about. They should include this messaging in all copies, including the ones sold by retailers. That’s right…use the retailer channels to build your direct channel.

Lastly, how easy are you making it for readers to share that free sample with others? Most publishers put their sample content under lock and key, missing out on the opportunity for pass-along to family and friends of those reading the samples.

Publishers, it’s time to re-think your free/sample content strategy. Learn a lesson from Amazon and start fully leveraging all that terrific content you have to share.


The future of digital content on the road

My wife and I recently returned from an anniversary trip to Puerto Vallarta, Mexico. If you ever have the opportunity to go there, do it; we have nothing but terrific things to say about the city, people and food. The trip opened my eyes to the opportunities that exist for digital content to enhance the travel/vacation experience.

Unlike most hotels in the U.S., our resort didn’t include free wifi access. They instead offer something akin to 1990’s dial-up speeds at $10/day for each device. This model is likely designed to both gouge guests and encourage them to unplug during their stay. I’m sure it works but there are better options that would benefit both the resort and the guests. For example, how about turning the wifi network into a gateway to rich content, services and special offers?

Let’s start by offering a couple of wifi access tiers. A free model includes a slower connection that’s partially subsidized by ads. A paid option offers a faster connection with no ads. It’s the same model you see in many airports today. It’s not the connection that matters though, but rather the content and overall experience the connection provides.

Most travelers are hungry for recommendations of the best local meals, deals and happenings. Here’s where the adaptive content model and opting in to data sharing starts to pay real dividends. The more my app/device knows about my habits and interests the better it can provide relevant content and deals. Think of it as a virtual concierge, but unlike the hotel concierge who knows nothing about you, the virtual concierge has a pretty good idea of what you like to eat, where you’d like to visit, etc.

Let’s also roll in an opportunity for publishers to provide relevant content, acquire new customers and plant the seeds for additional engagement with those customers. How about giving me free access to a daily e-newspaper, for example? And please don’t pick that e-newspaper for me; let me choose one from a list of hundreds offered. When someone’s on the road they like to keep up with news back home. Many of those travelers don’t subscribe to their local newspaper, so what a great opportunity for publishers to expose their terrific product to new prospective readers. Capture names and email address if you must, but be sure to end the trip with an irresistible discount on becoming a full-time subscriber.

This is an opportunity for book publishers as well. Why not offer special samplers to get readers hooked on your authors and products? Better yet, offer access to short works travelers will be able to finish on the trip. Make recommendations (based on data accessible through the adaptive content model) so readers don’t have to spend too much time hunting for something that’s just right for them. This is where the service can combine the knowledge of personal interests (including how fast the user reads) with the visitor’s length of stay to recommend works of certain lengths. Since the content is free the publisher should feel comfortable pitching other products in the reading app. This is another opportunity to capture reader names and email addresses for follow-up marketing activities.

Let’s also not forget that many of these ideas can be extended further with an affiliate program for the hotel or resort; they’re bringing in the customers so publishers and proprietors should be willing to pay finder’s fees from the resulting revenue.

I’m only scratching the surface here but you get the idea. Just as digital books, newspapers and magazines will eventually evolve beyond the print-under-glass model that exists today, I’m confident digital content will find its way into new services like this that can significantly enhance the travel experience.


What is “adaptive content”?

That’s a question a few people asked me via email after a webinar I co-presented last week. I briefly mentioned it on one of my webinar slides but I didn’t spend a lot of time digging into it. 

I talked about how the concept of layering enables publishers to turn their static e-products into dynamic, premium offerings. Layering is just the first step towards adaptive content. I’ll also admit that my definition of adaptive content is different from what you’ll read elsewhere.

A quick Google search shows a variety of articles and opinions on the definition and future of adaptive content. I’m not suggesting the perspectives found via those links are wrong; I just believe they’re not going far enough.

You’ll find plenty of people who talk about adaptive content in the context of distribution channels and devices. (The latter, btw, borders more on responsive design IMHO.) What you don’t see much of in the existing dialog on adaptive content is the actual user, the person reading the content.

So when I talk about adaptive design I’m envisioning it not from a channel or device POV. I’m thinking more about the user, their experience, tendencies and interests. That sounds creepy, I know, but it’s going to happen. Twenty years ago most people would have balked at the notion of an email app that presents you with ads based on subjects it deems relevant to the contents of your inbox. Today, however, Gmail does just that and reportedly has hundreds of millions of users.

At some point down the road digital content apps (including your web browser) will use similar capabilities to present that how-to ebook or e-zine in a manner that’s completely tailored to you. And you’ll never have to tell it a thing for it to spin up that custom experience. Our devices (and the apps loaded on them) will constantly track your behavior and use that information to dynamically present the next piece of content.

Let’s say you and I are building decks and we just bought the same digital how-to product with step-by-step instructions and videos. Your tablet knows you’re quite familiar with power tools and construction projects because it’s noted that you’ve contributed several knowledgeable (and highly-rated) answers on one of the popular DIY forums. Your tablet also knows that you regularly read the most popular DIY e-zines and that you tend to focus on articles covering lumber construction projects. 

I, on the other hand, hardly know the difference between a hammer and a screwdriver and my tablet is well aware of my lack of knowledge on the deck-building topic. 

So the content and pace of the digital how-to product we both bought is presented in one manner on your tablet and in a completely different manner on mine. The source content is all the same and you can certainly drill down into more of the basics that I’m presented with, but the app assumes you’re beyond all that.

This changes everything, of course. Content must be written in a more granular manner and it must be richly tagged to ensure it’s presented properly in every use-case. Equally important is the need for the app/device to pay attention to how the content is then consumed by all these different users and make adjustments for future users. Maybe nine out of the first ten novices jump to a later topic that appears later in the product; the app should learn from this and rearrange the content sequence for the eleventh novice.

Yes, this type of model will require users to opt in and privacy advocates will completely freak out over the possible consequences of such a platform. The benefits will far outweigh the risks though, and I’m convinced this vision of adaptive content will become a reality down the road.


Recorded version of Olive SmartLayers webinar

If you missed yesterday's webinar, where we unveiled Olive's new SmartLayers technology, you'll want to watch the recorded version below. It was a great discussion about where digital content is today and where it's likely heading tomorrow. Check it out and let us know what you think of these first steps towards a model where content is eventually both layered and adaptive.


Savas Beatie offers a sneak peek at SmartLayers premium editions

Savas Beatie is an innovative publisher of military history books. In fact, they have the distinction of being the first publisher to release an ebook featuring the SmartLayers technology we've developed here at Olive Software.

If you'd like to get a sense of what SmartLayers looks like, watch the video embedded below. If you'd like to see how easy it is for a publisher to leverage SmartLayers, as well as learn why Savas Beatie chose SmartLayers for their premium ebook solution, be sure to join us for a free webinar tomorrow, September 30, at 1ET -- click here to register now.

P.S. -- This initial SmartLayers premium ebook, Richmond Redeemed, is available exclusively on the Savas Beatie website (cllick here for the book's catalog page).