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What if digital preceded print?

Airplanes as storefronts

Have you seen the “Seat Monitors” ad by Southwest Airlines? They recognize the fact that most travelers already have a laptop or tablet with them, so why install all those expensive (and heavy) seat back video screens?

United Airlines is taking the next logical step with this. Starting next month you’ll be able to stream a wide variety of TV shows and movies to your tablet or laptop, all for free.

The United solution is a terrific option for consumers and it got me thinking about the opportunity for publishers. Why not turn all those airplanes, and the millions of travelers they hold captive, into an enormous unlimited content sampling service?

Which airline will be the first to take United’s TV/movie model and extend it into books, newspapers and magazines? 

What if those onboard servers United plans to use for video also had all of today’s newspapers, the latest editions of magazines and maybe a million or so ebooks? I’m not talking about samples, btw; I mean the entire ebook, newspaper and magazine. This content would be streamed to the traveler’s tablet or laptop, just like the video, so it would only be accessible in the air.

Why would publishers agree to this? Two words: discoverability and sponsorships.

Ever see an interesting magazine cover in an airport newsstand but you can’t justify buying or lugging it around in your bag? That same magazine suddenly becomes more appealing when it’s freely available as an e-zine on your flight.

Curious to know what’s front-page news in cities like LA or Chicago? Good luck finding those papers in the San Francisco airport. Getting access to The LA Times or Chicago Tribune e-editions while you’re inflight almost makes you want to board that plane sooner. Almost.

What about that book you’ve considered buying but you’re not sure you’ll like it? The sample on Amazon turned was too short to help you figure out whether it’s worth buying. Now you’ve got 4 hours on a flight from Denver to Newark to dig a bit deeper, all without spending a penny on it.

Each of these scenarios represents an opportunity for a publisher to get their content in front of consumers who are interested in reading it. Now that you’ve got them engaging with your content offer them a subscription plan they can’t resist. If they only get 4 chapters into the 36-chapter book, they’ll either buy it now or realize they didn’t like it after all. Either way, the author and book publisher have gone further with that prospective reader than they could have without this service.

Then there’s the sponsorship opportunity. The airline could have a new sponsor every month to help fund this initiative. The messaging could be something like, “This flight’s free newsstand and bookshelf are brought to you by Samsung, the leaders in consumer electronics.” It’s another way for sponsors to get their message out and make a great impression on consumers. Some of that sponsorship income would be passed along to participating publishers.

You could take this a step further and use the service as an opt-in mechanism for newsletters or prospective customer acquisition. I know the privacy advocates hate this, but plenty of consumers are more than willing to share their name and email address in exchange for discounts and free access to valuable products and services.

When most of us board a plane we often have our time planned out. You need to read a report, catch up on a few emails, or maybe sit back and flip through a newspaper or watch a video. Sometimes it’s nice to discover something new though. A free service like what I’ve described here would be embraced by a lot of travelers and would also likely lead to more content discovery and subsequent purchases.


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