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Unlocking the hidden value of archives

The cost of scanning, converting and digitizing content seems to decline every year. As a result, we’re seeing all sorts of print archives being converted to digital products. The problem is that too many publishers are applying the “if you build it, they will come” approach to these archives.

Simply creating the digital archive might be good enough for a small market of professional researchers, but it will never attract the larger consumer audience; flipping virtually flipping through stacks of old content loses its appeal fairly quickly.

Curation is the important step required to make these archives interesting to the largest potential audience. It’s all about the many stories the archive content has to tell. Some of these stories will be interesting to one audience while another story appeals to other segments.

Let me give you a couple of examples. I grew up in Pittsburgh during the years when the Steelers and the Pirates were dominant teams in football and baseball, respectively. The Pirates last won the World Series in 1979 and the local papers featured coverage of every game in the regular season and postseason. I’d love to read the story of the season from spring training through the final game of the World Series.

Roberto Clemente was one of my childhood heroes. He played for the Pirates from 1955 through 1972 and was killed in a plane crash on December 31, 1972. The local papers had hundreds of pages of content about Clemente and his career between 1955 and early 1973. I’ve read a few books that were written long after his death and while they were generally quite good they’re not the same as reading the articles that were written as his career unfolded.

That’s an important point. Plenty of books have been written about historical events, global leaders, celebrities, etc. No matter how much research is done by the authors on those topics, there’s nothing that compares to reading the articles that were written when those events took place, when those leaders took action or when those celebrities did whatever celebrities do.

The curation opportunity exists in at least two formats. The first format is the collection. This is where the curator collects the relevant pieces of content and stitches them together to tell the story. The results can be put in front of the paywall to attract eyeballs or maybe serve as a teaser for a paid product. They can also be placed behind the paywall as part of a premium subscription option or as a separate paid product.

The other format involves ebooks. Those collections can be quickly converted into the popular formats and placed in ebook distribution channels. This represents a completely new distribution model for some publishers (e.g., newspapers and magazines); it’s an incremental revenue opportunity of remixed content for those already participating in the ebook channel.

One of the concerns I hear from publishers is that they simply don’t have the resources for curation. Their teams are already stretched too thin and they can’t justify adding to staff.

I have one word for publishers in that situation: crowdsourcing. Think of your most active users, fans, readers and subscribers. How many of them might want to help curate your content to create new products? Also, can you use the Wikipedia model, where the crowdsourcing work happens for free? If not, can you create an affiliate program for curators to earn some income from their efforts?

Finally, think outside the box and don’t limit yourself to just one type of content. For example, one of my favorite books is FDR, by Jean Edward Smith.  The author meticulously researched Roosevelt and provided an amazing story of his life.

But what if the ebook edition provided access to the newspaper accounts of the most noteworthy decisions Roosevelt made in his life? It would have been wonderful to veer away from the book every so often and read the accounts of the events that were written when they actually took place, from the point of view of the journalists in the midst of it all.

A hybrid product like this represents a new opportunity for book publishers and newspaper publishers. Properly curated, this sort of product could easily command a much higher price than the traditional ebook on its own. I’d like to see book publishers venture out of their comfort zone and start exploring new concepts like this. It’s a terrific way to unlock the hidden value of archives and give consumers more of what they want to read.

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