This idea is both a consumer feature and a marketing opportunity

Imac-606765_1920We take it for granted that when we open our favorite ebook app it automatically jumps right into the last book we were reading. And while that’s handy, I’d like to see at least one other option when I open the app.

How about a reader-customized landing page? This page should be fully configurable, based exclusively on my particular interests. For example, we all have our favorite genres, topics and authors we like to follow. Let’s start off by allowing readers to place a widget on this landing page showing the top five bestsellers in their favorite category.

Another widget I’d love to see is a quick-and-easy way to grab samples of newly published (or upcoming) books in my preferred categories. So maybe a top five list again with a one-click-sample download button next to each cover.

Then there’s the social opportunity… I recently asked one of my good friends to tell me the best WWII books he’s read over the past few years. That was done through a combination of texting and email. How about adding a capability to this landing page so I can quickly find (or follow) my most trustworthy friends and answer that question right in the reader app? Both of us would have to opt in, of course, but what a great way to share and access highly relevant information, especially when it’s in such close proximity to the one-click sampling/buying process.

You’ve undoubtedly seen some of this functionality on your favorite retailer’s website or through their email marketing campaigns. That’s great, but sometimes I go to amazon.com to buy dog food, not books, and my email inbox is already overflowing with other marketing messages. Frankly, I think I’ve become numb to all the sales pitches that hit my inbox every day. Now compare that to the time when I’m opening the Kindle or Google Play Books apps on my iPad; that’s when I’m focused on books, but not just reading…I’m often ready for book discovery when I launch those apps, so why not help me find what I might be interested in?

I also realize most of the time we might want to just leave well enough alone and continue jumping right back into that last book we were reading. Great, but how about placing a button in the app’s nav bar to quickly take me to this configurable landing page?

Another nice touch would be to let me customize the feeds by day and time. For example, if I’m opening it up during business hours I’m probably looking for work-related content. But let me also configure it to show sports and history lists and samples when it’s after 5PM or on the weekend.

You’d think that Amazon would already offer something like this in the Kindle app. All the other reader apps tend to follow their lead and since books now represent such a small slice of Amazon’s overall revenue it would be great to see some other ebook retailer step up and innovate with a service like this.


Why is text-to-speech only an afterthought?

Buttons-304219_1280I spend a lot of time commuting to and from work in my car and I try to use the time wisely. I cycle through a playlist of podcasts every week but I feel like I’m missing out on other types of content. Regardless of your daily commute, I’ll bet you’d feel the same way if you’d stop to consider the possibilities.

I’m thinking mostly about short-form content such as website articles, whitepapers and other documents. If someone sends me a link or I discover an interesting article online it’s highly likely I won’t have time to read it immediately. That’s why I typically save it in Instapaper or Evernote.

This approach has turned me into an article hoarder as I have countless unread articles in both Instapaper and Evernote. So while I thought my problem was a lack of time at that moment, the truth is I rarely have time to read many of these things later either.

To its credit, the Instapaper app for Android has a text-to-speech feature built in. But the way it’s implemented tells me it was added as an afterthought. Sure, I can tap the “Speak” button and sit back and listen, but how useful is that when you’ve got a bunch of 2-4 minute articles stacked up and you’re trying to go hands-free while driving along the highway (or taking a walk, or running on a treadmill, etc.)?

Publishers sometimes talk of engaging with the consumer who’s reading their content while standing in the proverbial grocery store check-out line. Next time you’re in line at the grocery store look around. Nobody reads like that. Some people have their phones out but they’re probably scanning Facebook or sending a text message. Rather than heads-down reading you’re more likely to see people with ear buds in, listening to music while they shop or wait in line. And let’s face it: nobody reads while they’re running or doing other strenuous activities.

So along with all those “send to” buttons for various social and “read later” services, why isn’t there one built exclusively for text-to-speech conversions that open up all sorts of new use-cases for content consumption?

The service has to do much more than just transform text to audio though. There’s an important UI component that needs to be considered. The entire platform has to be audio-based, including voice commands. Picture an app on your phone that has all the voice command capabilities of Siri or Alexa, for example. Whether you’re driving or running, all you’d have to do is say things like “skip”, “next article”, “archive”, “annotate”, etc. The user should be able to manually create playlists and the service should offer the option of automatically detecting topics and placing each article in a relevant folder (e.g., sports, business, DIY, etc.).

Don’t forget the social aspect and opportunities here. Using voice commands I should be able to quickly and easily share an interesting article via email, Twitter, etc. Let me also keep track of the most popular articles other users are listening to so I don’t miss anything that might be gaining momentum.

One business model option is probably quite obvious: insert short audio ads at the start of each article, similar to the plugs I’m hearing more frequently in podcasts. And since the article topic and keywords can be identified before streaming it’s easy to serve highly relevant ads that are closely aligned with the articles themselves; think Google AdSense for audio. Give publishers an incentive to feature new “send to audio” buttons on their articles by sharing that well-targeted ad income with them.

Doesn’t this seem like it’s right in Google’s wheelhouse? I suppose they’ve got bigger fish to fry but this looks like an existing marketplace gap that’s just waiting to be filled.


Why ad blockers will help content evolve

Man-791049_1280Ad blocking is one of the more controversial features of Apple’s new iOS release. Apple prefers to call it “content blocking”, but it’s mostly intended to block all those pesky website ads that nag us every day.

Publishers are, of course, totally freaked out at the prospect of their content being consumed without monetizing the accompanying ads. And although ad blockers have been around for quite awhile, they’ve become a front-page story because Apple now makes it so easy to eliminate ads in their Safari browser.

To assess the impact of ad blockers in web browsers I think it’s worth studying the evolution of a similar medium: Television. TV started with totally free, over-the-air broadcasts. Advertisers subsidized those shows and everyone was happy.

Then cable arrived and an interesting thing happened: Most of us were willing to actually pay for all those free channels. Why? Two reasons: Better reception and more channels, although not the hundreds of channels available today. I remember our family’s first cable connection back in the early 1970’s. We went from three fuzzy stations to approximately 12 crisp, clear ones. That wasn’t a huge increase but it was important enough for my parents to sign up for a monthly payment.

Today we have cable, satellite, etc., with ad-subsidized channels, pay channels and that wonderful technology known as the DVR; each of these have their own business models. But with website content the business models still appear to be stuck in the early cable TV era.

On the web we have access to both free, ad-subsidized content as well as content behind paywalls. As ad blockers become more mainstream it forces publishers to make a strategic choice with their free content. Some will continue what they’ve always done: offering free content and now accepting the fact that more reading is taking place without the benefit of ad impression income. Others will push more of their content behind a paywall, reducing consumption but enjoying a false sense of contentment knowing that they aren’t being gamed by the ad-blocking crowd.

Others will embrace something in between. Their content will still be free and ad-subsidized, but in order to access it readers will have to agree to view the accompanying ads. Call it the “ad blocker blocker”. Technology will be developed to display the content only if the ads are also displayed. In fact, you could argue certain mobile apps and video pre-roll ads without skip/fast-forward buttons are examples of how this is happening today; perhaps we’ll see more publishers push their free content off the web and into mobile apps where ad blocking isn’t quite as easy. Yes, solutions will be developed to override this model as well, taking the cat-and-mouse game to a whole new level. But for the free ride to continue, mechanisms like this will have to emerge to ensure content creators and publishers have the revenue stream to keep producing.

It’s an evolution and only the strong and efficient will survive. But it’s also an important step leading to what I believe will be a future with deeper content engagement. After all, if readers find your ads so irritating, doesn’t that say something about your website experience? The ad-blocking movement should be a wakeup call for publishers everywhere, forcing them to do something radical: make the advertising experience more engaging and less annoying for readers.


Rethinking your mobile strategy

Iphone-410324_1280Scan today’s news and you’ll undoubtedly see plenty of stories about how the majority of content is being consumed on mobile devices. In fact, you’ll probably use your own mobile device when you do that scan.

Like many of you, I read all my books on a tablet and most of my short-form content on my iPad Mini or my Android phone. Even though I spend several hours in front of a computer every day, the majority of that time is spent using productivity tools like PowerPoint, Excel and Outlook. I’ll read the occasional web page on my Mac but my phone and tablet are my go-to devices for business and casual reading.

The pundits say that publishers and content distributors need to think about smaller screens and shorter pieces of content. They’ll go on to tell you that responsive design is a must and it’s critical to granulize content so it can be read in smaller slices of time.

The oft-used scenario is someone standing in line at the grocery store. They’re bored and looking for something to do. Their phone is always with them, so how can you take advantage of that opportunity and cater to their need?

I think we’re missing a huge opportunity by simply saying existing content needs to be restructured and apps need to optimize every square inch of screen. Publishers should be thinking more about companion content for mobile, not just reformatting what they’ve already produced.

Here’s an example: I finally got around to reading David McCullough’s wonderful book about Harry Truman. Each night I read a few more pages before I go to bed. There’s no way I’d ever consider opening that ebook on my phone and trying to read it in line at the grocery store. In order to really engage I need at least 20-30 minutes of book reading time, not two or three minutes in a checkout line.

So although I’ll never read Truman at the store, I’d be thrilled to spend that time in an app that provides tidbits about Truman. Let’s take that a step further and suggest the app should offer more than random facts or stories about him; rather, it should use information about what I’ve read so far and it tailor today’s suggestions accordingly.

This app will know that I’m currently reading about the 1948 presidential election, so it gives me links and summaries of all the activities from that fall. The app also knows what today’s date is, so it’s able to provide noteworthy info from “this date in history” (e.g., September 14) as it relates to Truman’s life.

In short, the companion mobile app leads me to deeper engagement with the book I’m reading each night. Having access to something like this would only make me more excited to read the next installment of the book.

Don’t overlook the marketing opportunity this represents. Give the app away for free and promote other related titles inside it. That means tossing in samples of other related books. You might want to include other types of advertising in it as well. I don’t care how you monetize it; just make sure it truly serves as a valuable companion to the book I’m reading.

The UI for this could follow the same metaphor the Google mobile app uses. Simply tap the cards you want to want to open and swipe to discard the ones you’re not interested in. The app learns what you like and adjusts future recommendation cards accordingly (e.g., maybe you prefer more YouTube videos and less long-form articles).

Although a mobile strategy certainly needs to consider the screen size and a consumer’s on-the-go reading habits, sometimes the content’s original format shouldn’t be altered. Instead, think about the deeper engagement opportunities a companion mobile product could offer.


How Amazon Underground will affect content pricing and business models

Screen Shot 2015-08-31 at 9.29.05 AMAs interesting as the all-you-can read models from Next Issue, Oyster Books and Scribd are, I believe Amazon just introduced a new model that’s likely to be much more disruptive in the long run. I’m talking about Amazon Underground, where paid apps go to be free.

If you haven’t heard about Underground it’s a collection of paid Android apps that are now available free if you download them directly from Amazon. The initial collection is mostly games but it will undoubtedly grow over time. It’s also important to note that the catalog includes paid apps as well as those with in-app purchases (e.g., additional levels for a game); those in-app options also become free in the Underground world.

App developers get paid for engagement in the Underground model. So if their app gets downloaded but never used they earn nothing. On the other hand, if their app is wildly successful and used extensively, Underground represents a whole new developer revenue stream.

Any app developer will tell you there’s an enormous difference between the number of downloads of a 99-cent app and that same app as a freebie. Amazon gets that and may have cracked the code in leveraging free while also driving revenue.

It all has to do with advertising revenue. You may not see much (any?) advertising in some of these apps today. For example, I haven’t seen a single ad in a casino game and Office app tool I downloaded. That will undoubtedly change in the future. After all, in order to keep investors happy, Amazon’s losses today always need to point to profits and other benefits in the future.

What are those benefits?

First of all, it’s an interesting way to co-opt the Google Play store. Remember, you can only get these Underground apps direct from Amazon, not Google. I’ve got to believe Amazon’s own app store isn’t exactly thriving, so this is a great way to give it a gentle boost.

Second, all those Underground apps you download ultimately pull you deeper and deeper into the Amazon walled garden. This too might not be apparent today but it will become crystal clear when those ads start popping up. And don’t forget that you’re opting into a model where all your app usage is closely tracked. After all, that’s how Amazon determines how much to pay developers. If you’re a privacy freak, Underground is not for you.

Why should publishers care about Amazon Underground? It sounds like an interesting model for game developers but not all that applicable for books, newspapers and magazines, right?

Wrong.

I’ve been talking about advertising in books for quite awhile now and I think Underground represents a viable, incremental business model for this vision. It’s obviously not the best option for some content but I’m convinced enough publishers and authors will embrace it, so much so, in fact, that naysayers will even have to consider it.

Let’s be clear about this though: I’m not suggesting an ad-based model will generate the same amount of per-unit revenue as the paid edition. That’s simply not going to happen. If a publisher is earning $5 per copy sold of an ebook today they might only earn ten or twenty cents (at best) from each download of the Underground version.

So why would any publisher ever agree to this?

It’s all about extending reach. Sure, nobody wants to trade a $5 sale for one netting ten cents. But what about all those readers who aren’t going to buy the book, newspaper or magazine to begin with? You’re netting zero from them today and possibly ten cents from each of them in the future. All that, with no cost of goods, btw.

Here’s another interesting use-case: Underground becomes a better sampling solution. Once the service is loaded with a bunch of ebooks, readers will be able to download the entire catalog without paying a penny. Amazon won’t be on the hook for any payment till pages are read. Consumers who like what they see but get frustrated with all the ads will always have the option to go back and actually pay for the original, ad-free edition. The rest of us will simply deal with the ads and enjoy the free ride.

That sounds like a win-win model for quite a few books, newspapers and magazines.