The failed promise of turning webpages into a podcast

How many times have you found an interesting article on the web but you have no time to read it? This happens to me every day and despite the variety of save-for-later reading tools out there they all tend to fade into the background and I forget to go back and read what I've saved for later.

When I saw this article on Springwise I immediately took a closer look at the solution it described. The article talks about how a "web browser extension transforms saved articles into podcasts." It turns out this extension is like many others; it simply does a text-to-speech conversion and creates an MP3 file. IOW, there's no connection to a podcast stream. So although the conversion produces impressive human-sounding results (click here to listen to my previous article), it falls short of the promise of transforming anything into a podcast stream.

This seems like a potentially enormous opportunity and gap for someone to fill. Imagine a one-click solution that truly gathers all your saved articles into a stream for your favorite podcast platform. What if that system eventually became so popular that audio ads could be injected dynamically, creating an income source? OK, yes, there would be a number of IP rights issues to potentially overcome but I could also see a model where that revenue stream is shared with the IP owner, alleviating that legal issue. Another interesting feature would be where I could follow others and listen to the articles they curated in their feed; as we've seen with other platforms, those with the biggest following also earn some sort of affiliate income. There are loads of possibilities here and it's all about transforming the written word into audio for broader consumption.

If something like this already exists please let me know. I'd use it every single day and I'm sure there are millions of others out there who would do the same. It's also one of those rare problems where I'd gladly pay a reasonable price to solve.


Experimentation and paid search

The next time you do a web search take an extra moment to see how the paid results compare to the top organic results. Sometimes the top link is the same for both.

This article, from the authors of The Power of Experiments, drives it home with this excerpt:

“Evidently, users who Googled ‘eBay’ (or another eBay-related search term), who had been clicking on the ad because they saw no reason to scroll down to the organic link just below it, were now instead clicking on the first organic search result. For these searchers, eBay essentially swapped in free organic clicks for each advertising click lost,” explain Luca and Bazerman. “In other words, much of the money eBay was shelling out to Google each year was a waste.” After the results of these experiments were published, 11 percent of large companies that were buying search ads in the same way as eBay discontinued that advertising.

It reminds me of that classic quote: "Half my marketing spend is wasted...I just don't know which half."

More importantly, it illustrates the need to continuously monitor and analyze data, all the while maintaining a strong culture of curious experimentation.

I wonder how much of Google's income is derived from advertisers who never bother asking if their high organic ranking might perform just was well as the results they're paying for...


Amazon, Alexa and podcasting

When the Spotify-Joe Rogan news hit last week I wondered again about Amazon's role in podcasting. Sure, you can ask your Alexa device to play the latest edition of just about any podcast but is Amazon only looking to act as a pass-through agent, serving up streams from Apple?

If the latest rumors are any indication, the answer is no. It appears Amazon doesn't want to simply enter the podcast market...they want to totally disrupt it.

The local content angle may seem somewhat narrow at first but think about the possibilities. Amazon certainly has the resources to curate the best of the best as well as fund development of new local content while newspapers, local TV, et al, are declining. And if I'm going to Amazon for my local podcast content I'm also shifting all my non-local podcast subscriptions to their one app/service as well. All of this, btw, will be accessible through the countless Alexa devices in all our homes (and ears, as my Bluetooth earbuds are also Alexa-enabled).

The most interesting element of this Amazon podcasting story is the advertising angle. Most of the ads I hear in podcasts today are still very mainstream, trying to cast as wide a net as possible. That's why 99% of those ads don't resonate with me. Amazon, however, is loaded with data about my preferences, buying habits and more. They're uniquely positioned to serve up programmatic advertising for an audience of one: you. That doesn't exist in the podcast world today but it definitely will tomorrow.

Advertising engagement and conversions would both be exceptionally high in this environment. And if you like what you hear, buying/subscribing/opting-in to whatever the ad is promoting will be as easy as saying, "Alexa, sign me up for..."

This model makes privacy advocates cringe, of course, but it's also likely to create an entirely new ecosystem of streaming content driving significantly more revenue for plenty of parties, not just Amazon.


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.