Content, technology and the digital scrapbook of your life

Every year it seems our cell phones take on new roles in our lives. Long ago flip phones merely enabled you to make calls. Today’s smartphones are loaded with sensors to do everything from track your health to tell you about a sale at a local store.

I think it’s time for our phones to do even more and this involves the convergence of content and technology to automatically create the digital story of your life.

Imagine an app that constantly monitors your phone’s location to do the following:

  • Log where you were today and make assumptions about what you did in each location,
  • Gather and organize content relevant to where you’ve been,
  • Build it all into a living, growing record that you can edit and share with others.

Sounds fairly straightforward, right? Now let’s think about the results of this.

One day you went to see the Reds play the Pirates in Pittsburgh at PNC Park. The app logs the event and pulls in the box score along with a couple of noteworthy articles about the game from the Cincinnati and Pittsburgh newspapers. It also saves the weather information (e.g., “partly cloudy, 61 degrees at first pitch with a high of 68 degrees”) and provides interesting factoids about what happened in sports on that same day 5 years ago, 10 years ago, etc.

On another day you attend your child’s college graduation ceremony. The app checks the school’s calendar and determines you were indeed at the ceremony. This information is logged and because the school was kind enough to expose the graduation program to the app, it too has now been digitally preserved in your stream.

By the way, this imaginary app also offers a user network. So it knows that you went with a friend to that baseball game, and your friend is part of the app’s network. This tidbit is also preserved along with all the great pictures you both took at the stadium. No longer do you have to worry about uploading or emailing photos; your app settings were already configured for two-way sharing between you and the friend who accompanied you at the game. The same goes for the graduation ceremony; now all your friends and family who are members of this service all have access to each other’s pictures.

We could, of course, extend this even further… If you ordered food at that baseball game the information could be logged so you could easily track your diet. In short, any transaction that takes place on your phone could be wired into this app as well. Those transactions that aren’t made with your phone could still be easily integrated: just take pictures of the receipt and the phone does the rest.

The app’s goal is to provide every user with a digital scrapbook of their life. The key is to automate as much of this process as possible. Let your phone and the app figure out what to collect and you can always go in and tweak it later if you want.

There’s also an enormous content opportunity here. I mentioned how the app pulls in content from newspapers but, of course, the feeds could come from anywhere. Ultimately this is a way to redeploy content based on context and preserve it for years and years. After all, one of the reasons you want to gather this information is to remember and relive the events of last week or last year. It’s also an interesting way to build the story of your life, one that can be passed on from one generation to the next. I’d love to have this kind of information about my parents and grandparents, for example.

A variety of business models could be used here including free, advertising/sponsor-based and premium. Ancestry.com and other genealogy services have proven the interest we have in our past. People spend hours and hours sifting through all that historical data, making assumptions about family connections, how people met, etc. An app like this eliminates the guesswork and tells the life story you want to communicate with your friends and future generations.


What to expect in 2015 (and beyond)

Publishing is a pretty slow-moving business. That statement is solidly supported by the fact that the Kindle is now more than 7 years old and the majority of digital content revenue still comes from “print under glass” format. We’re still basically consuming dumb content on smart devices, regardless of whether it’s a book, a newspaper or a magazine.

Because the industry moves at a glacial pace I don’t think we’re likely to see any earth-shattering breakthroughs in 2015. What I do think we’ll see are some seeds of change being planted and a few of the next steps in the industry’s evolution. 

With that in mind, here are five important developments I expect to see in 2015 and beyond: 

Content expansion in all-you-can-read subscription models – No, I’m not just talking about more book publishers participating in services like Oyster and Kindle Unlimited. That’s a no-brainer. What I’m referring to here is that these book reading services will expand into other types of content, including newspapers, magazines and born-digital content that currently sits behind a paywall. And as this happens, watch topic-based, vertical subscription options sprout up within the platforms (e.g., all-you-can-read subscriptions for sports enthusiasts, fiction fans, hobbyists, etc.) In short, these services become your all-access pass to all paid content forms for your particular area of interest.

Content becomes smarter – Publishers have allergic reactions to phrases like “enriched content” or “content enhancement”. That’s largely because of failed experiments with native apps and tools that force a publisher to abandon their existing editorial and production workflows. Just as TV didn’t stop with radio shows in front of a camera, the way content is produced, distributed and consumed will evolve and begin to leverage the smart devices consumers already own. Soon the e-editions will be more than just a cheap alternative to the print edition.

Bundles and sponsorships drive more revenue – Consumers have been trained to expect lower prices for digital editions. Publishers like to blame Jeff Bezos for this but I believe there’s plenty of blame to go around. After all, how many e-editions actually have less functionality than the print version? For example, have you ever tried sharing an ebook, digital newspaper or digital magazine with a friend after you’re finished with it? Prices aren’t going up anytime soon and publishers are anxiously searching for new income streams. Look for bundles and sponsorships to fill the void. That next money management ebook you buy might include an offer for a discounted (or free) subscription to Fortune magazine, for example. Or perhaps that same ebook is offered at a lower price for the month of April thanks to a sponsorship from Charles Schwab. The possibilities are endless.

Successful brands will no longer defined by containers – What are the first things that come to mind when you think of the ESPN and Sports Illustrated brands? I’ll bet it’s “television or cable channel” for the former and “magazine” for the latter. This, despite the fact that both have thriving websites, apps and other digital properties. But that’s precisely why a brand like Bleacher Report can come out of nowhere and draw so much interest and traffic. Yesterday’s brands are often tightly coupled with containers like books, newspapers, magazines and TV while the most popular, highly valued brands of tomorrow will have no particular container affiliation. In fact, being tied to a specific container will be a major drawback in the future.

Content reuse surges – Today it’s almost considered a gimmick when content can be redeployed in new manner. Book content is sold in pieces and collections of short-form articles get remixed, becoming long-form content products. This is a tiny revenue source today, but that’s largely because content isn’t being acquired and developed with reuse in mind. Eventually every piece of content will be looked at through the lens of reuse. This means that every piece of content will be part of multiple products from the start. Compare that to today’s model where reuse is typically an afterthought and redeployment doesn’t happen for months or years after the content was first published.

What do you think of these five items? Agree? Disagree? Are there other areas I’m overlooking that you believe will strongly influence the publishing industry in 2015 and beyond?


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.


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.