“What is code?” illustrates rich content potential

The painful reality is that we still live in a print-under-glass world, struggling to produce content that leverages our powerful phones and tablets. I was explaining this to a publisher recently and the phrase “escape velocity” came to mind.

In simple terms, escape velocity is what’s required for an object to break free from another object’s gravitational pull. For example, a rocket being launched from earth or, in this case, a publisher trying to create content that’s more deeply engaging than simply putting the print edition on a digital screen. In the latter case, everything from significant print revenues to industry indifference represent the gravitational pull that needs to be escaped.

The latest example proving we’re still in the print-under-glass era is a terrific Businessweek article called What is code?  The fact that rich and engaging pieces like this draw so much attention and are so few and far between proves we’re still only in the early innings of digital content innovation and evolution.

If you haven’t read the article I highly recommend you take the time and carefully go through it. If you’re not a programmer you’ll learn a lot. But even if you’re a coding master you’ll still learn a thing or two, including how content will eventually take baby steps away from today’s print-under-glass approach.

Here are the most takeaways I got from this Businessweek article: 

  • Measuring visits and reading time – I opened and closed it a few times before finally reading the entire piece. I found it interesting that a pop-up noted how many times I had opened it previously as well as how long I had already spent scanning it. This information may not be valuable for a magazine article but it would be very useful for tutorial content to see how long it takes to learn a subject. It would also be extremely valuable for publishers to discover where readers tend to spend the most time.
  • Dynamic visuals – Be sure to check out the circuitry animation that appears at the start of the second section. If you’re not familiar with the concept of logic gates, take a minute or two to read the callout and watch the animation. And have you ever wondered what happens when you press a key on your keyboard? There’s another animation for this and, as the callout notes, quite a few things happen behind the scenes before the key you pressed appears on your screen. Note that neither of these are “enrichment for enrichment’s sake”. Creating deeply engaging content like this requires a great deal of work, especially when it comes to figuring out exactly what type of dynamic visuals will add to the experience, not interfere with it.
  • Deeper dives, but only if you want them –Note the rounded rectangular numbered items interspersed throughout and how they’re used as pop-up notes. It’s not the best UI element but I love how they quickly provide more depth without taking the reader away from the current paragraph. A key here is to provide this additional depth unobtrusively. The best UI enables a smooth reading flow for readers who don’t care to read these pop-ups while ensuring the additional content is easily accessible for those who want it.
  • Annoying visuals – As good as this Businessweek article is, it would have been even better without the animated blue box character with the black hat and flower. The designer probably felt it added personality or maybe even gave the piece an attitude; in reality, it made the whole experience feel like a 1980’s experiment featuring a Walking Dead version of the Charlie Chaplin PC Jr. character. The lesson here is to focus on functional value rather than gimmicks.

If you read to the end you’ll discover another feature that combines something useful with yet another gimmick, which is unfortunate.

I applaud Businessweek and author Paul Ford for helping show the possibilities of a post-print-under-glass world. Here’s to hoping escape velocity is just around the corner and soon this sort of content will be considered standard, not edgy.


Lessons learned at Book Business Live

The team at Book Business recently hosted a one-day, invite-only event in NY. I had the pleasure of attending as well as moderating the first panel of the day, Transforming Your Company for the New Era of Book Publishing.

The day was filled with highly engaging discussions featuring panelists from McGraw-Hill, Pearson, Hachette, Cengage, Perseus, Rodale, HarperCollins and Scribd. Here are a few of the most interesting points I took away from the event:

Direct-to-consumer (D2C) and competitive pricing – Towards the end of my session an audience member asked our panel the following question: How is it possible to build a direct channel when Amazon is always going to at least match, if not undercut, your prices? Clancy Marshall of Pearson provided a terrific response. She noted that her team is focused on creating a broader, more compelling learning environment, not simply trying to sell a book at the lowest price. This is perhaps the most important thing for publishers to keep in mind as they build out their direct channels: It’s all about creating a reason for consumers to come to you, not simply trying to offer the lowest price. You’ll lose 100% of the time if you’re trying to build a D2C channel based solely on low prices.

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What are you going to do with that data? Tom Breur of Cengage told an interesting story of a correlation they noticed between text highlighting and student performance. They looked at the performance of students using a particular title and tracked how often the student tended to use the ebook’s highlighting feature. It turned out that students who highlighted more often generally got lower grades in the class. Their conclusion: Students who highlight are just skimming, not closely reading the text. The real question here is this: As you and your organization gather more data from ebooks, what will you do with that data? It reminds me of those registration cards that used to appear in the back of print books. I once worked for a publisher who had an office with stacks and stacks of those cards, carefully filled out and mailed in from their readers. The cards were just sitting there, taking up space and collecting dust. Gathering the data is just the first step. In the Cengage scenario, I’d like to think they’re developing ways for their platform to help highlight-happy skimmers become more engaged readers.

The lean model is alive and well – I almost stood up and cheered when Mary Ann Naples of Rodale mentioned their use of the lean startup model. We first started talking about the lean approach at Tools of Change several years ago and it’s great hearing that at least one publisher has fully embraced the concept. If you’re not familiar with the lean approach you’ll find all the resources you need here.

Indirect and direct can coexist and thrive – Mary Ann Naples also helped explain how a publisher’s D2C efforts don’t have to conflict with indirect/retailer channels. She talked about the importance of building community, something I believe is critical for publishers to create consumer brands, not industry brands. Further, she pointed out that a publisher’s community-building efforts help establish a compelling D2C solution while also helping their product stand out in the crowded indirect channels. In short, community can be leveraged to build a stronger consumer brand across all channels.

Focus on your biggest fans – I loved this point made by Rick Joyce of Perseus. He talked about how the music business is so good at selling more products to a band’s mega-fans. A broad consumer approach is fine but what about that portion of your list that tends to have the strongest following? It might be a particular series or author, for example. Are you creating the deluxe editions, the boxed sets, the must-have versions that those fans crave? And are you working with that part of your customer base to build the community foundation of your D2C efforts?

Kudos to Denis Wilson of Book Business and all the speakers who were remarkably transparent in their discussions and audience Q&A. If you ever have a chance to attend one of these Book Business events I highly recommend you make the time for it.


How digital can be a companion for print

Congratulations, print publishers. You dealt with enormous disruption these past several years and you managed to avoid the same fate as your music industry counterparts. For example, most book publishers still generate 70-80% of their revenue from print. How many music labels can say they generate anywhere near that percentage from CDs?

Is the survival of print a good thing or a bad thing? Rather than worrying about that one, here’s the question we really need to think about: Why do we treat these two formats as mutually exclusive?

Depending on what they’re doing, why do consumers tend to use either print or digital but almost never use print and digital for the same product?

I’ll use myself as an example... Believe it or not, my wife and I still subscribe to our local print newspaper, the Indianapolis Star. Our subscription plan includes a digital version as well as print. When I’m at home I always read print and never bother opening the digital edition; when I’m on the road, of course, I’m limited to a digital-only experience.

Why do I never bother opening the digital edition when I’m home? Because it’s just a digital replica of the print edition I read over breakfast. OK, there might be a few extra bells and whistles in the digital edition but they’re not significant enough to get me to open the app after I’ve read the print edition.

The same is true for books and magazines. Digital simply replaces print, so there’s no reason to use both formats for any given title.

I think it’s time to reimagine digital as a companion to print, not simply a replacement for it.

Today’s digital editions are nothing more than print-under-glass. They’re digital replicas of the print product. As a result, we tend to buy one format or the other, but rarely both.

I used to publish technology books for IT professionals. Many of those books on programming languages and productivity tools had companion websites. The websites offered additional content, sample files and other goodies that didn’t come with the book. These sites also represented a way for the publisher to dynamically extend the original content with additional elements and coverage, some of which might not have been available when the book was originally published.

I’d love to see the industry evolve to the point where each print product has a digital companion, not just a print replacement. The digital companion would extend and enhance the print experience and would be an optional add-on to the print product. Some of these digital companions could be free but the more valuable ones could have a price.

Btw, publishers could offer these companions exclusively on their websites, converting print customers who bought from Amazon and elsewhere into direct customers. Promote them in the print product and bring those customers to your website where you can build a direct relationship, up-sell, cross-sell, etc.

A couple of weeks ago I wrote an article called Why Johnny doesn’t like e-textbooks. Maybe Johnny doesn’t want the print-under-glass digital edition of the textbook, but I’ll bet he’d be interested in a digital companion for the print textbook featuring notes from other students, cheat sheets for test prep, sample quizzes, slide decks from class lectures and better explanations of key topics from other students and teachers.

Textbooks aren’t the only products that could be further monetized with digital companions. Just about any type of content lends itself to digital extension and enhancement. We just need publishers and authors to start thinking of digital as a companion for print, not simply a replacement.


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.


In the future, all content will be layered

Once upon a time the broadcast model was the only viable option for content distribution. The newspapers, magazines and books we read were the same regardless of our personal interests or where we lived.

The web and other digital models offer more personalization, of course. That’s why your Google News feed looks considerably different than mine, for example.

In the not-too-distant future I believe we’ll see a radically new level of personalization beyond the keywords and other techniques used today. That new model will feature layers of content, with each layer customized for a different user experience.

An example helps illustrate this vision…

Apple likes to update their Mac OS X operating system from time to time with plenty of new features. The best way to communicate what’s new in the next release depends on whether you’re educating a long-time Mac user or a complete novice. I’ve been on the Mac platform for several years now so I don’t need guidance on the basics. A newbie needs that information though, so how can Apple (or a third-party publisher) create content that addresses the diverse needs of expert and novice as well as everyone else in between?

One option is where the application presenting the content offers different views depending on the reader’s knowledge level. For example, there would be user level buttons where the reader can tell the ebook app how knowledgeable they are so that the content is customized for their level.

It’s important to note that the base of content remains the same for all users. But by providing a bit of information to the app, the user gets an experience that’s more in line with their needs. Layering the content enables publishers to offer multiple lenses through with the material can be viewed and each lens is optimized for a different type of user.

Content layering is something I’ve been writing about for several years now. That vision is starting to become a reality thanks to work being done at Olive Software where I serve as director of strategy and business development.

I invite you to get a glimpse of what I’m describing by attending a free webinar we’re hosting later this month. The event takes place at 1:00ET on September 30. Click here to register and reserve your spot.