“The Content Trap” is the must-read book of the year

The Content TrapA recent trip to a local brick-and-mortar bookstore helped me realize that even the best algorithms and email campaigns can’t replace in-person product discovery. I noticed a book called The Content Trap sitting face-out on the shelf and couldn’t resist picking it up.

Great title. Intriguing outline. Normally I’d make a note to grab the ebook sample and consider buying it later. What I saw during my in-store flip test convinced me I shouldn’t wait. So, I made the unusual decision (for me) to buy the print copy, not the ebook.

As I walked out of the store it dawned on me: Despite all the daily book recommendation emails I get from Amazon and elsewhere, this one never hit my radar till I walked through that store. Actually, maybe one of those emails actually did mention it, but I never noticed because I receive so many book promo messages that they’ve turned into nothing more than in-box white noise. This seems to indicate the email marketing model could benefit dramatically from an overhaul.

If so, the vision shared in The Content Trap likely provides at least a portion of the new formula. It’s been awhile since I broke out a highlighter and started marking up a physical book. I’m only a few chapters into The Content Trap and I’ve already highlighted dozens of important passages. In fact, it ran my old highlighter dry so I had to buy a new one.

This is one of those books that really makes you stop and think, so don’t assume you’ll be able to tear through it in an afternoon. Here are a few of the more fascinating segments I’ve read so far:

The language for success in media, as in technology, is less and less about content and more and more about connections.

It’s striking how many digital media managers still think in terms of product appeal to individual customers rather than in terms of managing and exploiting connections. This is even more surprising in view of the fact that media consumption has always been inherently social.

Through its Marketplace, Amazon had shifted strategy from selling products to owning a platform. A similar “content versus platform” choice confronts many organizations today.

Superior products are great, but strategies that exploit connections are better.

Can we help readers to help each other? [That last question helped one publisher shift] from being important to being relevant, as one editor put it.

Btw, those quotes are all packed into the first 30+ pages. I can’t wait to read the rest of this book. I also just started following the author, Bharat Anand, on Twitter and encourage you to do the same. This guy is brilliant.

Do yourself a favor and buy this book immediately. You won’t regret it and you’ll be well armed with an entirely new way of thinking as 2017 begins.

2016 Trend Report: What publishers need to know

Statistics-1020319_1920The Future Today Institute has created a terrific, free report summarizing key technology trends and what they mean for tomorrow. I’ve embedded the report below so you can quickly flip through it.

I read the whole report and highlighted the most noteworthy elements for publishers below. That leads me (once again) to the topic of curation, a very important (current and) future publishing trend. Curation is becoming as important as creation, especially as we’re bombarded with more information than we can possibly consume.

As you read through my curated list below, with slide numbers in parenthesis, be sure to look at each item through the lens of publishing. How will each one of these affect how your content is discovered, acquired and consumed in the future?

Bots (slide 15) – This type of automation will be combined with other emerging technologies, leading to things like highly customized audio learning platforms where the UI is totally voice-controlled (see SVPAs below).

Natural Language Generation (slide 17) – I’ve written before about Narrative Science and I’m confident we’ll see more and more algorithmically-generated content in the future.

Smart Virtual Personal Assistants, or SVPAs (slide 22) – Alexa is the one I use every day when interacting with my Amazon Tap device. Expect this one to evolve quickly as today’s functionality will be considered very primitive in a year or so.

Ambient Proximity (slide 23) – Beacons haven’t taken off yet but they represent such an interesting opportunity. Think of all the interesting things your local bookstore could do with beacons and promotional content.

Attention (slide 25) – Despite the lame name, this one will have a significant impact on the ongoing evolution of content presentation, especially when married to beacons and additional knowledge of the user’s current state.

Ownership (slide 36) – Up to now, creators of user-generated content seem more interested in visibility than compensation, but how long will that be the case?

One-to-few Publishing (slide 39) – Podcasts are dead, right? No, in fact there’s a significant opportunity in smaller, more tightly-focused audiences. This market concentration likely leads to higher subscription prices and/or advertising rates.

Intentional Rabbit Holes (slide 42) – Great concept that’s all about deeper engagement. What services can you add to your site or content to encourage readers to take a deeper dive and perhaps expose them to additional monetization opportunities?

Augmented Reality (slide 52) – It’s been around for a while but was only recently legitimized by Pokemon Go. Think of all the ways your content could be augmented via tools like Layar, for example.

Internet of X (slide 63) – Let’s say you’re a publisher of architecture books and other short-form content about design and construction. What’s preventing you from creating The Internet of Architecture?

Each of these are on different timelines, of course, and won’t affect content at the same moment. All of them, however, are likely to have a profound impact on just about every type of content in the next few years.

Amazon extends their dominance with Audible Channels

Screenshot_20160709-140715 (1)Even though they’re gaining momentum I’ve never been a big fan of audio books. Amazon, of course, owns the market with both Audible and Brilliance. Although it didn’t receive a lot fanfare last week, Audible introduced one of the most interesting and long overdue services that I’ve seen in a long time.

I’m talking about Audible Channels and it takes short-form listening to an entirely new level. Some have mistakenly written Channels off as nothing more than a glorified podcasting option but it’s much more than that.

First of all, thanks to Channels I’m finally able to listen to periodicals. Popular brands like The New York Times, USA Today, The Wall Street Journal and Bezos’ own Washington Post are just a few of the feed options. Rather than having to find the time to read a few newspaper articles each day I can quickly zip through them with the combination of phone+Bluetooth+car radio during my morning commute.

Isn’t it amazing that the newspaper industry never bothered to jump on the convenience and popularity of audio before now? Newspapers have been struggling for years with flat or declining subscription levels and now Amazon steps in to fill the audio void.

Next, taking a page out of the Netflix playbook, Channels also offers a growing number of original content feeds. Amazon, the king of data, is uniquely positioned to quickly determine which topics and genres will likely be most successful, so even though original content could be viewed as an expensive venture the risk is probably quite low. And hey, Amazon is never one to shy away from losing a lot of money, so this is a no-brainer for them.

Now let’s go back to the podcast topic for a moment. Yes, Channels offers access to many of the same podcasts you can get for free via iTunes and other services. So why pay for them via Channels? One word: curation.

Over the past six months I’ve immersed myself in the podcast arena, not as a creator but as a listener. I’ve spent countless times trying to find the next great podcast and it’s like searching for the proverbial needle in a haystack. I’ve really only found three that I listen to on a regular basis but I’ve tried at least 30+ others along the way. Part of my exploration involved working my way top to bottom through the popular lists while others hit my radar through recommendations from similar feeds. I’m convinced that neither approach is optimal and that there’s a huge opportunity to dramatically improve the inefficient discovery experience here.

Channels promises a curation process powered by editors who handpick only the best of the best. Will it improve podcast discovery? Only time will tell, but it’s got to be better than the discovery options we’ve dealt with up to now.

All of this comes to you for the low, low price of $4.95 per month. If you’re already an Audible subscriber, typically paying $14.95 per month, you now have access to Channels for no additional charge. Btw, if you’re looking for that pricing info and a quick way to sign up, just go to this rather hard-to-find page.

Audible Channels isn’t just for consumers interested in short-form audio content. It’s also an important lesson for publishers of all types of written content. Amazon is 20+ years old and they’re still disrupting. If Channels is successful every periodical publisher will soon discover they’ll need to make their content available on it, producing yet another new chapter in the story of Amazon’s marketplace dominance.

Subscription options are pretty limited today but I can see a future where I’ll be able to subscribe to audio versions of the sports sections from all the papers I care about, for example. When that happens, don’t you think newspaper publishers will deeply regret the fact that they didn’t build this platform themselves?

Here’s how Siri, Alexa and other IPAs will revolutionize publishing

Information-1183331_1280For the past several years I’ve been writing about how containers such as books, newspapers and magazines are slowly fading away. They’ll certainly be around for many years but their relevance will slip into the background as personalized, digital content streams become more important.

The more I think about the future the more I believe two other trends will have an even more significant impact on reading, learning and engaging with content: voice user interfaces (VUI) and artificial intelligence (AI).

Today Apple’s Siri and Amazon’s Alexa are mostly perceived as gimmicks. Tomorrow these intelligent personal assistants (IPAs) will become the gateway to a whole new way of consuming and interacting with content.

A few weeks ago I wrote about how these IPAs need to break free of their current apps and devices, becoming platforms to a broader set of content services. It’s great that Amazon’s Alexa can now be experimented with via the Echoism.io site, but how long will it take before these services realize their full potential, not simply serve as a way to ask whether or not it will rain tomorrow?

Ultimately, I’m convinced these IPAs will enable us to have conversations with the most knowledgeable experts we’ll never meet and who really don’t even exist. Think about that for a moment.

It’s one thing to ask Alexa questions like, “what was the score of last night’s Cubs game?” or “what was Muhammad Ali’s most famous quote?”. It’s entirely different when you treat the device like a trusted advisor or teacher by asking things like, “who was the best Cubs player of all time?”; in this case, the response can’t simply be retrieved from a reference guide as it requires a highly subjective answer based on gathering and interpretation of facts as well as a healthy dose of conjecture. That’s where AI comes into play.

The model I’m describing likely requires AI capabilities that are more powerful than today’s. In 2016 company like Narrative Science can take a baseball game box score and turn it into a two-paragraph newspaper summary; tomorrow these AI platforms will need to be able to tell more of the story as well as answer questions like, “how did Anthony Rizzo get to second base in the fourth inning?”.

Let’s apply this to a more interesting, lengthier use-case. Maybe I want to learn about electricity and electrical wiring for a home project I’m working on. I want to do this all via voice and audio during my daily commute to and from work. Today I could turn to a variety of YouTube videos, websites and books. Tomorrow I want to simply start with this request: Tell me the essentials of electricity.

The IPA then dives right into a tutorial, perhaps taken from one of those resources noted earlier (e.g., books, websites, etc.) The session is highly interactive though. Every so often I might ask a clarifying question like, “what’s the difference between the black wire and the white wire?” or “is a wire nut OK on its own or should I also wrap the connection in electrical tape?”, and the assistant provides the answers then returns to the lesson.

To contrast, in today’s world we’re used to thinking in terms of the document model and how search results are simply an intermediate step. That step might just be one of many the user has to proceed through to ultimately get their answer. In the IPA world of tomorrow the experience needs to feel more like a conversation with an old friend or instructor; the IPA selects the best path rather than relying on you to find the needle in the search results haystack.

All of this dialog presumably will go through the Amazon’s and Google’s of the world and the answers come back through those same gatekeepers as well. But ultimately consumers will insist on the dialog and answers coming from other trusted brands and sources. So one day I might start that electricity session by saying something like, “take me to the Home Depot channel” and then I can have my dialog within an ecosystem of more reliable, highly relevant content and responses.

In order to make this giant leap the content must either be richly tagged, thoroughly analyzed by a powerful AI platform or a little bit of both. Either way I’m excited about the new opportunities it represents.

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.