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.


What’s the missing ingredient for unlimited reading services?

Infinity-1179939_1280I’ve been a fan of unlimited e-reading services for at least a couple of years now. When Oyster Books went under I shifted to Kindle Unlimited. For short-form magazine content I use Texture, the offering formerly known as Next Issue.

Prices for these services are typically in the $10-15/month range and, for the most part, I think they’re worth it. Even though I refer to them as “unlimited” one key shortcoming is what’s not available in the all-you-can-read platforms. You’ll rarely find the bestselling books in an unlimited reading service, for example. Just because the catalog offered contains hundreds of thousands of titles doesn’t mean you’re likely to find the next great read there.

Lately I’m realizing that I’m not getting much use out of my Texture subscription. The issue isn’t so much that it lacks titles. In fact, now that Texture includes access to almost 200 magazines it’s hard to find ones that aren’t included, and that’s the problem.

The value proposition for these unlimited services has always been based up on overwhelming you with content. What I really want them to offer now is a curated experience.

Texture knows that I enjoy reading BusinessWeek and Sports Illustrated, for example. Why not let me configure my Texture subscription to ensure I never miss articles about my favorite teams and industries/companies I want to follow? Then use that information to help me continue expanding my horizons, presenting me with content on adjacent businesses, for example.

Put all that material together in a custom magazine, made just for me every week (or whatever frequency I prefer). Let me vote up/down on articles so the system can better determine what I really like (e.g., certain writers, themes, styles, etc.) How about letting me share my custom magazines with other Texture subscribers, and vice versa?

Curation of unlimited book subscriptions is a bit trickier. But how about starting by sending excerpts from newly added titles I might enjoy, based on my reading habits to date? It often feels like I’m searching for that needle in a haystack when I try to figure out what book I should read next. There have got to be ways to simplify and help me narrow things down as well as ensure I don’t overlook an obvious winner.

I’m not looking for a million books or hundreds of magazines. I want what most interests me and I’d like to see the subscription services figure that out. Don’t make me just come to you and open your app. Communicate with me via email and/or text messages if I prefer. Surprise and delight me rather than simply expecting me to be wowed by the overwhelming amount of content offered.


Maximizing mobile micro-moments

Girl-925284_1920Google recently published a document entitled Micro-Moments: Your Guide to Winning the Shift to Mobile. You can download the PDF here. It’s a quick read and worth a close look.

I’ve long felt the publishing industry is too focused on simply delivering the print experience on digital devices, something often referred to as “print under glass.” That strategy has created new revenue streams over the past 10 years but it’s not the end game. Mobile represents opportunities for new methods of engagement and discovery; that’s precisely what Google’s document outlines with plenty of interesting stats.

For example, the document notes that “we check our phones 150 times a day” and then reminds us that each session is barely a minute long. That might be an average length but I’ll bet the mean is even shorter. How often do you pull your phone out for only a quick, 10-20 second peek at your email inbox or news? That’s probably my typical session length and based on what I see around me I’m confident it’s the case for plenty of others as well.

So what about that oft-used scenario of pulling the phone out to read an ebook while standing in line at the grocery store? That’s clearly something publishers fantasize about but consumers rarely, if ever, do. It’s more info snacking and short, bite-sized pieces of content that are consumed in most of these mobile sessions.

That trend isn’t changing anytime soon. As the Google doc states, in the past year mobile sessions have increased 20% while session time has decreased 18%. We’re shifting from longer desktop sessions to shorter mobile sessions.

Google asks this very important question: How does your brand perform on keywords searches that are vital to your business? Don’t just focus on search results ranking, btw. You may appear at the top but does the resulting link take a visitor to a terrific mobile experience? Responsive design is part of that but the more important point is that the destination page is constructed with content or a call-to-action perfectly designed for those 10-20 second mobile session bursts.

What does a great, mobile-optimized destination page look like? For one thing, it’s probably a single screen requiring no scrolling on even the smallest of phones. If you can’t deliver on that promise you need to focus on giving the visitor a reason to provide their email address for more details. Again, everything should be designed for an extremely short user session.

On page 8 Google says that that video how-to searches are still on an extremely steep growth trajectory. They’re up 70% year-over-year and far from plateauing. Your business is probably built around written content, but if you’re in the how-to space you’ve got to think about how to remain relevant as more solutions are discovered via mobile searches and delivered in video, not written, format.

Take a few minutes to read and highlight elements of Google’s report. There’s a lot of terrific information here and I guarantee it will both inspire you as well as force you to think about the importance of reframing your brand around mobile. There’s so much here, in fact, that I want to revisit the document in next week’s article. So stay tuned for part two where I’ll highlight several other important points as well as share a use-case for how mobile can complement, not replace, print.


When will content truly become mobile?

Mobile-605422_1920After 7+ years of working remotely from my home office I recently started a new job with a daily commute. It’s actually quite an enjoyable ride and I originally planned to make it even better with a variety of mobile/audio content. Podcasts were at the top of my list but I also figured I could finally dive into audio books and a variety of text-to-speech solutions.

Mobile content has been a hot topic for years so I figured the options would be endless. Boy, was I surprised. My car has all the modern navigational bells and whistles but it seems the most cutting-edge mobile content feature is Sirius radio, a technology that’s now almost 15 years old.

Satellite radio is nice but is that as good as it gets? Since Sirius puts their receivers in most new cars I’m wondering if the publishing industry has missed an opportunity to create a new distribution channel. Why aren’t audio books and other digital content products available via satellite radio? Yes, I realize satellite focuses on broadcasting, not narrowcasting, but surely there’s bandwidth available to send individual packets of content like an audio book to an individual receiver. That content could then be stored locally and played back at the driver’s convenience.

You could argue that Bluetooth is the solution to this problem. After all, I can buy an audio book on my phone and listen to it in my car via Bluetooth. I’d rather see a service directly integrated with my car’s in-dash system though so I’m not fumbling around with both the dashboard display and a phone. Sirius could represent an entirely new distribution partner. (What’s more likely to happen is that Amazon will eventually make its way into your new car’s touchscreen and their dominance will be extended yet again.)

Audio books probably aren’t the right solution for me after all though. I’m still reeling from sticker shock after surveying the audio book landscape. You’d have to be pretty committed to the book and format to pay more for the audio edition than you’d pay for the print edition. I thought the unlimited monthly subscription platforms might be an alternative but they have too many restrictions. Scribd is a great example. I’m limited to one audio book per month so it’s really unlimited for ebooks but very limited for audio.

I get it that most audio books incur a high production cost, especially if they’re read by a celebrity author. But why does the author have to be the audio talent? In fact, do we really even need human voice talent to create the audio editions? If you haven’t recently explored the text-to-speech world you’ll be amazed at the current capabilities. We’re no longer limited to those tinny, lifeless monotone streams, so why not automate the text-to-speech conversion without the need for pricey audio talent?

Here’s a radical idea: Sell the all-in-one edition where my print purchase also includes the ebook and audio formats. We’re seeing the beginnings of this with alternate format add-ons like Amazon’s Audible narration and Kindle MatchBook; the former brings audio to the ebook and the latter provides a discounted Kindle edition if you’ve already bought the print version. Let’s make things simpler though and stop hoping consumers will discover these tiny add-on links on the Amazon product page. Publishers should sell the all-in-one edition directly, and perhaps exclusively, giving consumers a compelling reason to buy direct.

The untapped mobile opportunity goes beyond books. In fact, I think there’s an even bigger mobile opportunity for short-form content. For example, why don’t newspapers and magazines offer audio editions? They seem to think the “digital” version of their content is limited to website articles and print replica editions. Yes, some of the replica edition platforms offer text-to-speech but not a complete, mobile audio experience.

Periodical publishers should ask themselves this question: what would Steve Jobs do? I’m pretty sure for starters he’d offer a full audio edition, structured in playlist format enabling the consumer to simply say “next” or “listen” as the app reads each of the headlines to you. Today’s audio options are simply grafted onto the written edition and not offered in a mobile-optimized format.

Many of these periodical publishers continue losing brand relevance with the younger generation. I wonder if a better mobile audio solution could help them reverse that trend.

For now my commute is limited to a variety of podcasts and one-off audio feeds and I’m left asking this question: Can we really call it “mobile” content when there are still this many gaps?