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?


Here’s how search will evolve and become more powerful

Telescope-122960_1920You’re probably pretty happy with Google search today, right? It’s incredibly fast, extremely reliable and almost always delivers the desired results. What more could you ask for?

I think the problem with today’s search solutions is that we’ve limited them to what’s online. If the content has a web address and it’s been crawled by the major engines it’s properly analyzed and presented in search results.

But what about everything else? Once again, Evernote is a terrific example of what could be.

I’m a huge Evernote fan and I’ve configured it so that all my notes are exposed and retrievable in a Google search. Alongside the standard web, news, maps, images, etc., search results categories, Google also shows a frame with Evernote’s Web Clipper results. Simply put, a single Google search produces results from the web as well as my Evernote archive. Simple, yet powerful.

Why does it have to stop with the web and Evernote? Why can’t one search be configured to retrieve results from all my content streams?

Let’s start with the documents on my computer and in the cloud. They’re mostly Office applications, so a search needs to understand the structure of Word, Excel and Powerpoint documents. I’m not talking about simply searching file names; this search functionality needs to know whether the phrase is buried in the document itself.

Don’t forget about Outlook and all the other email applications. Search needs to sift through everything in my inbox, folders and attachments.

How about all the digital books, newspapers and magazines I read or scan every week? My search tool needs to capture, index and report back on all that activity as well. I sometimes rate articles and books I read, so the search algorithm needs to understand those rankings and include them in its algorithm, pushing higher-rated results towards the top.

Let’s also not forget about websites I’ve visited. This search tool should understand which sites I frequently visit and which pages I’ve spent more time on, reflecting the fact that I’m reading rather than scanning. This too is critical information for the search algorithm.

Next, it needs to understand my social graph and factor that into the search results. I’m much more active on Twitter than Facebook, for example, so what are the most recent relevant tweets that belong in my search results?

I realize this starts to clutter the results page. That’s why it all has to be configurable by the user. Clicking on/off checkboxes in a list should allow me to show or hide the various sources in search results. 

I’m able to search each of these sources individually today, of course, but there’s no uber-search tool allowing me to consolidate and search across all sources with one query.

Finally, and here’s where it gets even more interesting, I want the ability to curate and share my search results. Today you can do this by sharing the url from the results page; for example, here’s a Google search for my employer, Olive Software. That’s a start, but now I want to insert links to other sources, including all the ones noted above (e.g., documents, emails, ebooks, etc.).

Yes, there are countless sharing, opt-in, privacy and copyright issues to navigate before this vision becomes a reality. But imagine how powerful the results will be when these capabilities become standard features in every search engine.


How Amazon Underground will affect content pricing and business models

Screen Shot 2015-08-31 at 9.29.05 AMAs interesting as the all-you-can read models from Next Issue, Oyster Books and Scribd are, I believe Amazon just introduced a new model that’s likely to be much more disruptive in the long run. I’m talking about Amazon Underground, where paid apps go to be free.

If you haven’t heard about Underground it’s a collection of paid Android apps that are now available free if you download them directly from Amazon. The initial collection is mostly games but it will undoubtedly grow over time. It’s also important to note that the catalog includes paid apps as well as those with in-app purchases (e.g., additional levels for a game); those in-app options also become free in the Underground world.

App developers get paid for engagement in the Underground model. So if their app gets downloaded but never used they earn nothing. On the other hand, if their app is wildly successful and used extensively, Underground represents a whole new developer revenue stream.

Any app developer will tell you there’s an enormous difference between the number of downloads of a 99-cent app and that same app as a freebie. Amazon gets that and may have cracked the code in leveraging free while also driving revenue.

It all has to do with advertising revenue. You may not see much (any?) advertising in some of these apps today. For example, I haven’t seen a single ad in a casino game and Office app tool I downloaded. That will undoubtedly change in the future. After all, in order to keep investors happy, Amazon’s losses today always need to point to profits and other benefits in the future.

What are those benefits?

First of all, it’s an interesting way to co-opt the Google Play store. Remember, you can only get these Underground apps direct from Amazon, not Google. I’ve got to believe Amazon’s own app store isn’t exactly thriving, so this is a great way to give it a gentle boost.

Second, all those Underground apps you download ultimately pull you deeper and deeper into the Amazon walled garden. This too might not be apparent today but it will become crystal clear when those ads start popping up. And don’t forget that you’re opting into a model where all your app usage is closely tracked. After all, that’s how Amazon determines how much to pay developers. If you’re a privacy freak, Underground is not for you.

Why should publishers care about Amazon Underground? It sounds like an interesting model for game developers but not all that applicable for books, newspapers and magazines, right?

Wrong.

I’ve been talking about advertising in books for quite awhile now and I think Underground represents a viable, incremental business model for this vision. It’s obviously not the best option for some content but I’m convinced enough publishers and authors will embrace it, so much so, in fact, that naysayers will even have to consider it.

Let’s be clear about this though: I’m not suggesting an ad-based model will generate the same amount of per-unit revenue as the paid edition. That’s simply not going to happen. If a publisher is earning $5 per copy sold of an ebook today they might only earn ten or twenty cents (at best) from each download of the Underground version.

So why would any publisher ever agree to this?

It’s all about extending reach. Sure, nobody wants to trade a $5 sale for one netting ten cents. But what about all those readers who aren’t going to buy the book, newspaper or magazine to begin with? You’re netting zero from them today and possibly ten cents from each of them in the future. All that, with no cost of goods, btw.

Here’s another interesting use-case: Underground becomes a better sampling solution. Once the service is loaded with a bunch of ebooks, readers will be able to download the entire catalog without paying a penny. Amazon won’t be on the hook for any payment till pages are read. Consumers who like what they see but get frustrated with all the ads will always have the option to go back and actually pay for the original, ad-free edition. The rest of us will simply deal with the ads and enjoy the free ride.

That sounds like a win-win model for quite a few books, newspapers and magazines.