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 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.

Airplanes as storefronts

Have you seen the “Seat Monitors” ad by Southwest Airlines? They recognize the fact that most travelers already have a laptop or tablet with them, so why install all those expensive (and heavy) seat back video screens?

United Airlines is taking the next logical step with this. Starting next month you’ll be able to stream a wide variety of TV shows and movies to your tablet or laptop, all for free.

The United solution is a terrific option for consumers and it got me thinking about the opportunity for publishers. Why not turn all those airplanes, and the millions of travelers they hold captive, into an enormous unlimited content sampling service?

Which airline will be the first to take United’s TV/movie model and extend it into books, newspapers and magazines? 

What if those onboard servers United plans to use for video also had all of today’s newspapers, the latest editions of magazines and maybe a million or so ebooks? I’m not talking about samples, btw; I mean the entire ebook, newspaper and magazine. This content would be streamed to the traveler’s tablet or laptop, just like the video, so it would only be accessible in the air.

Why would publishers agree to this? Two words: discoverability and sponsorships.

Ever see an interesting magazine cover in an airport newsstand but you can’t justify buying or lugging it around in your bag? That same magazine suddenly becomes more appealing when it’s freely available as an e-zine on your flight.

Curious to know what’s front-page news in cities like LA or Chicago? Good luck finding those papers in the San Francisco airport. Getting access to The LA Times or Chicago Tribune e-editions while you’re inflight almost makes you want to board that plane sooner. Almost.

What about that book you’ve considered buying but you’re not sure you’ll like it? The sample on Amazon turned was too short to help you figure out whether it’s worth buying. Now you’ve got 4 hours on a flight from Denver to Newark to dig a bit deeper, all without spending a penny on it.

Each of these scenarios represents an opportunity for a publisher to get their content in front of consumers who are interested in reading it. Now that you’ve got them engaging with your content offer them a subscription plan they can’t resist. If they only get 4 chapters into the 36-chapter book, they’ll either buy it now or realize they didn’t like it after all. Either way, the author and book publisher have gone further with that prospective reader than they could have without this service.

Then there’s the sponsorship opportunity. The airline could have a new sponsor every month to help fund this initiative. The messaging could be something like, “This flight’s free newsstand and bookshelf are brought to you by Samsung, the leaders in consumer electronics.” It’s another way for sponsors to get their message out and make a great impression on consumers. Some of that sponsorship income would be passed along to participating publishers.

You could take this a step further and use the service as an opt-in mechanism for newsletters or prospective customer acquisition. I know the privacy advocates hate this, but plenty of consumers are more than willing to share their name and email address in exchange for discounts and free access to valuable products and services.

When most of us board a plane we often have our time planned out. You need to read a report, catch up on a few emails, or maybe sit back and flip through a newspaper or watch a video. Sometimes it’s nice to discover something new though. A free service like what I’ve described here would be embraced by a lot of travelers and would also likely lead to more content discovery and subsequent purchases.

In-Cabin Flight Ads -- What's the Big Deal?

Nascar This morning's paper featured yet another short article about the coming onslaught of ads in planes and how we'll all be worse off as a result.  Really?  That's a significant problem?  Why?

Sure, we're already bombarded with ads and there seems to be no safe haven so it's easy to pile on and say more advertising is a bad thing...till you consider the benefits.  Think about all the services and entertainment you enjoy every day because of advertising.  I sometimes wish my favorite TV shows were commercial-free but, then again, I can't see paying a fee to watch each of them.

So what if the inside of a plane is about to look more like a NASCAR fender?  I'm either reading something or taking a nap, not staring at the seat back in front of me.  I'm sure I'll notice the ads but it's not like they'll make my trip any less pleasant.  More importantly, if they help reduce the cost of my next ticket, bring it on.  I'd gladly sit in the middle of a bunch of rotating billboards in seat 16C if it means I don't have to pay $15 to check a bag!  (Hey, maybe they ought to sell sponsorship deals like the major sporting arenas do: "This free bag check is brought to you by Microsoft; think kindly of us the next time your PC crashes!")

The airlines should proceed with this plan immediately if they feel it will create a new revenue stream.  I seriously doubt many (any?) travelers will start choosing their airlines based on number of in-cabin ads.  Honestly, can you imagine anyone saying, "well, I know so-and-so has the best fare but I'm tired of all those ads"?  Besides, if one or two start an aggressive campaign the rest will follow suit, and rightfully so.

Northwest Airlines Latest Scam

Nwa We all know first class seats cost more than economy.  Then there's "economy plus", which sometimes features more legroom than regular economy.  It too is typically more expensive than the standard seat.  I'm usually comfortable enough with a standard economy seat on most domestic flights so I'm not one to upgrade.

While checking in on a recent Northwest Airlines flight I was surprised to see they're offering yet another level of upgrade.  Despite my stated preference for an aisle seat I somehow got booked into a center one on a 4-hour flight.  It's one thing if none are available, but as I checked in I saw loads of open aisle seats on this particular flight and all of them were marked with "$25 Upgrade" icons.  That's right.  The seat just to the left of my center seat is available for an additional $25 fee.  I wondered why this was the one leg of my journey where I couldn't make a seat selection during the website reservation process.  Now I know why.

If the airlines want to charge me for an aisle seat they really ought to do it during the booking process, not after I've already committed to the flight.  Had I noticed it was going to cost me more for this flight I might have chosen one from another carrier.  If they're not hitting us with silly baggage fees they're nailing us with this stuff.  What a ripoff.