Thursday, March 12, 2009

Closing the Online Revenue Gap: Attributor Powers Automated Monetization Solutions for Distributed Content

A fundamental problem that the publishing industry faces in getting revenues from online content is that most of the value that can be created from their content lies beyond their own Web sites and portals. With billions of Web publications vying to get people's attention and a relative handful of professionally produced publications to compete for that attention it's no small wonder many media executives are humming the now-familiar "content in context" meme as they ponder how to make use of the Web's ocean of content to promote their own wares. The sad truth, though, is that most publishers are ill-equipped to get any money from their content beyond their own online publications. Most media organizations have tiny content licensing business development teams that typically trudge through protracted deals with a handful of publishing partners, leaving the lion's share of potential revenues from partners on the table.

Attributor Corporation has been hot on the trail of how to close the gap between potential revenues from content used across the Web and and the ability to extract those revenues. The Attributor system works by listening to feeds of content from participating publishers. Attributor captures what they've published and then compares it to content that's been published on the Web. When Attributor finds content that's a full or partial match it compiles content usage reports for clients who can then can use automated tools from Attributor or their own methods to pursue the reuse of their content from a business and legal perspective.

How big is the opportunity for monetizing reused content? Recently Attributor shared with me some research based on content from prominent publishers' Web sites fed into its system along with Compete.com usage data that surfaced some profound statistics. The key thought-provoker emerging from this research is that the audience for people viewing content on sites that were not active syndication or licensing partners was more than five times larger than the audience on the publishers' own sites. Almost half of these largely "passive syndicators" were copying 90 percent or more of the content from publishers' articles and more than 70 percent of the copied articles were using at least half of the available content from articles. Before the publishers reading this post slip on their hair shirts and moan in protest, please consider this first: what publisher wouldn't want to have a 5X increase in potentially monetizable content inventory with no additional overhead?

The research also indicated that two-thirds of the sites using content from these leading publishers were providing links back to the publisher's sites, indicating that they were at least nominally cooperative in building traffic to their sites. Armed with data from Attributor, publishers can pursue on a more highly automated basis Web sites that use their content and turn passive syndicators into active publishing partners - and in the process of doing so shift the balance of traffic back into sites that will feed revenues to the publisher. Attributor projects that using their technologies could help to reduce non-cooperative passive syndicators significantly, potentially doubling traffic captured at publishers' own sites and nearly tripling the traffic visiting cooperative syndication partners. No doubt it would also help content reusers pressing the boundaries of fair use policy to understand what individual publishers considered to be fair use more quickly and effectively.

Attributor sees its data gathering and analysis tools as a key to unlocking significant new online revenues for publishers. It sees at least two basic options that publishers using its data can undertake to establish revenue streams rapidly. Option one: Attributor helps publishers reclaim their fair share of ad revenues from ads served up by existing ad networks on sites using their content. This could in theory help for managing both active and passive syndication partners. Option two: enable Attributor to funnel ads from existing networks and publishers' own direct ad sales to syndication partners. Obviously there are other steps that publishers could take based on Attributor data, but either of these options suggested by Attributor help both to reclaim ad revenues for legitimate publishers and syndicators efficiently and to reduce the revenues fed out by ad networks to non-legitimate syndicators.

To make it easier for publishers large and small to get an idea of the potential for Attributor to help them monetize content they have launched FairShare, a no-fee service that enables people to get data on sites using their content from Attributor analytics provided in an RSS feed. FairShare will pump out stats on individual articles and how they've been reused on specific Web sites, including data on what percentage of an article has been used, whether the reuser is using ads on the page on which it appears and whethe there are linkbacks to their original content. As an option FairShare makes it easier for people using Creative Commons licensing to map their license terms to the patterns of use found in Attributor's Web site analysis. Although launched just a few days ago FairShare is already tracking more than 150,000 articles and has found more than 3.3 million shared copies of content. As seen in the example to the right, FairShare is finding sites that use just fair use snippets of ContentBlogger's content as well as sites that seem to take more than their fair share. If ContentBlogger were ad-supported and Attributor were funneling this data to the ad networks that support content clippers I could be seeing some automatic revenues from these sites. A nice thought in a slow ad economy, no?

Attributor technology has been launched recently as an underpinning for FreeWheel, a service that enables videos from YouTube and other outlets that are embedded on other Web sites to be served up with the ads that benefit the original video publisher the most. FreeWheel calls this concept "Monetization Rights Management," as opposed to the Digital Rights Management packaging that tries to keep others from distributing content themselves. FreeWheel notes - quite rightly, I believe - that legitimate viral distribution of content needs to be encouraged so that content can find its most valuable contexts. Once content is in a valuable context it can be monetized with ads and other marketing mechanisms that benefit both the creator of the content and the publisher that found a valuable context for their content.

As major publishers mull over the capabilities of Attributor technologies, hopefully they begin to see that it offers a key solution to the dilemmas of how to make money on content in an era in which controlling distribution is not only less feasible but also less desirable. To borrow from the language of my book Content Nation, the world is now a nation of publishers, a nation whose value cannot be ignored by traditional publishers as a source of monetizable contexts. Since most non-subscription Web content relies on search engines to maximize their ad revenues, Attributor's search-based technologies can enable publishers to understand who's using their content with the same tools that those publishers use to drive monetizable traffic to their sites. Using Attributor data and tools can enable a highly automated and efficient approach to revenue generation from viral distribution that would eliminate friction with those outlets that use a publisher's content fairly and that can allow publishers to keep on top of "bad apples" on a daily basis.

As major publishers such as The New York Times and The Guardian begin to set their content loose via sophisticated programming interfaces the Attributor concepts of using searching and content identification to establish commercial relationships automatically with publishers using their content can open up an era in which reused content is creating higher value and revenues rapidly for publishers with lower audience acquisition costs. With revenue acquistion schemes such as Attributor in place publishers can concentrate more on making their content as useful and as accurate as possible - and leave the inventiveness of where it's going to be most useful to the world at large.

Certainly publishers will continue to compete to make their own publications a destination of choice, but with only thousands of traditional publishers and billions of self-empowered Web and mobile publishers the time has come to use technology to harvest the value of content in as many publishing contexts as posssible as efficiently as possible. Most especially in the news industry, where getting people's attention in fleeting moments is increasingly difficult, the ability to harvest revenues from content reuse and linking more automatically is an absolute necessity.

This need to chase the contexts of content use in order to make money in online media does not mean that copyright is a dead concept. Far from it: copyright ensures that the creators of original works of authorship have the ability to claim ownership of the intellectual property that is rightfully theirs, especially when it is used in contexts where its use is harder to verify, such as in enterprises and in private communications such as emails, photocopying and reprints. But it's important to remember that the concepts of copyright were introduced into law when publishing was still a relatively fledgling industry, with few commercial outlets available and with the need to support getting information and ideas out to the public via a still-young technology a crying necessity. The "printing press" of today is not any particular Web site or service but the Web as a whole: every person has the potential to play a role in the mechanism of publishing. As such, copy rights, while still relevant, have become less important than context rights - the ability to say how participants in a global peer publishing and aggregation process should recognize the value of a creative work. Nearly three years ago I introduced this concept at a presentation at BookExpo in Washington, DC, using the above square logo as a symbol for context rights.

Today in the work of Attributor we see the beginnings of the effective monetization of context rights taking form. I am hopeful that publishers will finally begin to see the outlines of how to use technologies such as Attributor to forge more effective relationships with the global publishing mechanism of Content Nation to benefit the creative forces behind their content and to create new ways to define the value of their brands. It's a far different methodology than most publishers are used to, but in a world in which the fundamental nature of publishing has changed far more radically than most traditional publishers have dared to acknowledge, it is time for publishers to embrace context rights and to define their value propositions more effectively in a world whose very survival may depend upon the power of ubiquitous publishing to solve problems facing humanity rapidly.

(Full disclosure statement: I really have nothing to disclose, I have had no past or present commercial relationship with Attributor. I just believe that they are pursuing one of the most effective routes to content monetization available today and I hope that publishers pay close attention to their efforts.)
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