Thursday, May 28, 2009

June 24 SIIA Panel - Google, Kindle, iPhone: How to Leverage Hot Content Delivery Platforms for Profits

I've had the privilege to have moderated many great SIIA panels over the years, but the 24 June Brown Bag Lunch mid-day event at the McGraw Hill building in New York City (online video available) certainly ranks among the most important topics that I've had the opportunity to moderate with some excellent panelists who will stimulate your thinking on how best to monetize content on today's hot distribution platforms. Please register soon, the last Brown Bag Lunch event was a sellout both in-person and online. If you have suggestions for questions that the panel should address, please add them as comments to this post. A panel summary and a list of our truly distinguished panelists follows. See you there!

Google, Kindle, iPhone: How to Leverage Hot Content Delivery Platforms for Profits

Today's publishers are finding both great opportunities and great challenges in using leading-edge technology platforms to deliver revenues for their premium content sources. iPhones, Kindle e-book readers and Google Books and search services are being adopted by both consumers and enterprises to access premium content at a pace that challenges publishers to come up with effective pricing and marketing strategies. Key questions that arise include:

• What are going to be the most successful business models on these platforms for news and information, books and magazines - and what are the up-and-coming platforms that will challenge publishers to keep those business models working?
• In locking down deals and settlements for content distribution on these platforms, who are the winners and losers?
• How does the availability of premium content on these platforms change how publishers manage the value of their brands?
• What will be the emerging role of the open Web in an environment that is seeing more proprietary content distribution technologies emerging?

A panel of leaders from the worlds of media, enterprise and academic publishing and intellectual property management will explore how news, books and other intellectual property from publishers can best take advantage of emerging technologies to generate revenues from premium content in mobile and online markets and on the open Web - and how these platforms are likely to affect how content creators view the role of publishers in delivering them value for their efforts.

Alisa Bowen, Senior Vice President, Head of Consumer Publishing, Thomson Reuters
Gordon Crovitz, Co-Founder, Journalism Online
Chris Kenneally, Director of Author Relations, Copyright Clearance Center
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Friday, May 22, 2009

Expanding the Shore Team: Welcome John Buckman, Marketing Communications Expert

You may have noticed that Shore is beginning to build up its team of content industry experts, expanding our ability to help companies targeting media and enterprise content markets. Our mission is to help organizations to know their markets for content and technology products and services through industry research and intelligence, to focus their marketing strategies with ground-breaking market insights and to implement those strategies with highly effective marketing communications. Over the next few weeks I will be highlighting new members of the Shore team who are helping our clients to meet their marketing objectives more effectively than ever before. First up is a person who may be well known already to many of you: John Buckman, who is helping Shore to expand our ability to support your marketing and communications needs.

With John's in-depth industry experience and his global network of information industry contacts, he is a perfect complement for our decade-long mission of helping our clients to succeed. John expertise adds marketing communications muscle to Shore's team has he helps our clients to spearhead marketing communications, that enable them to reach and to motivate stakeholders in their markets with clarity and impact.

John Buckman is an information industry veteran who has worked as an independent consultant for many years to support leading information industry companies. His information industry career began with DataTimes, a pioneering aggregator of newspaper content. For more than a decade John managed DataTimes’ marketing program, helping the growing company to project a large image in the marketplace. He also was instrumental in introducing DataTimes to Australian, Asian and European markets.

Later, John was retained by Information Access Company (IAC)., where he managed all the external and internal communications for the three-way merger of IAC, Gale Research and the U.K.’s Primary Source Media. As a consultant with Gale Group, the resulting company, John developed an e-customer communications program that Gale continues to this day. For Dialog, John had responsibility for worldwide media relations, a post that enabled him to extend and nurture his broad network of media and analyst contacts around the globe. He also helped Australia’s Ibisworld bring its business research services to the U.S.

With a predecessor of the Software and Information Industry Association, John produced a series of special features published in FORTUNE magazine about the information industry. Earlier in his career, John was a journalist, working for Time Magazine and living in Johannesburg while reporting for South Africa’s The Financial Mail. He also wrote a column about technology for the London-based Investor Relations magazine. John was educated at The George Washington University and the London School of Economics and Political Science.

I think that you'll agree with me that John offers an impressive range of talents proven through a long and proven track record of accomplishments that will be useful in helping you to improve your marketing communications efforts. Feel free to contact John and to welcome him aboard!

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Reference Publishing Meets Digital Objects: Wolfram|Alpha, Google and Yahoo Pursue On-The-Fly Curated Content

While the tsunami of buzz surrounding the Wolfram|Alpha reference service (by their own claim not a search engine) seems to indicate a desire for novelty at least as much as interest in its actual merits, the service is one of a few major announcements this week which indicate a shifting attitude towards online publishing that is catching up with the realities of today's publishing technologies. Wolfram|Alpha offers a simple "white box" query interface with semantic parsing of requests that access a fairly limited, curated set of reference data feeding through display functions such as tables, charts and graphs. The W|A team is careful to note that these images and data displays are not search results but useful publications unto themselves - hence a bit of static about their terms and conditions, which emphasize that query results are W|A's intellectual property.

Wolfram Alpha is an interesting reference tool for people wanting to chart and graph contrasting points of data, but it's hardly alone in the movement towards more robust on-demand content. Recently Google announced at its Searchology event a range of enhancements to its emerging Universal Search capabilities, including search options that enable one to embed relationship trees, videos, reviews and other displays that relate to a query - in addition to already embedded rich content such as maps. For example, the image to the right shows a relationship tree for people relevant to Apple CEO Steve Jobs as well as relevant video clips. Included on this menu of options is a feature called "rich snippets," which enables publishers to encode content that's related to a particular item from their Web sites that appears in a search result using a microformat specification provided by Google. Examples of this feature in use are fairly thin so far, but it holds out the promise for a wide range of content sources to be placed in context with content returned from Google searches. Google's open approach to helping publishers to develop search-embedded display applications for their content returned from queries, as opposed to Wolfram|Alpha's "it's our content" approach, is far more likely to accelerate the development of rich content applications cued by queries into a wider array of databases.

The team at Yahoo has been looking at this emerging landscape for enriched queries and is trying to steer somewhat of a middle course between the Wolfram|Alpha approach of tight curation of sources and applications and the content available on the open Web. As noted in SearchEngineLand recently. Yahoo is ceding the "all the world's information" indexing battle to Google and is instead focusing on doing a better job of curating specific types of Web sources more effectively and serving them up through a variety of display objects. Yahoo's Search Monkey display capabilities, similar to the "rich snippets" microformats announced by Google at Searchology, already help to power rich content in Yahoo search results, and will be folded into broader use of digital objects that get served up via Yahoo queries.

This is all a way of saying that search was never really about "just search" to begin with. Search results are and always have been content in and of themselves, a collection of content sources that are arranged to enable people to determine what's the most relevant information on a given topic. In other words, search is an editorial function, albeit one that's highly automated, but it performs much the same function as an editor working on a news article or an encyclopedia entry - except that it is done on an on-demand basis. We've seen many efforts through recent years to enrich search results with more robust graphics and related content, making a given search result more like a reference compendium rather than just a listing of links. But what we seem to be moving towards at a faster pace as of late is the realization that the digital objects served up by search engines are increasingly likely to be the objects where people get their answers and insights in full, rather than trudging off to various links to get more in-detail answers.

Now, this is usually where some of my good friends in publishing start to howl about the evils of search engines, but realistically this kind of aggregation is happening whether publishers want it to happen or not. The only question is how they want their own content to participate in this automated just-in-time editorial environment. I believe that the most constructive answer for publishers is to embrace the increasingly object-oriented environment of search warmly and to recognize that there are opportunities abounding in getting more of the right content in front of the right audience at the right time through enhanced search services. For example, instead of having to compel someone to click on a link to read a news story on your own Web site, you could have either a lede paragraph or an entire article come up in the search results page. That article could have your own embedded ads, or links to a subscription or micropayment monitoring service that would enable the publisher to expose premium content in a search context.

However it's done, query results on a search engine represent the point of highest demand for much of today's content. Getting the right content into those results with the right monetization scheme gives a publisher a potential jump on the competition that hopes that someone will click on their link into their Web site. Destination Web sites serve an important purpose, but in the world of distributed online content aggregation, but relying on them solely is a little bit like saying that one should only buy newspapers at a publisher's printing plant. Search engines and other content technologies that allow on-demand contextualization of content for an audience are the newsstands of today, leaving publishers with but one choice: do you want to hide your content behind the counter or do you want it where people can see it? The serving up of rich content through digital objects asks the question more loudly and with more and better answers to the "how" of meeting this challenge, but it's the same challenge that's been with us for many years.

The most important innovation that publishers can embrace over the next several years are the technologies that enable them to have cross-platform digital objects that are easily monetized and licensed for monetization through a broad array of partners adept at on-demand contextualization of content. While the Wolfram|Alpha platform offers an interesting view of how a limited range of sources could be curated into a useful reference service, ultimately it's a model that is far too limiting to allow most publishers to succeed. A handful of content-serving graphs and charts is useful for only a few types of information sources. Publishers need a robust array of content-serving objects, ones that enhance their own content and that allow it to trigger the integration of other content sources more easily for enhanced value.

Search engines and social media tools have empowered a new generation of editors and curators who have the power to put a publisher's content in its most valuable context more quickly and more effectively than traditional distribution media. Hopefully the efforts by Wolfram|Alpha, Google and Yahoo begin to make publishers think more actively how their content can be served up more automatically in more contexts through their object-oriented publishing technologies.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

The Great(er) White Hope of Publishing: Kindle DX Enables Locked-Down Content to Live On. For Now.

The landscape of Europe is dotted with the ruins of hundreds of castles and city walls dating from the Medieval era of feudal rule, when local kings, dukes and other land-owners defended their claims to farms and forests through their ability to repel invaders from behind their castles' walls. Castle defenses worked reasonably well for several centuries, but eventually the use of castles as power bases became obsolete. Was it improved war technology that made castles charming antiquities? To some degree, perhaps, but the larger force that made castles irrelevant was the rise of a new way to store and protect wealth: banking. Once the rise of wealthy merchants made the marketplaces of towns and cities the real battlefields for proving out power, castles protecting farmlands became far less important for securing power than having an economic system that could enable efficient trade. Yet those old castles still stand, and, darn, they do look rather nifty even today.

Fast-forward to 2009, as Amazon introduces its Kindle DX, the latest iteration of their wireless ebook reader that offers a larger screen with eInk technology. Just as those kings and dukes were thrilled to build ever-larger battlements against their enemies, publishers are flocking to the Kindle as the wonder machine of choice, now with a screen size that lends itself to larger materials such as magazines and newspaper articles. With a USD489 price tag, the Kindle DX is hardly an economy model digital device; in fact, many new netbooks with similar screen sizes go for hundreds less and offer color displays with Web and PC functionality. But as the copy from the Amazon catalog page reminds us, this new Kindle is slim, "Just over 1/3 of an inch, as thin as most magazines." Why even compare a Kindle to a netbook when it offers such obvious advantages and comforts to print readers? And if the price is a little to steep for some people, a few of them may be able to rejoice (a little): some major newspapers such as The Washington Post, The New York Times and The Boston Globeare offering a discount off of a USD400-plus annual subscription to their papers via the new Kindle - if you live beyond the delivery range of their paper editions. This new-fangled technology does allow some miraculous breakthroughs, doesn't it?

It's not as if the Kindle does not have its own unique virtues - or its own promising revenue streams. Sales of smaller Kindle units have been brisk, and the affluent older people buying them online are also fueling skyrocketing ebook sales. Silicon Alley Insider notes that Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos brought a stunning statistic to light during the Kindle DX intro show: when Kindle-formatted books are available on Amazon, about 35 percent of those books' sales are now through Kindle editions. There was no breakout as to how many buy a print edition as well, but the chart behind Bezos at the intro showed this percentage hockey-sticking from only 14 percent in February of this year. Based on my own experience with getting my Content Nation book into a Kindle edition, much of this growth is actually publisher-driven: titles are being pushed into Kindle format as quickly as Amazon can handle the conversions and postings. In a year in which print book sales are sluggish, the reduced price of Kindle-edition books offers publishers a discount-bin pricing strategy with zero inventory or print-on-demand cost exposure.

In other words, in a year in which the slowly-moving denizens of print are trying to salvage some semblance of sensible quarterly earnings, the ability to charge a premium for access to content on electronic platforms - or any platform, for that matter - has to be a strong plus. Yet in doing so many of these publishers continue to invest minimally in developing a more competitive stance in the more competitive markets of online publishing that are able to reach younger and broader audiences far more effectively than Kindles. Kindle is attractive to newspapers and magazines as a platform that can be used to appeal to older and more affluent audiences who are the targets of their advertisers, a fact that fuels hopes that a larger Kindle will enable them to sell display ads at good rates for this elite group. Yet where will tomorrow's older and more affluent audiences be congregating? Kindle, we hardly knew ye.

Kindle is an important content delivery platform that has enabled the book industry to begin its slow transition to the online era and that has offered a shelter for premium content sales in the face of an online content industry that largely baffles most publishers. Yet for the most part it is a transitional proprietary platform, much as Prodigy, Compuserve and America Online were proprietary transitional services for premium online content prior to the emergence of the Web as a dominant content delivery network. Publishers are welcome to continue to build short-term profits on Kindle as part of their transition away from the printed versions of their content, but the rush to Kindle at this very late stage in the online game is ultimately yet another indication that many publishers are ill-prepared to compete in the Web world of highly distributed content production and aggregation.

If there were a commitment by publishers to use some significant portion of their revenues from Kindle sales to invest in making a more effective transition to Web revenues, then perhaps there would be reason to think that Kindle will represent an effective transitional strategy. But with a soft economy making profits in publishing more elusive, it's more likely to turn into a strategy that yet again kicks key decisions about Web strategies down the road. In the meantime billions of people around the world are going to be equipped with very affordable netbooks over the next few years - many of them being about as slim as a magazine, no doubt.

My book royalty checks say "Thank you" to Kindle for the time being, but underinvestment in advanced Web strategies is making publishing via traditionally print-oriented publishers an increasingly unattractive option for authors trying to reach both mass audiences and affluent audiences. The skyscrapers that house major media companies will stand for many years, no doubt, just as Europe's feudal castles still stand today. But unless those companies start to gear themselves for the reality of a market-driven content economy, instead of a property-driven content economy, we may see those glass buildings as tourist attractions displaying the hubris of a bygone era sooner than one may imagine.
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Monday, May 4, 2009

Brill, Crovitz & Hindery Launch "Journalism Online": About Time or Out of Time?

When Gordon Crovitz left Dow Jones several months ago, I knew that his experiences in helping to build the most successful premium online news brand would be likely to result in good things somewhere. Gordon’s insights into the value of traditional journalism and his online savvy are an unusual combination in the world of today’s content industry. So it was with some interest that I have been learning about Journalism Online, a new initiative captained by Crovitz, content industry veteran Steven Brill and former cable industry CEO Leo Hindery. In a detailed press release – more of a mini-business plan, actually – the Journalism Online (JOI) team has outlined a multi-pronged strategy to enable traditional journalism to reap new revenue streams from online sources.

As many of the elements of the JOI plan are in sync with what Shore has been advocating for many years to promote the health of premium content sales (I briefed Crovitz on the concepts of The New Aggregation about five years ago), I would be contradicting myself to say that his team’s plan doesn’t hold water. In fact, much of what Journalism Online advocates is sorely needed in the news industry and will be likely to offer professional journalists a chance to benefit from more sensible online business models in tune with how content is actually distributed and consumed online. However, there are some troubling aspects in both the details and the broad brush of this plan that should be considered carefully by publishers as they weigh its merits.

The first concept in the Journalism Online plan is really a no-brainer and long, long overdue. JOI would set up an online system that would enable anyone to sign up once for access to premium news content across the Web. Payment models via this system would vary, and would include subscriptions for individual premium publications, pay-per-view access and royalty-driven payments in a cross-source subscription model. This would enable any publisher participating in Journalism Online to share in common payment and billing infrastructure that would make a wide variety of premium business models possible. While JOI does not target mobile and television markets explicitly, clearly this is a system whose basic cross-source payment model based on open Web access can be easily extended to other content delivery networks.

So far, so good, most especially on the cross-source royalty model. In essence the Web is a broadcast medium that enables people to tune into multiple streams very easily, so tuning premium content delivery into a payment model more like radio’s royalty payment system for music producers is a strong plus. When specific content becomes very popular online, the spike in views of that content can result in direct revenues to its producers. In theory this helps to resolve the ongoing dilemma of having to expose content to search engines that’s monetized with ads that just don’t seem to take advantage of oftentimes brief spurts of interest in news items to the point of paying the bills for many publishers. If the QPass cross-platform payment system of ten years ago had not flopped by trying to control content distribution via their service we’d have had this type of payment management service in place years ago.

The next leg of Journalism Online’s plan is a little more shaky. JOI has put under its wings two of the most prominent legal talents in the U.S. – former Microsoft anti-trust attorney David Boies and former U.S. Solicitor General Ted Olson – to lead some strong-arm negotiations with search engines and online aggregators to pony up licensing and royalty fees for the right to link to JOI member content. While one has to respect the considerable judicial, political and corporate gravitas of these two legal heavies, I am concerned that their efforts seem to be misplaced. There is now a substantial body of law which makes it clear that indexing a link to a headline is not a crime and falls comfortably into the concept of fair use of copyrighted content. By the logic outlined in Journalism Online's stated focus they should be suing newsstands in cities across the world for exposing the headlines of newspapers to people walking by, or charging millions of dollars for copies of the venerable Periodicals Index on library reference shelves. I believe that this tactic is in large part a sop to news publishers who have been relying thus far on the Associated Press’ failing negotiations with Google and other search engines based on similar issues.

Strong-arm legal tactics for search engine licensing are also largely unnecessary, in large part, if the JOI system works as it ought to. Access policies could be enforced on all participating publisher sites, and terms of bulk access licensing could be managed for search engines and other corporate entities from the same system that services consumers. It’s more likely that the JOI legal team is a stick for the carrot of negotiating some meaningful price points for bulk indexing access – price points that are likely to disappoint many publishers, since the search engines know that news ad revenues would die without search engine links. What’s more promising is having legal and technology infrastructure in place that could facilitate bulk relicensing of content for reuse in new content aggregation schemes such as online mashups and in enterprise software applications.

The most concerning aspect of Journalism Online, though, is the sense that their team harbors a dogged determination to preserve the status quo at traditional news media outlets in the face of more than a decade of change fostered by online access to news. The following quote from Brill seems to set the tone for much of what JOI is trying to accomplish:
“We’re also convinced,” Brill added, “that readers, who have been paying billions of dollars a year for print journalism, will continue to support journalists by paying a modest, fair price for original, independent, professional work distributed online. They realize—as we do—that quality journalism is a vital component of a functioning democracy and free market.”
While I would agree that many people are willing to pay a premium for high-quality products and services, the implication in Brill’s statement is that they are out to support the journalists creating the news in a way that will sustain the traditions of print journalism. Given that many journalists caught up in newspaper cutbacks now have to accept wages that are getting closer to those offered for low-level services jobs while many media executives continue to do rather well by themselves, I think that it’s fair to say that the merits of the print journalism model's ability to support journalists are largely at question. This sales pitch for Journalism Online is not so much about preserving journalists as it is about preserving some portion of the lavish profits once enjoyed by a news publishing industry that no longer has near-exclusive access to publishing technologies. A “modest, fair price” doesn’t sound like the type of monies that will support glitzy skyscrapers that were paid for by those technologies. Promises and realiteis seem to be out of sync in this instance by a broad stretch.

In sum the Journalism Online initiative holds out a great deal of promise for the news media to revise its thinking on how to acquire revenues more realistically in an online environment, albeit with some sentimental froth around the edges of that promise for those not quite ready to accept the true value of news in today’s online publishing environment. In a world that has empowered over 1.6 billion people as publishers, it’s no longer realistic to think that only a handful of people who carry the official title of “journalist” are defining the supply of quality information and insights in the world. The key factor that Journalism Online really doesn’t address at all is that the news industry is surrounded by valuable sources of information that leave them struggling to define a fundamental value proposition, regardless of how it may be financed. News organizations are also surrounded by technology platforms that make it possible for consumers and enterprises to aggregate, filter and analyze news far more efficiently than via their own publishing platforms. The “let’s tame Google” approach to trying to control content linking and access belies the reality that the contexts in which news is most valuable are increasingly far away from publishers’ own Web sites. There's some tacit acknowledgment of this concept in the JOI positioning, but only time will tell if they can emphasize licensing of content for reuse efficiently enough to make a real difference for news producers who must compete with and complement new sources of engaging news and information.

The search for subscription and royalty payments fostered by Journalism Online also tends to gloss over the ad-driven culture of most of today’s news organizations that restricts fairly radically what topics and personalities gain their attention in their search for an increasingly limited “truth.” If JOI could help fund a broader approach to journalism that gave coverage to less ad-worthy topics, then truly it would be living up to its ideals. It’s far from clear, though, that the news organizations that Journalism Online intends to support are likely to maximize the funding of such “news for the sake of news” journalism any time soon, though. But as an alternative to AP’s trenchant response to online publishing, it at least offers some hope for the news industry as a whole as a means to overcome some of the challenges posed to it by online content distribution capabilities.

The concepts behind Journalism Online may yet succeed in helping the news industry to secure more revenues from online publishing, but it is already a far different industry than the one that used to be dominated by the organizations which JOI is approaching to use their services, an industry which needs to support independent journalism far more effectively and which benefits from content being aggregated in any number of venues. In the meantime, technology and services providers such as Sonoa Systems and Zuora offer their own broad approaches to content distribution and monetization that offer a broad array of publishers their own alternatives to the ads-only monetization game. It’s about time that industry veterans like Brill, Crovitz and Hindery got up the gumption to try an initiative like Journalism Online to shake the news industry out of its doldrums. Hopefully they will not run out of time to convert existing news organizations to the use of their proposed sevices before their potential revenue streams have drifted towards newer sources of journalism for good.

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