Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Beyond Free: Chris Anderson and His Hopes for the "Third Great Platform"

When ContentBlogger last encountered Wired Magazine's Editor in Chief Chris Anderson, he was pitching his then-new book "Free," which chronicled how the economics of Web connectivity were driving both publishers and the global economy as a whole towards new models for delivering products and services. Anderson has made quite a bundle from selling and talking about the book, a delicious bit of irony that underscores how perceptions are the key to arguing for premium price points. It shouldn't come as a surprise, then, that Anderson was talking up the place of premium content at the recent MarkLogic User Conference in San Francisco. Chris focused in his talk on how electronic editorial tools are being used to create electronic content for Wired Magazine on Apple's iPad. The new electronic "app" edition of Wired Magazine will be available via a "freemium" model, through which he expects that some portion of users will be convinced that the full-fare version will be worth a subscription or "newsstand" purchase.

Anderson referred to the iPad and its presumed touchpad competitors as the "third great platform," one which will offer the publishing industry an opportunity to "fix" the mistakes it made along the way with Web-based content. In the new Wired iPad edition, you'll find yourself in an environment that looks in many ways like a print magazine, but also in an environment that will allow for interactivity and content such as video. The idea, Chris underscored, is to drive up the amount of time that people spend with their content. Testing with simple iPhone apps used for Conde Nast's GQ magazine indicates that typical readers are using these apps for 50 minutes at a time, so he may be on to something. Towards the end of the talk in the Q&A session Anderson noted, "If we're seeing 40 minutes of use in a year from now, then we'll have been successful."

For some portion of his tech-oriented audience, Chris may very well be right. People like immersive online experiences, as shown in the success of Web and app-based game-playing services, so making an online magazine more like a touch-sensitive content arcade might appeal to some people. Anderson pointed out that before the Web became popular CD-ROM-based multimedia products were fairly successful in accomplishing this type of game-like engagement. After all, electronic games are typically a form of story-telling also. If Anderson can manage to convert a journalism school-bred editorial staff into that kind of story-telling machine, then there may be a success story for magazines in his strategy.

Realistically, though, it's a strategy that relies on a lot of long shots, the longest being that native Web-based content cannot duplicate these kinds of experiences in a way that would undercut the pricing that magazine publishers seek via app-based packaging. What traditional publishers are banking on is that they can create immersive experiences that can be more engaging than those that the Web itself produces. Yes, a reader may spend only four minutes on your Web site, but they create their own immersion by following links as they please and creating content as they please. In essence, the Web enables people to create their own editorial narratives based on curated links, be they curated by professional editors or via social media outlets. From this perspective you might say that the Web as a whole is the biggest game on earth. That's tough for any single publisher to take on.

As Chris pointed out in his talk, radio as a commercial medium was born as a way to engage people long enough to justify sponsors with huge advertising budgets to reach mass audiences. It worked because the medium itself was essentially free to that audience. But commercial radio is, of course, a broadcast medium, a one-way channel that edged out competition with amateurs on nearby frequencies. This was, in a sense, one of the first attempts at "walled garden" marketing for electronic content. There is, after all, no technical reason that amateur communications couldn't operate on the same radio frequencies as commercial communications. The "immersive container" approach to online content that Anderson is advocating faces this very challenge via the Web. The publishing industry is in essence trying to engineer a "commercial band of frequencies" for mobile content. To do this now would be the equivalent of trying to put in one-way radio receivers in everyone's home after people had been using highly convenient and advanced two-way radios for more than fifteen years. It's doable, but it's a reach.

I think that these efforts at contained immersive experiences for news-oriented content are largely wasted. As I mentioned to Anderson in a comment after his presentation, prose is not a game. Thinking back to the 1990s era of CD-ROM multimedia that he referenced, there were only a handful of these experiences that were really immersive; most were just a repackaging of pre-existing text and graphics with a bit of glitz around it. CD-ROMs died not because of the Web but because they simply couldn't continue to entertain us with small sets of static content. If organizations like Wired can tell immersive stories using the full breadth of content available to people on the Web, then they may have a chance to keep us in the theatre. If not, then, well, Chris knows as well as anyone else the fate of the "hits" economy. Superstar mass media journalists are unlikely to survive this trend, game-like packaging or not. They're simply no match for dancing cats and highly niched content.

In a sense this brings journalism back to its roots in Rome, when wealthy Romans had their servants write up accounts of what was happening down in the Forum that they could read at their leisure in their hilltop villas. It's a model that works for a handful of people with notable wealth, but it's not likely a model that will fill the pages of online magazines with ads for mass market goods. The rest of us are already having very engaging direct conversations online with many of the very marketing organizations that Anderson hopes to attract into his online magazines. Will his new electronic Wired be able to sustain enough engagement with readers that goes beyond today's Web to attract mass marketers that are learning already how to have their own massive Web conversations? For some, perhaps. Perhaps there will even be enough to build a nice magazine business model for mobile platforms. But my guess is that it will not happen at the price points that publishers are hoping for or for the size of audiences that they're hoping for. Good luck, Chris; let's compare notes a year from now.
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