Sunday, October 31, 2010

Smarter, Richer, Better Content: Wrapping up Two Weeks of Content Conferences

It's been one of those intense stretches of back-to-back industry events when my mind was beginning to go into permanent live-blogging mode. From Smart Content 2010, to the Really Strategies RSuite Users Conference, to the Connecticut Digital Media Conference, to a great Fairfield County TEEM event,  to the Mark Logic Digital Publishing Summit and wrapping up with the Infosys Leadership Summit. Phew. I live-blogged these events on Google Buzz, so you'll find links to those detailed notes and photos of panels here, along with some of my summary take-aways from each of these great events.

An overarching theme that came out from these events is that organizing content using analytics and semantic organization is not producing huge breakthroughs this year but it is enabling important incremental progress in generating revenue in media and enterprise markets. Increasingly, it's the metadata and value-add information generated by people using content and for people seeking it that's generating the most value in electronic publishing today. This raises a key question: when do we arrive at a point when the value of metadata, taxonomies and other content assets exceeds the value of the intellectual property that many publishers consider to be their crown jewels? Hint: while many publishers are wondering about the answer, many search engines, collaborative publishing platforms and analytics tools suppliers aren't waiting for them to come with it. Now, on to the links-a-thon!

Smart Content 2010: Case Studies and Tools for Better Search, Sites and Ecommerce

Seth Grimes managed to pack in an enormous amount of content into this day-long event, which had a lot of great case studies from media and enterprise markets around the world demonstrating how semantic analysis tools and content organization technologies were improving information products and services. One of the key points emphasized in this event was how the ability to analyze content and user interests was enabling more accurate, more rich and more engaging content on Web sites and in mobile apps more automatically. The art may be progressing incrementally, but this was an impressive collection of practicioners with great stories to tell. I also delivered a short introductory talk on "A Brief History of Content" that framed the importance of Smart Content in light of people's expectations to have more intuitive media and information services. Live-blogs:
RSuite Users Conference: Best Practices in CMS and A Peek Into Google Editions

I caught the tail end of this event in Philadelphia on my way back from an SIIA Content Division board meeting in Washington, DC. What I heard briefly is how publishers are making progress with RSuite's ability to accelerate publishers' efforts to build more rich content with better tagging and on-the-fly content organization. But the "easter egg" was Google Edition's Andrew Littell giving the conference a preview of its "soon" to be released new online book ecommerce service. Andrew was typically tight-lipped about most details, but some interesting tidbits about the program slipped out nevertheless. Apparently a good portion of the delay has been due to Google fine-tuning the user apps, ecommerce and partner relationships to ensure a very rewarding experience for readers. I suspect that some of the delay is also due to trying to get PayPal nailed down as an ecommerce partner. Very good networking. Live-blogs:
Connecticut Social and Digital Media Business Conference/Fairco TEEM

This conference in Stamford, Connecticut drew a very interesting group of leading media and technology investors as well as some very interesting technology companies, who together demonstrated that the content industry's star is beginning to rise in the Nutmeg State. The state government is getting more serious about making funds and incentives available for innovative media and technology startups, and both private and corporate investors are beginning to loosen up their purse strings to stimulate innovations also. Angel investors are leading the way in the NYC/CT area, with initial investments in smaller increments than in years past but beginning to be spread around more liberally. While Manhattan may not see too many of these smaller bets, the boroughs of New York City and nearby Fairfield County in Connecticut are key beneficiaries. The TEEM event featured a very interesting demo of Kantar Video's new Videolytics  cross-platform video analytics beta, which I will blog about in more detail later. Live-blogs:

This year's edition of the MLDPS drew a great crowd to hear presentations focused mostly on legal, scholarly, medical and sci-tech publishers using Mark Logic tools to prepare their content for multi-platform digital transformation, but also a great keynote by Wired Magazine's Chris Anderson on the future of media in the tablet age (AKA The Second Web). Chris laid out some very interesting price points for potential premium content packaging on tablet applications, emphasizing how tablet computing is keeping people engage for 40 minutes or more at a stretch. Perhaps so, but for whose content? My experience with Google TV leans me towards people wanting agnostically aggregated streams of content that will engage them  for eight to ten minutes at a time. More on this in a future post. Live-blogs:

This was an intimate meeting that had some great experts in search and semantic technology implementation detailing what is really working today. One of the important themes that emerged from this session was the importance of translation services in taking semantic processing to its next level of value generation. Smart content is working well in English, but needing to merge content from multiple languages and multiple work and consumer cultures with diverging and overlapping information ontologies and taxonomies is presenting an important challenge - and a very interesting opportunity. Live-blogs:
So there you have it, a fantastic two weeks of learning, networking and discussions with many of the content industry's leading luminaries. Clearly publishers are beginning to embrace leading content technologies aggressively now to enrich their content offerings, increasingly developing highly tailored and personalized content and publications to meet the needs of media and enterprise audiences. We heard a lot about workflows in the enterprise being enabled by these technologies, but many of today's enterprise needs are not necessarily going to wait for traditional business analysis and software development. Similarly, media companies now have great digital asset management services but they're just in the early days of customizing their content automatically to provide highly tailored and intuitive experiences for their audiences. The best in online publishing and media is yet to come, fueled by renewed investments in content services and technology development by East Coast companies seeking to shift revenues into digital media aggressively. I am looking forward to it all - but please, a few weeks off from the live-blogging, if you don't mind. 

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

The Color Nook: Barnes & Noble Carves a Niche Between iPad and Kindle using Android

I love my Barnes & Noble Nook ebook reader, in part for the joy of being able to carry dozens of books in one compact unit that has a battery that lasts for days, and in part because it has the Google Android operating system underpinning its functionality. Android didn't make much of a difference with my early Nook model - it enabled a small touch-screen at the bottom to control its functions and provided a better-than-Kindle Web browsing experience - but I knew that it would lead to more powerful features more quickly than other ebook readers.

That confidence has been borne out with the introduction of the Nook Color model this week, a $249 unit with an LCD touch screen that makes the most of its Android-enabled capabilities. While the monochrome eInk technology used for the original model is going to be replaced by color eInk displays soon enough, the tradeoff of shorter battery life (about eight hours) for more flexible color content viewing and access to additional Web-enabled content via a touch-screen make the Color Nook a very attractive unit.

The niche that the Color Nook now occupies in the mobile devices market is somewhat unique. It can do many of the things that a iPad could do with mainstream content such as books and magazines, but it can do it both at a lower price and with better Web integration. Barnes and Noble is touting the unit as being suited best for children's color book content, but that's not going to stop people from browsing magazines, Web content and playing games in color. But the children's angle is an important one.

One of the "you gotta love this" features in the iPad was flipping through the pre-loaded copy of "Winnie the Pooh" with its enchanting illustrations. What parent couldn't justify the premium cost of an iPad in their minds by conjuring up how great a parent they would be flipping through a book like this with their kid on their knees? Now Barnes and Noble can offer a similar experience with a more sophisticated book management experience at less than half the price. "Green Eggs and Ham," anyone?

The iPad is not the only point on the Color Nook's positioning compass, though. On the opposite side is the Amazon Kindle devices, which are promising to have color displays some time soon also. Barnes and Noble brings the Color Nook in at an aggressive price point and the more flexible use features offered by Android just in time for holiday pre-ordering. For the first time, Amazon is looking at a major player in ebooks getting a significant run at their position at similar price points with better technology. Kindle will catch up soon enough, but for 4Q2010 you have to give Barnes and Noble the market nod for momentum.

That momentum comes in part from the middling point on its positioning - Web content and functionality. In addition to color Web browsing via its WiFi connectivity, The Color Nook includes apps for listening to streaming music from the popular Pandora web service, a handful of additional games and integrated social media functions. Just as today people check in to Foursquare when they visit a location, you can pop out a Twitter status update when you're reading a book or share a quote from it on Facebook. Books as social venues have finally made their official debut on social media networks - something that I had hoped would have happened long ago via the publishers' own packaging, but better late than never.

This last point is particularly important to the book industry. The more that Barnes and Noble can make books more tied in to social media experiences, the easier it will be for book sales to grow virally. Viral marketing has always been a part of book marketing, but the ability to accelerate that capability across not only books but magazines and other finished content is extremely important to ensuring rapid sales growth. It's not that we don't need an Oprah to make a book popular any more, but with tight integration of book reading and social media the world is becoming a nation of Oprahs, to bend a phrase from "Content Nation." The LendMe feature that came with the original Nook is still useful for this type of marketing, but being able to browse pages from an online store based on a recommendation from someone reading the book is at least as powerful a sales incentive.

While the Color Nook's limited processing power will keep serious action gamers from making use of the unit for now, it's no secret that this unit is likely to be a great target for Web games and apps that will be available from both Android Market and the upcoming Chrome Web Store. With the advent of services like Google TV that blend in Web content with mainstream television sources, people increasingly look for similar range of choices when they are not using the big screen in their living room. So if the kids want to play Angry Birds on the big TV or I want to play it myself while my wife watches the news, I now have a new option to have fun - before flipping to a book. Alternatively, the Color Nook is ready for business also, supporting all of the latest Microsoft Office file types as well as a variety of XML formats.

So although the Color Nook is far from being the perfect tablet or the perfect ebook reader, it is perfectly positioned at a critical point in the development of mobile computing to take advantage of widening interest from people seeking affordable ways to get at ebooks and Web content. The price point is hard to beat, especially given the high price tag associated with Samsung's similarly sized Galaxy Tab unit based on Android. No, the Color Nook won't take photos or allow two-way videoconferencing, but for a vast audience these are secondary features at best today. The original Nook got off to a bit of a rough start last holiday season; perhaps this time around they'll be the retail buzz of the 2010 season.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Thriving on Complexity: Reinventing Your Publishing Company's Culture

As traditional media companies grapple with the rapidly changing landscape for publishing, many are confronting the problem of not only how to survive but also how to define themselves in a new era framed by the potential and capabilities of the Internet. Familiar memes such as "print is dead" or "cable is dead" or "copyright is dead" don't really capture the depth and the complexity of the problems that media companies face. It is not simply a matter of publishing technology or monetization models having changed; it's really a matter of fundamental perspectives and ways of organizing for success in publishing have changed due to the different perspectives and organizational structures enabled by the Internet.

A recent article in The Wall Street Journal underscored some of these key themes for me from a broader perspective. Titled "The End of Management," the article has a key quote from a management consultant that explains elegantly the core problem faced by large media companies - and many companies in general; "The single biggest reason companies fail is that they overinvest in what is, as opposed to what might be." In an era in which production capacity no longer is as strong a determinant of success as market consumption capacity, media companies are tied to cranking out gobs of highly finished content to satisfy familiar patterns of consumption rather than considering whether other patterns of consumption may prove to be more fruitful.

Financial pressures are partly to blame for this pattern, of course; the tyranny of producing favorable quarterly results in the media industry is in its own way as strong as the tyranny of the Soviet Union's old five-year centralized economic plans. Both models sacrifice questions about new approaches in favor of attaining quotas that may have nothing to do with long-term growth or productivity. In both instances, the economics of incremental improvement in the hands of well-established experts blocked out the flow of new and innovative approaches that could foster "what might be" in ways that would ensure commitments to growing blue-sky markets exponentially. Even today, many major publishers have "skunk works" or "tiger teams" of specially devoted staff who are committed to reinventing their products and services - while doing little to touch the fundamental structure of their businesses.

How do major media organizations change their approach to innovation in ways that will result in substantial changes to corporate culture? There is always the "Cultural Revolution" way, of course - radical restructuring of organizations with new "vision statements," all of which may bring about some changes - for a time. But inevitably most of these types of drastic organizational change mechanisms settle in to enabling old norms of behavior. Reward structures go unchanged and fundamental measurements of success go unchanged, so it's only a matter of time before one reorg blends into the next - increasingly a time span measured in months.

At Shore we've been helping our clients to wrestle with these types of change issues, and have started to come up with some key approaches that may help media and technology organizations to analyze their situation in regards to market and organizational challenges. Below is one of our recent 10 Minute Strategy videos that provides an overview of how publishers need to wrestle with the flow of managing chaos, complex problems, complicated problems and simple problems. After the video I explain a few key points that may give your organization a starting point for attacking a reinvention of your own company's problem-solving culture.

The key to reinventing media company cultures is to realize that to "overinvest in what is" is a symptom of a culture is not allowing for the natural flow of problem solving that all organizations must allow to keep a healthy balance between introducing new innovations and ways of working together and meeting current production and measurement needs.

Recently I was accredited as a practitioner for the research and analysis techniques developed by Cognitive Edge, a company founded by Dave Snowden, a leading knowledge management and organizational expert. Cognititive Edge's techniques span a range of tools, which include one particularly handy one called a Cynefin diagram, a simplified version of which you can see to the right. To state the problem another way, media companies have a lot of experts who are good at figuring out how to make things simple for their executives and production staffs, but their investment in their existing expertise tends to resist the flow of emergent practices from chaotic and complex domains. At the same time, executives who expect simple results from their media experts and production staffs are invested heavily in simple metrics that reflect industry best practices.

These over-investments hamper the flow of activities in an organization that are required to address novel problems and emergent practices. For example, when ebooks and videos were introduced in online markets, publishers focused largely on how to maintain their current methods and market metrics for unit packaging, distribution, sales and advertising - while tending to neglect the opportunity to consider new approaches to creating value in the newly chaotic and complex domains of delivering immersive content through electronic channels. To state this problem more specifically through the lens of the Cynefin diagram analysis, a problem appeared that seemed to be threatening to push complex and simple systems into chaos, so the response was to address the chaos with known good practices that maintained a simple vision of the publishing world. While this may have worked in the short run, the under-investment in responding to novel practices with developing emergent practices that deal with complex options pushed publishers towards having to deal with problems shifting from simple systems to chaotic systems in a state of crisis rather than in a state of inciting real innovation.

Google, on the other hand, is heavily invested in harvesting value from chaos and the complex. Its requirement to have its R&D staff spending a fifth of their time trying out new ideas means that they are constantly invested in moving novel problems from a chaotic state to a complex map of possible solutions. Its search experts and its expertise encoded in its search algorithms are focused not on mass manufacturing a few simple publications but on producing tiny amounts of simple content - search results and embedded content - for a massive amount of complex requirements expressed through their "white box" search interface. There is certainly room in a Google for experts to move complicated problems into the realm of the simple, but these are focused mostly on the "back end" of the business - harvesting revenues from ads via efficient monetization of complexity. Many of the complicated problems that Google could choose to focus on for audience-facing products are farmed out to partners for solutions or exposed to any number of solutions via their APIs. This enables them to respond to many market requirements very rapidly and to avoid many of the crises that media companies face (Google faces its own unique problems within this model, but that's a story for another time).

Media and publishing companies cannot expect to become Googles overnight, of course - nor are they likely to want to. However, these companies can begin to recognize that they need better views of what their problems are - and better organizational skills and metrics that they can use to identify them and to respond to them. The techniques that Cognitive Edge has trained us in can help your organization move towards this goal. In the meantime, here are a few key things to consider in transforming your organization into a more responsive and profitable content producer:

  • Learn new skills that can help you to identify bottlenecks in your problem-solving flow. There is no one ideal state for an organization within the Cynefin framework. The important thing is to ensure that your organization is able to see itself and its problems clearly within this framework and to identify where there is resistance to the natural flow of problem-solving. Sometimes chaotic problems do have simple solutions; sometimes they are forced on solutions, and so on. Sometimes one part of an organization view a problem as under the control of experts, while other parts see it as complex or chaotic. Having people who have the right language and tools to express these problems can keep your staff making the most of its time together in problem-solving sessions and make the most of their time when they're off doing their own thing.
  • Learn how to move from "fail-safe" solutions to "safe-fail" experiments. Media companies are surrounded by companies of all sizes that are willing to bet a lot on possible solutions that might fail. While this may appear comforting in the short run, lacking a culture that can support experiments that fail as a positive part of your organization's culture puts you at a disadvantage to other innovators, who in sum have far more capital and energy than your own organization to attack these problems. There are specific techniques that you can learn that will help your organization to identify, challenge and support innovative approaches to your publishing problems cost-effectively. Without enabling and sustaining this key component of your culture, healthy problem-solving that delivers higher returns on investment will never take hold in your organization.
  • Learn new ways to listen to people inside and outside of your organization. Traditional surveys, focus groups and other forms of quantitative and qualitative research continue to be important tools for executive decision-makers, but when so many of the decisions that result in higher profits lie in the realm of interpreting the complex, these traditional tools tend to fall short. Traditional organizational and market research tends to test pre-formed hypotheses. Testing a hypothesis is good if you're trying to hand off a complicated problem to experts, but not as good for exploring complex problems in a more open-ended way that can lead to forming better hypotheses. Our narrative research services, based on Cognitive Edge tools and techniques, are but one way to listen to people in a more unbiased way that will help you to listen to both strong and weak signals that can trigger productive responses to threats and opportunities in the marketplace.
In the process of learning these techniques and implementing them, it's likely that your organization will come up with new kinds of metrics to measure your progress and your success. Some of these metrics may look a bit topsy-turvy at first, in much the same way that Google's approach to providing access to more content and not less content as the key to its success seemed quite counterintuitive to most of the publishing industry. But with a new way to look at your business, you just may discover that old and new metrics can co-exist quite comfortably when your organization has the right skill sets to define them and implement them. Shore can help you to get there; hopefully we can help you and your organization to do so. It's a method that has its own madness, but it works.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Google TV - First Impressions of a Revolution in Federated Media [VIDEO]

I was very interested to see what Google TV would be like, so I signed up for a pre-order of the Logitech Revue, It shipped right on time and arrived on my doorstep a day later. I made a video of the unboxing, basic setup and features, which you can enjoy below. My first impressions and analysis follow the video - the camera work is not brilliant, but it has good resolution overall..

The Revue unit is larger than an Apple TV unit, but still quite compact - no larger than a typical book. The keyboard/controller that comes with the unit is slightly smaller than a typical PC keyboard, much larger than your typical wand-like television controller. There is an optional mini-controller available as an accessory, but for free you can download a Logitech Harmony Remote app for your Google Android or Apple iPhone, which replicates all the functionality of the controller.

The unit also comes with one HDMI cord, a power cord and one "IR blaster" - a device that makes it easier to get the infra-red signal the Revue uses to control your television, set-top box and other attached equipment around the shelves that may be housing your equipment. I attached an IR blaster initially to ensure good operation, but by poking out the front edge of the Revue from its shelf just a little it IR blaster proved to be unnecessary.

Attaching cables was simple enough and lead to a fairly simple setup procedure. I punched in the model names for my television and cable box, which I could enter directly or select via a search (this is Google, after all). Network configuration for wireless connectivity to the Internet was simpler than for a Wii, without a hitch.  The only tech problem on setup was with the downloaded Harmony Remote app, which couldn't pair up at first with the Revue. It turned out to be an issue with how my Android phone was announcing itself to my wireless controller, but was easily corrected using the guides in the Revue setup. Adjust the Revue for your screen size, log in to your Google Account and you're all ready to start the Google TV experience.

Google TV brings together the worlds of Web and commercial TV services via its search capabilities and its Android operating system, which runs the Revue unit. Google TV search is not quite like a typical Web search, though - it is a federated search tool, meaning that for many of Google TV's functions you get results available from the Web, cable and satellite, your DVR, attached digital home libraries and other separate sources aggregated in one search result, with different ways to access them. Search for "The Simpsons," for example, and you can get a listing of the TV series for premium subscription, content on Wikipedia via a Chrome browser, clips on YouTube and so on. So all of a sudden a simple request can give you not just a TV show but all sort of additional content on the topic. Google TV does a good job of making the simple part of this very simple, giving you options along the way to help you zero in interesting content culled from a much larger domain.

If you're not using the top-level search function, you can use the main menu to look at bookmarked content sources, including a "live TV" view of your cable or satellite sources, YouTube Leanback, premium moves from Netflix and Amazon and others that you can add from Google TV sources. Apps include a Google Chrome Web browser, the Gallery photo app from Android phones that displays photos from your Picasa online photo gallery, Pandora streaming music, a settings app and a handful of others so far - more to come, no doubt.

The Queue menu selection is like a feed aggregator, listing folders of subscriptions to available video and audio podcasts as well as single items added for your playback via the controller. Queue also provides an index of pre-selected video and audio podcasts to get you going . Most of them are pretty interesting, but you will find plenty more available via YouTube and other sources. Queue is handy, but ironically you can't play multiple segments back-to-back, so it's of limited "kick back and relax" use. Think of it more as your channel guide for personally selected content streams and features.

There is a "What's On" channel guide for your cable or satellite sources, which has both full listings and category listings. You can tune in these selections or queue them for recording on your DVR. It's a nice alternative to the usually slow and balky listings on the typical settop boxes. The gem in the rough, though, is YouTube Leanback. Click on the Leanback bookmark and you can watch high-definition YouTube videos back-to-back without interruption. Leanback lets you run through the most popular YouTube videos as well as videos in specific categories, you own feed of YouTube videos or searches of videos.

Leanback searches are especially handy, since you can zone in on highly personalized interests. I am a big fan of Earth-Touch HD nature videos, which can be served up continuously using the search "Earth-Touch HD". That "HD" turned out to be important to filter out things like music videos that included the two other words. Unfortunately, you can't bookmark searches on Leanback, nor can you have it play anything other than the most popular videos by default. I like dancing cats and remixes well enough, but please, let this feature be a Pandora for video that gets me to my favorite content more quickly.

Bookmarking is one of the weakest features in general so far on Google TV. You can't bookmark Queue subscriptions or searches other than Google Web search pages, and bookmarked videos from YouTube show the Web page by default rather than shifting directly into full-screen video playback. Once you have bookmarked an item, it gets popped to the top of the bookmarks listing. If you want to rearrange the list, you can only move an item to the top of the list. So any new bookmarks pop everything else out of order. Hopefully more options are added for this soon. Similar "fit and finish" issues are things like the inability to delete single items added to Queue, and some inconsistency in mouse control in some Web pages in the otherwise flawless Chrome browser. In most instances clicking the "OK" button on the controller acts as a mouse click, but sometimes you have to use the separate button labeled with a mouse to get the proper effect.

The biggest problem with Google TV, though, has less to do with Google than it does with the immediate state of video. Google is assembling content via this federated service from virtually any and every source available today, which tends to show off just how disjointed the industry is today. Google TV's top-level searching helps people overcome many of these limitations by bringing together as much of this content together in the same spot. But services like Pandora, Netflix, Hulu and other key premium content sources are not yet included in that search, so it does not eliminate all of the redundancy that it could. However, this is likely to change as Google TV gets broader use - especially thanks to YouTube and Android apps. As people discover more high-quality long format content in YouTube, both free and premium-priced, and more Android-based games are developed that take advantage of big-screen viewing, Google TV's ability to become the "go-to" guide to the best and most immersive content for the lean-back crowd will become more apparent.

Google's strong position may become even more apparent when Google's upcoming Android 3.0 tablet appliances come out. While it's known that this release will be the first tablet-friendly version of Android, it's a good guess that there will be a good amount of interactivity with Google TV via these appliances. Watch a video on your tablet or mobile phone and then "throw" it on to your big screen for sharing with the family, for example, or take your programming from the big screen and pull it down to your tablet when other people want to take over the big screen. These things and more are highly likely.

Whatever the future brings, Google TV is an impressive first step towards integrating video and other multimedia from all networks into one consumption platform. It does a fine job in showing off existing premium content sources, some with nicely integrated search capabilities. But its most prominent strength is to demonstrate conclusively that the open Web can be a great place to find great content that's well-suited for "leanback" viewing on high-definition televisions, content that can hold its own with mainstream programming sources.

The federated search tools on Google TV enable this content to be found on an equal footing with content from cable and satellite providers. Yes, that's right - with or without their cooperation, traditional video content aggregators have been Googled. Yet another part of the content industry must now adopt more aggressively to a Web-enabled world and look beyond their walled gardens of video and gaming delights.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Bumper Crop: Zoominfo's Harvesting and Searching Expand Timely Business Information Sources

Several years ago I visited a scrappy startup called Eliyon in Cambridge, Massachusetts, shoehorned into a mezzanine office space alongside a busy highway. They had a very interesting idea; harvest information about businesses and professionals found on Web pages to build a unique and competitive online business information service rapidly. While the technology had its problems - getting good matches of people to Web content proved to be a bit tougher than they anticipated - the service was building a unique database of business information archives that was indeed difficult to replicate elsewhere in the fast-changing world of Web content.

Eventually Eliyon became Zoominfo, the still-rising online business information service that provides a widening array of information sources to a claimed 4 million unique visitors a month who view and update information on more than 5 million businesses and 50 million professionals. One of the keys to Zoominfo's growth has been continually accelerating the frequency and accuracy of the information that it is harvesting business information from the Web and from client-supplied information sources. This can be especially important for the many small and medium sized businesses that are tracked by Zoominfo, many of which come and go in a matter of months or which are changing their business models and staffing about as often. One advantage that this constant refreshing of information gives Zoominfo is the ability to search for professionals and organizations using keywords that may not fall into the typical taxonomies of business markets. Want to know who's involved in gesture computing these days? Zoominfo lists 111 people, many of whom are working for some of the leading companies trying to marry human movements with computer services. That's a harder order to fill for many taxonomy-oriented business information services.

This week Zoominfo is officially launching its Zoominfo Pro edition, a platform that combines in-depth profiles and Web content, contact information, alerts functions and high-volume record downloads with Zoominfo's enhanced contacts harvesting functions and profile links to social media portals. The contacts harvesting is courtesy of Zoominfo Community Edition, which combines syncing of business card-level from clients' Microsoft Outlook email services with Zoominfo's expanding community-edited contacts database. You might say that Zoominfo CE is a combination of a more robust and permission-oriented implementation of Spoke and an integrated Jigsaw-like contacts sharing and datafeed service.

Like Spoke, downloading the Zoominfo CE application will enable the user to offer updated contact information form their Outlook email service in exchange for updates to basic contact information from Zoominfo. Like Jigsaw, contributors to Zoominfo CE may swap updated contact information for other updated contact information. The potential advantage of this combination of techniques is passive daily synchronization of contact information by individuals who are inputting new information daily in their Outlook services and active daily updates to via the community-driven service for "lean forward" information hounds.

It's surprising to me that it's taken this long for someone to build a service that competes with Jigsaw somewhat directly. Given Jigsaw's substantial advantage in its number of contributors, frequency of record updates and its acquisition by, it's a tough league to play in, to be sure. But with the combination of the other sources of business information that Zoominfo offers and its unique search capabilities based on its Web content harvesting, the combination of techniques is a promising alternative that has the potential to grow rapidly. With existing hooks into leading CRM services from, SugarCRM, Microsoft Dynamics and Oracle, Zoominfo can bring this information into many of the platforms that professionals use to manage accounts and sales leads.

Will Zoominfo Pro's sophisticated search tools, high volume contacts data downloads and automated updates make it a hit with business information users? There are a lot of moving parts to the service, so it's hard to give Pro a quick thumbs up specifically on features that may or may not meet an organization's specific needs. On the data front, the improvements to company and person disambiguation in Zoominfo's data harvesting are evident, so there's reason to think that between its years of online harvesting, third party sources and new email syncing and online community updates it can continue to build improved data quality is beginning to form a more competitive business information service that can act as more of a "plan A" business information reference for many business professionals.

Zoominfo will work best as a "plan A" when you're trying to take advantage of fast-moving market segments with "fuzzy" edges to the market opportunities that you're trying to nail down. Zoominfo's ability to combine keywords effectively to whittle down possible matches is really its most powerful feature. Once these opportunities have been nailed down, other services may provide more in-depth information and reports, but for many of the small and medium-sized businesses that are the focus of Zoominfo clients, this depth may be lacking in other services anyway, so Zoominfo's archived Web content mapped to specific companies and people may be a more efficient way to approach researching them than a search engine that may not have much of Zoominfo's content readily available and indexed as specifically. Whichever way you go, it's good to see more companies getting serious about high-quality, well-integrated business information that will give individuals and institutions more choices in approaching fast-moving opportunities in business.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Digital Content Monetization Conference Wrapup: Models for Revenues in a Multi-Platform World

Our thanks to Clarion Events and to Leo Tignini for pointing us towards what proved to be a great Digital Content Monetization 2010 conference at the state-of-the-art Eventi Hotel in New York. DCM2010 featured leading practitioners in digital content from entertainment, news, games, sports, enterprise and education markets sharing their best practices on how to make money on content in today's rapidly diversifying digital markets. Often these types of events wind up being endless pitches for vendors or panelists with a lot of fluffy "content is king" type of talk, but DCM2010 was heavily ladened with people who had real meaty case studies of what's really working today in digital content monetization and a remarkable amount of openness in discussing their successes and challenges. Below is our latest 10 Minute Strategy video summarizing the key points in the conference followed by my summary of key conference themes and  links to my coverage on Google Buzz of the main speakers and panels for the event; here is a link to Twitter coverage from Shore's Peter Propp also.

A few key themes were running through many of the presentations at the conference that are worth noting in brief:
  • "Content is King" is dead. I heard this phrase uttered only once during the entire conference, which was quite remarkable given that the core of U.S. media was represented strongly in these presentations. It's not that media companies have given up on old models of monetization but more that they recognize that it's absolutely impossible to ignore the explosion of content in online, mobile and events-driven venues that competes with it on a moment by moment basis. You could say that "context is king," in the sense that being able to get the right content to the right audience at the right time at the right place as rapidly and usefully as possible is defining today's best monetization opportunities. But really it comes down to engagement being king: whatever gets our attention the most in a media-soaked landscape rules. When people spend more time looking at their laptops, iPads or mobile phones and signage for information and personal interactions relating to an event on television or in a live venue than experiencing the event itself, the best opportunities for monetization focus on engaging an audience through experiences that can be delivered via all platforms and means in a coordinated way. If your technology and your editorial and marketing staff aren't ready for a multi-platform world, watch out.
  • Ecommerce experiences cannot be neglected. Yes, people will pay for premium content - if it's the payment experience is highly convenient and it's clearly the best way to spend one's time. But putting up a crude gate is simply no longer an option. The option to pay for content cannot be a barrier to entry into a brand relationship but must instead be a painless and affirming experience that seals the bond between audience and producer. Similarly, barrier ads need to be rethought as a "forcing" mechanism. If your brand is seen as an impediment to a person's experience, that's not good. The gaming world has much to teach us in this regard, knitting brands into interactive experiences often as integral components of story-telling. Sponsorships that point people directly to product purchases that can facilitate a content experience were also compelling models explored at the conference. For example, the ability to unlock virtual goods was tied to a Dr. Pepper sponsorship in which the gamers could get a key to unlock the goods in a bottle cap from the beverage.
  • There is nothing left on the cutting room floor. A good portion of the conference focused on the benefits being realized from digital asset management (DAM), in which every scrap of the production effort for a content product is being carefully cataloged in powerful relational databases that make it much easier to identify materials that can be repurposed and repackaged in any number of ways. Increasingly these materials are becoming a key source of premium revenues, allowing the packaging of experiences for extremely involved fans of artists, topics, sports teams and other enthusiast obsessions across any number of platforms. Inevitably this opens new doors for content monetization not only from the ancillary materials themselves but from rethinking how a production is designed from its beginning phases. If you think of a production from the start as a series of repurposable assets that can attract both broad audiences and highly involved and specialized audiences you're going to be able to design a far broader spectrum of revenue opportunities. You might say that if context is king, DAM is becoming the king-maker.
  • Thinking about "lean back" "lean forward" experiences is changing the monetization landscape for Web-delivered content. The advent of Apple's iPad and the eminent launch of Google TV are forcing a rethinking about what it means to deliver Web-based content to audiences with very different attitudes and objectives in different settings. In "lean forward" mode, people do their work, produce in-depth content, engage in intense gaming experiences, research products, services and people. In "lean-back" mode, we're more likely to be ready for longer, more immersive experiences, tolerating less extraneous input but still wanting to engage others who want to experience the same things we're experiencing. Be it twittering during a live event, pushing an interesting video from our mobile phone to our HDTV to share with people in the room or just reading an ebook on a tablet, the form factors, formats and ways of interacting with content in this more leisurely and contemplative state create new opportunities for content producers and marketers. They certainly seem to have gotten the attention of book publishers finally, many of whom were fairly dismissive of ebooks until the advent of the iPad and far more agile handheld e-readers. You can't expect "old world" skills to succeed in this immersive content environment by default, though, because the formats and experiences are far different than traditional books, magazines and other fixed media. Frankly, many efforts by publishers so far on these devices are crude at best or a failure at worst. These technologies may have made immersive content more appealing in electronic form, but the range of choices and competitors is getting only thicker, forcing more publishers to focus on more ways to add value to focused, high-value audiences. Publishers need to be experts in exploiting both lean-back and lean-forward opportunities to maximize revenues.
  • Social is monetizable. Although social media did not get a lot of direct focus at the conference, it was clear that social media has become an integral part of many media companys' monetization strategy. The key trend, though, is not towards trying to capture it yourself in many instances but to make sure that existing services can be integrated effectively to enhance a content experience. Be it streaming embedded Twitter updates, integrating Facebook comments or enabling a football stadium seat with 60,000 seats as a Foursquare destination, there are a wide range of highly valuable monetization experiences through partnering social media platforms that major media companies are exploiting rapidly. The missed opportunity, though, appears to be building these potentially fleeting assets into the fabric of DAM-enabled content assets that can be analyzed and repackaged for future use. This is on the radars of some media producers, but the long-term value of social media may be one of the more neglected opportunities so far in content monetization.
  • Google isn't going away. I had an interesting chat with a Google manager involved in YouTube and Google TV during one of the breaks. As with most conversations with Google employees in public, it was pretty limited in scope. But what appeared clear from some of the non-answers that I received is that Google has a mighty opportunity in its new Google TV platform to play a kingmaker's role on the big screen in some of the same ways that it's played that role on the Web. With Google TV, you'll be able to search for video, games and Web content from one easy and attractive interface. So, guess what - the old Google search game has been reborn, now encompassing every cable, satellite and streaming media service available. Although you won't see ads on the Google TV search display for a year or so, expect that when they come they'll be a hot battleground for media companies and other marketers trying to get attention.
There was a wealth of detailed insights from the two core days of the conference, which you'll find summarized below in my live-blogging of almost all of the panel presentations. In sum, although the channels and platforms for many content producers are shifting rapidly and introducing new competitors, the opportunities for creative and energetic people to make money from great content are better than ever.

Detailed Panel Notes from Live-Blogging

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

The "New" AOL: Today's Vision of a Publisher's Portfolio?

The high-profile acquisition of the TechCrunch family of blogs by online veteran AOL has triggered quite a storm of buzz and second-guessing as to what it really meant. What it means is that...AOL bought one of the Web's leading blogs. If that sounds like less than scintillating analysis, then that's probably good news for AOL and for the Web as a whole. As TechCrunch founder Michael Arrington pointed out in his own blog post on the acquisition, he was getting tired of trying to flog his I.T. staff to implement the types of features that would keep TechCrunch growing. A company like AOL has the technical mojo to make those things happen. It's what helped AOL properties like Engadget grow when they acquired the stable of blogs several years ago. Blogging is fun, until it becomes a business that has to grow. Ask founder Rafat Ali for details on this if you need some more details on this point.

What Arrington's post sidesteps, though, is the key asset that AOL brings to the table for TechCrunch: a company focused on making display advertising work on the Web for a wide array of sophisticated ad-supported Web properties. Yes, AOL has its home page and the vestiges of its email and messaging communities, but increasingly AOL is beginning to look more like today's vision of a media company that holds a portfolio of valuable online content brands that it can monetize effectively via high-value ads. AOL leaves search prowess to Google, social media mojo to Facebook, Twitter and other social media networks as components that can be blended into very well-designed destination content on a wide variety of topics. Much of its best content now comes from topic-focused blogs and communities such as  TechCrunch rather than from big-time mainstream media aggregation deals. Complementing this is AOL's Seed initiative for more focused search-savvy topic content and its growing network of Patch local news sites that are building unique content in cities and towns across the U.S.

All of these networks of destination content sites and services are being tuned for maximum display and interactive ad performance, some of them carrying the AOL brand prominently and others of them burying the AOL brand as a support mechanism for their own unique brands. It doesn't really matter which of these works best, as long as the content is designed to do what viewers and advertisers want. In other words AOL is doing today what most magazines and news publishers today should be doing if they were not so constrained by print-think that is preventing them from focusing intently on maximizing revenues from Web content. AOL, with no choice but to make the Web work, just dives in and makes the best of it with whatever tools are at hand, hoping to out-design, out-SEO and out-engage the next bit of content that might get someone's attention.

So whatever TechCrunch's sale may represent, it's not really a sell-out as much as it is a sell-up. AOL is mastering the art and science of managing portfolios of successful online destination content brands better than most any other major Web provider. Yahoo does many things well in this area, but it seems to suffer from a continuing identity crisis about what it take to be "number one" on the Web in a world that is rewarding Facebook and Google more than a Web portal that has poorly integrated and only moderately well designed content assets. The truth of the matter is that it really doesn't matter if you're number one, number ten or number five thousand on the Web.

If you're profitable and have a good plan to stay profitable, size really isn't that important. AOL is a well-sized company that is the true image of what a good portfolio of content assets should look like in the 21st century. If it is no longer the juggernaut that it once was, who cares - it knows what it is, it knows what it's doing, and it knows how to get where it's going. That's much more than can be said for many media companies these days. I hope that we see more right-sized electronic publishing companies like AOL building healthy portfolios of well-designed online content that don't give a hoot about yesterday's models for success and just keep on ticking along.