Wednesday, February 23, 2011

The Subscription Food Chain

The world has probably learned more about the arcane business of magazine subscriptions in the last ten days than in the last ten years. And most of the news is coming from technology companies, underscoring where much of the marketplace power resides.

Subscriptions are a vital part of the U.S. magazine business with about 8 out of 10 customers coming in through the subscription door. In most developed countries the opposite is true; most people buy their magazines at the newsstand.  Subscriptions serve as a linch-pin for ongoing customer relations. Publishers know a lot about these subscribers and with that knowledge can sell them affinity products. Thus publishers refer to the lifetime value of the customer.

So no wonder the angst of publishers when Apple got in the middle of that relationship, denying publishers the opportunity to sell through iTunes full-term subscriptions and also retain data.  The recent subscription announcement by Apple has been met by publishers with the sound of one hand clapping.  Apple's scheme, while not publisher friendly, is clever. Apple has kept the basic 30/70 revenue share but allows publishers to keep 100% of revenue if a transaction involves existing customers. Apple lets the consumer decide whether to order from iTunes or go to the publishers site and what data to share. Apple requires that the price of a digital edition be the same across channels, a requirement that will not please publishers. Publishers cannot link an in-app subscription offer to their own web site. 

Before this digital ink had dried Google announced it's One Pass program that allows consumers to purchase magazines and newspapers with a simple sign-in using email and password. Publishers can offer full subscriptions, partial subscriptions and I assume bundled offers of one kind or another. Google Checkout processes payments. Publishers collect 90% of sales on every transaction. Publishers retain all the data.

I just read that the website for the German news magazine Focus is using Google's One Pass to test the selling of article-level content for 10 cents each.  We know by and large consumers won't pay for news or general sports information but they might pay for articles on ten facts about parental leave or what to do if you lose your driver's license.

 Both Google's One Pass and the Focus magazine experiment seem like very good ideas. Newspaper and magazine companies have tons of premium, evergreen content that can be monitized. Publishers have spent a fortune digitizing their archives.

Looks like Google is providing a painless way to get some of that money back.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Enriching The Waste Land

I have read TS Eliot's The Waste Land a dozen times, taught the poem in college and high school, and early on tried to imitate that famous prosody in my own works. I failed miserably at the latter.

I have long thought of poetry as best appreciated by being spoken and not read.  For fifty years the university literary establishment, influenced by the so-called New Criticism that was in turn influenced by the scientific method (and an attempt I think by English professors to show there was a science behind all that literary stuff), has focused on the printed poem, something to be studied and dissected. Other schools of criticism followed, including: Jungian, Freudian, Feminist, and other approaches that put the reader in the middle of the poem where she becomes the center of the creative process through a kind of muscular subjectivity. Having been away from that profession for some years I now think all of the above might have more to do with tenure and a kind of in-stable solipsism than with communicating the wonders of poetry.

I don't go to technology conferences for literary insights but often I'm surprised. At the recent Tools of Change conference in New York there was actually a session on making The Wasteland come alive through the use of five different voices, video and touch screen opportunities. This was a wonderful example of a multi-dimensional textual enrichment and using technology to enhance a venerable text that I suspect is not experienced these days as much as it deserves.

The commercial point, made in this session and in a number of others during the conference, was that no one will pay for simple textbook-type material anymore, whether print or digital. But people will pay for enrichment and interactivity. One might argue with the supposition but not with the results.

The next time I teach The Wasteland, this will be my approach.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Media by Demand

My first real magazine job was as an associate editor for Prevention magazine. One of my first assignments was to write an article about the health benefits of running (This was before Rodale acquired Runner's World).  I was an experienced runner and had run a couple of marathons. I knew how to wade through all the medical journals that the company subscribed to, teasing out the right support and quotes for my position. I was also a poet so the editor let me get away with an opening sentence like this: "Like a deer I told  myself so quick and nimble was my gait."

I know this writing would not be up to SEO snuff today in part because it lacks the requisite metadata. Actually, this would not have been much of a leap at Prevention, if the technology had been available. I had studied linguistics and generative grammar that focuses on key words and phrases that we build our language around. Language provides all sorts of hints and modifiers so we really know what someone means when she says: "The car turned into a driveway."  My thanks to Professor Ianni for that.

For the last year or so I have watched Demand Media that recently enjoyed a successful IPO. The company is often referred to as a content farm. The image this conjures up for many of the editors I've spoken to is not the idyllic organic farm in Amish country where words are nourished at their roots but a factory farm where chickens are stuffed into very small crates.  The mixed metaphors are intentional. 

When I brought a Demand Media executive in to speak at an MPA luncheon about a year ago, editors present seemed quite hostile. If I remember correctly, the trade press told the company to go to hell.  I fully understand this concern. The editor provides a particular angle on a market, is keeper of the brand, and an advocate for the readership, keeping pesky business interests at bay.  So I too had a lot of concerns about content farms that for many were a race to the bottom.

I have visited Demand Media's offices and was quite surprised how scrupulously the company married Art (live editors) and Science (algorithms) and how diligently they researched an article, outlined it, tested it, fact-checked it, and measured the value to the reader.  They offer a ton of very short and simple articles describing, for example, "How to Climb a Step Ladder." But there is also every indication Demand will be moving up the food chain tackling topics other than superficial how-to.  To be sure some of this seems like painting by the numbers. How else can a writer churn out in a couple of years more pieces that most of us can write in a lifetime.

I am not a Demand booster and own no stock.  Nonetheless, there is something instructive here for editors and publishers about how many consumers wish to receive and consume content. Frankly   
since the second digital wave hit I have thought that special-interest magazines would best weather the
threat from outside content producers and aggregators because of their very close relationship with the consumer and the special community they make possible.  After all, how can an outfit like Demand provide the very special, hyper-local content with the requisite tone, point-of-view and intimacy?

To  test this I asked someone from Demand to use their "farm" to write an article about growing, organic Big-Boy tomatoes for the suburbs outside of Atlanta on a shady lot.  I provided a lot of additional instructions.  This was meant to be a trick question because I had served as publishing director for Organic Gardening Magazine. But the joke was on me. They did a credible job.

With the Demand IPO, the purchase of the Huffington Post by AOL,  and AOL's plans to generate more than 600,000 articles a year, content produced outside traditional media companies willl take on greater significance. 

Or not.  Writing articles based on trending Google search may become less important over time. Some search engines, including Blekko, limit search engine results to a finite list.  Google is reportedly working on a variety of algorithms to address this issue.  What is one company's spam is another company's IPO.

And just when media companies are becoming very adept at SEO, they are being told the next big thing is Social Media Optimization.

What's an editor to do?

Right: get on board!   

Monday, February 7, 2011

Dreaming of Tablets

I have previously acknowledged that I counted every single tablet at CES last month. I don't have any particular allegiance to this category. I just wanted to be able to say that I touched every one of these fleeting pieces of technology because most won't be around for an encore in 2012.  We saw the same thing with e-readers in 2010.  Manufacturers have every right, as psychologist C.G. Jung noted, to "dream the dream onward" but that is probably not enough of a strategic plan.

I just finished a very productive series of meetings with publishers and, not surprisingly, tablets are very prominent in the collective psyche of media executives, obviously helped by Murdoch's gutsy launch of The Daily. How can I possibly top that? Well, I could dream about the primordial tablet. And I did.

The dreamscape was familiar. I was pulled into a publisher meeting, outdoors, in bright sunlight at a picnic bench.  Those at the table were "working" with stones that looked like tablets, some the shape of the iPad; other round or oval-shaped.  All were "virgin" in the sense that they held no writing or designs except occasional hieroglyphics. The charge from no one in particular was to "play" with the tablets, testing treatment, inks, and rough content.  The meeting was open and collegial marked by experimentation and play.

I've studied Jungian psychology for fifteen years and won't bore you with remarks about the unconscious and working and playing with primal matter.  Actually, I just did. But don't get me started on hieroglyphics.

I stand with a neurologist friend who says most dreams represent "neural dumping," though I wished he had used something with less of an excremental feel.  On the other hand, my mother told me that if you dream something on a Friday night, it will be "Saturday true."

OK Mum; you win. At least the dream took me away from CES and the militant, singular march towards tablet progress. Come to think of it, I heard a similar sentiment in many of my meeting from execs who are willing to risk and play and discover in the broad sunlight.

And that's no picnic, symbolically speaking.