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The only category of growth in the publishing industry is mobile. A Pew Research Center’s 2013 News Media Consumption survey found that 28 percent of Americans now regularly get their news on their smartphones, almost surpassing newspapers (29 percent). That’s a sharp rise just within the last two years, and it is only going to continue to grow.
But it’s not all pretty. Publishers, faced with declining CPMs and anemic mobile advertising, are still struggling to find the right monetization model for free content, while others — my company included — are creating new ways to help mobile users discover content. However, we still have not come to an understanding of how this will all play together and tensions are abound.
Just last month, Talking Points Memo pulled their content from several aggregators claiming that they are scams, which fueled a healthy debate about the fallout. Josh Marshall, TPM’s founder, had a very valid point that the partnerships were not creating revenue and were taking the reader away from the site itself. However, I don’t think this is a case of technology companies scamming the content producers. Rather, it’s the beginning of a digital evolution where consumers expect to have the just the right content delivered to them instead of going out to find it, and it could be the key to solving the monetization problem that’s threatening everyone. Publishers should not ignore this, and instead we should be working together to figure out how it all fits together.
The first wave of online content discovery was active — sitting in front of the computer and entering a search term to uncover what you were looking for. Systems that map behaviors that are common among all humans – like search engines — have been around for a long time and they worked the same for all users. Two different people using the same query would get more or less the same results with maybe a few discrepancies based on geography or language. Eventually, search engines began personalizing results based on our individual data patterns and behavior, and with that search became more personalized – now two people searching the same query can see widely different results, but you still need to provide the context to what you’re looking for.
The second wave of discovery was social. Combining a lot of manual sharing with some clever algorithms allows your social graph to bubble interesting content to the top of your newsfeed, all as a side effect of the work you put in when making those connections. Another recent Pew report found that 30 pew of Americans get their news on Facebook, but only 4% of them think it’s “the most important way” to get their news. The reason why is pretty obvious – social sites like Facebook and Twitter are good at surfacing interesting and serendipitous content, but they’re terrible at providing a holistic view of the broader information domain. While the content we see surfaced is more relevant to us because it’s from our personal network, that network is naturally biased, and not constructed on the basis of our friends editorial abilities.
Mobile brings something completely new to the table. The average American now spends 2 hours and 21 minutes a day on their mobile devices, up from 24 minutes in 2010, according to a 2013 eMarketer report. Our smartphones have more knowledge about us collected in it than any other single service or device. They combine identity (who we are), location (where we are), context (what we’re doing) and historical data (what we’ve done in the past) to enable unique personalized experiences that are better at anticipating our wants and needs that anything we’ve seen before. Gradually, we see more and more services emerge that leverage this data. Eventually, content discovery will turn from an active task that requires a query or wishful navigation to a passive, curated source with contextually relevant content delivered to our smartphone’s screen.
This is all building up to a point where our technologies will be working for us, not with us. We will each be our own gatekeepers. Not just for news, but for any information that we would want to seek out. This ambient intelligence is growing smarter each day. The technologists are building the systems that publishers, like TPM, will ultimately need to help connect with readers and to monetize that content effectively. Neither the content creators nor the discovery platforms can do this alone.
Roman Karachinsky is cofounder and CEO of News360. Before News360, he led a number of successful B2B semantic analysis projects.