Written by Dave Walters
About twice a week I’m involved in some type of conversation about how we all consume content – whether it’s my theories on managing Twitter (a topic for another day), how much network television I watch (not much), or why I love my TEDTalks podcast. The reality is there’s more content flying at us every minute, and the acceleration Apple’s iJuggernaut (iTunes + iPhone + iPad) has brought mind-boggling amounts of data to our fingertips. And I’ve been considering where the limits are.
Social media has spent the last 3-4 years convincing me I need all this content, but how much information is too much for one human to consume? What productive things did I used to do with the time I now spend reading Twitter, checking Facebook or perusing my 20+ RSS feeds? Am I better or worse because of all this content? I’m not sure I have the final answer just yet, but I know I’m more informed – which I’ll accept for now. If the last five years were all about delivering content beyond my wildest dreams, then I firmly believe the next five are going to be about making sense of all the streams.
And the first step in this migration is upon us: an entirely new class of applications coming to market that are purposefully designed to protect me from this overload – or in some cases, just format the overload to look pretty. Tools like Pulse, Apollo and Flipboard are all trying to help me drink from the proverbial fire hose.
RSS on Steriods: Pulse and Apollo
Let’s start with Pulse, which is a stunningly beautiful RSS reader for the iPad. It aggregates feeds from multiple news outlets like the New York Times, Boston.com and TechCrunch. It manages content the exact same way any RSS reader would (although much more beautifully) in that it displays the original RSS content, and then links to the page in mobile Safari if the reader wants maximum detail. Soon after being mentioned by Steve Jobs at June’s WWDC (like hours later), the app was momentarily pulled from the iTunes store based on complaints from New York Times (NYT) lawyers. They contended it violated the Term of Use based on the fact the app was paid, not free. The storm didn’t last long, but the issue of RSS content being pushed into a paid app is something that will have to be sorted out in this new world.
The next app that matters is Apollo from Palo Alto-based Hawthorne Labs, which is an equally great UI but adds an entire layer of automated content discovery. The best parallel I’ve seen to describe the app is Pandora. You add content feeds, rank items, create weightings by spend more time reading specific topics, and the system improves the quality of content delivered to the user over time. The guys behind Hawthorne are ex-Google and ex-Bing, and have a stated objective to become the Newspaper of the Future – I’ll skip the TM I’ve seen in other publications… Suffice to say these guys are aiming big, and if their algorithm lives up the dream, watch out.
Both Apollo and Pulse are critically dangerous to big media companies who are trying to monetize by selling display ads around the content. While the most popular articles will get the click to mobile Safari (which also delivers the ads), a serious RSS audience of power users can significantly reduce the web analytics KPIs the ad ecosystem uses to price and buy ads: monthly pageviews and unique users. Another complicating factor for both Pulse and Apollo is the fact they’re $3.99 and $4.99 respectively. So in essence the app maker is the only one locking in real revenue based on the content – clearly an issue for the business of content creation. Sure the site might get some bonus traffic (Pulse launched with NYT featured, and sold 35,000 apps which equals some pretty monster free traffic) but will the trade-off actually end up being the final deathblow to an overly fragile newspaper industry? It very well could be.
A Different Beast: Flipboard
So if RSS is dangerous to content providers, then what if an app harvested your own social networks and delivered the content pre-formatted? Plus it pulled a ton of content via an ever-growing list of curated feeds? That combo would have the potential to change the game entirely – and it’s called Flipboard. (And this one is full-on venture backed and is free to users so we can render the NYT argument null.)
While the curated feeds are interesting (especially when a guy like Robert Scoble is hand-selecting a “Tech Influencers” list), many of the early users I’ve talked to are using it to wrangle their Twitter and Facebook streams. And speaking of Scoble, his blog is a great place to get the inside story on Flipboard as he was an early beta tester – and very public advocate.
The best thing about Flipboard is it feels like a completely natural way to consume content – even though it didn’t exist two weeks ago. It’s that revolutionary – and yes, I hate that word. At the same time, Flipboard introduces a supercharged version of the business model problems RSS readers create. Because the content is pulled from your tweet stream, major providers like the NYT, Wall Street Journal or Wired aren’t going to stop posting their stories to Twitter – and users certainly aren’t going to stop dropping bit.ly links to things they like. The bottom line is if your brand does Twitter, you do Flipboard – like it or not.
The End of Media as We Know It – And I Feel Fine
And this is where it gets scary for my day job. As a dude who creates a ton of content on a monthly basis, the incentives for success could change radically. The more insightful and on-point our content gets, the bigger my headline will be in Flipboard. It doesn’t get me more readers or more ad dollars – it gets me better placement in a third-party reader. While it sounds like a really bad scenario, I’d challenge my fellow content creators to consume and accept the Flipboard model – or risk being version 2.0 of the media that gets killed by steady march of technology. I know I’m thinking about it full tilt with the clear understanding that a better UI will always wins out over a crappy UI. Content could easily become the cost of entry as opposed to something that can alone be monetized.
And from a user perspective, the features of my preferred application are now almost as important as the content inside the application. With the advent of Twitter – and the rise of literally hundreds of apps to view Twitter content – the world’s expectation for user interfaces have changed forever. And this new world doesn’t much care if their solution isn’t compatible with your site’s monetization efforts. Worst-case scenario, you can expect some content providers to lockout some RSS apps, but that does nothing to mitigate Flipboard. It’s kinda scary to think my own content consumption habits might be the biggest threat to the economics of my day job.
I’m not entirely sure what the solution is here – in fact, if I knew I’d be making absurd amounts of money working for Rupert Murdoch or some other old media tycoon. I do believe it requires a completely fresh look at content syndication between app builders and content creation entities. The economics of apps will never support full-on licensed content, but folks like the NYT better figure out how to get a smaller piece of a bigger pie to remain viable.
Perhaps the best model out there is the other famously failing industry: music. The majority of the talent make little or no money by selling content (read: music CDs), but drive huge dollars by monetizing all aspects of their fame – be that concert tickets, merchandise, TV licensing, etc. And don’t kid yourself, this is happening today with blog ninjas like Hugh MacLeod, Gary Vaynerchuk, Chris Brogan and that other dude I mention up above. My point is your currency is – and always has been – eyeballs. Leverage apps like Flipboard, and the rest will follow…
It’s going to be a very interesting 12-18 months for the world’s biggest name content creators. What are your thoughts on the solution? For those of you without an iPad, Flipboard will make total sense in the video below: