Damon Kiesow


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Media companies haven’t exploited opportunities created by iPad and mobile technology

I helped launch the Mobile Media blog in January 2010, days before Apple unveiled the iPad. Now, 15 months and 20 million iPads later, this is my last week as a daily contributor to Poynter.org.

I’m moving to The Boston Globe to take a position as a senior product manager. In a few weeks, Jeff Sonderman will leave the Washington, D.C., news site TBD to take over Poynter.org’s mobile and social media coverage.

Looking back at the first days of this blog, it is amazing how much has changed, how many of the issues facing us now were clear even then, and how much work there still is to do.

When the iPad was announced, we were still developing the goals for this blog. It was obvious that mobile was the “next big thing” in journalism, but tablets were still an unknown quantity, Android phones hadn’t taken off, and the check-in craze spurred on by Foursquare was just beginning.

Many of those early posts – mostly aggregated from other blogs – could have been written yesterday. They focused on topics such as location-based services, content bundles on mobile devices, and the likelihood that tablets would replace newsprint.

What wasn’t obvious was just how big the iPad would be, how it would affect the media industry’s business, and how that would influence us to focus on mobile business strategies. Although I won’t argue that publishers are making a lot of money with iPad apps, the e-commerce system of the iTunes App Store made it realistic to charge for those products. That, in turn, makes it easier for publishers to charge for content on the Web.

Of course, a headline from our first week summed that up as well: “Apple iPad creates opportunities, not solutions, for publishers.”

So far those opportunities have gone largely unexploited as media companies try to figure out exactly what tablets are good for. As I noted last month, most of the U.S. newspaper apps to launch recently on the iPad are replica editions — basically PDFs of the printed product. While there may be a small audience for these replicas, this is a transitional model at best and will do nothing to build new audiences on tablets.

Likewise, many interactive newspaper apps are a lot like print products — but not necessarily in a good way. Apps from USA Today, The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times are well designed, but they still offer the same type of content as in print, with a similar look and feel.

Personalized news services like News.me and Trove are entirely new forms of news presentation, pushing the medium forward with a mix of aggregation, social media, curation and filtering. For better or worse, the vanguard of this effort consists of startups like Flipboard, Zite, News 360 and Taptu, not longstanding media companies.

So, just over a year into the age of the iPad, what can media do to compete? Clay Shirky has suggested that “nothing will work, but everything might.” That is a call to experiment,  fail and try again. Not every startup will succeed, but it only takes one Craigslist or Google to devastate an old industry (classifieds) or start a new one (search advertising).

The problem has been that media companies are not trying enough, quickly enough. It is not that media cannot innovate, it is that media organizations have not been structured to encourage it.

That is beginning to change, slowly. Look again at News.me and Trove. Neither is a finished product or a perfect one. But both were created by newspaper companies that put resources into research and development. News.me was created by The New York Times R&D lab and transitioned to Betaworks for development. Trove was built by the WaPo Labs team.

Tackable, a crowdsourced photojournalism app, is another example. An independent developer is building the app, but the San Jose Mercury News is incubating it. Tackable gets office space and some development assistance, and the Mercury News gets a version of the app built to its specifications.

And this week, the first round of the Knight-Mozilla News Technology Challenge launched. In the next two years the project will fund fellowships for 15 developers in newsrooms in the U.S. and abroad to “harness open-Web innovation for journalism.” One of the first challenges is building HTML5 apps for Web and mobile platforms.

After spending a year studying mobile technology in journalism, these types of initiatives give me some optimism for media companies. The revenue picture is still not clear, but innovative products and content need to come first. To quote Shirky again, a thousand flowers are going to bloom, many of them competing with legacy news operations. But the media now at least have a chance to be among the blossoms. Read more

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newsme

News.me launches iPad aggregator with AP, New York Times, AOL as media partners

The news aggregator News.me launched Thursday morning as a subscription iPad app, with support from more than 20 major media outlets.

Betawork’s News.Me news aggregator is expected to launch on the iPad soon.

Built by Betaworks, the app aggregates and filters news from a wide variety of sources, but will pay a licensing fee to official media partners in return for use of their content. Articles from those partners has been reformatted for the “best reading experience” on the iPad according to an FAQ on the company’s website.

Consumer access to the app costs $0.99 a week, or $34.99 a year. Partners will receive a “fixed fee” for each unique page view; the company has not publicly stated what that fee will be.

News.me has been in development since last year and was submitted to the iTunes store in March. Peter Kafka at All Things Digital noted on Tuesday night that the app’s website had been updated to “coming soon,” and detailed information for consumers and publishers had been added.

Like competitors Zite and Flipboard, News.me attempts to both filter and personalize a user’s news reading experience. Each of these apps, along with a handful of other competitors, has drawn the attention, and sometimes the ire, of publishers for ingesting original content and repackaging it in a way that separates readers from the original brand and separates advertising from the content.

News.Me’s advantage: Media partners

However, News.Me is launching with at least 22 major media partners, giving it a possible advantage over its rivals. Flipboard launched its media-focused product — Flipboard Pages — several months after its debut and has 20 partners in the “pre-revenue” testing phase of the initiative. Zite launched in March and has announced plans to share advertising revenue with partners in the future.

The New York Times R&D team originally conceived of the News.me app, and did the early development. The paper transitioned it to Betaworks in return for an equity stake in its subsidiary Bitly, but stayed involved in the development process.

Among the first publishers on board are the Times and The Boston Globe, as well as the Associated Press, Forbes and Fast Company. Digital-only outlets are also involved including AOL News, Gawker, GigaOm, Mashable, RedWriteWeb and SB Nation.

The app features partner content, but according to the company, other media sources will also be aggregated. However, only partners will receive a revenue share, enhanced presentation options and in-app promotional opportunities.

News.me relies on users’ Twitter streams and feedback from Bit.ly short URL traffic to gauge interests and the popularity of individual stories. Publishers who use Bit.ly are more likely to appear in user’s News.me news streams.

News.me also allows users to monitor the streams of people they follow on Twitter who are also News.Me users. To seed that feature, the company has selected a handful of “featured users” that anyone using News.me will be able to access.

Articles, photos and videos are presented in both a “Web view” from the publisher’s site, and in a “streamlined” ad-free presentation similar to Instapaper.

A daily email digest is also available, powered by the same filtering of the user’s Twitter streams. According to News.me, those links will lead back to the publisher’s original website, “building traffic for those sites.”

Earlier this month I outlined six things I thought News.me needed to do to catch on with consumers, and beat the competition.

On ease-of-set-up, News.me appears to pass the test – users simply connect their Twitter feeds and the filtering and personalization should work.

Early screenshots look tablet-friendly, and the early private-beta reviews give the app high marks.

But open questions remain, especially: Will the personalization actually create valuable relevance for readers? Can publishers profit from it?

News.me’s challenge: The business model

A few quick calculations point to the difficulty of turning fractions of a penny into significant profits.

Assuming a user buys an annual subscription to the app, she would be paying $2.91 a month for access. To get an idea for the app’s break-even point on profit, I figured News.me’s royalty payments to publishers at half a penny ($0.005) per unique page view.

If a very active user looks at 14 pages per day, at a half-penny rate News.me would be paying out $2.01 a month in license fees to publishers. That is out of $2.03 each subscriber is worth after Apple takes its 30 percent.

Those are very rough calculations, and the licensing fee could be much lower (or be tiered to adjust for volume). But, that only points to the tension between fixed subscription revenues and flexible page view consumption.

At that same $0.005, each publisher would need 1 million views to earn just $5,000 monthly. So, lowering the royalty to make the app more profitable reduces the revenues each partner can expect to earn from the arrangement.

I have asked Betaworks to provide some additional details on their revenue sharing plan. Undoubtedly, News.me and its partners have run the numbers and believe their model will work. I will need to understand the details better to share their confidence.

Disclosure: In May I will start a job as a senior product manager at The Boston Globe, which is owned by the New York Times Co. I haven’t had any access to discussions regarding News.me. Read more

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Demand Media shares drop as it defends eHow decline

Forbes | All Things Digital
Jeff Bercovici notes that shares of Demand fell below $18 this morning, after reports that eHow.com’s visibility on Google search results has declined as a result of changes to the search engine’s algorithms. SEO firm Sistrix found eHow’s search placement had dropped 66 percent in April. Demand denies the reports, saying the drop is “significantly overstated.”
Demand execs earn $950,000+ in bonuses (paidContent) Read more

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LA Times, TechCrunch introduce Facebook comments, but it’s not for everyone

Facebook added some features to its commenting system this week, but for publishers the tool is still a work in progress.

Launched in March, the system lets readers use their Facebook logins to comment on other websites. The company reports 50,000 sites are now using it. Among those early adopters are TechCrunch, SB Nation, Sporting News, Examiner.com and the Los Angeles Times blogs.

Facebook claims its commenting tool can improve conversation and increase traffic to participating sites. In March the company reported that SB Nation had seen its Facebook referral traffic increase 400 percent. Sporting News publisher Jeff Price told BusinessWeek that Facebook comments had improved the conversation, and the perception of the site among advertisers.

Officially, the tool is known as the Comments Box and it is one of many efforts to extend the social network’s integration into the wider Web, which include the Facebook Connect authentication protocol.

While it is still far too early to pass judgment on the system, I touched base with Martin Beck, the social media editor at the Los Angeles Times to get his take on it. The Times has been using the comments tool since mid-March, but only on a handful of its blogs. Previously those sites had been using the built-in comments native to the Typepad blogging platform.

Beck said the old system lacked some important moderation tools, so comments had to be pre-approved prior to being published. Using Facebook’s comments has, in some cases, enhanced the flow of real-time conversation.

Beck notes the paper’s tech blogger, Nathan Olivarez-Giles, has seen an increase in comments, and has had to moderate far fewer. Olivarez-Giles told him the system has led to better discussion, because “I think the removal of anonymity in the Facebook system has helped prompt people to leave more meaningful and thought out comments.”

At the same time, comments to the Times’ sports blog have declined – maybe by a quarter, Beck estimated.

That mirrors reports at TechCrunch indicating that comments on its site have decreased since implementing the tool. But MG Siegler writes that those they do receive are, “are actually coherent thoughts in response to the post itself,” a stark contrast to the previous norm.

And that is the challenge of building a digital community around article comments – is it about quality or quantity? Many news editors believe requiring readers to use their real names (as with Facebook authentication) will improve the quality of comments.

Mark Eldridge, a commenter on TechCrunch, summed that up from the reader’s point of view:

“[The] solution TC has gone for is to dissuade anyone from speaking their mind, lest they say something a current or future employer disagrees with, and it shows up in a search index. Tech bloggers seem to have an inability to appreciate why people want to be anonymous, because by virtue of their work all their opinions are public.”

However the use of real names is not a required component of Facebook comments. The system enables users to sign-in using AOL, Yahoo, and now Hotmail accounts – all of which allow screen names. The option to require Facebook-only sign-ins can be selected by the site owner.

Notably conspicuous in their absence are Gmail and Twitter logins – Facebook has not announced when those services might be integrated.

Being Facebook, the strength of the commenting system is in its social features. Comments show up in user’s newsfeeds – potentially driving their friends to also read and engage with the content. According to Mike Melanson at ReadWriteWeb, Facebook is claiming that feature has contributed to Townsquare Media seeing a 45 percent increase in traffic from the social network since integrating the comments tool.

There are still some gaps to be filled in Facebook’s tool before it is adopted more widely. A few of the issues were addressed in this week’s update:

  • An API is now available for publishers to access comments and create “most popular” lists.
  • Comments can be sorted for social relevancy with friends (and friends-of-friends) appearing at the top.
  • Comments appearing in newsfeeds can now optionally include more detail, including a title, description and photo. Facebook expects this will help drive more traffic back to the originating site.

A few missing features have been noted in Facebook’s support forums:

  • Replies to comments are “threaded” but only one level deep – making it difficult to track longer discussions.
  • Comments are ordered by friend relationship – not chronologically.
  • The design of the comment widget is limited – offering either “light” or “dark” versions.

Even if those options are added in a future upgrade, the tool is still simply not as robust as similar options from Disqus or Intense Debate, which are both dedicated commenting systems.

But for media organizations unhappy with their current commenting platform – Facebook’s offering is worth investigating.

Beck said the Times rolled the tool out to one additional blog this week, and overall they are happy with the results. But, they are not ready to expand the tool to the paper’s main website.

He said it was too soon to measure the effectiveness of the referral traffic coming back from Facebook, and the staff still was debating whether requiring real names was the appropriate policy. As at TechCrunch, reader feedback has been mixed on that.

“We have to balance those sentiments with the perceived improvements in quality of conversation, efficiency of moderation and referral traffic,” he said. Read more

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Kindle with Special Offers - Two Offers

Publishers should follow Amazon’s lead and offer subsidized tablets

Amazon.com will begin selling ad-subsidized Kindles on May 3, and it may be time for newspapers to revisit the same business model.

Kindle with Special Offers - Two Offers
A new subsidized version of the Kindle will include ads and special offers.

Consider the original Kindle, launched in 2007 and sold at the time for $399. Now a subsidized Wi-Fi version, featuring screensaver and home screen ads, will be available for $114. As MG Siegler notes at TechCrunch, $99 would seem a bit easier to market, but perhaps that price point is being held back for the holiday season.

For publishers struggling to figure out how to make money on mobile platforms, Amazon may be on to something. One of the challenges of selling content on smartphones and tablets is the cost of ownership.

Assuming an iPhone or Android phone is a $200 purchase with a $70 – $80 monthly contract, it can be difficult to find any discretionary income left to spend on that New York Times subscription for $455 a year.

Amazon — which makes its money from selling content (and a variety of other merchandise) — is interested in getting its Kindle platform in front of as many consumers as possible, so it can sell them books and music and magazines and newspapers to read.

To make that happen, Amazon may already be selling the Kindle below cost. A study by iSuppli in 2009 estimated the Kindle 2 components were worth $189. The device sold for $359 at the time. That, of course, was pre-iPad.

If this sounds very familiar, that’s because it’s basically the newsprint business model. As Poynter’s Bill Mitchell noted last year, the average newspaper loses money on circulation:

  • Circulation revenue per subscriber over two years: $400
  • Expense of producing and delivering the paper, plus acquisition costs: more than $450

The profit in the equation comes from advertising revenue. Though, of course, advertising has not been a bright spot recently. That is one reason media companies have been moving so aggressively to erect pay walls and meters.

It is also why media companies may want to take another look at subsidizing digital delivery platforms, like they do in print, and like Amazon is now doing with the Kindle.

In 2009, The New York Times, Boston Globe and Washington Post, all offered subsidized Kindle DX’s in return for long-term subscriptions. New York Times Publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. appeared on stage with Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos at the launch announcement to describe the partnership.

All of the papers have since ended their subsidy programs. A spokesperson for the Times told me via email that it was a “small test” that the paper conducted for the launch of the Kindle DX.

The ascendency of the iPad, and its cost ($499 to $699), make a similar arrangement unlikely. Apple’s general attitude toward price discounts is another factor. The company has a strict list-price policy that forbids even retailers from putting the iPhone or iPad on sale. It is difficult to imagine them partnering for a “get a newspaper subscription and a free iPad” promotion.

But Apple is not the only player in the tablet market. Much like Amazon is looking for ways to differentiate its e-reader, there will soon be dozens of Android tablets also looking to stand out in the crowd.

The Motorola Xoom is the first of the next generation of Android tablets – running  Android 3.0. But, it is reportedly not selling in huge numbers right now. The device comes in Wi-Fi and 3G models. If Motorola is willing or able to drop the price on the Xoom, it could be an attractive platform for publishers.

Just as the Times and Post subsidized Kindle sales through their subscription programs, wouldn’t the same approach make even more sense with an affordably priced Android tablet?

Using Mitchell’s numbers from 2010, if a newspaper could acquire tablets at $250 per unit and provide them to subscribers in return for a two-year contract worth $200, that is analogous to the cost of a newsprint subscriber (in both cases, there’s a loss of about $50).

In that scenario, the paper gets a committed subscriber with a name and associated demographic information to sell advertising against. And, the consumer gets a good Android tablet for $200, plus a subscription to his local paper.

Newspapers are slowly losing control over some of their distribution channels. The iTunes subscription program, and Apple’s capricious app approvals are evidence of that. Regaining some of that control may require publishers to once again subsidize delivery in order to serve readers and advertisers. Read more

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The New Yorker uses a ‘like-gate’ to find fans of long-form journalism on Facebook

The New Yorker is experimenting with Facebook this week, making a 12,000-word piece by Jonathan Franzen free behind a “like-gate” for a limited time.

When users “Like” the magazine’s Facebook page, they’re given access to the “Fans Only” section. This week, that includes the full text of Franzen’s story “Farther Away.” It’s also available for subscribers on The New Yorker’s website.

The New Yorker Facebook
The New Yorker this week put a Jonathan Franzen essay on Facebook for free, but behind a “like-gate.”

In a phone conversation, spokeswoman Alexa Cassanos told me that the Franzen story was chosen because it represents the type of writing The New Yorker is known for. It is therefore likely to attract readers who will be interested in the magazine long-term.

“We would much rather have a few thousand fans who really enjoy the content and stick with it,” Cassanos said, rather than 10,000 with a more casual interest.

The New Yorker has traditionally kept most of its digital content behind a paywall. Some features are presented for free, such as an essay this week by Evan Osnos about Chinese tourists in Europe. (That story is also promoted on The New Yorker’s Facebook page.)

Those featured stories remain available on the Web in perpetuity. However, stories posted on Facebook, like Franzen’s, will be available for a limited time — one week in this case.

Cassanos said she is interested to see how many people “Like” the magazine’s page this week. The magazine has 200,000 Facebook fans and one million subscribers already. By noon on Monday, it had attracted about 1,600 additional fans.

Although Cassanos told Mashable that the magazine “wants to engage with people,” she told me that the aim is simply to find fans of long-form journalism. The New Yorker is not planning more interactive efforts as part of the initiative, though the staff does respond to comments on Facebook and regularly hosts chats on its website.

The Facebook post is also being heavily promoted from NewYorker.com. The goal is to inform current subscribers of the publication’s Facebook page and to let non-subscribers know about the story’s limited-time availability on Facebook.

Like-gating has become a popular marketing technique on Facebook this year. Organizations ranging from national magazines to local TV stations to professional sports teams have used it. Once a user “Likes” a page, the page owner can publish stories to his news feed and send him messages.

According to Cassanos, The New Yorker has no specific plans to put content on Facebook regularly, though the success of this week’s effort will play a part in that decision. Each week the staff decides what content to place outside of the paywall. If the Facebook test works, they will look at trying other stories in the future. Read more

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bing

Bing’s new iPad app is a newspaper in disguise

Microsoft’s new Bing iPad app, released Thursday, does more than search — it begins to remake the newspaper experience in digital form.

The app is not being marketed as a news platform, but journalists should consider it one because it offers a great local information utility for the iPad age.

The app is already receiving high marks from consumers. Out of 621 ratings in the iTunes store by Friday, 524 give it the top score of 5 stars. In fact, the comments are so positive I spot-checked a dozen for any obvious astroturfing. As far as I could tell, the feedback is legitimate. For instance, from iTunes user Scott Daly:

This iPad app made me a true Bing believer!
This has to be one of the most beautiful looking and helpful apps I now have and it’s free. The app contains a wealth of features and has been exceedingly well designed to take advantage of the iPad’s strengths – this can definitely not be called just a search engine app.

Bing front page
Bing’s home screen features a different image each day.

The app is not significantly different than what Google or Yahoo offer on the Web. But Bing has redesigned its features into a tablet-friendly interface that begins to feel like the content-bundle of a daily newspaper.

That bundle includes channels for news, weather, movies, stocks, maps, traffic, business listings, videos and shopping. (All the app is missing are the comics and Dear Abby.) News is sectioned into standard categories: Top stories, U.S., Sports, World, etc. The results are apparently all automated, closely resembling those found at bing.com/news.

The app’s primary weakness is likely a result of Microsoft being a tech company focused on search, not content. The news selection feels like it is programmed by an algorithm, not chosen by a person making editorial decisions.

Like Google News, the stories presented are only as good as the algorithm selecting them. Those calculations work fairly well for major national and international events, but are of little use in surfacing local and regional news.

At first I thought the app was missing a significant opportunity to provide personalized news results based on location. It does use geography to provide a weather forecast, and at first glance, that seemed to be all.

Bing News Search
The app provides search results within several categories, including news.

But during testing, I searched on “Nashua, NH” — a nearby city. Within the search channel, news from Nashua was immediately highlighted. This was unexpected and actually a bit confusing as it was unclear I was still within “search” not “news.” It took a moment to figure out how to get back to U.S. and World news from there. Adding a few rows of personalized news search in the main news channel would resolve that problem, and make the app even more useful.

Some of the news search results were outdated (there was one two-week-old story) or irrelevant (a story from Montana). There is a “best or most recent” option for the news search results, but neither choice was any more effective in weeding out poor results.

Bing weather
The weather channel within the app is adequate, but not comprehensive.

The shopping and video channels simply link to Bing’s offerings on the Web. The weather channel is adequate, not nearly as in-depth as the Weather.com app.

As I have argued before, though, consumers are not always looking for in-depth information. In may cases, a quick sports score, or the afternoon forecast is all they want. Providing that information at a basic level can still be valuable to readers, even if ESPN is always just a click away.

Though it features a collection of content channels, Bing is not a media app in the traditional sense. But it does inhabit a new middle ground — almost a news app, almost a weather app — but still a search engine at heart. So, Bing is not going replace any of the apps already on your iPad, but it does provide a roadmap for a new way of thinking about presenting information on a tablet.

The challenge for publishers is that Microsoft could easily move toward a Flipboard-like personalized experience in its next upgrade. Done well, that could present a challenge for local and national media apps. That is true especially as consumers look for alternatives to the growing list of paid-content media websites and mobile apps.

For now, Bing is not a fully featured aggregator like Flipboard or an original news source such as The New York Times. But for some consumers it may be a decent alternative.

If the old news bundle was based on original content and advertising, the new one will be technology-focused, including search, aggregation and personalization. So, building digital audiences will require blending content and tech skills.

And while Microsoft is not in the news business, to succeed as an information provider may only require the company to be slightly better at content than journalists are at technology. Read more

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Twitter’s new search favors Groupon’s many accounts over local media organization accounts

Unveiled this week, Twitter’s newly upgraded search engine promises to deliver more relevant “who to follow” suggestions for users. But in my examination, the results appeared inconsistent, if not biased, when searching for the best Twitter sources in specific U.S. cities.

For example, when testing the new feature using 20 different city names as search terms, Groupon placed near the top of the new recommendations with amazing consistency given its relatively modest popularity and influence on Twitter.

By comparison, many accounts owned by major media organizations often did not rank as high in the search results, despite having significantly larger and engaged audiences.

The results raise questions about the criteria Twitter is using to rank recommended accounts, and what — if any — optimizations media companies can implement to improve their search rankings.

Twitter improves its user recommendations

The social network announced its improved search tool on Monday. In the past, searching for “iPad” or “Chicago” would have led only to accounts containing those words in their usernames. The enhanced “people results” recommends Twitter accounts deemed relevant to the term being searched:

“This new approach helps you find the Twitter users that will best help you follow your interests. For example, if you’re interested in hip hop, chances are that you’d like to follow hip hop artists. Searching for “hip hop” now surfaces accounts like @common and @questlove.”

I began digging into the functionality of the new search tool after reading Dylan Stableford’s “Top 25 Newspapers on Twitter” list. Given the new recommendations feature, how would these top media outlets appear in a search for their respective hometowns? For instance, where does the Chicago Tribune appear in a Twitter search for “Chicago”?

Using Stableford’s effort as a rough guide (itself based on work by Jeremy Porter at Journalistics) I searched for the cities of the top dozen papers noted.

In my initial searches, The New York Times and Washington Post were the only media properties to appear as top results. And overall, New York City was the most media-friendly with the @NewYorkPost and @NewYorkObserver also in the top five.

(To replicate my findings, enter a city name in the search box on Twitter, then when the results are returned, click on the “People” tab.)

Other locations were not so friendly. In Chicago, neither @ColonelTribune (829,303 followers) or @ChicagoTribune (45,612 followers) made the top 20.

Similarly in Denver, The Denver Post — with 40,239 followers — placed outside of the top 20 recommended accounts. But surprisingly, several accounts with far fewer followers — including @HuffPostDenver (2,677) and @GrouponDenver (2,989) — did appear in the top 10.

How are the search rankings calculated?

Twitter has not revealed the calculations behind its recommendations, but it is apparent the number of followers is only one criteria. I have asked them to clarify what criteria are used and I will update with a response.

The service has access to a wide array of data with which to analyze and rank user accounts. These signals include username, location, biographical text, number and content of tweets, number and content of lists, and various influence and authority calculations.

Some “misses,” such as @ColonelTribune, might be due to simple SEO (or TRO — Twitter Recommendations Optimization) issues. The Colonel’s account does not have the word “Chicago” in the username, though it is mentioned twice in the bio. The same might be said for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s @AJC account. Even with its 34,625 followers and recent Shorty Award nomination, it falls outside the top 20 results for “Atlanta.”

Twitter’s improvements to the search tool were meant to allow account discovery beyond simple name matching. So what types of accounts are being surfaced prominently?

In many places a local sports team is often Twitter’s top recommendation to follow. The @ChicagoBearscom, @Lakers, @DenverBroncos all lead their respective cities. (In Seattle, it is @Starbucks.)

Politicians and individual athletes also make a regular appearance in the top results, including @GavinNewsom in San Francisco and @JohnElway in Denver. In most cases those accounts have between 50,000 and one million followers.

Groupon, Huffington Post fare disproportionately well

But several accounts stood out during my review due to their small audience size. In Washington, D.C., @PopSugarDC was the fifth search result, though it has only 381 followers. And, in Denver @DealRodDenver also placed fifth with 375 followers.

Across the 20 different cities I eventually tested, Groupon stood out for its stunning consistency.

Here is a list of where Groupon’s Twitter account for these 20 cities ranked when searched by location name:

City search on Twitter Groupon’s People tab search results rank Groupon’s # of Twitter followers
Atlanta 4 6,889
Baltimore 3 1,591
Boston 4 9,644
Charlotte 2 1,412
Chicago 5 20,365
Dallas 3 3,437
Denver 4 2,989
Detroit 2 1,653
Hartford - 346
Honolulu - 408
Houston 3 1,954
Los Angeles 9 6,414
Miami 5 1,955
Minneapolis 5 2,034
New York 9 9,806
Philadelphia 15 2,198
San Francisco 5 6,263
Seattle 4 5,023
Tampa 2 1,127
Washington, D.C. 4 7,302

Groupon is a popular service, but many of its local Twitter accounts have relatively modest followings. The company runs a separate Twitter account in each market — @GrouponPhilly and @GrouponNYC, for instance. Among those I examined, the average number of followers was about 6,500 with @GrouponLA, @GrouponDC and @GrouponSF all around that amount.

Despite that, Groupon placed in the top five results more than 75 percent of the time (15 times out of 20). Only twice did it fall outside the top 20 results, in Hartford and Honolulu. Even more amazingly, a Groupon-related Twitter account appeared among the top four results 11 times.

That top four placement is especially valuable given Twitter’s search results page. While each search recommends up to 20 accounts to follow, only the top four are prominently featured and are therefore more likely to gain followers.

Groupon’s success is not the result of a promotional deal with Twitter. A spokesperson for the company confirmed that it has not paid for search placement, nor is such placement a promoted product Twitter has announced. So, Groupon’s placement appears to be the organic result of Twitter’s recommendation algorithm.

Twitter has made previous attempts at developing an effective user recommendation tool. Its “Suggested User List” was discontinued in January 2010 after some debate. In 2009, Ben Lorica analyzed that feature and reported that being on the list was worth about 50,000 followers a week.

The new system is targeted more closely by interests and topics, so it is unlikely to generate follows of that magnitude. But, it does give some indication of the value of promotion and visibility on the site.

So the question is, if Twitter is not specifically tweaking its search results to promote specific accounts and companies, what characteristics are shared by those highly-ranked accounts?

Search Engine Optimization for recommendations

Twitter is likely using an engagement metric to help judge relevance, but I could not identify the logic behind it. As a proxy for Twitter’s internally developed metric, I compared several dozen accounts by their Klout scores. Klout bases its rankings on followers, retweets and general engagement calculations. Groupon’s many accounts ranked from 41 to 59. But @ChicagoTribune gets a 68 and @AJC a 76 on the same scale, and they landed outside the top 20 results.

Nomenclature and spelling matter. Searching on “Washington D.C.” returns different results than “D.C.” or even “DC.” Some of those differences appear to be based on matching text in the bio field.

But in general, each account had a specific location attached, most had a specific place name included in the bio, and almost all were verified accounts.

That last point is worth considering. Of the four news organizations I found ranked in the top five for their cities, each — The Washington Post, New York Times, New York Observer and New York Post — had its city in its name and each had a verified account.

Perhaps location and verification are important criteria for a social networking service like Twitter, which could begin to explain Groupon’s advantage. Read more

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Six things aggregator app News.me must do to beat Zite, Flipboard

Personalized news app Zite made headlines last week for a minor skirmish with a group of major publishers, but the personalized aggregation app expected to make news any day now is Betawork’s News.me.

News.me, which has been in beta for a few months, is expected in the iTunes Store very soon. Flipboard, Pulse and the more recent Zite are popular on the iPad, but no one has yet cornered the market for a tablet-focused, personalized news aggregator. So the question is: What will News.me need to do to grab an audience?

I have not had advance access to the app, but after reading up on it and using many of its competitors, I’ll be looking for these six features when I download News.me from the iTunes store.

The personalization must be low maintenance.

If a tool is meant to effortlessly filter and personalize your news, the setup has to be equally effortless.

Zite handles this well. The app simply asks you to connect your Google Reader and Twitter accounts. Additional preferences can be indicated (optionally) on a per-article basis as you browse within the app.

For many readers, this is as much work as they wish to do.

Trove (which plans to develop an iPad app) learns users’ interests by asking them to pick between two stories on different topics. A recent pairing offered me a choice between articles about Justin Timberlake or Bob Woodward. That feels like work to me, and every time I visit the site there are a dozen or more votes to be cast.

According to early reviews of News.me, the setup could not be easier. The app simply connects to your Twitter account. Instead of showing you news links tweeted by your friends, it features the links recommended by their friends. This greatly expands the pool of available sources. If I follow 100 people on Twitter, and each of them follows 100 different users, I would have access to recommendations from 10,000 different sources.

Though I’m not sure how effective that approach will be in surfacing relevant news, it does seem effortless.

The design must be tablet-friendly.

Flipboard has set the standard here. It features a simple grid of stories dominated by photos and headlines. CEO Mike McCue told me in an interview last month that the magazine-like design, a reaction to the cluttering of the Web, is key to its success.

Due to its popularity, every similar news app to follow will be judged against Flipboard. Some mainstream apps — NPR, CNN and The Huffington Post — have adopted the grid format as a core UI element. Ongo, which is supported by The New York Times, The Washington Post and USA Today (among others), has a more traditional print-like interface with five or six headlines, photos and short excerpts per section front page.

But for any news app, the tablet should be as different from a Web page as the Web is from print — not for novelty’s sake, but because a touchscreen requires a radically different approach than one intended for a mouse and keyboard.

News.me has taken a middle road in its basic design. The screenshots I have seen so far reveal three stories per page, laid out in broad rows with a headline and large photo. Tech publisher Tim O’Reilly tweeted in late February that he liked the look.

Publishers must be able to profit.

Last week, 11 publishers, from Dow Jones to Time, sent Zite a cease-and-desist letter for what the news organizations termed pervasive copyright violations.

The issue is that Zite takes publishers’ Web content and reformats it for easy, ad-free reading. Zite has always stated its willingness to present news content in its original Web format within the app. (And it does so for any publisher who asks.) But for Zite, an easy-to-read presentation or not, simply personalizing news is not an actual business model.

Flippboard has a eight-month head start on developing a business plan and is aggressively pursuing an advertising revenue sharing strategy via its Flipboard Pages feature. Zite also plans to offer advertising in partnership with media outlets.

The profitability challenge is that a customer’s interest in ubiquitous access to unlimited sources of information in a convenient package can conflict with a publisher’s ability to monetize that content.

A publisher-built product like Trove or Ongo is likely to feel that conflict acutely. An independent developer, such as Flipboard or Zite, less so. News.me is in a slightly different situation, as the product was originally developed in The New York Times R&D lab and then taken over by the team at BetaWorks. It remains to be seen how it will deal with publishers’ interests if they conflict with consumer needs.

I wrote last week that one solution for this challenge would be to create a standard API that enables content and revenue sharing between content creators and app developers.

News must be up-to-the-minute current.

When I reviewed Trove’s private beta test in February, it did not feel like a timely news source. The site is still in development, so that might change, but it is a challenge any news product faces.

Trove presents me with many recent headlines, but a quick check of my homepage reveals the 2012 Olympics and Bill Clinton as the two top stories. Both may be relevant and interesting to me, but neither feel like top news. The effect is that Trove seems more like a weekly news magazine than a daily newspaper.

This is going to be a problem for any service that filters news from your social networks. Your news feed is going to be more or less dependent on the quality and speed of your friends.

News changes quickly, and what is relevant now may be outdated in an hour. Depending on the original sources that are indexed and the relevance algorithms, personalization and timeliness may not always mix.

To supplement its recommendation engine,  Trove provides a section of timely “editor’s picks,” which helps.

Zite is relying not just on friends, but friends-of-friends as the core of its news filter. It will then apply some measure of urgency to stories based on traffic it senses from the bit.ly URL shortener. More traffic to a story indicates that it has more immediate importance.

Sources must be comprehensive, diverse.

This is the challenge of every traditional single-source news app, as well as those like Ongo with a limited number of sources: Even though publishers long for tablets to recreate a print paradigm of information scarcity, consumers do not.

For readers, the point of an aggregation app is that it filters, edits and prioritizes the vast amount of content available on the Web.

But an aggregator that includes only a limited number of sources loses a significant amount of value. Consider Google. How useful would the search engine be if it only indexed the top 100 sites on the Internet?

An aggregator must have a similarly broad scope to be useful. Forcing readers to use other apps for news you’re missing reduces the usefulness of your app as a source.

Reccommendations must be relevant, not random.

A successful aggregation service can be measured in the number of clicks it generates.

The magic behind the “perfect” recommendation service will include a balance of self-selected interests, recommendations from your social network, and aggregated suggestions from the Internet population at large.

That is no easy task. Last year Jeff Jarvis noted that serendipity is not randomness, but rather “unexpected relevance.” He wrote that newspapers do this every day, presenting stories you do not realize you are interested in until you read them.

“Can an algorithm serve us serendipity? Maybe, if it has enough signals of what we and people we trust like, what interests us, what we need, our context.”

The first company to capture those signals, index content from a large enough collection of sources, and figure out how to reward content creators for their efforts will be the Google or Facebook of the next generation of the digital news economy. We’ll know soon whether that might be News.me. Read more

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zite

Zite incident shows why publishers need to enable automatic, controlled content distribution

In an era of free, frictionless content distribution, how can creators of that content be paid for their work?

The question was highlighted on Wednesday as 11 major media organizations — from Dow Jones Co. to Time — sent a letter to news aggregator Zite ordering the company to stop what the news outlets characterized as pervasive copyright infringement.

Zite pulls Web content from a wide variety of sites, reformats it, and displays it — without the ads — within its app. No one can argue about the infringement; Zite has already changed the way it presents the complainants’ content.

But presentation is not the reason consumers downloaded the iPad app 120,000 times in the first week. The real value of the app is its ability to predict which stories will appeal to each user.

For publishers, the problem is that Zite is really, really good at personalization and filtering. In my use of the app over the past few weeks, I’ve consistently found that the app shows me headlines I want to click on – and that’s the test that really matters.

We in media should think about what led us to this place, where major news outlets are targeting a company that is creating something they should create: an innovative, personalized news source.

What efforts have major media companies made to build or enable their own innovative news consumption products?

No product developed by a major (or minor) media company is as effective at Zite. Trove, from The Washington Post, is a work in progress when it comes to recommendations. Ongo, funded by a collection of media companies, is a product in search of an audience that wants pay for a limited collection of news sources.

And News.me, which is being developed by Betaworks with partial support from The New York Times, has yet to make it to the iTunes Store. (The Times’ Martin Nisenholtz criticized Zite in a speech on Monday, saying it scrapes and caches content in violation of copyright law, but the Times didn’t sign onto the cease and desist letter.)

Even Flipboard and Pulse — which are not products of major media companies anyway — are light on personalization so far.

The challenge media companies face is that they have so many fragmented distribution channels. Some, like full RSS feeds, contain entire articles. Others, like Facebook posts or e-mail newsletters, have just enough information in their headlines and summaries to satisfy some consumers. Add mobile sites and apps, Twitter feeds, YouTube channels, even Flickr galleries and Tumblrs, and you see all the different ways that publishers are setting their content loose on the Internet.

The good news is, this is exactly what consumers desire – news and information when and where it’s convenient. The bad news is, with such broad distribution it is tough to monetize content and even tougher to control its reuse.

Content creators must find a way to protect their property and spread it widely across multiple channels.

The New York Times’ Martin Nisenholtz focused on this topic on Monday in a speech to the Newspaper Association of America. Rather than content creators, “platforms win in Web 2.0,” Nisenholtz said — companies like Google and Facebook. Content companies need to create a “web of managed links.”

The Times’ new metered access plan is part of its reassertion of control over how its content is distributed.

But the key to success here is not in restricting access to content in order to increase its value; it’s exploiting the value inherent in wide distribution. The challenge is huge, but it is largely technical.

Media companies have three possible winning strategies:

  • Develop their own innovative apps
  • Collaborate with developers like Flipboard and Zite to display and monetize content
  • Implement robust application programming interfaces (APIs) that allow for controlled distribution of content for use on external sites and apps

In truth, none of those are perfect solutions. For the most part, what many consumers want (free, easy access to content) conflicts with the legacy business model of most news organizations.

So what about developing their own apps? The best aggregation effort so far is Ongo, which offers a limited number of news sources for a monthly subscription. It strikes me as a product-by-committee that is developed when established companies try to disrupt the disrupters. To create a truly compelling tablet app, a publisher will have to disrupt itself and probably have to annoy other news organizations in the process.

Working with external developers is a possibility. At least a dozen publishers are beta-testing the Flipboard Pages product, which shows some promise for repackaging digital content and monetizing it with full-page, interstitial ads.

Zite is more or less pursuing the same business model.

But if these companies intend to work closely with publishers, each of those partnerships requires lawyers, negotiations and contracts. Some publishers will demand different terms. All that negotiating gets in the way of innovation — in the way of building the product.

There’s an easier way to accomplish the same thing, although it’s also the furthest from reality right now: an open system that enables distribution and reuse as well as control and revenue sharing.

What publishers and developers need is a standard API that enables distribution of content for authorized purposes, monitors its use, offers standard advertising units and subscription requirements, and provides a way to share revenues.

The key here is that approval for “authorized use” would be automatic, contingent on standard terms of service. Mobile and Web developers would be able to pull stories, photos and video into their websites and app as long as the advertising (or other monetization tools) are presented in context.

The publisher would have the ability to limit the use of the API, from who can access it to how many items could be republished per hour. But the end result would be an app that looks like Flipboard or Zite, supported by a sustainable business model for publishers and developers.

To some extent this concept includes technology already in use: advertising networks, e-commerce systems, tracking and analytic tools and APIs.

Several major organizations have already created content APIs, including NPR, The Guardian and The New York Times. They provide access to everything from recipes to radio transcripts to congressional data.

Extending those tools to provide a foundation for content and advertising on mobile and tablet apps might be the best way to balance the two interests at tension within Zite: news companies’ need for revenue and control, and the public’s desire for news and information everywhere, all the time. Read more

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