Time To Give Away Some More Consulting Advice (4)

During the past three days, I’ve written about Immediacy, ‘Multimedia‘, and ‘Podcasting/Vodcasting‘. Those are three of the ten components that news organizations need to offer, if those organizations are to survive in the 21st Century. I’d also mentioned how the order of these ten components is important because each builds atop the previous ones.

Though my advice about those first three components might have seemed simplistic to many veterans of online publishing, I’d written it that way because many publishers (and broadcasters) still don’t know, understand, or practice Immediacy, Multimedia, or offer on-demand audio and video (i.e., Podcasting/Vodcasting’) despite re having published online for many years.

However, the fourth component is something that most veterans of online publishing themselves don’t know, understand, or practice. That’s the real surprise. That component is Interactivity. Hardly any of the websites operated by newspapers, broadcasters, and magazines actually offer it, despite what many of their new-media executives believe.

It is sad that some termology get so misused by marketers until most people no longer understand what those terms mean. For example, engineers during the 20th Century discovered that using a turbine to increase the air pressure inside vehicle engines could increase the power of those vehicles. Turbine-powered engines were initially used in airplanes and race cars, but when ‘Turbo’ engines became available in regular automobiles and created a consumer demand for that extra power, marketers borrowed the term Turbo and began misapplying and misusing it for all sorts of consumer products totally unrelated to turbines or turbine powered engines, slapping the term onto consumer products such as straight razors, cigarette lighters, and toothbrushes.

During the past 15 years, marketers involved with the Internet have likewise misused and misapplied the term ‘Interactive.’ They’ve foisted the idea that anything somehow related to online is interactive. Or tha anything related to pushing a device’s buttons or clicking hyperlinks is interactive. But fact is that less than one percent of the more the nearly 4 million .com websites in use today have anything interactive about them.

What is Interactivity? It was best defined by Dr. Jonathan Steuer in 1992 as:

“…the extent to which users can participate in modifying the form and content of a mediated environment in real time”

His Journal of Communications article Defining virtual realities: Dimensions determining telepresence” is widely cited in academic literature as the definition of Interactivity (Jon was later one of the founders of HotWired and c|net in mid-1990s).

Note that “…the extent to which users can participate in modifying the form and content of a mediated environment in real time” doesn’t mean showing the user a static webpage is interactivity. Publishing static webpages isn’t interactive.

Yet online publishers think that offering hyperlinks between static webpages is interactive. They might argue that this fits the defintion of Interactivity because the hyperlinks the user to other static webpages that might have different forms or different contents. I say that’s no more interactive than claiming that turning the pages of a printed book is interactive because each new page might have a different form or content.

Interactivity means that the user shares control with the publisher about both the content and the form (text, audio, video, etc.) of the content that he sees online. If my last sentence seems academic or somehow obtuse, let me restate it in two ways that most publishers should understand:

(1) Interactivity means that a website’s users should be able to add or change content wherever they want. Examples of this might be them adding their comments to stories, them creating ‘rollover’ notes to photos or maps, them uploading their photos of an event, etc.

For legal or journalistic reasons, many publishers fear these types of interactivity. However, publishers need to understand that they aren’t ceding all control over the websites, but sharing it with the users. Sharing isn’t a polar or either/or situation. The publishers— the persons who are legally and journalistically responsible for those sites—can still mandate what and how much users can change on the sites and the publishers can correct mistakes in whatever users contribute (just as the users can now correct mistakes in the publisher’s content).

(2) Interactivity also means that each user should be able to change a website’s form and content to fit his own needs. That is the most important sentence I’ll write today. It means that any publisher who does not allow his users to customize the site to fit that individual user’s unique needs has failed to offer the most important function of interactivity.

The reason why newspaper publishers have always produced the same edition (at once) for everyone was that their technologies (i.e., printing ink on paper) limited them to doing that. Likewise, the reason why broadcasters have always transmitted the scheduled the same program (at once) to everyone was that their technologies (i.e., analog transmitters) limited them to doing that. The reason why publishers and broadcasters did this wasn’t because each of their readers, listeners, or viewers wanted exactly the same edition or program schedule. It was done that way because publishers and broadcasters had been limited by their technologies.

Yet those analogue technology limitations don’t exist online. If news publishers and broadcasters want to survive in this millennium, they must stop transplanting into online the limitation of the earlier millennium’s technologies. That type of ‘shovelware‘ from the analog technologies of printing paper or transmitting a signal from an antenna isn’t and won’t succeed online.

Consider it from this perspective: There today is a gargantuan problem in the distribution of news and information. Although all people might share a few common interests (the weather, global warming, etc.) and many people might share many common interests (Brittany Spears’ woes, Manchester United’s victories, etc.), each person has individual interests (for examples: a traffic problem on their local road, their daughter’s school lunch menu, a co-worker’s promotion within their industry, and the weather where their mother lives a world away) and each person is a truly unique mix of those common and individual interests.

The chances are that a combination of stories exist that would satisfy that person’s unique mix of common and individual interests. However, the overwhelming probablility is that this person isn’t receiving all those stories but instead is receiving from publishers and broadcasters the same edition or the same program schedule as everyone else receives. That won’t satisfy her and never totally has.

There was an era when she had no other choice but to receive exactly the same package of content that everyone else received (it was called the era of Mass Communications and its 550 year reign ended last decade.) But she’s now has acess to scores of topical TV channels via cable or satellite, hundreds of topical interests magazines available on subscription or newsstands, and access to millions of websites online. She now accesses those so to better match her unique mix of individual and common interests, and has increasingly less need to use old fashioned news products, such as printed daily newspaper or generic TV networks, that sends exactly the same mix of content to everyone.

That is why printed daily newspapers and generic TV networks (such as ABC, CBS, Fox, and NBC in America) are declining in usage. Those aren’t declining because people no longer have interests, but because each people now has other, more specific means of satisfying her own individual mixes of interests.

Yet while each person can now better satisfy her unique mix of individual and common interest by using scores of topical TV channels via cable or satellite, hundreds of topical interests magazines available on subscription or newsstands, and millions of websites online, the people themselves today have to hunt in all those places for it (perhaps the major reason for the success of search engines).

Eliminating that work is the big business opportunity. The publishers and broadcasters who are stupidly transplanting into online the limitations of the previous millennium’s print and analog broadcasting technologies lament that they are still searching for the missing business model for news publishing online. They don’t realize that the true business model is to eliminate the need for each person to hunt among scores of topical TV channels, hundreds of topical interests magazines, and millions of websites for the unique mix of that person’s individual and common interests.

That true business model for online has never been missing. Like the true definition of Interactivity, it was defined during the earliest day of the Web, when Internet pioneers talked about people ‘getting only ads for things that actually interests them’ and ‘getting only the content that actually interests them.’

Unfortunately, this business model, like the definition of Interactivity, was shunted aside by marketers’ (in this case, the publishers and broadcasters themselves’) inertial and bureaucratic desires not to change their business with the times; their desires to continue doing thing the way they’d always done, to continue distributing the same edition at the same time to every person regardless of each person’s unique mix of individual and common interests. The business model has never been missing; it was simply kicked aside.

Is that really the online business model for news publishers and news broadcasters—to aggregate from all sources the stories that match each person’s unique mix of individual and common interests and deliver that package to that specific person?

I’ll put the answer this way: most publishers and broadcasters of news are now reluctantly realizing that their old business model of producing at once the same edition or program schedule for everyone is failing. They can see the evidence of this in that traditional business model’s ever-declining readership, viewership, and circulation. Most publishers and broadcasters are also realizing that people won’ pay a subscription or cover fee, as with printed edition, to receive online that same edition or program schedule, or even a portion of that edition’s or schedule’s content, shoveled online. And they’re now realizing that their traditional business model of using display (banner) advertising to subsidize production of the same edition or program schedule delivered to everyone will never earn enough online to compensate for the declining revenues of their print and analog broadcast products.

Will each consumer actually pay to receive delivery of information that uniquely matches that person’s mix of individual and common interests? No, not everyone will, but I believe that the vast majority would. If you could receive a service that uniquely matches (from all sources) your own mix of individual and common interests, would you pay a nominal subscription fee for it both every day or on-demand? I think you would. Google and Yahoo! also think so, which is why they’re beginning to build such services.

What daunts most newspapers and news broadcasters from utilizing this true business model of online publishing are three things, in this order: Most lack a conceptual grasp of it. They won’t cooperate among themselves to build it (aggregating information from all sources requires that cooperation), despite the fact that the technologies, coding, and protocols (such as XML) already exist to implement it. And marketers’ misuse of consumers’ data online during the past 15 years has cause most consumers to mistrust almost every website that asks them to state their interests; trust that, even at best, will take a decade to rebuild.

True interactivity for news organizations means that each user should be able to customize the news site to fit his own unique mix of individual and common interests. Interactivity isn’t just about letting users comment or contribute. If American daily newspapers and broadcasters want to survive during the 21st Century, they will need to offer full and true interactivity.

I’m on the road tomorrow, but will write this weekend about another of the ten components.

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