Thursday, 30 September 2010

Four key concepts in Web 3.0 - 1. Semantic content

The years of Web 2.0 were very exciting. This was not just because I think we were genuinely seeing novelty, difference and potential but were capturing it in definitions. The fact that those definitions were different depending on whose opinion one asked was great fun. This enabled me to conduct one of my favourite activities - bar arguments - on a regular basis. Web 2.0 felt like a big step forward.

I have had several conversations recently about what's coming next. We know the themes of the moment; social, mobile etc, but it's time to do some future gazing. OK, so Tim Berners-Lee has already had a go at defining what Web 3.0 might be. It's probably fair to accept that he has a certain 'authority' in these things, but I'd like to stick my neck out and make a few suggestions of my own.

Actually that's a bit of a lie.These are, of course, not my own opinions, but those of the people I meet, follow and read. Just call me Boswell. For the sake of your eyes Dear Reader, this will be separated into four sections over the next few weeks.

Berners-Lee has championed the concept of the semantic web as being core to Web 3.0 and this has to be one of the major memes of the next few years. Structured, parametric data has been the mainstay of databases and data definition for decades (centuries?) - we all understand that to store data and to make it useful we have to describe it.That description has to be consistent, well maintained and generally rather inflexible if it is to allow us to use data to generate insight.

This rigidity has caused huge overheads in data management. The inflexibility has meant that stored data does not reflect the changing environment and has often led to enormously complex taxonomies, heavyweight tagging systems which generally sacrificed speed for structure. It also requires data experts. Time and time again businesses have seen how completely unreliable ordinary users are when it comes to defining and entering data properly. Even content professionals struggle to tag well (witness the eternal battle between data/content managers and authors and journalists).

Parametric based systems are unwieldy - watch techies wince when faced with data migration from one platform to another, or try to match business rules with taxonomy structures. The end result is that in all but the simplest systems precision is far from perfect, good enough is often scarily poor and flexible non-linear thinking is hindered.

The semantic web is not a new idea. I remember seeing a prototype semantic thesaurus in the mid/late 90s. But it has been severely held back by technical limitations and the inability for machines to index and catalogue accurately. It has also been held back by the lack of systems that can read crowds and adapt definitions according to their behaviour. However I'm seeing more and more examples of this being done well by people who are brilliant.

It has to be the future. True semantic systems will be agnostic of the form or shape of content but will be able to recognise context and meaning. The RBI Search guys did some tremendous work in this when they launched Zibb and the various other off-shoot products. By the end they were automatically recognising the difference between B2B and B2C, the difference between news and other types of content (indeed the last time  I asked they were differentiating between 15 different types of content) and are doing incredibly sophisticated things with context and meaning.

Google have blazed their path over the last decade. Love them or hate them, one has to admire the brilliance of their machine led comprehension of content and data and the range of content types over which we now expect them to operate.

Semantic based systems will arrive, probably soon and with an enormous impact. I'd like to postulate systems that will incorporate content of whatever form (be it text, audio or video). They will recognise, index and tag new content and place it in context with existing records. That context will be driven by a combination of algorithm driven logic and actual user activity (it will probably still have a taxonomical basis as well - at least for a while). Whole pages can be generated on the fly according to an individual's preferences and behaviour. Any distinction between content and databases will become less important or even irrelevant. The distinction between sites will disappear.

This gives content producers startling advantages. The costs of keeping and managing data will tumble. Complexity will be replaced by flexibility and new data sources will be incorporated into existing tools with little or no additional  work. They will be able to initiate individual conversations with their customers in which the customer will have enormous control and equality.  This aren't new ideas, but technology and our abilities to deploy that technology are maturing enough to deliver this. Business models will evolve to be more value based and certainly more focused on the micro than the macro.

This is a fundamental basis for changing the web and making it even more useful. In combination with the next few themes I think it will provide the framework for as radical a change as that ushered in by web 2.0 (whatever that was) and perhaps even than by the web itself.

Next time: platforms

BTW has everybody seen ? Semantic wonderfulness in action.

Wednesday, 22 September 2010

Apps: just a temporary red herring

We're seeing a breathless rush by publishers to produce iPad apps - the Telegraph announced theirs yesterday. It adds fuel to the discussion about the iPad and whether it is or is not the saviour of the publishing industry.  I don't really think that many people in publishing believe that Steve Jobs has answered all their prayers, although I suspect that many hope that he has.
There is a bigger discussion here: will apps/mobile sites etc continue to exist or will they be replaced by convergence with an increasingly widgitised approach to web sites? This is more than just a 'to iPad' or 'not to iPad' conversation. The same points apply to the broader mobile world.
That mobile world is currently driven by talk about apps. This talk appears to miss the role that can/should be played by websites. My feeling is that apps are a bit of a red herring. They work quite well under three conditions:
1. There are relatively few OS platforms for which we need to create (and maintain) apps.
2. There is still a general assumption that we will not be connected as opposed to the reverse.
3. Web delivery does not give the individual range of customisation and personalisation that our customers desire.
The first condition is clearly changing, and changing rapidly. In a world where Android and iP(whatever) are going to be owned by increasingly antagonistic owners, where Microsoft and Symbian will still be wishing to stake a claim, it is highly unlikely that there will be enough commonality to help developers. Apple's general approach to locking down and their stance towards Flash are good indicators that developing for their platform will not be an easy ride. If one adds in the alternatives then it all becomes a bit of a nightmare.
I'd like to think that the second condition will be proven to be plain wrong. It is instructive to see how much criticism Apple copped for not making the iPad 3g automatically and this seems likely to be one of the obvious changes in v 2.0 when it launches. WiFi is not yet ubiquitous but will be. It seems foolish to be betting against this when making strategic business decisions.
Addressing the third condition is something the web dev community is getting better at. Whilst widgets seem to have fallen slightly from fashion their spirit lives on.  We are increasingly seeing sites presenting content in configurable ways (look at the right hand column of LinkedIn for instance). Widgets free content from the rigid templates and sizing of a conventional site and allow it to be taken directly - from the same source - onto a wide variety of viewing platforms including many of the later smart phone/mobile devices.
The iPad apps do not offer any great advances in interactivity. Websites themselves can be more creative than they generally are, experience tells us that users drawn to the gloss and flashiness often (usually?) revert to simplicity over the long term.
The common ground, with firmly established standards, is the web. Businesses will choose not to develop for multiple platforms or die. There is no other decision that is sensible in the long term. My conclusion is that, in a couple of years, we are unlikely to need apps. Most access to content will revert to web channels, albeit channels that look much more like the current generation of apps. 
For the iPad this means that it will be doing what it was designed to be good at which will be great. But it does mean that publishers face the same issues that they do now. The app revenues are not scalable or permanent - they might offer a breather for the next few months for those lucky few that catch the imagination - but will not be a panacea. 

5 bad habits of publishers

Publishers are still wringing their hands about how to react to the 21st Century. That some of their problems are self-generated is widely recognised, but only a few seem to be self-aware enough to do something about it. The following list gives some examples of where businesses have made changes for the better, but also a couple of examples where they continue to cling to their outmoded certainties. This is, by no means a complete (or even objective) list of these habits - but more the result of what I have experienced over the last few years.

Bad habit 1: publishers still insist that the value of their product/brand is predicated by the print item instead of looking at a holistic approach to customer needs.

What they did:  Emap has overturned its view about what a subscription buys. The old view was that the print item was the leader and that all other services were ancillary to the experience of consuming the print content. The new view has it that the subscription is to a holistic range of B2B information. In Retail Week, for instance, they have bought and re-vamped Retail Knowledge Bank to provide a background data service on the retail industry. Everything is now behind a subs barrier - but the sub buys access to the whole range of products, both print and online.

What happened: Well it's still too early to tell but the drop off from free to paid unique user levels has been less than the worst modelled case and is proving surprisingly resilient.

Bad habit 2: insisting that because an editor can create a publication they can, ergo, be capable of running a business based on that publication (contentious I know, but there are UK publishers who are making this mistake every day, cf Emap, Telegraph Media etc)

What they did: Emap got rid of the commercial management layer of their publishing division. 

What happened: Within a year this decision was effectively reversed (although the publishing director title was replaced by 'Market Manager' to make it seem less like a volte face). Some of the market managers are ex editorial - but they tend to have strong commercial management sitting beside them.

Bad habit 3: Insisting that the value of an article is dictated by the effort taken to create it, rather than a calculation based on the reader's needs.

What they did: Perhaps the best example of this is the FT freemium paywall model. They give away the first 10 articles and then get a sub. the assumption is that as you move beyond 10 items in a month you are proving the value of the content to yourself and will therefore be more willing to continue to pay for it - thus setting the value as a customer function rather than an editorial function.

What happened: By the end of  the first year they had an average 120,000 subscribers. In the second year they announced a series of fairly hefty price increases and a switch to focus on selling annual, rather than monthly subscriptions (this on the back of a 22% rise in subscribers). Certainly a moderate success comes from letting users ascertain their value from the product.

Bad habit 4: Not distributing content through a channel appropriate to the customers' need for that content. For example one might say that in a B2B environment there are at least three steps: 

1. An announcement that something has happened/is about to happen that will affect the sector (clearly timeliness is crucial, therefore probably a digital channel)
2. Thoughtful follow up and comment on what the event means and how the customers might react. (Longer content to be consumed in slow time and probably a print channel item). 
3. Data and stats that underwrite the customers decision making process about how they might plan to react to the event. (Data is almost always best served online)

What happened: This is the biggie, I'm not sure that anyone has nailed this properly yet.

Bad habit 5: Not recognising that each channel has a fundamentally different set of demands for content architecture, definition and style. Multi-use content has to be multi-form content.

What they did: Emap appointed web editors to handle the content online who, although they reported to the editor, were given an explicit and wide ranging responsibility to develop the online audiences through developing content. There were the inevitable conflicts between on- and offline staff about when and where news should be broken and how best to manage this. The result was a reasonably widespread acceptance that online was the best place to break news but a decision could be made to hold some stories (big scoops for instance) back for print to satisfy commercial drivers.

What happened: In 12 months Emap doubled unique users and page views rose 400%. The awareness of the potential of digital as a channel grew enormously (in parts of the business where this might not have been otherwise true) and provided the basis of the switch to holistic subscriptions (see #1 above).

Tuesday, 21 September 2010

I'm speaking at the JUMP conference

I'm speaking at JUMP (Joined Up Marketing Professionals) on the 13th October ( JUMP conference ) organised by the always excellent eConsultancy crew.

Come and see me if you want to hear about my experience in using digital channels to improve your offline operations.

Privacy: The reports of my death are greatly exaggerated

We seem to be in the midst of a number of discussions whose outcomes will have critical impacts on how the web develops over the next few years. Key amongst these is whether privacy is dead.

I really believe the reverse is true. Many of the social media companies have tried to suggest that privacy is dead, largely because it makes their lives much more simple. If the assumption of complete openness is prevalent then they have significantly fewer issues with permissions, sign-ons and a whole array of user management functions.

The uproar that has greeted each 'slip' in privacy controls indicates that we are no more tolerant of them than ever we were before. Facebook, Google and a number of other social media brands have all had stinging rebukes from their customers when they’ve tried to follow through the 'privacy is dead' propaganda with functional software. Although it is important to differentiate between choosing to publish openly and being forced to be open. The tolerance towards what we choose to publish is certainly changing towards openness – but in this I think choice itself is crucial. Our friends may hear a great deal more about our lives (lucky them!) but strangers will, by our choice hear less.

Zuckerberg’s famous pronouncement that ‘privacy is dead’ has been roundly condemned and Facebook has retreated significantly on several fronts. I also believe that we are coming out of an innocent age. People were broadly unaware of the wider impact of their personal revelations and the long term effect public indiscretions might have. This is less and less true and the growing awareness of the potential impact will, I’m sure, regenerate a more privacy aware online population.

I think one of the significant memes of the next few years will be that of personalisation (more about this in a future blog) – and a significant element of that personalisation will be the choice of what we publish to whom. ID theft, career protection and a general desire not to be completely unwrapped n open are all distinct and growing conversations at present.

Privacy will rise :)