Tuesday, November 29, 2005

The future of distribution

I've had a number of conversations in the past few weeks with a client who wants an eye-popping Web page. He doesn't want a lot of Flash -- and thank God he doesn't -- but he wants something with visual pull.
Now I'm not a designer. I'm a journalist. And my consulting services revolve around editorial issues. But online design is part of many conversations I have. And I'm getting less comfortable with those conversations, because I think design is getting less important.
In other words, I would prefer that publishers spend less time thinking about electronic design and spend more time thinking about electronic distribution.
I've written before that I think content is becoming containerless -- freed of the confines of your magazine and of your Web site -- and that trying to control the context of your material is a loser's game in an era of re-mixes and RSS feeds.
There's a fascinating piece on Matt McAlister's blog in which he talks about Dick Costolo's recent post about the future of RSS. Read them both. But pay particular attention to Matt's "strategic and operational recommendations for today's publisher." Matt suggests that journalists shoot for quality not quantity, by producing more enterprise stories and fewer pieces about the same topics everyone else covers. In other words, publishers should give up any illusions about being the sole source of news in an industry.
Matt also urges publishers and journalists begin to engage the mash-up community. And he suggests that we create our own mash-ups, just as the Washington Post has begun doing. But truth be told, I can't imagine that any B2B publishers will be able to do such things for several years. Heck, I can't convince many of the folks I work with to link outside their own Web sites! Many journalists aren't ready for the present, let alone for the future.
For more on RSS, check out Dave Newcorn's blog. He's less nervous than I, and thinks we have about five years until RSS becomes mainstream.

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  1. Paul, I agree wholeheartedly about the dangers of focusing too much on design. While it's important, we all know that users mainly want a lightening fast site that's mostly text (with images as appropriate, depending on the audience). Google and Craig's list (even Yahoo) didn't get because of their with flashy design. And in terms of advertising, research abounds that text ads (google!) trump graphic ads time and again. Regarding mashups and remixes, it's an interesting comment, but where it seems to be happening is on consumer-oriented sites, or communities built around a passion. That's one of the huge problems with B2B digital media in terms of leveraging some of the neatest trends. In many markets, it's not a community at all. Or not enough to support the sort of interactive, mixup, mashup, commenting, blogging, thing that's happening on the consumer Web. I'd love to be proved wrong, though. I'd love to see examples of this in B2B...fodder for your next post!

  2. All well and good but I think you're missing the point and clumping all things web/ internet together. That's like clumping print, tv, and radio together. The key is separating content from display/distribution so you serve the content (maybe different content) in different ways to different devices through different distribution channels. In fact, that's part of what CSS and a content management system allows you to do. So, a website could be something to behold with lots of graphics and multimedia while an RSS feed is stripped, etc.

  3. Dave - I think B2B publishing has at least as much to gain by taking advantage of all of this as consumer publishing. The whole premise of B2B publishing is that people need to know what's going on in their market. Don't underestimate what people will do to get ahead in their careers. The community is there. It's just underserved.

  4. Hi guys,
    Thanks for your comments.
    I agree with Matt here. I think the readers of most B2B magazines do, in fact, constitute a community. In some industries that sense of community is quite strong -- agriculture and trucking, for example. In others, the community is so very big that it may be easier to think of it as a culture -- IT, for example.
    And in either case, I would argue that B2B publishers and journalists are underserving their readers by trying to maintain control of their readers.

  5. I see both sides of the B2B community fence. When Paul and I were at About.com, developing B2B communities was difficult to say the least. They were even more difficult to monetize. I do believe that is changing. Many industries have seen communities spring up out of nowhere, obviously filling a void in the market. In the past two years, I've seen strong communities in entertainment technology, meeting planning, trucking, ag, firefighting, technology, and broadcast, just to name a few. Developing a successful community is about recognizing the common needs of the individuals. Why would they need to reach out to their peers? How could a community offering help someone in their career development (getting their name out there)?

  6. This may be off topic, but I'm interested in your opinion of e-mail as a distribution tool (in your blog, you discuss almost everything but). I read this article in Business Week (http://www.businessweek.com/magazine/content/05_48/b3961120.htm), which seems to sound the death knell for e-mail as a relevant tool for the dissemination of content. I'd be curious to hear your opinion.

  7. Hi Anonymous,
    I guess I haven't written much about email as a distribution method. And that would certainly imply that I'm not very fond of it.
    But that's not telling the whole story.
    I certainly see value in email today. And I expect to see value there in the near future. But as time passes, I expect that value to decline.
    There are two basic reasons for that. First, young people dislike email. They prefer IM, etc. (I have written about that topic.) And second, managing email is a pain for users. And as time passes, more and more users will turn to easier ways of consuming news.
    I'll try to post something more detailed on this subject soon.

  8. I think we're a few years away from being able to invite readers to mash us up, mainly because our readers just aren't there yet, technologically. I'd love to invite them to do it, but it would be pretty sad if no one took me up on it, which I'm fairly sure would be the case at this point. So I end up doing some mashups of my own, just to play with our content in new ways.

    Are other editors playing with tag clouds, Frappr maps and the like? In the B2B world, outside of some of the more tech-savvy industries, I believe it's up to us to show readers at least some of the cool stuff that's out there to play with, and hope some pick it up and play with it themselves.

    On the community question: What have you seen that really works to build community around a B2B print/online pub, especially when the field is pretty crowded with competitors? This is something we're really interested in learning more about.

    And when you talk about e-mail, Paul, could you talk a bit about e-mail list fatigue? That's something we're all dealing with as we branch out into endless e-newsletters, postcards, etc.

  9. Hi Sue,
    Thanks for the comments.
    I promise -- I'll try to say more about email, list fatigue, etc. soon.
    And I'll promise to post something soon on community building and mash-ups too.
    Thanks for the questions!