Making the web a long tail broadcast medium 2005-03-29

Anybody remember Pointcast? Back in the dot-com boom years, when push technologies was going to be the Next Big Thing, Pointcast was IT. "Everybody" were clamouring for a piece of the push action. Then nothing happened.

So where are we now? Push is finally maturing - conceptually - though data is really being pulled.

RSS has been a driving factor in making us reactive instead of pro-active when it comes to a larger and larger segment of our interactions with websites.

Push was "going to be big" back in the late 90's because it would let people broadcast to an audience, just like in traditional media. And that is what is finally happening.

As I'm watching the stats for my RSS feed, I can see instant feedback whenever I'm active in the form of more readers, exactly because software now works the way push was meant to.

While technically our readers are pulling the data, it's conceptually push - I put an item out there, readers pick it up and feed it to an aggregated view.

The conceptual difference is that readers don't adapt to specific patterns when they read your site, but they read when new material becomes available. This is also the key differentiating factor between books and newspapers, which you read when you have time (though the timeliness issue of newspapers makes the time you consider it interesting limited) and TV/Radio where you tune in when content becomes available.

Yes, you can come back and see it later, much as you can timeshift broadcast. But more and more content consumption is controlled by availability rather than a well defined time when we log on to check a few sites. We're "tuning in" to content rather than a specific source.

So while there are still obviously a lot of websites out there that are interactive, or where actions are user initiated, sites where timeliness is an issue, or where there is a demand for quick access to updated content, we're turning into information consumers in much the same fashion as we are with mass media.

Rather than seek and and research, we're often content to sit back and deal with the information thrown at us.

That brings up the obvious question: Who will find the best way of building and monetizing these audiences? There's clearly already a significant revenue potential in "normal" advertizing, but broadcasting, especially in the form seen with blog's which are more like a talk show than recorded programming, has the advantage that it builds loyalty, and where a personality that builds a large audience has the potential to extract far greater value than basic advertising.

Case in point: Oprah Winfrey. Get a mention for your book on her show, and you're rich. Get it into her book club, and you're even richer because millions of people are members. Both because she's a trusted personality.

Could she have gotten that position in a medium where updates can happen at any time, but you only find out the next time you feel like checking? No. Newspapers online have worked without push because of regularity - they spent fortunes on building brand or have offline editions that does it for them to build an audience, and the audience keeps coming back because they know there will be regular updates.

And while RSS increases the timeliness for such news sources as well, by shortening the time before they have their headline in front of a user, RSS is the poor mans broadcasting - it brings the same timeliness to a tiny blog as a major news source, both significantly better than pre-RSS timeliness for most sites.

The outcome is a levelling of the playing field that makes it significantly easier to create the diverse niche driven push market that push providers like Pointcast was hoping to drive them revenue.

The reason it worked this time around? Decentralisation. Anyone can publish, so the amount of content have exploded.

While this poses a challenge to monetisation, it also creates tremendous possibilities for two groups of people:

Aggregators that can finds ways of sift through all this information that add value, and publishers that can find ways of creating compelling content.

The former because they get to be a "radio channel" with only licensed content - they have much more freedom in creating a line up than a traditional broadcaster which has to take chances on who will produce quality content. They can see what seems to take off, and create premium feeds for content that is valuable enough.

Publishers of content because they're no longer limited to finding someone to take their content - they can put it out their and use it to build an audience.

However it boils down to the long tail: You're suddenly targetting niche markets.

Newspapers targets niche markets. It's just that it's targetting many of them at once. I read a newspaper mostly for the main news headlines, political commentary and technology. I couldn't care less about sports, celebrities, TV programmes, horoscopes, classifieds etc. I don't find technology a compelling reason to buy a paper anymore. Nor political commentary. Nor headlines. I can get all of them from disparate feeds - my news headlines mostly from the BBC. My political commentary from the Guardian and assorted blogs. My tech news from a long list of blogs.

A few people will be able to make significantly profitable blogs or RSS driven "channels" of articles with mass market appeal. But the real money is going to be in figuring out to deal with that long tail - then huge amount of smaller blogs that will never make much money individually, but that are all interesting to someone

Ad networks may be one way to squeeze some returns out of it. But I have a feeling that the real place to be is as a successfull aggregator: Finding the right balance in how to provide the right news source to the right people, and how to combine that with personalised offers that fit the content, and at the same time building an audience that trust you the aggregator implicitly because of your pick of quality sources.

In many ways, the two roles - aggregator and publisher - might merge because one way of building that audience is mixing the aggregation of content with unique content that add value to the aggregated content. A significant number of blog's already do mix these roles, as much of the content is commentary on other content - we're aggregating and commenting the same way a talk show host is.

However, whatever the winning formula: the problem of aggregation must be solved. I'm currently following around a hundred RSS feeds. Maybe 10% of the entries are actually of interest to me, and I suspect the ration will get worse.

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