What To Expect In 2014
Predictions are dangerous, mostly because they can always come back to haunt you. Take a look at this list of the 10 Worst Tech Predictions of All Time and you'll see what I mean.
A wise person once pointed out that changes expected in the short term typically take longer to materialize and changes expected in the long term often happen sooner. With that in mind, I'm sticking my neck out and predicting the following digital content developments in 2014 (or 2015...):
Ad-subsidized content flourishes
We already have access to plenty of ad-subsidized content. Visit your local paper's website and you'll find ads accompanying every story. I'm not talking about more ads in news articles though. I'm suggesting ads will finally appear in new other types of content...longer-form content...the kind of content purists believe should never have ads.
Yes, I'm talking about ads in ebooks. It's not a question of "if", but rather a question of "when." This might not happen on Amazon or any of the household name retailers, but it's going to happen. And notice I'm saying "ad-subsidized", not "free." These will be products that still have a retail price, but that price will be lower because the publisher will also generate some income via ads.
One final point on this: Sponsorship is a form of advertising. The opportunity here isn't limited to a bunch of Google ads on every page. Your name, email address and job title have value too. So think of products that are "brought to you by company xyz" where you have to register and allow the sponsor to send you emails, etc. It's not for every type of content but we're going to see a lot more of these products in the future.
Subscriptions expand as containers lose relevance
Content subscription models are popping up everywhere. Most are the all-you-can-read variety but some have limits. It's interesting to watch the incumbents who have been offering unlimited access to ebooks for more than ten years stuck in place while the startups are the ones generating all the excitement. I suppose it just shows that even relatively young companies aren't immune to The Innovator's Dilemma.
The incumbents I'm referring to started off in ebooks and haven't moved much beyond them. Part of their challenge is their corporate names include the word "book", so they're known for books whereas the startups are avoiding the word "book" in their names. Smart move.
As I mentioned in this earlier article, containers are meaningful in the print world but they lose their relevance in the digital world. I don't care if the piece I'm reading came from a newspaper, a magazine, a book, a blog or a website. What matters to me is that it's relevant to my interests.
Look for more content subscription models where you're not buying access to a single container type (books, newspapers, magazine); rather, these new services will be a gateway to all forms/lengths of content, tailored to your specific interests. Think of it as an RSS service on steroids, where you're gaining access to content in front of as well as behind the existing paywalls.
Native app development declines
Most publishers I speak with have developed what I would refer to as "app fatigue." They drank the iOS Kool-Aid several years ago then bit the bullet when Android started to take off. Now they find themselves with two code bases and few, if any, success stories.
More and more publishers are realizing that discovery on a platform isn't solved simply by creating an app. What used to be an item on a product strategy checklist is now being scrutinized more than ever before, mostly due to ever-shrinking budgets and weak ROI.
Publishers are starting to realize that they don't have to be part of the walled garden to enjoy success on a platform. HTML5 offers all the rich functionality most consumers care about and it's consumable on all platforms.
eInk devices either become free or disappear
The original Kindle spawned a revolution but the device's display technology is under assault. eInk device prices continue to drop but so do tablet prices. And with tablets, you get a multi-purpose product with plenty of battery life. I ditched my last eInk device a year ago and never looked back.
I also believe we're quickly heading for a time where consumers will demand richer content than what can be delivered on a monochrome device. Black-and-white TVs lasted well into the color TV era but I believe that was more the result of the significant price difference between black-and-white and color. That's less of an issue with tablets, where you can find plenty of Android ones for $100 or less.
All this means that eInk devices either become free or they go away. A couple of years ago there were predictions that Amazon would soon offer eInk Kindles for free. The thinking was that you'd get an eInk Kindle in exchange for signing up for Amazon Prime and/or agreeing to buy a minimum number of products in the next year or two. That could work one day for the Kindle Fire but not for an eInk device. Why? Because eInk devices are for reading, not for buying all the products Amazon offers. One day Amazon will give away a device designed for buying products, basically an Amazon Prime gateway, but it won't be an eInk device.
Amazon becomes even more dominant
Speaking of Amazon, this last prediction is an easy one. There is nothing out there to stop Amazon's momentum. And while this is good news (in the short term) for consumers, it's causing heartburn for a growing number of publishers. The bigger they get, the more Amazon is able to dictate more favorable terms for themselves.
As Mr. Bezos said though, complaining is not a strategy. There's certainly nothing wrong with embracing Amazon. After all, they're the retailer with the largest customer base. The trick is to make sure they're not a publisher's only path to consumers.
Direct-to-consumer channels have never been easier to build than they are today. But if your strategy is, "build it and they will come", you're almost guaranteed to fail. Before you embark on a D2C solution, be sure to ask yourself this very important question: What compelling reason are we offering for consumers to buy direct from us rather than anywhere else?
If you love change I'm sure you'll agree it's an exciting time to be in the digital content industry. I'm convinced that a few years from now we'll look back and laugh at how simple and limited our products and visions were in 2013.
My hopes for the new year are that the short-term changes won't end up taking longer to appear and that the long-term trends will happen sooner than anticipated.
Happy New Year!
Joe Wikert is Publishing President at Our Sunday Visitor (www.osv.com). Before joining OSV Joe was Director of Strategy and Business Development at Olive Software. Prior to Olive Software he was General Manager, Publisher, & Chair of the Tools of Change (TOC) conference at O’Reilly Media, Inc., where he managed each of the editorial groups at O’Reilly as well as the Microsoft Press team and the retail sales organization. Before joining O’Reilly Joe was Vice President and Executive Publisher at John Wiley & Sons, Inc., in their P/T division.