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Atomisation and the death of passivity

Interaction and an enhanced user experience are what Web 2.0 is all about, but this means more than just putting up a forum and a few video clips on your website. It is much more fundamental than that and, says Craig Hanna, publishers are in danger of being left behind.

By Craig Hanna

Many of the publishers we work with now accept that the web is changing, and changing quickly. Under the catch-all of Web 2.0, we have seen the beginnings of a revolution in the way that people, companies and technology interact.

And yet there still seems to be inertia from publishers in reacting to what is both a fantastic opportunity and a considerable threat. At best, I see a sticky plaster approach to experimentation and, at worst, a total denial of the coming storm.

At E-consultancy, we have been trying to look under the bonnet of Web 2.0 and look at the issues that really impact the businesses we work with. One of the key trends we are seeing is what Ashley Friedlein, the CEO of E-consultancy, has coined ‘The Atomised Web’.

The Atomised Web

What this means is the disaggregation or breakdown of content into smaller units so that they can be delivered where and when the users want and in the format that they want, rather than simply being statically available on a destination website. Examples that are becoming commonly accepted include RSS and widgets. However, for me, the process of atomisation is much wider and holds many implications for how we as publishers will do business in the future.

I think we can break down atomisation into three main components:

1. Content and page views using technologies such as:

* RSS. Really Simple Syndication (or whatever translation you prefer) is a feed of your content distributed using XML that can be displayed on another site or reader. While many sites do this, not so many do it well and they are often poorly set up for search and for the user (Eg. poor descriptions, poor categorisation, not enough granularity).
* Microformats. Small bits of HTML which can represent people, events, tags, etc in web pages. Microformats enable the publishing of higher fidelity information on the web, providing the fastest and simplest way to support feeds and APIs for your website.
* Ajax. A group of inter-related web development techniques used for creating interactive web applications. What’s important is that they change the user experience by allowing the exchange of data behind the scenes so that pages don’t reload. This makes for a much faster, more interactive experience, but means the concept of a page view is made redundant.

2. Functionality

* API. An application programming interface is a way of allowing computers to talk to each other in a way that they both understand. The key to this is that it allows you to create web services and "mashups" easily and quickly. One of the best known APIs is Google’s which allows developers easy access to their mapping tool. Using this tool, other companies have developed independent third party services (mashups) by combining this content with either their own content or that from another API. A good example is which uses data from Google and Craigslist to build a new application for people looking to rent or buy houses in the US.
* Widgets. A widget is anything that can be embedded within a page of HTML, ie. a web page. A widget adds some content to that page that is not static and is normally provided by a third party. What that means is that real functionality (say booking a hotel or buying a cinema ticket) can be done without leaving the original site.

3. Behaviour

* AMPL. This stands for Attention Profiling Mark-up Language and is a way of creating standard profiles about people that can be ported about the web. Users can have different profiles depending on the circumstances and the type of site they visit. Critically, it allows sites supporting the standard to provide services that more closely matches your personal preferences.

What does this mean for publishers?

The implications for publishers are potentially profound. How can we measure an interaction that doesn’t happen on our site or charge for CPM rates when there is no page view to measure? Does our technical infrastructure allow us to develop these services? What impact will this have on search and traffic generation and where do we find the skills needed to make these things happen? We don’t have all the answers yet, but we do have some ideas.

Measurement and metrics

I have termed ‘the death of passivity’ to describe the need for us to develop more metrics based on interaction rather than non-action. For example, what use are page views as a measure of effectiveness, and what metric can effectively replace this, in a world where Ajax (or similar) is the norm and there isn’t such a thing as a page view – the ‘unpage’ if you like?

Yes, we have PPC and CPA models in place now, but these don’t suit all business models and don’t give value to the whole customer journey. We need to look again at ways of creating engagement rather than interruption. By creating tools and experiences that engage and entertain, we can begin to think of metrics that matter again.

Advertising models

Most publishers create a significant amount of revenue from CPM-based advertising. While I am not advocating abandoning this lucrative revenue stream, I would question both its long-term viability and its ability to deliver maximum value to your business unless you have very high volume, untargeted traffic...

As sites use more and more Ajax (and they will, since both demand and better conversion rates make it a business necessity for at least e-commerce sites), the concept of CPM vanishes. The CPM model already over-values the non action but, significantly in many cases, also undervalues the positive action. What will advertisers prefer – to take their chances with 1,000 banner impressions knowing that at best they’ll get 10 clickthroughs or pay for five people who have interacted with their brand and then requested further information etc? The first is worth £2-£50 but the second could be worth a considerable multiple of that.

The argument against this approach has always been to question why should the publisher take the risk. Simple, because, done well, the upside in revenue is large enough to make it worthwhile and because happy customers are returning customers. Interruption advertising only hinders the customer experience and by and large makes it less likely that they will return.

In fact the most successful publishers will be those that use their content carefully and take all the revenue opportunities on the table. Why not have a CPM-based model and one based on interaction?

The skills shortage

This new world requires different skills which are in very short supply and will remain so since growth across all sectors is far outstripping the number of people entering the digital industry. Publishers need to take control now to ensure that staff are retrained on digital and that there is a steady stream of young ‘digital natives’ making their way into their organisations. One key strategy is to stop building silos of digital expertise (who invariably get over stretched very quickly) but to take steps to make sure that everyone in the business understands digital.

What steps can you take now?

It’s a long road for most publishers, but a top five list of things to do might include:

1. Map your network – start with alerts such as, set up an RSS reader and subscribe to related content, look at your referring sites’ data and see who is talking about you, look at blog search engines such as Technorati, check out Touchgraph and look at who links to you and your competitors.

2. Do the simple things like RSS well. This page, although technical, is a good place to start:

3. Think about what data you have and how it could drive interactive tools rather than static content. The web will be about ‘doing’ not ‘looking’ and customers are increasingly demanding that we deliver a better user experience.

4. Open up your content and data as an API so others can use it (in a commercially viable way for you). I believe all companies have something of value they can unlock. Sometimes it helps to think "would my CEO kill me if we gave that away?" and you’re probably on the right lines.

5. Empower more people in your organisation to create and contribute to content. Many publishers struggle to do this, but in order to compete in this landscape, it is essential that you bring as many guns to bear as possible. This doesn’t have to mean a drop in quality, just less ‘editorial control’.

Longer term, all publishers need to see themselves as a platform rather than a destination, as creators and aggregators of content which can be delivered through any channel (print or digital). It is important to be a harbinger of opinion, taste and selection that informs, and a creator of tools that people interact with rather than just passively consume. If you can do that then long term success will surely be yours.