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Content & Media > Book Reviews > Killer Content: Strategies for Web Content and E-commerce >

Killer Content: Strategies for Web Content and E-commerce


By Mai-Ian Tomsen

2000 Addison-Wesley Longman, Massachusetts

213 pages; US$34.95


Review by Madanmohan Rao (madan@techsparks.com)



Are you a content provider looking for new ways to tap revenue from your current and archived content? Or an e-commerce vendor looking for outsourced content to create that unique user experience which can help clinch more sales? Or a Web solutions provider exploring the cutting edge of publishing and commerce platforms? The name "Killer Content" says it all.


This book on next-generation content/commerce business models is a must-read for old/new media companies, e-commerce vendors, Web solutions firms, online marketers, and financial services players.


In a "noisy" Internet environment crowded with numerous sites offering similar user experiences or indiscriminately blowing voluminous content at surfers, the key to Web success is finding the right "value exchange" mix.


"There is much more commodity than there is quality on the Internet today. On an Internet crowded with sites, content is king," according to the author.


Mailan-Lan Tomsen was involved with Qpass.com, a pioneering payment infrastructure for content-based e-commerce. She has worked at both the technology and publishing ends of the e-commerce spectrum, for clients like the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times; she has also written numerous articles for Microsoft Systems Journal and Microsoft Internet Developer.


Seven chapters cover a wide range of issues including content syndication, user interface design, online communities, affiliate programs, online privacy, digital rights management, and Web publishing tools. Numerous case studies are also included, based on the experiences of sites like Amazon, Yahoo, TheStreet, Priceline, Garden.com, and Hollywood Stock Exchange.


It is becoming increasingly important - especially in this "Internet winter" with razor thin margins for inventory and significant site costs - for sites to improve "business critical conversation rates" by converting casual visitors into loyal visitors, then first-time buyers, and ultimately loyal customers.


"The real solution is buried in the relationship, or value exchange, formed between the Web site and visitor around killer content," according to the author.


"Providing killer content on top of a site's core competency shifts the model from a single dimension, such as e-commerce, to a multilayered relationship that is able to withstand the Internet price wars," says Tomsen.


As the line blurs between content and commerce sites, Web publishers use new strategies, such as affiliate programs and personalisation, to foster loyalty to sites. These enhancements will in turn affect Web site design, infrastructure, implementation and management.


"The merchandising of content allows publishers to turn content into a product that can be catalogued, inventoried, and sold. Ultimately, Web sites are going to be expertly crafted user experiences," according to Kinecta CEO David Mathison, formerly in charge of syndicating Reuters content.


Kinecta provides software solutions for content providers who wish to be in control of syndicating their own content, brand management, subscriber license management, digital rights, and contextual ad placement.


Sites like Yahoo maintain strong customer loyalty and interaction by weaving disparate content from multiple syndicators into uniform, personalised and contextual end-user experiences, says Mathison.


"The intersection of these colliding worlds are unlocking new business models, products and services. A merchandiser can create digital content and embed business logic into it; for example, control of brand loyalty, digital property rights, or financial audit trails for royalty payment," according to Mathison.


Tomsen identifies five value factors for Net users: credibility (authority of the source), innovation (uniqueness of offering), relevance (impact for decision making), timeliness (immediacy for time-sensitive operations), and utility (usefulness in performing daily activities).


Examples of value exchange include Amazon.com in theB2C sector (personalisation, lenient return policy, incentive programs, community participation by users in exchange for traffic, purchases, and user profile information), and Cisco in the B2B sector (automated support, self-service, reduced human errors for customers in exchange for lower costs, more efficient order fulfillment).


"The distinction between core competencies (like low-price product inventories and current news headlines) and added services (such as personalisation or collaborative filtering) becomes more important as more potential buyers migrate to the Internet," Tomsen advises.


High service levels and improved user experiences (where content plays a major role) on a site will become increasingly important competitive differentiators.


Sites which concentrated purely on price have lost out - such as software seller Egghead.com, which ultimately faced such diminishing returns that it had to merge with OnSale.com. The PriceLine.com site also has a uni-dimensional offering focused solely on the reverse auction mode, and is significantly behind other travel sites like Expedia in services.


The financial news and advice site TheStreet.com has a mixed revenue model consisting of free content for new users, premium subscription content for high-paying users, syndicated feeds, and bundled accounts with partner broker accounts. In contrast, the site of the International Herald Tribune newspaper is unappealing in design, and does not effectively leverage advertising opportunities.


The Wall Street Journal and the New York Times both avoid media cannibalisation by offering services like archives, search, and email alerts.


There are four categories of value exchange: promotional, commerce, content and entertainment.


For instance, Web solutions firm Razorfish.com effectively showcases its client case studies on its site; whereas the Arthur Andersen site is poorly designed and does not successfully deliver on user goals and expectations.


Content value exchange for basic information and education helps sites like Yahoo generate traffic via personalised offerings from syndicated feeds, and helps FitForAll.com improve health-focused information procured from Vitamins.com.


Good examples of entertainment value exchange include Broadcast.com content on Yahoo (in the form of streaming radio/TV content).


One chapter is devoted to diversification of content revenue streams. "To succeed in the Internet economy, publishers need business models that create multiple revenue streams from the value exchange on their sites," Tomsen advises.


A Web-based business can branch out from core competencies (like books for Amazon and TheStreet for finance) to push/pull models of services and commerce via email, Web and cellphone channels for B2C, B2B and Intranet customers.


Amazon's zShops is a good example of a consumer merchandising forum on the Web; the Wall Street Journal Interactive Edition is a successful example of cross-channel sales for a wide range of online content.


Content publishers can experiment with diverse pricing models like advertising, sponsorships, full subscription, pay-per-item downloads, secure distribution, and syndication. Syndicators like iSyndicate and ScreamingMedia handle either the entire content or "teasers" (headlines/abstracts) from content players, including news, cartons, comic strips and weather forecasts.


The greatest challenge in syndication is figuring out which content to syndicate to which partner for the greatest value, according to iSyndicate CEO Joel Maske.


Kinecta's Matheson predicts that the real action for content syndication will be in the B2B area.


As for pay-per-access pricing, notable examples include Corbis screensavers and New York Times crossword puzzles. This model works best for granular content which is also amenable to bundled promotions. Flexible packaging and variable payment options are key for the success of such initiatives.


Recent surveys from eMarketer seem to indicate that a full 70 per cent of current subscription fees fall into the adult entertainment category, but that is another story altogether.


There is also some interest in secure distribution of content from vertical industries, such as legal information; companies like Xerox, PublishOne and InterTrust have developed digital content access solutions for users with appropriate rights.


Supporting this plethora of business models requires appropriate user interfaces, site structure, tools, and internal processes so as to present the user with rich online experiences without overloading the site visitor.


Key features to enhance the context of interaction with site content and commerce services include membership privileges for community building, personalised offerings, customer service, loyalty programs, and affiliate relationships.


Users will fill membership forms only if they perceive clear benefits and incentives. "From the publisher's perspective, membership paves the way to future success because it opens the door to data mining," according to Tomsen.


At the back end, appropriate login mechanisms must be created to protect access to members' content areas. Personalisation services for content and commerce selection requires tagging content by category of user, and the ability to use 'push' features as well (eg. via email).


Companies like Kana Communications offer email management solutions for promotions; Wine.com uses DigitalImpact.com to drive traffic and almost 10 per cent of its e-commerce sales via email newsletters.


Online customer contact must be characterised by speedy response, order tracking features, access to phone/postal contact information, and friendly refund policies.


Online polling and fantasy games can be useful ways for publishers to interact with their users; this requires setting up appropriate polling architectures and gaming environments.


Site loyalty programs for valued customers help customer retention, increased frequency and volume of purchases, viral marketing, and cross-selling. Netcentives.com in the U.S. and Beenz.com in the U.K. offer promotional currency online, sometimes in the form of frequent flyer miles.


User experiences can also be enhanced via portal-to-portal or site-to-site affiliate programs for content and merchandise.


Consistent and clear navigation, standardised templates, streamlined forms, site search utilities, personalisation engines, and respect for online privacy rights are key components of Web information structure.


Useful tools and platforms in this regard are Vignette's StoryServer, Allaire's Spectra, Altavista's Search Intranet, Microsoft Index Server, Netscape's Compass, Infoseek's Uktrseek, Inktomi, and Andromedia. Languages and standards to master here are XML, Electronic Commerce Modeling Language (ECML), Internet Content Exchange (ICE), and WDDX (Web Distributed Data Exchange).


For instance, high-volume, high-traffic and high-staff sites can use Vignette solutions for content publishing, workflow coordination, syndication, traffic analysis, personalisation, and profile management. Key objectives of using such tools are to maximise productivity, minimise site maintenance costs, and reduce time to market for new updates.


In sum, then, a Web publisher is in the business of providing maximum services and value to customers, whether those customers are Net consumers or other publishers.


"The most exciting developments in killer content are the new pricing and distribution models. Delivery mechanisms like syndication have been around in the print world for decades, but seem made especially for the Internet. A truer evolution will occur when content moves freely from the Internet to television and to consumer platforms such as handheld computers and cellular phones," Tomsen concludes.




The writer can be reached at madan@techsparks.com

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