Everything old is new again

Remember CueCat?

Somewhere, I’m sure I still have one of those little proprietary bar code scanners that got mailed out to millions of people in the hope that we would all use them to follow bar-coded links in printed products to online resources and offers.

I loved CueCat, partly because it was a bold, even visionary idea, and even more because it was such a blatantly bad business and product plan. It earned a place of honor in my own personal pantheon of spectacular and foreseeable dotcom failures, right up there with my all-time favorite, the iSmell Personal Scent Synthesizer from DigiScents.

(Both of these, I see, made it to a fun list of “The 25 Worst Tech Products of All Time” published by PCWorld back in 2006.)

Now the idea behind CueCat is back again. But this time it might just take off.

QR (quick read) codes have their roots in manufacturing, but now they are being used to attempt the same magic CueCat was intended to perform — turn print products (and signs, billboards, displays or anything else) into interactive media.

There are a couple of key differences, though. First, the QR code inventors are apparently not exercising their patent rights, so the technology is effectively open. Even more importantly, the rise of smartphones has replaced the need for a proprietary and cumbersome device to read the codes. Plus, QR codes seem to fit right in with some of the other scan-reading technologies being used on iPhones and Android devices, so it’s not much of a stretch to imagine people taking shots of QR codes, too.

Today, Sean Burke, publisher for Gatehouse Media New England in Fall River and Taunton, Mass., announced that The Herald News will be experimenting with QR codes to provide “hardlinks” back to editorial and advertising resources.

That’ll be interesting to watch. My guess is that use of QR codes for additional news content will be minimal, but if they can get advertisers to send coupons back to readers’ phones they’ll get some traction. It might also be useful for iCal links, map links and other things that tap into smartphone functions.

Want to play along?

You can generate QR codes at bit.ly or goo.gl or lots of other ways you can find with a simple search of “QR code generator.”

At mashable.com, you’ll find some creative examples of QR code use that should get your juices flowing. One place to start is with the story “5 Unique Uses for QR Codes.” A more recent article there called “Why the Best Online Marketing May Be Headed Offline” updates things a bit. And you can scoot over to memeburn for some more ideas in “9 creative uses of QR Codes for your business.”

Seeing a site-less web

Jim Boulton has me thinking more broadly about the challenges that aggregators and social media links present to news companies.

News companies certainly have been focused for some time on the risks presented by news aggregators, but mostly in a narrow context — we’ve been concerned primarily about the loss of revenue and traffic when readers go no further than the blurb presented by the aggregator. So far, it seems, the aggregators haven’t replaced on-site news reading — Google News and other aggregators now drive substantial traffic our way. So we’ve adapted, and we’ve learned to treat every page as a landing page, providing plenty of hooks to keep people interested.

And, oddly enough, despite all of the concern about Google News and so on, news companies seem to have jumped quite willingly into the social media game, providing all kinds of ways for people to post links and blurbs through Facebook, Digg and what have you. That’s curious, because social media linkages essentially turn all of us into aggregators, with all the attendant risks to traffic-based revenue.

Boulton comes at the issue from a different perspective. He’s not a media guy, first of all; he appears to have morphed from web designer to web marketing consultant at Story Worldwide, which calls itself a digital content agency. Kost recently, he was behind an exhibition called “Digital Archaeology,” a display of old websites celebrating the web’s 20th anniversary. For that show he was interviewed on the BBC’S “Digital Planet” program, where he made a bold prediction that has deep implications for news organizations:

“In five years time, websites won’t exist,” Boulton said. “So I think that means it’ll be a 20-year time when websites were the most important form of brand communication, and they’ll have gone from not existing at all to being the most important form of brand communication to disappearing again. We’re already seeing it now, the convergence of the browser and the desktop. Online experiences increasingly revolve around the individual rather than around the brand. It’s what we call the semantic web. So I think the notion in maybe five years time that someone will go to an online destination and experience a brand on its terms in its space will just be crazy.”

I have no idea whether he’s right about the demise of websites. But the trend toward Web 3.0-style integration is real enough, and that stands to fundamentally change the relationship our readers and viewers have with our sites.

In one sense, you could look at this as the same old aggregation challenge, where we struggle to lure people into our domains for some gentle monetizing while they, in turn, push for greater control over how and where they get information.

But Boulton’s focus on brand is interesting. Brand management, I think it’s fair to say, is not something most news organizations pay a lot of attention to. At a time when traditional media companies are struggling against the perception that they are old and tired and on their way out, that’s probably foolish. I’m no brand management expert, and I’ll confess that I think a lot of what passes for brand management is awfully close to witchcraft, but I have no doubt that thoughtful attention to the signals you are sending is essential, insofar as it presupposes some real thought about what your audience is, what your value proposition is and how well your strategy and product position you.

But how do you control those signals that when your readers and viewers are getting their information outside of your carefully designed site? In a world of mobile news blurbs and feeds and readers and social news, our stories and content become indistinguishable and commodified. Especially text-based content.

One approach I suspect we’ll see more of is more use of embedded messages, where news organizations start to pay more attention to everything from attribution lines and kickers to in-line references and even quasi-promotional features within the narrative.

There’s a third issue raised by Boulton’s vision of a site-less web, beyond the threats to traditional ad revenue and branding control, and that’s the loss of user information.

When readers and viewers consume our news in their own world or a world of someone else’s making, we don’t necessarily know anything about them and how they’re using our content. Small and mid-size news companies have been slow to take advantage of user data as it is; a site-less web could make it even harder.

For that, I have no prescription. Certainly, we’ll all be getting smarter about using social media alongside traditional web informatics, but beyond that much depends on what sorts of tools emerge for people to consume news in a site-less web.

Mobile: Six questions

I love getting news on my iPhone, and when I get to play on a friend’s iPad it’s even better. I have no doubt that mobile platforms, from smartphones to tablets, will emerge as significant avenues for online news readership. But I’m skeptical about the short-term revenue potential in mobile for newspapers, and I’m not terribly sanguine about mobile advertising doing much to support journalism in the long-term, either. Herewith, five questions.

1) Haven’t we heard this before?

When optimists talk about why news organizations need to invest in mobile content delivery, they tend to start with the audience: People want news on the go, and smartphone use is growing rapidly (insert hockey stick here), so you have to be there. Maybe so, but haven’t we heard this before? It sounds a lot like the reasoning that drove so many of us online in the first place in search of that still-elusive business model.

2) Where’s the money?

The API/ITZBelden survey discussed at length by Alan Mutter a few weeks ago had a fascinating nugget about mobile ad demand. The survey questioned small and mid-sized businesses about their ad spending plans for next year, and just 3.4 percent were planning to invest in mobile. That doesn’t sound like a gold rush. Of course, mobile advocates will point to high CPMs — in the $15 to $20 range — being reported by some news organizations…

3) How long can the sizzle last?

I have no reason to doubt those reports of high CPMs. But that, too, sounds depressingly familiar. In the early days of plain old banner sales local papers were able to rack up similar sales. But that didn’t last. Once the sizzle of mobile wears off, the ads are going to have to justify themselves in ROI terms for advertisers. I haven’t seen good studies yet on mobile ad effectiveness, but common sense suggests there are some problems. Size does matter, and current mobile formats are too small to have much impact, especially for branding. And, of course, there’s the obvious inventory problem, with just one ad spot on smartphone screens.

4) Can ads break through the news-reading mindset?

When I’m browsing news on my phone, I am loathe to follow an ad, because I’m usually trying to rip through some headlines and I’m not in a mood to be diverted. Also, ads typically launch a browser or some other app, which is a pain on my relatively slow iPhone. That may change, but I suspect readers bring a particular mindset the news on their mobile. We still have a lot to learn about how people engage with advertising in the mobile environment, but at this point I see much more promise for mobile ad integration in guides and other kinds of services than I do in a straight news environment. And it’s not clear that news organizations are as well posiitoned to capitalize on that as other, more-focused companies.

5) How do you avoid a pay curtain/paywall bypass?

More papers are moving to paid content on their main sites, and that raises some complications for mobile strategy. You can leave the mobile door open, in pursuit of views, but then you’ve opened up a big hole. You can hobble the content, but then you minimize the utility of the service or you risk giving people enough that they don’t need to pay on the main site. You can charge for the app, but that seems like a non-starter, and it won’t generate the kind of revenue a subscription will anyway. Or you can require registration/authentication through the mobile portal as well. That last approach is the most promising, but making it seamless for users will be key.

6) Is the money worth the headache?

The beauty of web publishing is that you don’t have to build the applications that render the content. Microsoft and the other browser companies do that for us, and we just have to tweak around the edges to ensure cross-browser compatibility. In the mobile world, you have to develop for each platform, and that gets expensive quickly. Almost certainly, some common standards will emerge, but until then news providers run the risk of spending what modest revenue they may get in pursuit of readers.