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July 01 2011

18:26

Smartphone Sensors Could Revolutionize Digital Magazines

We've all done those personality and health quizzes in magazines. You know, the ones where you suspect that answer A will categorize you as the personality type you're trying to avoid, so you choose B instead.

Everyone does that, right?

These evasive strategies for magazine quizzes, though, could be a thing of the past as smartphones and tablet devices evolve to incorporate a variety of new sensors that will keep us honest. While they might not be able to assess your personality yet, sensors are rapidly becoming capable of detecting all kinds of information about you and your surroundings. These sensors will not only change digital magazines' editorial content and advertising, but also lead to entirely new ways of authoring content and serving readers.

Location Services Have Room to Grow

Many consumers already use location-sensing tools, such as GPS features on smartphones, to find nearby businesses. Some magazine and media applications have also integrated location-based features that display relevant content for a user's local area. But there's a lot more that can be done with location information as sensors improve, and as media companies take fuller advantage of what they will offer.

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Location-based services still have space to evolve, said Wayne Chavez, an operations manager for the sensor division of Freescale, a semiconductor company that is developing a variety of sensors for mobile devices, among other products. Chavez said improved location sensors and related applications will combine both GPS data and magnetometer readings to determine the device's orientation and know which way the user is facing. That detail allows greater customization of information.

For example, imagine a tourist taking a picture of a notable building. The picture can easily be geo-tagged already with today's GPS sensors, but new sensors and related applications could gather more information, including "what direction you took the picture from. It can tell you based on your previous interests and queries what's around you near that building. You might be around the block from another historic building," Chavez said.

Software on the device -- such as, perhaps, a local magazine's app -- could then use the sensor's data to push to the user details of how to navigate to that next location of potential interest, as well as ways "to read more about a historical marker, at any length, with instant access to that media," Chavez said.

Magazines' editorial content could even dynamically change to reflect more detailed location information. Joseph J. Esposito, an independent media consultant, offered an example of how it might work.

"If you're reading a future edition of The New Yorker, maybe a story about a young couple that falls in love in New York, and you're walking along, then the story changes because you just walked in front of a Mexican restaurant," Esposito said. The story could update its content to harmonize with the reader's location and activity.

While some digital magazines have already experimented with contextual advertising based on location data, Esposito said the use of this sensor information eventually "will start to have an editorial direction as well."

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There's room to improve contextual advertising based on location, too, for digital magazines and other media applications. Chavez suggests that location data could eventually be combined with information from "the cloud" -- online compilations of user information -- for more precise targeting.

"I see many providers saying, based on the location of your handset and your history, I can pre-filter and stream to you information that might be relevant to you," he said.

Sensor Publishing

Esposito's example of the dynamically updated New Yorker story, mentioned above, is just one way that sensor data might alter magazine content. As Esposito puts it, our phones are, in reality, sensors that we carry everywhere we go. Users of sensor-equipped mobile devices could serve as passive authors of projects that gather, analyze and present data from these sensors. Esposito calls this "sensor publishing" to distinguish it from crowdsourcing because it doesn't require participants' active involvement.

Digital magazines and other media applications could collect sensor data -- such as location, temperature, ambient light or other readings -- and find ways to incorporate the data into stories, or to make them stories in themselves.

"We become carriers or hosts, collecting data passively all the time," Esposito said. "It's different from how we like to think about our phones, but there's also passive use of the phone, when it picks up temperature or humidity. When you're collecting information from 350 million phones, now it's starting to get meaningful. Those little data aggregation points start to mean something."

Esposito noted that all types of sensors -- anything scientists use in laboratories, including spectroscopes or Geiger counters -- could eventually be incorporated into mobile devices, making all kinds of data-gathering opportunities possible for the creation or enhancement of digital magazine content and other media.

Sensing Health Information

Sensors might also mean the end of cheating on magazines' health quizzes, along with new ways of experiencing health-related content. A range of health sensors are already available and, as their cost falls, media companies could distribute them so that the data users gather about themselves as part of daily life could be integrated into various types of content.

Carré Technologies is a Montreal-based company developing health sensors that can be integrated into clothing. The sensors will interact with mobile devices to collect and analyze health information, and could have intriguing media-related uses.

"People in general are taking more responsibility for managing their own health," said Pierre-Alexandre Fournier, president of Carré Technologies. "It's going to help preventive health [care] ... A lot of this monitoring can be done remotely now because of the Internet."

Fournier said health sensors like his company's are useful for a variety of fitness and health applications, such as games, biofeedback, and health observation.

"The sensors we make are meant to be worn 24/7, so there's a huge amount of data created by just one person," he said. "There are a lot of creative ways to show that data, to make it useful for the users."

One way to experience that data might be to have it integrated with media content. For example, a digital magazine application that collected health data from a reader using these sensors could then offer customized diet or exercise recommendations within the context of the magazine, as well as pool data from users anonymously to produce sensor publishing projects. Articles could describe the activity patterns of the publication's audience, contextualizing the individual reader's activity level within that broader picture, and then offering suggestions for improvement.

iphone-health-folder.jpg

This approach to providing personally relevant health information might be an opportunity for health-related magazines and other media seeking to capitalize on demographic trends in their mobile applications.

"One of the megatrends here is our aging population," Chavez said. "As our baby boomers reach their mid-60s now, many of them are very tech aware, and looking for telehealth solutions, whether that's out of personal interest or clinically driven."

Naturally, there are privacy concerns related to the collection of health and other personal data. "I'm not sure how much people want the media company to have access to their physical data," Fournier said. "Media companies already collect a lot of data on people. I'm not sure how far people will be able to go before they start to react."

It seems inevitable, though, that we'll see more integration of varied sensors into our mobile devices, and more creative applications for them in magazine and media applications, for both editorial content and advertising. What we've seen so far are just the earliest stages of sensors' uses in the media world.

"We [just passed] the fourth anniversary of the iPhone, and it's been transformative. The first app for reading books on a phone came in July 2008," Esposito said, offering a reminder of how recently these digital possibilities have evolved. "All this world we're talking about here is so preciously new. But it's difficult to imagine turning back the clock."


Maps and graphs image by Courtney Bolton on Flickr

Smartphone photo by Gesa Henselmans on Flickr.

Google Earth image by Miki Yoshihito on Flickr.

Susan Currie Sivek, Ph.D., is an assistant professor in the Department of Mass Communication at Linfield College. Her research focuses on magazines and media communities. She also blogs at sivekmedia.com, and is the magazine correspondent for MediaShift.

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October 18 2010

16:00

Move over, LiLo! Public-interest news can be more valuable to publishers than traffic bait

Conventional wisdom: What people really want from their journalism is some combination of celebrity gossip, naked celebrities, and gossip about naked celebrities. That may be a slight exaggeration, but it’s more than an assumption: Through the magic of web analytics, news publishers have access as never before to the collective Id of the people they serve…and again and again, such lowbrow fare as LiLo’s legal troubles and Favre’s photographic adventures rack up the pageviews, while their less sensational counterparts are rewarded for their dignity by being left alone. The more high-minded journalism — the public-interest investigations, the news about the economy and public policy — is still valuable, of course. But it’s also, we’ve assumed, a loss leader.

A study released today provides a hopeful counterpoint to all that (hopeful, that is, if you’re not Lindsay Lohan): For publishers, hard-news-focused, public-interest-oriented reporting might actually be more valuable than celebrity gossip and similarly LiLotastic fare. And not just in a good-for-democracy sense, but in a bottom-line sense. Perfect Market, a firm aimed at helping publishers maximize online revenue from their content, tracked more than 15 million news articles from 21 of its client news sites — including those of the Los Angeles Times, San Francisco Chronicle, and Chicago Tribune — from June 22 to September 21 of this year. And it found that, while the Lohan sentencing and other celebrity coverage drove significant online traffic, articles about public-interest topics — unemployment benefits, the Gulf oil spill, mortgage rates, etc. — were the top-earning news topics of the summer. The latter stories offered their publishers, overall, more advertising revenue per page view (which is to say: more bang for their advertising buck) than their fluffy counterparts.

The caveat: Perfect Market has a vested interest in the financial viability of quality content. (“At Perfect Market we believe that content matters,” the firm says in its press release. “By delivering the right content in the right format to the right user with the right relevancy, Perfect Market has increased the revenue for partners in our program by at least 20-fold.”) That said, though, the study’s holistic scope — moving beyond pageviews to focus on revenue — is an instructive approach. Traffic is notoriously fuzzy as a metric; it’s also notoriously stingy when it comes to return-on-investment. (Take The Huffington Post, which, for all its skill — PHOTOS! VIDEO! SLIDESHOW! — at leveraging our love of scandal, and for all the traffic it brings to its site, has struggled with profitability.)

For publishers struggling to sustain their operations, let alone grow them, it’s revenue that matters. And in Perfect Market’s study, via context-optimized advertising, it was consumer interest — not the casual variety that leads to quick headline-views, but the more engaged variety that leads to high time-on-site numbers and increased chances of ad clicks — that translated to revenue. Articles about social security were the most valuable to news publishers, the analysis found, generating an average of $129 in revenue for every thousand pageviews. Articles about mortgage rates were next, at $93 for every thousand views, followed by Gulf recovery jobs ($34 for every thousand).

LiLo, on the other hand? She generated only $2.50 for every 1,000 pageviews.

(It’s worth noting that the high-paying topics are united less by their hard-news nature than by their proximity to companies interested in hawking their wares. Immigration lawyers want their ads next to immigration stories; mortgage brokers and “Refinance now!” types want to be next to mortgage-rate stories; job sites want their ads on those Gulf-recovery-jobs stories. That makes sense, but it doesn’t do much for the sea of worthy news stories that won’t have an easy e-commerce hook. There aren’t many good contextual ads for Lohan court stories, but there also aren’t many for corruption investigations.)

We talk about the convergence of mediums: TV and print products and the web, video and text and multimedia, collapsing into one mega-medium. What the Perfect Market study suggests, though, is that there’s another type of convergence we would do well to cultivate: the conflation of editorial content and commercial. Earlier this year, Ken Doctor compared the revenues per unique user at the HuffPo and The New York Times; he estimated that, while the Times brought in $1 per unique user per month, the HuffPo brought in only 12 cents per user. And he attributed the discrepancy in large part to the Times’ advertising savvy: Its longtime presence in the ad-sales business means that it “owns key agency relationships.” It’s able to invest in making its ads contextually relevant to its content and, thus, to its users: AdSense, writ large. None of that is to say that the old church/state wall that has separated ads from journalism should be allowed to crumble; it is to say, though, that engagement may be just as important to news sites’ commercial content as to their editorial.

Image by Globovision used under a Creative Commons License.

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