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April 27 2012

14:34

Who or what exactly is The New York Times’ R&D Ventures?

The New York TImes Co. took the lid off a new advertising product Thursday with the introduction of Ricochet, which lets companies fuse their brand messages onto sharable NYT Co. content. Using the service, companies can create custom links to New York Times stories they select; the links take readers to a version of the story where the ads on the page are all for the company. It’s a new kind of targeted advertising: Companies select which stories they want to be associated with, then figure out the ways they want to deliver it: tweet, Facebook post, newsletter, or more.

Ricochet will be available on a handful of sites within the Times Company’s stable of properties including NYTimes.com, BostonGlobe.com, Boston.com, and About.com. The first advertiser to use the program is SAP, and you can get a sense of what Ricochet does here (compare it with the same page without the customized link). Pricing for the product will depend on the duration of a campaign and will be sold through the sales staffs at the respective NYT Co. brands.

But beyond an interesting advertising idea, Ricochet is being run out of an interesting new structural idea at NYT HQ. It’s part of a newly formed unit called R&D Ventures, a spin-off from the Times Company’s R&D Lab, a unit we’ve written a lot about. Michael Zimbalist, vice president of research and development operations for the Times Co., told me the new group is a more commercially minded extension of the R&D Lab that focuses on “how to scale and monetize, instead of what does a new user experience look like, or how does content evolve into new spaces.” In other words, the R&D Lab thinks of something new; R&D Ventures works to turn it into a product.

It’s a small group — a handful of people, Zimbalist says — with experience in product development, sales, business development, and other areas. While Ricochet’s been in development since last year, the Ventures group was formed more recently. Zimbalist told me the R&D Lab and R&D Ventures would work almost like a relay team: If an idea from the lab seems like it could find a broader audience (and make money), the baton will be handed off to Team Ventures to bring it to market. “When we contemplate the future of media and marketing, we actually build examples of what we’re thinking about,” Zimbalist said. But the R&D Lab’s work still focuses a bit more on the theoretical — thinking about ideas that might be two years out, not that might be shipped as a new service or feature within months.

That’s basically the story of how Ricochet, and R&D Ventures came to life. Ricochet is rooted in Project Cascade, a time-based visualization of how Times stories move across Twitter. Cascade shows how a story rises and falls, the people who drive pick-up of certain links, the time it takes for a story to come down to earth, all plotted across a graph that makes the social media universe look a bit like an actual universe.

By studying the life of Times stories they discovered something interesting: Companies and consumer brands were tweeting a lot of their work. That’s how they identified the opportunity to transform Cascade into a marketing tool. As part of running Ricochet, companies also get access to a version of Cascade for their own analytics so they can assess their campaigns. With many companies producing content directly for consumers, outlets like the Times can help by providing relevant, authoritative content that doesn’t feel overtly marketing-y, ZImbalist said. “Brands are becoming publishers and developing their own content strategies,” he said.

The story of Ricochet should sound somewhat familiar. Around two years ago, the Times was developing a prototype for social news reader that it eventually moved over to Betaworks. Working in conjunction with ex-Times staff, Betaworks later launched News.me. Zimbalist said they learned from that experience that there are costs and benefits to developing in-house versus outside the company that depend on what’s being built. While ZImbalist wouldn’t discuss any future projects coming out of the R&D Ventures pipeline, he said it’s important that they’re ready to iterate new products when the time comes.

“I think we learned from [News.me] that in order to bring a new product to market, it needed a focused team of entrepreneurially inclined people who were both technically inclined and business inclined,” Zimbalist said.

September 15 2011

16:00

Inside the Globe Lab: Building the tools to make the Boston Globe’s two-site strategy work

Why exactly does The Boston Globe need a lab? I ask not out of Lab sensitivity (in that “we had one before labs were cool” way), but in the practical sense. Most newspapers aren’t known for spending a lot of resources on R&D. In an era where money is tight and newsrooms have shrunk, why carve out room for experiments that may not turn into anything?

Of course, that question answers itself — it’s precisely because the traditional business model is in such disarray that it makes sense to invest in ideas that could turn into something bigger. In order for BostonGlobe.com and Boston.com to grow and thrive as online properties, the Globe is counting on its lab to create the kind of products and ideas that will help each site succeed. The mission of the Globe Lab is less decades-away dreams and more like producing near-future products.

“We want to experiment in platforms and technologies that could become real Boston Globe or Boston.com products that are offered to our customers in a year or so,” said Chris Marstall, a creative technologist for the Globe. “That doesn’t mean we can’t do stuff that isn’t clearly not product-izable.”

The Globe Lab is both a physical space and a collection of people working not too far from the Globe newsroom, where they’ll work on things that could be used to help produce better journalism, entice advertisers, and reach more readers. Or, as Marstall told me when I went for a visit, just make cool stuff. Things like the Information Radiator, or the other things percolating at Beta.Boston. Because sometimes building weird, obscure things leads to creating something that could be useful in the near future. “We want to expand, but expand in platforms that could become real Boston.com products for consumers in a year from now,” Marstall said.

So what are they working on? One idea is deploying the New York Times R&D Lab’s Project Cascade, both to see the reach of Globe stories and what possible “>forward-facing uses there are for the visualization. Another early experiment is what Marstall calls a “gestural reader” that uses the hack for Microsoft Kinect to make motion sensitive newspaper displays. (Imagine a digital version of the Globe you could place in public that people could flip through with a wave of their hand.)

“It’s all about: What is the user experience? We’re not really talking about technology.”

One tool they’ve already rolled out is Shim, a tool that allowed the development team at BostonGlobe.com to browser test that snazzy new responsive design across multiple devices. Using Shim, they could see how the site renders on an iPad or netbook, and it would mirror itself (in the format fitting the device) in a Windows Phone or Kindle at the same time. Though Shim was developed for testing the new site, it could also easily be used by designers or the advertising staff to see how their work unfolds on different devices. Marstall said Shim is a good example of the type of thing they want to do at the Globe Lab, something that helps them test their products and hopefully gain new knowledge to put to work. “It’s all about: What is the user experience?” he said. “We’re not really talking about technology. A printed newspaper is one user experience. A website is a completely different user experience. Twitter is another user experience. What do people like? What do people want? We just don’t know.”

Which, again, points to another reason to have a lab. It’s a more consumer-oriented stance for a newspaper, trying to devine what readers want. Sure, Kraft has plenty of snack scientists working around the clock to figure out the next Ritz or a Wheat Thin. But it also makes sure those experiments get put in front of actual users…er, snackers. The Globe Lab (the space) will be well suited for consumer testing, an open space that screams out for things to be touched. When completed the lab’s set-up will be not unlike an Apple Store, with desks, chairs, and tables where people can fiddle with the latest creations. They’ll also have what Marstall is calling an app wall, which will consist of three pairs of 40-inch displays. This is where they’ll shake down new ideas, like Google Maps overlays for Boston that see the city through Instagram photos, Marstall said.

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The Globe Lab’s work could end up in use in a variety of homes. Most new consumer-facing products will likely find themselves headed to the free-and-open Boston.com; more subtle tweaks to design and presentation will find a home on the paywalled BostonGlobe.com. That lines up with the Globe’s idea of making Boston.com a hub for breaking news, sports, and culture and BostonGlobe.com a premium site offering exclusive content and elegant reading experience. And that’s why the Globe put resources towards having a tinkerer’s workshop of their own, because the fastest way to get from idea to market is to cut out the consultants and try to do it yourself.

“I think in many ways it’s perfectly legitimate for an organization like a newspaper to rely on outside vendors and outside companies to track innovation,” Marstall said. “But I think it’s probably better for us to have some inquiry we do on our own.”

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