Content providers are at a crossroads in the evolution of narratives online. Users are increasingly accessing content in ways that break the conventions of how stories should be told and articles delivered. Social channels are working to help content reach more people quicker than ever before, but these same viral mechanics mean that information often becomes disembodied and out of context. Publishers must also recognize that content is no longer static, and that instead the story only begins when the “post” button is pressed.
This shifts expectations around how users want to engage with online media and be engaged. An online publication cannot simply deliver the news to someone, but must instead help them participate in its creation and lifecycle. Technology itself is changing how publishers tell stories by presenting new forms of developing stories that can connect with people wherever, whenever they are and on any mobile device they choose. This is empowering new levels of contextually relevant experience to emerge.
These new realities are being impacted by three broader trends. The first stems from how mobile devices have helped accelerate the adoption of emerging design methodologies powered by HTML5. Next is the overabundance of data and the opportunities that come from data-powered products. The last is how social functionality has evolved from being a feature to a necessary structural component of any experience. It is critical to examine how all of these factors are causing a fundamental shift in product development.
The most disruptive change has been the rise of mobile devices and applications. This has caused a seismic shift in how those creating online experiences must approach design. The ubiquity of smartphones forces us to craft experiences that cater to mobile users. While the phrase “mobile first” is certainly another piece of web jargon, the concept can be distilled to employing a methodology where feature development should occur in parallel across all device types while using the mobile experience as the catalyst for all feature development. Users are demanding more “snackable” content that can be consumed on the go: quickly and succinctly. This has far-reaching ramifications for those on the editorial side of the house.
Publishers must rethink the ways in which they write and deliver stories so that they not only are optimized for mobile devices, but so that people can get their content in a “to-go” box to be read later. Apps like Pocket excel at this by creating playlists of content that can be digested together. As such, content providers must evolve to embrace the ever changing desires and constantly shifting habits of their readers. Luckily, HTML5 is a tool publishers have at their disposal.
I am a strong believer in creating responsive designs that allow a site to seamlessly adapt to different resolutions. While I recognize that there is a limit to the media queries Kool-Aid, it still offers a great way to create a single code base that ensures a consistent and fluid experience on mobile, tablet, and desktop. HTML5 has also provided new ways of creating immersive content and stories that can exist in any browser.
While native applications can provide immersive experiences, they have a specific role. Namely, apps are best suited for times where features like push notifications, media uploading, and other device-specific API’s are necessary. However, the fragmentation of the mobile market and the continued adoption of HTML5 technologies means that responsive sites will continue to spread. Polygon shows how developers are pushing the envelope of what can be done with a single code base in powering a site across screens. Now technology can work in tandem with editorial to bring to life interactive narratives in new visually compelling ways.
The trove of data that sites and services can peer into has also reshaped the landscape of media content. Users now exist in a world where their feedback is constantly collected in real-time, and the challenge is not how the sites get the data, but instead how to best analyze it in a meaningful way to gain actionable insights. Tools like Next Big Sound demonstrate how the real-time web is presenting companies with unprecedented opportunities to better understand the habits of their users.
The role that data plays goes beyond analytics. Open platforms and API’s allow for the creation of product mash-ups that have broken down barriers to content availability. One cannot underestimate the brilliance of platform-focused companies like SoundCloud and Spotify that allow innovation to occur rapidly and unfettered. Similarly, structured data is going to be increasingly impactful. Facebook’s Open Graph, for example, projects the foundation for the oft-mentioned semantic web.
The music industry must embrace this trend in order to embed meaning and value in the very fabric of the Internet. These vast amounts of data provide new ways of personalizing content that goes beyond the music recommendations offered by services like Pandora and companies like The Echo Nest. Data can no longer simply be a result of building products; it must also become a building block. However, sites must use caution when interpreting data, otherwise they may fall into the trap of making data-driven products which place too much emphasis on quantitative analysis over qualitative intuition. In the coming years, sites must continue to learn how to best leverage data to make data-informed decisions.
The third driver of change in how one must approach product development stems from social networks and media. While this is certainly nothing new, there are new approaches that must be considered. The web has now reached a point where social can no longer be a site “feature,” but it must instead be woven into the DNA of any product.
A repercussion of the dominance of the social web is that user expectation has shifted. Users want to be part of the experience. Turntable.fm clearly resonated with music fans, and Rdio’s growth through deep Facebook integration shows the power of social listening. However, social goes beyond playback and content providers need to bring their readers into the creation process. Branch and Quora both show how user-generated content does not have to be the realm of trolls. I am confident that success will come to those sites that focus on participation. Rap Genius is another example of the passionate community and high-quality content that can emerge through the power of co-creation.
The earlier successes in social have been around social services. We have seen more innovation from companies that are rethinking how products can be created when social interaction is a critical component from the onset. Publishers, on the other hand, still have to establish social relevancy that extends beyond social media strategies. Content providers will continue to better understand that while social channels can serve as an acquisition channel, more explosive viral distribution can occur when the content itself encourages community interaction. Newer experiments in commenting and discussion systems hint at the appetites of readers to be involved, and the lines between readers and contributors will continue to blur.
While these three major trends will act as a catalyst for product innovation in the coming years, it is critical to point out that they also have pitfalls. With mobile-driven design, it is important to not discount the value of a desktop-optimized experience, because the mobile advertising marketplace is still immature and can lead to poor monetization. While applications have thrived via in-app purchases and micro-transactions, the mobile display ad business has not generated the same positive results. Since users are demanding ways to consume from a mobile device, it is critical to develop an experience that can bridge platforms, and so sometimes the more prudent route is to be “mobile first, web second.” This approach also ensures that a design is truly cross-platform.
While responsive design can provide an elegant way to have parity across different screen sizes, it can also be ill-suited for certain types of interactions. Interaction patterns can be fundamentally different when using touch on a five-inch screen versus a mouse on a 27-inch display, and sometimes a product designed for all screens leads to a watered-down user experience that does not perform well on any screen.
When embracing data, publishers who veer too far off towards embracing automatic programming run the risk of substantially damaging the online content ecosystem. The adoption of algorithmically driven experiences should never supplant the importance of the editorial voice. Similarly, an over-reliance on social can cause a publisher to lose sight of the importance of curation and spontaneous discovery. Content providers must always be careful to make sure that they do not push users down a self-reaffirming path where the excitement of the new and the different is never found.
This is certainly a confusing time to be in the online content space. Companies must re-examine their assumptions about the ways in which they tell stories online and create delightful products. Luckily, there are enough people finding ways to flip these problems into opportunities that we are going to witness some exciting innovation in the coming years.
Max Engel currently works as the Director of Music Product for Buzzmedia where he oversees product development for SPIN Magazine.