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5 technologies to watch

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Implementing technology for technology's sake is never a good idea. But technology that serves readers, advertisers and the bottom line is always worth considering. Here are five trends that media companies should have on their radar. One—or all—might be an important part of your business model at some point in the not-too-distant future.

1) Video

Video has become a key offering for many information providers, and that's not surprising. The Web allows for a more accessible and inexpensive way to create and distribute video when compared with broadcast TV, said Fritz Nelson, executive producer at CMP TV.

At the same time, with the increasing popularity of sites such as YouTube, Web users now expect to view video when they browse online, he said. Plus video can provide a richer, more efficient learning experience—a benefit that's particularly helpful when communicating business information.

Nelson said publishers must aim to accomplish three key goals with video: It must be entertaining, it must be informative and it has to teach viewers something that helps them do their job better. "Not every piece of programming has to have every element, but it has to have one of those elements," he said.

Nelson said publishers that aren't using video and using it well risk being left behind.

"Advertisers are forming opinions about who's innovative on the Web—and distinctly about things like video—right now," he said. "If you miss the boat now, it could be pretty dangerous in the long term."

2) Social networking

Social networking online isn't new—marketers have talked about online communities since the advent of the Web—but the growing popularity of blogs and social networks such as Facebook, Gaia, LinkedIn, MySpace and Second Life should make publishers think about how they can make the phenomenon work for them.

The reason, said Steve Ennen, VP-digital business strategies at American Business Media, is that these networks contribute to the "digital din"—the noise from other providers that might end up serving your users' needs.

"Social communities provide a place for people who are engaged and impassioned about particular topics to come in and exchange dialogue—in white papers, blogs, sharing life experiences, these types of things—and that ends up bubbling into a conversation about best practices and solutions and emerging technologies that had once been the sole domain of the business information brands," he said.

Ennen said media companies should leverage the expertise of their editors and the strength of their brands to take advantage of existing networks and also explore how to create their own. "Content still reigns, and expertise is still highly valued," he said.

Can publishers monetize social networks? Yes, Ennen said, though it shouldn't be the ultimate goal. "Sometimes it's a matter of driving traffic, sometimes it's a matter of re-establishing your brand in the digital space when you're competing against an upstart that can generate 700,000 unique visitors a month and you've got a 60,000-circulation publication," he said. "Sometimes it's very, very important just to be there. That is one thing that's really tough for traditional mediafolk to understand. It ain't always about the money."

3) Vertical search

Search engines such as Google and Yahoo certainly have broad appeal to both visitors and advertisers, but they may be too powerful for their own good.

"In the general world of the Internet, people are just overloaded, and what we're hearing is that it's becoming more and more difficult to get access to good information through the general search engines," said Jeffrey Tucker, VP at the media and entertainment practice oft Booz Allen Hamilton. "Therefore, the brand value of b-to-b titles becomes even greater in terms of filtering the authoritative and highly useful from the off-point and not that relevant."

A businessperson doing research on Google could get millions of hits in response to their query, Tucker said. But a vertical trade publication with a targeted search engine can give users access to content that has been vetted and approved by editorial experts. "They have filtered things to be much more relevant, so you're not seeing as much clutter and they can give you greater drill-down capability," he said.

Providing access to such information reasserts the trade publisher as an authority, said Mike Alic, VP at the electronic media group of Advanstar Communications, which uses vertical search tools from vendor Search Channel.

"The theory is, and I think it remains a theory at this point, that even though in some cases you're sending the visitor off of your Web site, your visitors get used to the notion that they can always find what they need by starting at your Web site," he said.

4) Unified circulation systems

Circulation technology that enables publishers to unify their various databases isn't as sexy as other technological developments but it's just as critical, said Eric Shanfelt, president and founder of eMedia Strategist.

"The concept is saying, 'I've got my magazine circulation database over here. I've got my e-mail database here. I've got Web registrations here. I've got list rental here, and none of these work together,' " he said.

It's part of the evolution that's transforming circulation departments into audience development departments, Shanfelt said. "A person might receive a print product and have attended these webcasts," he said. "The more I can tie that data together and get a holistic picture, [the more] I can cut circ costs."

For instance, Shanfelt said, a publisher might be able to identify that a Web site visitor's print subscription is about to expire. "I could hit them with a renewal window and save the money I would have spent doing a call campaign or mailing to them," he said.

Publishing companies are all over the map in how they're tackling the issue, he said, with some turning to vendors such as Hallmark Data Systems and Omeda Publishing Services, while others are creating home-grown database systems.

"It's a critical problem for publishers going forward," Shanfelt said. "They have to be able to tie customer data together."

5) Ajax

It's taken a decade for the media and advertising world to become comfortable buying and selling online ads based on a page-view model. Now, Web development technologies such as Ajax (Asynchronous JavaScript and XML) are causing Web publishers to reconsider that model, Shanfelt said.

Ajax enables a faster, richer Web experience because it allows pieces of a site page to update when clicked instead of refreshing the entire page. Though the technique can improve user experience, it's problematic for the current page view-based advertising model. A site visitor might spend 20 minutes interacting in various ways with a portion of the page that's an Ajax-based application but, because the whole page doesn't refresh, there's been only one page view.

As a result, publishers will have to reassess how they measure advertising and sponsorship programs, Shanfelt said. "Over time, page views are going to become less important and instead the visit or user session will become more important as a standard of measurement for what the reach of your site is and the impact of an ad campaign," he said.

However, the industry will likely be slow to make the change, said Advanstar's Alic, because it's taken so long to establish widespread understanding of the current model.

"I think it'll probably happen, but I wouldn't overestimate the speed with which it's going to happen," he said. "We have to start thinking about it; for sure, page views are far from being perfect. … The emergence of Ajax makes it more urgent, but the advertising industry won't change as fast as the technology that's behind it."

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