A new content distribution plan for online publishers

Dick Costolo of Feedburner published his view of the future of RSS and where his company fits into it on the Feedburner blog.  Among several interesting ideas, he states a vision of the future based on the items within RSS feeds as opposed to the feeds themselves.  He says, "By following the atomic unit of content around as it's ripped, mixed, and republished, the content is afforded the widest variety of distribution paths to reach the largest possible audience, which in turn creates the greatest opportunity for monetization."

Assuming you buy into this vision, which you probably should, there are some tangible ways that publishers could shift their business to aim into the center of that world.  There are some strategic decisions that will help publishers become more competitive in a world of "feed ubiquity", and there are some specific operational changes that will make your content accessible for different tools and technologies.  

This list of ideas is a combination of strategic and operational recommendations for today's publisher:

1) Do your own mash ups.  Pick up content from aggregators, tagging tools, and other sources to complement every item you post.  Every news article, product review, column and blog entry should be a microportal to relevant things that help readers dive deeper into that subject.  In most cases, the best links will not be related links on your own site.

2) Write better news stories, not more news stories.  Pay for a wire service to fill in holes, but don't publish a single story of your own that isn't completely original.  Your reporters have better contacts in your market than any wire service would, so leverage that and get those scoops that only you can dig up.  The result is better, wider, deeper coverage of your market that is more likely to get picked up by external sources.

3) Unleash your reviews to the wild using microformats, tags and user-contributed ratings.  Publish RSS feeds of your content marked up with the hReview format.  Add tags.  Pull in related links from the tagosphere.  Incorporate user ratings and syndicate those with your content. (Read about our experiments with del.icio.us back at InfoWorld 1, 2)

4) Glorify your columnists.  Make them part of your brand, and promote them heavily on your home page.  The impersonal news-driven machine won't build reader loyalty, as there's always another site with news that's better than yours.  Pay them well, and expect them to provide leadership in your market with their intelligence and insight.  If bloggers aren't linking to their columns, then that's a good sign that they are failing to serve their market.

5) Every editor on staff should be blogging.  They shouldn't be posting just to link to things.  They should be posting about what they are learning in their beat.  You will never corner the conversation on whatever your market covers.  But you can make your staff accessible to your market through their blogs and then capable of getting those scoops that will drive #2.

6) Lastly, engage the mash up community.  Offer rewards to developers for building mashups.  Use the Creative Commons Attribution Noncommercial Share-Alike license (or something similar) so that people can legally take your content and do things with it.  But you must also offer commercial licenses of your content where you share revenue with your partner.  Help them make money, and they will help you make money.

The idea is to make your content mash up ready and to build incentives for people to use your content.  "Because you can" is not an incentive.  People will use your content when it helps them to either solve a problem or to earn money.  Make it possible for people to do both.

If Dick's vision is right, then there will be (or already is) a race for content creators to produce material that is exciting, accessible, useful, connected, and legal to redistribute.  You used to have 2 customers: advertisers and readers.  You now have a 3rd: mashers.


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