Why the open strategy is a good idea

The giant dotcoms and innovative Internet startups have been testing and proving approaches to openness as a strategy over the last few years. The ideas seem to have permeated some of the farther corners of the Internet now, and I think we’re on the cusp of an explosion of open strategies and concepts across all markets, not least of which is the publishing world.

The most recent notable examples came out of The New York Times and BBC.

The New York Times took Federal Elections Commission data and repurposed it for people who build web applications. The FEC site is good and the data is mildly useful there, but The New York Times is able to shine a spotlight on what they are doing and make a more useful interface to their data. Given the power of their brand they can also help pull together people from around the Internet who understand data visualization and how to build interactive web sites.

The New York Times is embracing raw data in ways that give context and meaning to the mashup world that has grown so much in the last few years.

Jeff Jarvis’ NYC startup DayLife is another interesting but different type of example:

“Our technology collects content from thousands of high-quality online sources, deeply analyzes and parses it, and creates a trove of data that can then be reused in an infinite number of ways by publishers of all sizes.”

The DayLife platform gives them the ability to not only create a pretty good destination site but also to power other people’s web sites with interesting content they have identified and classified. We have used it on guardian.co.uk to enhance our Olympics coverage and US Elections coverage, among other things.

But DayLife went the extra step recently in making it possible for any of the content owners in their system to open up and release their content as an API via the DayLife platform, the same way The New York Times released data from the FEC via nytimes.com.

DayLife is playing data aggregator and distributor for publishers who haven’t figured out how to do this themselves:

“Using Enterprise API, you can launch your OWN API to your OWN CONTENT, all powered by Daylife’s proven technology platform. And you can do this in a matter of days.

You’ll get to choose whether to make your API available to the world at large, or limit access to your in-house developers. In either event, Enterprise API lets you break out of the bottleneck of your in-house CMS to start building new stuff with your content, immediately.”

What starts to become clear when you look at these kinds of services is that media organizations should improve how they facilitate information flow. This is actually what journalism has always been all about, releasing important information to people in a useful way. The media businesses that figure out how to make information flow more fluidly across the entire Internet are going to win over time.

That’s one of the reasons we released full content RSS feeds this week on guardian.co.uk. Rather than require people to visit the web site to read articles we post, they can get what they want when and where they want it from us.

We want to make guardian.co.uk useful to people in whatever context matters to them wherever they are on the Internet.

This is a must-have feature of publishing today even though Forrester’s recent study shows that very few people understand RSS. Mark Hopkins of Mashable.com noted that opening out is not just about serving end-users. It’s about being a part of the activity streams happening all across the Internet:

“If you turn your attention to the most popular sites on the web, sites like Facebook, MySpace and Google all have syndicated content strewn all through them. Let alone sites like FriendFeed, Plaxo and and thousands of blogs and news sites out there that rely on aggregation of content via RSS.”

But the open strategy is not just about opening out. It’s also about opening in.

BBC.co.uk/music is a really good example. They recently began integrating data from other sites and then releasing the raw information in ways that developers would be able to use elsewhere, as well.

“By adopting [the MusicBrainz] open standard, our pages are able to benefit from public domain content linked from MusicBrainz such as biographies from Wikipedia and discographies from MusicBrainz. But MusicBrainz IDs also make it straightforward for third parties to work with our data and automate links to our pages.”

BBC is linking both literally and figuratively to the open web.

The benefits to doing this are obvious and immediately tangible on some levels and then much more strategic and a bit abstract on others.

First, Google’s search engine will reward sites that reference and get referenced by authoritative and relevant sources. BBC’s Matthew Shorter adds,

“Having a persistent, and increasingly rich, resource to link to for each artist on the BBC should also help those pages appear higher up the search rankings”

Second, being the essential data source for a particular topic creates lots of opportunity as the number and size of the customers of that data increases.

For example, you can be sure that Tele Atlas made a lot of money when Google committed to a 5-year deal for their location information:

“The agreement spans Google’s current and future map-based services and navigation offerings across mobile, online and desktop environments. These include the Google Mapsâ„¢ and Google Earthâ„¢ services and mobile applications such as Google Maps for Mobileâ„¢. The agreement also gives Tele Atlas access to edits for its maps from Google’s community of users, whose suggested changes can help the company further increase the quality and richness of Tele Atlas maps.”

But no single source of data is ever guaranteed to be the most important or relevant source on the Internet forever.

Actually, it’s not inconceivable that OpenStreetMap will be more valuable than NavTeq and Tele Atlas very soon, as it is has the added benefit of being enhanced by humans every day. You can think of it like a Wikipedia for geography.

Plus, it’s free to use.

The business of openness is about being a part of the wider ecosystem in addition to creating your own. When you’re open you can be relevant to people wherever they are on the Internet in addition to when they make the effort to visit you. And when that relationship becomes meaningful the revenue streams will find their way to you, too.

eBay, Salesforce.com, Flickr, and Amazon owe much of their success to their approach to openness. They’ve opened up their platforms in ways that allow other sites and participants in the Internet ecosystem to both take from and add to their services.

If you need clarity on the revenue model, look no further than Google’s AdSense. AdSense accounts for well over 30% of Google’s total revenue. They wrote checks totalling about $3 billion in the first half of 2008 to all the partners who carry the ‘Ads by Google’ ad unit out there. That’s a pretty good incentive to participate in their ecosystem.

With a little creativity, the open strategy will create a lot of opportunity for any media organization. And sometimes I even wonder if it will be the only model that works at some point in the not too distant future.