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Are Comments Facebook’s Next Big Service? February 7, 2011

Posted by David Card in Uncategorized.
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Speculation didn’t quite reach Facebook phone level, but the buzz around last week’s CNET story pre-announcing upgrades to Facebook’s nascent comments service makes it sound as if the social network is about to launch another potentially world-dominating technology and crush companies like Disqus and Echo in its wake. Which would be tough, since there’s still plenty of room for competitive innovation as far as comment systems go.

Facebook has a comments plug-in for its widely-adopted Connect service that sites like People magazine are using. It added voting and threading to the plug-in last year, and may be working on a very basic credibility scoring system for commenters. Like Facebook Likes and Connect, a comments system could weave Facebook threads far beyond its own site, while potentially providing rich data for Facebook ad targeting. So far, Facebook doesn’t charge for any of these services, but rather uses them to enhance the overall Facebook platform, make its services and brand ubiquitous for its users and lock in other companies’ sites to its network.

Competitive Comments Landscape

Sites can choose from many full-featured third-party commenting systems that can often pull in related content streams from professional or social media sources, including other comment tools. They typically support multiple log-in mechanisms, and commenters can post and share comments through Twitter and Facebook status updates. Some maintain their own ID system and all create a network of comments across their customers. Players include:

  • Disqus has been around since 2007. It offers online publishers tiered levels of service ranging from $19 per month to $1,000 per month and up. The higher-priced services include analytics, single sign-on, theme customization, better API access, guaranteed uptime and customer service. Customers include CNN, Fox News and Engadget.
  • Echo started life as widget maker JS-Kit in 2006, and has a new product launch event scheduled for February 8. Part of its pitch to publishers is that it won’t compete with them with its own ID system, or by hosting experiences on its own domain. Its customers include a few Time Warner properties (Time, Sports Illustrated), the Washington Post and Technorati.
  • IntenseDebate is owned by Automattic, the company that owns the big blog platform WordPress (see disclosure), which acquired IntenseDebate in 2008. Many WordPress blogs integrate its comments. IntenseDebate also supports Blogger, Tumblr and TypePad.
  • Livefyre is one of the newer players. It uses the FriendFeed engine and promotes itself as the comment network that’s closest to real-time.

Outlook for Facebook Comments

Likes and Connect caught on like wildfire, and if Facebook is serious about comments, it will get plenty of attention from publishers and other sites that embrace consumer comments (e.g., retailers, corporate sites, financial services). Comments could even play a role in enterprise collaboration. Comment competitors and companies evaluating alternatives should realize Facebook’s advantage in this space is limited to its user base and potential distribution. How can other comment systems differentiate themselves? Here are a few ways:

  • User identity: Current players use the old familiar “embrace and extend” strategy by enabling and integrating Facebook log-ins with those from Google, Yahoo and the publisher’s own. To date, Facebook has not integrated other log-ins, and it delivers single sign-on by superseding the native log-in system. Nor does Facebook share “ownership” of the customer, or data about him. Some sites may want to preserve user anonymity or support different user personae.
  • Customer service: Facebook’s developer resources aren’t infinite. Companies can likely do better customization and integration with content management systems, and offer white-label unbranded options.
  • Moderation and ratings services: Comment systems should invest in tools supporting moderation and commenter credibility, and even consider offering professional human-based moderation. Livefyre has a clever points system to encourage quality and prevent flames and off-topic commentary.

DisclosureWordPress is backed by True Ventures, a venture capital firm that is an investor in the parent company of this blog, Giga Omni Media. Om Malik, founder of Giga Omni Media, is also a venture partner at True.

Question of the week

How can companies compete with Facebook comments?
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A Modern Media Manifesto for the Digital-First Era December 6, 2010

Posted by David Card in Uncategorized.
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There’s talk of the future of media in the air. Rupert Murdoch’s iPad-only pub, The Daily, is about to launch, mini-mogul Nick Denton wants to merge the best of TV, magazines and online into his Gawker Media blog network and Journal Register CEO John Patton recently told attendees at an International Newsmedia Marketing Association event that even newspapers need to be digital first. The source of all this is the harsh spotlight digital and NewNet technologies currently cast on traditional media businesses, which tools like social media and real-time feeds are helping to re-invent.

First, since NewNet technologies are the catalyst for building off proven Internet media models, here’s a manifesto modern media companies should follow to thrive:

All media must be multimedia: One brand, one audience, multiple channels. Optimize programming for each channel; fine-tune revenue models as well, but drive traffic across all. Make the audience active in creation, consumption and distribution.

What’s the Model?

Patton is right in saying midsize newspapers need to focus on digital — that’s where their audience is, after all. He said his online audience is bigger than that of print (similar to the UK’s Daily Mail), and though digital dollars lag, they’re nonetheless growing. Even TV advertisers are coming around: Fox is getting advertisers to accept Hulu ad inventory as “make-goods” to fulfill network audience reach promises.

“Digital first” is the right mindset for media companies for three reasons:

  1. Digital audiences and ad revenues are growing.
  2. Online and mobile are the platforms for the social media interactivity that consumers are demanding.
  3. Online is the driver of modern content aggregation and syndication.

Big media brands like News Corp. and Time Warner should consider ESPN the very model of a modern media company. Originating in cable TV, ESPN’s brand is usurping that of sister company ABC Sports, and ESPN has leading online, magazine and radio properties. ESPN is not what you’d call a leader in social media vs. competitors; its efforts center instead on providing a successful fantasy sports business with lots of on-air and online programming support.

Rating the New Initiatives

Two new initiatives — one from a traditional player and one from an online startup — bear examining in this modern digital media context. Neither model looks perfect, but each has tactics other media companies should monitor:

  • News Corp.’s forthcoming The Daily is bold in its effort to establish value in the consumer’s mind by charging for its digital content, and the walled garden that is Apple’s iPad enables that. But that could limit the publication’s social and syndication opportunities. To-date, most iPad mags aren’t very connected to the rest of the world, but that’s a matter of choice rather than platform. Publishing once a day, though, is an outmoded convention.
  • Gawker Media’s redesigns feel a lot like online magazine sites circa 2008. But the new approach accommodates multiple media formats, and its UI gracefully blends promotion and a feed. Gawker properties have always had lively user commentary, active linking and curated aggregation. But like The Daily, Gawker Media limits its advertising opportunities by being online-only.

Some might ask, what type of media company should do which? It’s the wrong question. NewNet digital media is defined by topic (national news, sports, local, tech, entertainment) and audience (mass, niche, professional, youth), and the individual company must deliver to advertisers and subscribers across channels. But each company has its roots:

  • Newspapers should be most comfortable with real-time, but need to re-allocate resources away from content that can be outsourced.
  • Magazines face tough business model changes, but can promote audience/topic alignment to brand advertisers. They need to build out sponsorship opportunities that leverage social media.
  • TV Networks have the most difficult challenge in replacing content. So their focus must be using NewNet media to promote and re-engage their audience. They too should evolve social sponsorships that exploit the reach of their hit shows.
  • Online pure-plays should accommodate social more easily, and have relatively smaller staffs that utilize commodity content. They need networks and partners for reach and off-line promotion and advertising.

Question of the week

How do you define a modern media company?