Tuesday, January 08, 2013

Who Is Watching What You Read?

In a previous life, we learnt the power of information on behaviour and buying patterns. Some 30 years ago one of the leading examples was Vons supermarkets in the US. They not only tracked every purchase, but also every purchase against the individual store layout and other associated products. This information enabled them to send their customers paper vouchers not for what they did buy, but also associated products they didn’t buy, or areas of the store they didn’t buy from and when a competitor open up nearby they supplied vouchers for  the essentials the individual bought regularly. Now we take this information analysis and use as normal and within 24 hours the likes of Asda have not only analysed our transactions, but also compared it to their competitors and worked out the value of reward you have earned as a result.

So what has this to do with publishing?

Some years back we developed a digital inspection copy and ecatalogue system for publishers. The inspection copy is particularly relevant to academic and educational markets where books are sent out to institutional clients for adoption on spec. We obviously enabled the full digital copy to be read, annotated, bookmarked and shared with others on a limited time window and then followed up automatically by a feedback process and adoption feed straight into their back office systems. The savings were clear as was the ability to promote all titles and not just the new ones and also send them out like confetti with little commercial cost or risk.

However, the real power was in the information collected, which wasn’t always fully exploited.  We collected information on every click, access, page turn, timing, annotation, bookmark and also what was read and even if the copy was even opened! A goldmine for any proactive marketer and salesman! The information could also provide feedback into the editorial development process itself on what worked and what didn’t.

So where are we today?

There have been some raised eyebrows recently over the extent of information that today’s ebook platforms have potentially been accumulating on our reading habits. Amazon like others has a cross device platform, which is supported by cloud services and is able to identify some interesting habits. For example, if a reader highlights a passage, this is collated when the account is synchronised. Amazon aggregatesthose highlights into Popular Highlights which they share with others in their most popular online reports. You can view most viewed data both over time and currently so are able to spot today’s as well as historic trends. Importantly they hold the information at both an individual and aggregated level

In this case, the content has to be highlighted first and maybe that makes you question whether that is a true representation of activity, or just the material that has been highlighted? However what other information do they have access to?

Another twist on the information front is to turn the tables on its head and respond interactively to specific activity and information from online users and then track its adoption. GPS and mapping works this way, in recognising where you are and feeding you the relevant directions or places near you etc, and in doing so, it responds to information you have given it.

 J Now Eli Horowitz has developed a story app ‘TheSilent History’, which is about a generation of unusual children born without the ability to create or comprehend language but who have other skills. The work is released in daily episodes like a Japanese Keitai novel. For readers who wish to explore more, Horowitz has created hundreds of GPS locked ‘Field Reports’ that can only be read when the reader takes their device to the specified place. The location-based stories can be accessed across the U.S. and around the world. 

Education has already adopted online assessment based on student responses and today McGraw-Hill announced Smartbook, which is a new ‘learning’ ebook for students, enables students to read the same textbook. However, as they individually start to answer review questions embedded throughout the chapter, different passages become highlighted and point the reader to where he or she should focus attention. It like having the teacher looking over your shoulder as you read!

So is the tail wagging the dog or the other way round? Information about behaviour, likes and dislikes is not just for the supermarkets and online retailers but can be used to shape digital content and even determine our individual navigation through it. Of course all this data can also feeds the ad model businesses , so those little tick boxes on many registrations may be more important than you think. It’s a pity we can’t easily find out what information is being held against us.

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