It’s all about the Data: How Metadata and User Analytics Add Value to Online Subscription Services.

It’s all about the Data: How Metadata and User Analytics Add Value to Online Subscription Services.

One of the my favorite bits of cinematic absurdity is from “The Graduate”

Mr. McGuire: I just want to say one word to you. Just one word.

Benjamin: Yes, sir.

Mr. McGuire: Are you listening?

Benjamin: Yes, I am.

Mr. McGuire: Plastics.

(As ridiculous as the scene may be, it is interesting to consider the value of this advice 47 years later. Those who invested heavily in plastics the year “The Graduate” was released (1967) become wealthy. )

To update the dialog, and make it relevant to publishing in 2014, change the word “plastics” to “data”.  Any organization attempting to create value and profitability in the digital media ecosystem must develop the ability to collect, maintain, and derive value from large sets of data. The use of data allows the publishing organization to better understand and meet the demands of its customers, and also to significantly add value to the manner with which content is delivered.

Types of Data

Two types of data have the greatest strategic value for publishers.

  • Content Metadata contains information about subject matter contained in the content, (sometimes referred to as semantic data), and also can bibliographic information, data that facilitates distribution, and, ideally, rights information.  A publisher’s metadata is most effective when it supports a set of data fields that confirm to a standard schema, such as ONIX. Metadata is also made more effective when the data values are selected within a prescribed set of values and terms, a so-called “controlled vocabulary”.   BISAC subject categories are an example of a controlled vocabulary. Standard schemas and controlled vocabularies allow the publishers digital content to be more effectively delivered by any channel, application, or technology that also conforms to those standards.
  • User Data contains what publishers have historically managed in a customer/prospect database, or CRM system: personal and demographic profile information, and sales transaction history.  But in the context of digital content delivery user data also includes actual usage data: data that describes the actions taken by the customer (or prospective customer) while interacting with a publisher’s content and the applications that deliver them. Usage data might include information regarding what content was accessed, what features were used, how the user navigated through content. Usage data can collected on an aggregate basis or individual basis.

Insight can be gleaned from usage data through a number of methodologies and data processing applications that are collectively referred to as user analytics. User analytics can identify behavioral trends in behavior at both an individual level or on an aggregate level. User analytics, or customer analytics allow publishers to understand their customers better, which can drive decisions related to both product development and marketing.

The digital publishing ecosystem is increasingly driven by technology-based systems that support the discovery, sale, and delivery of content.   Content metadata and user data allow these systems to perform these processes with greater precision and efficiency, leading to greater business results.

Creating Value in Subscription Services

Metadata and user data can be dramatically increase the value and effectiveness of online subscription services. Many publishers have found subscription services that provide access to collections of content to be a meaningful way of serving the needs of their customers and generating new annuity revenue streams. In any web-based subscription service, the user interacts with a web-based delivery application. When a delivery application has access to content metadata and user data, the application has the ability to identify what content might have the greatest value to the user. The application can display more “intelligence”, selecting that which is most relevant that user.

Intelligent Delivery

The online delivery application can use this data-driven intelligence in powerful ways:

  • The application could suggest content that may be of interest to the user, based on both user analytics as well as detailed semantic descriptions in metadata
  • Delivery applications could provide more valuable search features within an online subscription service by having usage data and metadata drive the search ranking (which result comes first), to make the most likely relevant search results come out on top.
  • Subscription services could also make meaningful suggestions for additional offerings that may be of interest to the user, creating additional revenue opportunities for the publisher.

Some of these capabilities are familiar to most of us in the guise of “recommendation engines” within the world of e-commerce. The intelligence of recommendation engines is driven by both product metadata and user analytics. Publishers and digital distributors can do well to take cues from established practice in the world of e-commerce to explore how these data can be used to make delivery “smarter”.

What is most profound about digital publishing is not that it is delivered in bits instead of atoms, but rather that the delivery is performed by a software architecture that has the capability analyze large data sets and modify the characteristics of delivery based upon patterns in data – intelligent delivery.  It gets smarter the longer the user interacts with it. It gets more powerful with greater content metadata, which allows the right content to be presented to the right user at the right time.  The intelligence that these systems can acquire provides greater value and efficiency to the user, and also enables the publisher to increase subscriber retention. Publishers who grasp and leverage this essential dynamic are in a position to generate new, significant and enduring revenue streams.

Publishers who want to strengthen their understanding and position in such a data-driven world should support two ongoing initiatives:

  • Content Metadata Program: Managing bibliographic and semantic metadata (using standard schema and vocabularies, please) is a core task for publishers. Value is added to metadata when it is uses standard schemas and vocabularies, is detailed, and is consistently applied. Metadata management is a new though critical role in the publishing organization of 2014, to which investment should be made.
  • Usage Data Acquisition: Publishers should strive to collect and manage as much usage data as is practicable from all of the systems that control the discovery, sale and delivery of their offerings. If publishers manage their own in-house systems, this is a fairly straightforward IT task (although it is important to define how much data should be collected). However, third-party distributors or service providers manage most discovery and delivery platforms. The publisher should collect as much detailed activity data as possible from every digital service with which their customers interact, such as Kindle Cloud Reader, Apple/iBookstore, Google Play, Inkling, and Oyster, to name a few. Ideally the usage data to be provided to the publisher should be clearly stated and contractually documented.

Getting user activity data from online service providers is sometimes difficult. Tales of publisher agony in trying to get more usage data from the likes of Apple and Amazon are legion. The reluctance in providing user activity data to publishers ulimately lies in the fact that whoever has the most meaningful user analytics data is in the strongest position to solidify and monetize the customer relationship.   The tech companies know this, and drag their feet.

This is a true turf battle here. Those with the deepest insights are in a position to control the customer and therefore the marketplace. If publishers wish to create meaningful enduring, and profitable relationships with customers, they must demand access to a significant level of activity data from their online service platform providers.   This is high stakes poker. Don’t blink.

In closing, I just want to say one word to you. Just one word. Are you listening?