I have spent over a decade in my career thinking about content, as CEO and Publisher of washingtonpost.newsweek interactive and subsequently co-founding one of the largest social content platforms in health at HealthCentral. I have long seen the power of crowds and that the very act of wisely aggregating content to individual’s needs and interests is itself content. I became a passionate believer that deep in the data of user behaviour and long-tail search were amazing insights into what people really wanted to understand and share.
Taking it a step further, I have long argued – from my days as one of the first board members of the Interactive Advertising Bureau, and Co-founder of the Online Publishers Association — that one of the greatest challenges to online advertising was its irrelevance. I mean this not only in its annoying attempts to replicate print and television ad products and astoundingly poor targeting, but that marketers fail to appreciate that great advertising, wisely rendered, was also great content to a user.
Given my background, I obviously follow the online media world closely. One of the developments I’ve followed particularly over the past several years has been the industry’s efforts to reduce traditional content creation costs and the rise of so-called content farms. As one who understands the economics of online publishing, I see the attraction. If you are paid on a CPM basis you need to ensure that the dollars you bring in per piece of content exceed the cost of producing it.
But I must admit, I’ve never been a fan.
Many of the early initiatives seemed like efforts to “game search engines” and “trick” consumers into reading bland, shallow pieces driven by the economics of long-tail content rather than the true expertise and passion of their human authors.
Worst of all were those companies that sent hyperlinks in content to ads. My fundamental rule in life: surprise and fool know one. Be on their side, set and meet their expectations – to paraphrase Lincoln, you can’t fool all of the people all of the time for long. Let’s just say they are not a business model I’d ever invest in.
I long feared the result would be, in fact often is:
- Amateurization / trivialization of media
- Race to the bottom / lowest common denominator
However, I saw an implementation of automated content this week by a company called Automated Insights in Durham, NC and my own backyard in Washington, DC. In full disclosure, I heard about them because a VC firm I have a tiny investment in mentioned them in passing (my stake must be worth about $50). I can tell you that it is forcing me to rethink my initial biases and see exciting potential for what I see as a new category of content – that which is FULLY automated and driven by next-generation technology platforms.
Automated Insights launched an initiative this week with Yahoo! (the largest fantasy football platform in the world) to provide fully personalised recaps of every fantasy football match-up across the entire Yahoo! platform. The result is an initiative of astonishing scale. According to the company, at the conclusion of every week’s Monday Night Football game, Automated Insights will be producing these recaps at a rate of over 300 per second. And over the course of the season they will be generating over 50mm fully personalised recaps. But what is perhaps most impressive about these recaps is their depth.
These are not shallow or pithy recaps, but instead are 500-1000 word recaps filled with detailed analysis which puts individual player performances and managerial decisions into historical context and is able to identify the playoff implications of individual fantasy match-ups even though Yahoo! manages millions of leagues each with its own settings and scoring systems. Twitter was a flurry with Fantasy Footballers singing its praise this morning. I could see many applications for this in finance, news and technology.
This strikes me as a powerful and very different application of technology. I now realise that the idea of FULL automation is fundamentally different (both in terms of the underlying economics, the approach, the technology leveraged and the ultimate output). Unlike a Demand Media or Associated Content that seek to reduce the price of generating content by streamlining the ideation process and efficiently coordinating the outsourced production of that content, Automated Insights is FULLY automating the content production process. Once their code is in place, their marginal cost of content production is effectively zero (as opposed to the content farm approach that still results in $10-20 per article cost structure).
But the differences that get me excited go beyond the economics; they go to the fundamental approach and the nature of the content itself. What Automated Insights is doing is using computers for what they are good at. The fantasy recaps that Automated Insights produces involve countless database look-ups and deep quantitative analysis – which no human could do or would want to do. And in doing so, it leverages powerful technology that is capable of turning structured data and quantitative analysis into writing that is indistinguishable from that produced by human authors.
But perhaps the most important change in the fundamental nature of the content is its ability to provide true personalisation and one-to-one analysis. Automated Insights’ fantasy sports initiative isn’t an attempt to “game” search engines or “trick” consumers into reading long tail content. They are delivering truly personalised analysis with detailed commentary and an impressive ability to control tonality.
So why not use this technology to provide fully personalised financial portfolio reports, on whatever frequency a consumer desires? But then it dawned on me that they could be sitting on an enormous opportunity for the entire virtual world. Would my son, who loves beyond both my understanding and comfort World of Warcraft, want regular recaps of his worlds there. He answered my question in a word: “Awesome.”
I need a closer look, but if this is a sign of where things are going in combination with the power of great reporting and writing, if this is a sign of Yahoo! leaning forward into new thinking like this – it is pretty exciting.
Christopher M. Schroeder @cmschroed is a Washington, D.C. and New York-based entrepreneur, venture investor and former CEO of the online content and social platform start-up healthcentral.com, which he sold last January. He is writing a book about tech start-ups in the Middle East due Spring 2013.
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