Wednesday, August 6, 2008

What we can learn from NBA.com

Fast Company is always a great source of ideas on innovation and adaptation to changing conditions. The June 2006 issue (which I came across while culling my ever-growing stash of magazines) did not disappoint. There on page 97 was a story about how the NBA was using the web to hook a whole new generation of hoops fans. Their innovations sparked some interesting thoughts about things the news business could do online to similiarly attract and keep readers.

Here are a few things NBA.com did:

-- They realized that unlike TV watchers, Internet users weren't interested in watching a whole game over the Internet. So how to give them something they would want? Slice and dice game footage to give fans the ability to watch short snippets, especially snippets of the specific players or plays the fans were interested in.

-- NBA.com made it possible for fans to have specific snippets beamed directly to their handheld devices, based on preferences they had set for specific teams or players. Again, slice and dice and serve up specifics, rather than the whole 2 1/2 hour game.

-- They started to monetize the services by embedding short ads in the clips. And again, though the article didn't go into it, I'm guessing those weren't simply repurposed 15- or 30-second spots from TV. I'm guessing the ads were specifically designed for the devices (Internet or handheld) to achieve the advertisers' goal (brand impressions) without providing a bad experience for the user (like forcing them to watch a 15-second ad in order to watch a 15-second clip).

-- At the time of the article, NBA.com was also toying with the idea of sending text messages about specific developments, when a player had hit a certain number of points, for example. Clicking on the message would take the user straight to a live broadcast of the game. That way, the fan could tune in only if the game met certain conditions the fan considered interesting.

Newspapers could learn a lot from NBA.com.

The first thing is the whole mindset issue. The NBA didn't just look at the Web and say to themselves, "How can we use this thing to do the exact same thing here that were doing on TV?" (ie: broadcast games) They realized it was a different beast and that fans would want to use it differently.

Slate editor Jacob Weisberg once told me that one of the problems some print editors have had in transitioning to the Web is that they look at the Web and see words and so they assume that a reader wants to interact with the content there in the exactly same way as they interact with a print newspaper. And that all the editors have to do to make the Web work for them is to convert their print stories into digital form. Some of them don't get that a reader approaching the Web is going to want to do different things than a reader approaching a piece of newsprint. The difference is subtle, Weisberg said, but it makes all the difference in whether an online site succeeds or fails.

Second, the NBA realized that the nature of the Web made it possible to deliver things that had never been possible to deliver via television. With TV, broadcasters can only send a single thing out to the entire audience. So they choose the thing most interesting to the majority: the entire game. In the digital world, however, it's possible to serve up different things to different members of the audience, based on what those individuals request. Had the NBA simply used the new medium to do the old thing (send a single thing to the entire audience), they would have missed the real opportunity on the Web (the ability to enable individuals within the audience to receive only those things most valuable to them).

Indeed, noted the Fast Company article in explaining how NBA.com was different from its peers: "The strategy at most entertainment companies looking to capitalize on the new networked gadgets is just to peddle out the same old stuff in new places." The NBA's key insight was that people wanted to do different things on the new devices.

Specifically,
* In the old TV world, the user desire was simply: "Show me what is going on now."
* In the new digital world, there were two new desires:
-- "Show me only those aspects of past events that I care about"
and
-- "Notify me if a certain event has taken place or a specific condition has changed, so that I can take a particular action that is important to me"

Understanding those new needs, NBA.com built on the old content (game footage) and on activities they were already doing (following games in real time) to create new types of content (player snippets, play snippets, event-driven text messages) to meet those new desires.


So, off the top of my head, what similar kinds of things could newspapers do to attract and keep readers?

-- What if readers could sign up to get news only about certain public figures or certain issues they cared about? In San Francisco, for example, if they wanted to get alerted every time there was a new item about supervisor Chris Daly? Or about parking regulations? Or about a business in a specific industry? Or even a specific restaurant?

The New York Times is already doing a version of this with its Keyword Alerts, which enable readers to tell nytimes.com to send them only those stories that include the readers specify (like "Afghanistan," "interest rate," or "Manolo Blahnik," for example). More newspapers should be doing this.

-- How else could the news be sliced and diced and delivered to readers in ways that make sense on handheld devices? It can't, of course, be a matter of just shoving an article or a blog post down the pipe. It would have to involve reshaping the content into a snippet that was useful to someone who's receiving it at work, while riding the bus home, or at a baseball game. I don't have the answer, but I'm sure it's there.

-- And how else could the news be provided to meet the desire "Notify me if a certain event has happened or a condition has changed, so that I can take a particular action that is meaningful to me"? Again, I haven't thought this one through, but I'm sure there's an answer. Or many.

Photo courtesy of spcoon. Creative Commons license.

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