At the 2013 paidContent Live conference in New York last week, there was plenty of talk about mobile, video, mobile video and how paywalls and sponsored content were the best or worst things that could happen to journalism. In short, a successful digital media extravaganza.

Randy PichtBut one thing I didn’t expect was the thread of personalized discovery that ran through several panels. (OK, maybe I should’ve paid closer attention to the program since there was one panel about this subject, but it didn’t stop there)

David Karp, founder and CEO of Tumblr, talked about it. Three book publishers talked about it during “The Evolution of the Book Industry” panel. And, of course, Aria Haghighi, co-founder and CTO of Prismatic, and Mark Johnson, CEO of Zite, spent their entire 30-minute panel devoted to the subject.

Both Prismatic and Zite are personalized news apps that deliver customized news to your iPhone or iPad. Yet Johnson and Haghighi both said the personalized news business is so new it still means different things to different people.

David Karp“We still haven’t had that Google moment,” said Johnson. “We’re really good at finding stuff but we can be so much better.” The Google moment will come when everyone says look at how simple and reliable this is.

He said too many so-called personalized news sites are essentially just attractive RSS feeds. “We need to get beyond that.”

Haghighi said Prismatic spreads the wealth when it comes to personalized recommendations — there is no dominant provider and no site gets recommended more than 10 percent of the time. Smaller publishers definitely hold their own when it comes to giving readers what they want.

“You see interesting articles that you had no idea were out there on the fringes of the internet,” Haghighi said. “No two people have very similar feeds at all.”

Aria HaghighiA fan of comic books, Haghighi told a story about how Prismatic delivered him a USA Today story that was right on target. He hadn’t picked up a copy of USA Today for maybe 10 years and had no plans to pick one up, certainly not when he was looking for interesting news about comic books.

“Now I know they have comic book content, and really good comic book content. So, they got a new customer.”

Meanwhile, two sessions later, Karp was updating the impressive metrics for his microblogging and social networking site, and talking about the next big thing — hint, it’s not profitability.

Karp noted that in the past few weeks the number of blogs hosted by Tumblr had surpassed 100 million although he was more interested in talking about qualitative measurements like time spent on the site, which is about 14 minutes per visit on average. That’s higher than Facebook, according to Karp.

Mark JohnsonSo, that’s pretty good. But the next big thing at Tumblr is: better personalization.

“We’re making a big effort to try to get people to stuff they like and want,” he said. It will indeed be a big effort since the site averages about 90 million posts each day and there are a total or 45 billion posts overall to scour.

And it may be harder than it looks for Tumblr since its Storyboard project, an “experimental marketing effort” to hire editors to comb through Tumblr and find the best examples of amazing content on Tumblr, was shutdown earlier this month with little explanation.

Karp said he was glad to have an opportunity to talk about it at the paidContent conference but he really didn’t say much more than he did April 9 when he announced the shutdown of the three-person unit.

Perhaps Tumblr learned a few things with the experiment. Perhaps a greater focus on personalization will help create some guideposts to profitability.

As Haghighi noted: “Discovery and serendipity are associated with taking action.” (He defined serendipity as: Something I didn’t know about that is close to my interests). Taking action could be associated with spending money, which could mean that using personalized news strategies could be a great way to generate revenue.

Cue the Google moment, please.

Randy Picht  
Executive Director


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