Sunday, June 21, 2009

Circulate enters the fray: holistic, user-centric content discovery tool

Again with full disclosure up front: this is a venture in which I am personally involved:

A few weeks ago in Washington DC, my partners and I announced the formation of CircLabs and the intent to develop a product "code-named" Circulate, incubated at the Donald W. Reynolds Journalism Institute at the University of Missouri. But the announcement stopped short of an explicit description. We've now unveiled the CircLabs Inc. website with more details about our plans for Circulate on the About Us/FAQ page.

Circulate is a holistic, user-centric solution aimed broadly at sustaining journalism in a digital world, with specific relevance to the ongoing exploration of paid-content models for newspaper Web sites. Circulate enables experimentation with subscription and per-item user charges, but as a user-centric content discovery tool, Circulate goes well beyond the announced features of other systems that have been proposed in that space.

Circulate will be rolled out in phases. Initially, it will be a browser add-on that you can have always handy as you move around the Web. Circulate will function on multiple platforms to allow full portability: a mobile application is planned, possibly first as an iPhone application, along with user start page and e-mail notification options.

We describe Circulate on our site in these terms:
Circulate will be present whenever and wherever Web users go online. Circulate learns the user's preferences and becomes an intelligent, indispensable Web assistant that replaces the hassle of search with on-target recommendations and social interactivity....

Circulate travels with you, at your option, wherever you go online. Using your expressly shared interests and preferences, along with your current browsing path, it suggests where you may want to go next, or later on. Over time, you can refine your content interests so that Circulate gets to know you and becomes an even better personal guide to the Web....

Before Circulate, you had to know where you're going online or use unpredictable search engines. And you needed to do all the work by typing search terms or by scanning links. This hasn't changed much during all the time the Web has been around.

Circulate solves this problem by bringing the Web to you simply and quickly. With Circulate, you can take a big step into the post-search, Web 3.0 world. Circulate is a personal information agent that works just for you....

When you begin using Circulate, you'll probably want to tell it a little bit about yourself. As you continue to interact with it, you can allow it to learn more about you and your preferences, and it uses that information to deliver Web recommendations to you.

Eventually, you'll find that Circulate brings you what you want to see, learn about, and interact with online, before you even think about it. In a real sense, it will become an intelligent personal information agent.
As a Circulate user, you'll be able to have an account with a home-base publisher, like the local paper, and optionally profile yourself. Then the Circulate system will go to work and discover and present to you information that’s really relevant to your interests. You'll be able to set alerts if you want, but you don't have to. Circulate won’t start out carrying advertising, but eventually when it does, you'll see advertising that matters to you, not blindly-aimed mass-market ads. And it sets up the possibility that you could optionally subscribe, through your home-base publisher, to valuable information at hundreds and eventually thousands of news and other websites, all at a low monthly blanket rate.

Circulate will feature social functionality, so that you can share and discuss content (but its content recommendations are not sourced through "collaborative filtering"). Over time, you will be able to select additional features on Circulate as they are developed.

Importantly, a core, fundamental value at CircLabs is user privacy. While Circulate will work best when the user shares information, that will happen with the user's explicit permission, not by virtue of obscure language buried in user agreements no one reads.

For publishers, we see Circulate as a game-changing solution that can enhance revenue in a number of ways:
  • Local branding
  • Increased high-value site traffic
  • Local advertising on Circulate
  • Subscription revenue
  • Per-item revenue
  • Other forms of commercial revenue
We invite publishers to contact us and to explore the features of Circulate in more detail. We've begun software development, but Circulate will improve even faster if we can work with publishers in various ways, including technical collaboration, refinement of the end-user experience, marketing to end users, local and national advertising sales, and paid content options.

Besides myself, the CircLabs leadership team consists of Jeff Vander Clute, President; Joe Bergeron, VP, Product Development; and Bill Densmore, Co-founder. You can read more about us here.

We expect to begin beta testing Circulate this fall.


David said...

Interesting concept, guys - although I have to admit that reading through the first few graphs, my stomach sank when I read "charging for online content." Way too many collective clock cycles are being devoted to coming up with arcane ways to try to extract some kind of revenue stream from online readers. Most tend to be veneers over the failed strategy of erecting paywalls over existing content, without really given a thought to how the core product has to be radically different for the consumer to be willing to yank out the wallet.

Reading further, it became evident that what you're doing is a variation on the "Find Engine" concept - that is, that the app/site/widget/whatever will take over for the Almighty Google, and serve you up the information that you need, when, where & how you need it.

OK, that's interesting.

You also addressed the core problem with a Find Engine - that is, if the app/whatever knows enough about you to be able to accurately (and if it isn't accurate, what use would it be?) know what you want, then isn't that a treasure trove of information about you that could be hacked/exploited/sold? Well, yeah. We all start to feel a bit creepy about the thought that something in the machine knows us & is ratting us out. Despite the fact that it happens all the time ...

Well, to a certain extent, it does. Big online ad agencies get quiet & change the subject when people bring up the idea of a "Universal Cookie." Which would be far easier to implement if Circulate takes off.

Anyway - one suggestion. You talk about mobile, and indicate that one of the first moves might be to develop an iPhone app. While I applaud your willingness to engage with this new platform, you might want to check the numbers. At a recent Online News Association event I helped organize, Nick Montes of Viva Vision laid out the numbers involved with selling content - I'm posting the video and a description in the next day or so.

Briefly: the iPhone has market penetration of 9M handsets in a US market of 250M+ handsets. Nice, but not staggering.

But the real eye-opener was that Verizon makes about $20 billion a year from selling/licensing/streaming content. The much-touted iPhone App Store is likely to make Apple about $300 million.

Basically, you'd be pouring sweat equity into constructing something for a platform that comprises about 1.5% of the money on the table...

Anyway - I look forward to seeing what Circulate looks & feels like. At least you're trying.

Anonymous said...

Yawn!!! Too many techie nerds with too much time on their hands. Talk about a solution in search of a problem!!!! BO-ring, and pointless!!!

Martin Langeveld said...

Well, thanks, anon, some people consider "techie nerds" a compliment. We're sure Circulate is not for everyone; we're equally sure there's a big market out there looking for exactly this concept.

Michael Stoll said...

I'm not so skeptical about the idea of charging for news and other content -- I think there's definitely untapped potential there and a technical solution might be what's needed.

I'm actually more concerned about the "holistic" and "intelligent" descriptors. In order to get widespread acceptance of this, you'd have to convince people that it's their interest, i.e., significantly more convenient, to have a computer or intelligent agent or helper learn about them in ways that may or may not be totally transparent.

I don't particularly want some database following me everywhere on the Web. And even if I weren't concerned about the privacy and autonomy implications of more invasive tracking (in what is now perceived, rightly or wrongly as anonymous surfing), what if I visit a site that isn't representative of what I want the system to help guide me to? Can I edit my profile in a way I can understand? Can I control Circulate, or does Circulate control me? I'm not at all sure that online liberation through artificial intelligence search butlers is what most people really want.

It's kind of creepy, and that, more than anything, will be a barrier to adoption. Assuming that it even works as advertised.

Anonymous said...

welcome to the viewers of news anytime.


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