iTunes models for news? What publishers can learn from mflow

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An iTunes model for news may be a phantom, but publishers wanting to make money from content online can still learn from the experiences of the music sector. The latest launch in this area is the music sharing-and-buying startup mflow – a fantastic model which I think can offer a lot of ideas to publishers. Here’s how it works:

  • You follow other people and see what music they’re sharing (‘flowing’). You also share (‘flow’) music yourself to your followers, adding comments.
  • If you own a track and share it, the first time a follower listens they can hear the whole thing. After that, they can only hear a 30 second sample.
  • Here’s the USP: if someone buys a track you’ve ‘flowed’, you get a 20% commission to spend on music yourself.

What’s interesting

  • Music consumption is highly social and mflow recognises this. If I can easily share music with my friends, I am more likely to buy music.
  • Incentivise distribution. Distribution is a key part of any media operation: bad distribution can undermine a whole media project, regardless of the quality of the content. mflow recognises that, online, users are your distributors, and adds incentives. The more music I share, the more likely it is that I’ll earn a commission and be able to buy more music.
  • Buying becomes a social act. I found a fascinating dynamic at play with mflow: when someone bought a track that I flowed, I would check out their flows (after all, they must have good taste!). I also felt more inclined to ‘return the favour’ by buying a track they had flowed. Conversely, when I was interested in a track being flowed by someone I didn’t know, I was less inclined to take the risk and buy it (but if it was someone I wanted to know, I probably would). So buying the track was not just about the content I would receive, but the social capital I would build by doing so.
  • Tap into changes in our social networks. We are increasingly engaging in communities that are geographically dispersed. There’s only a certain time period during which we can pop around to our friend’s house to share our latest musical discovery – particularly as people age, move away from their home towns, get jobs, get married, etc. (this may be one reason our musical consumption declines). In many ways, mflow is like blog-DJing – a way to share what we’re listening to, or like, with others in our social networks, regardless of their location or timezone.

What publishers could learn from this:

  • News consumption is highly social. You only have to look at the likes of Digg, Tumblr, and Twitter to see this playing out in the online space. Preventing users from sharing news devalues it.
  • Incentivise distribution. The biggest problem with paywalls is that they don’t address the distribution issue (the New York Times’ mooted plan to allow users access to content if they’ve come via a link is one exception that particularly interests me). If you insist on having a paywall, why not allow subscribers to easily share a whole article? Or if you’re limiting the numbers of articles you can access for free, allow users to access more articles if they share headlines via social networks. More promising strategies may be to stop worrying about the content and build and sell the distribution network itself – e.g. mailing lists.
  • Buying becomes a social act. Again, how do you make the act of buying more social? A commission on content is one idea but I can’t see it working with news. More promising avenues may be merchandise, events etc.
  • Tap into changes in our social networks. When at least a third of your users come from outside of your physical distribution area, it may be worth focusing less on geographical communities & more on communities of interest online.

Any other ideas? Meanwhile, feel free to follow me on mflow… 😉

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