DVR puts the squeeze on ratings, smart folks: Take notice

While perusing online video industry rag NewTeeVee, I stumbled across a report that DVR usage eats away at TV ratings by 15%-20%. I know in my household, it’s more like 95% of our household ratings. With that growth in DVRs comes a shift in the way people consume content, and specifically they’ve altered the mainstream media diet of consumers dramatically. Now, some viewers don’t look at the TV as a place to see what’s on, but rather what’s good to watch.

It’s easy to take this new behavior pattern and infer that the day of on-demand is just around the corner. I think a lot of smart folks will take that approach, and there’s some sound logic behind it. Now that consumers are willing to “bookmark” shows and watch them on their schedules, that has to mean internet-enabled TVs will lead a monumental shift away from primetime, right?

It could be the case, but rather than walk down the road that’s likely to get overcrowded and overhyped in the next six months, let me recommend starting with the road less traveled. Think about why people like TV.

Why do I like TV? Curated content, brainless interface. When I show up to my TV, I don’t actively need to search for a topic, find an actor, look by keyword, but instead I can simply show up expecting to be entertained… and guess what? I’m entertained. I simply swap between 3-4 cable networks and I can (usually) find something that catches my fancy. That’s the way it’s been for 50 years. People expect TV to entertain them without asking much from the user.

There are some smart folks taking a look at the passive entertainment experience online. For instance, take a peek at Google Reader Play. It’s a product that takes a bunch of sites online, and tries to serve you up content based on the ones you’re most likely to enjoy. Another fav worth checking out is Upl8.tv. When you show up to the site, it’s simply an old-skool rendered TV with a YouTube embedded player. Rather than leaning into the product, and selecting some category, or searching, instead the site throws a selection of hand curated YouTube videos at you, one after another. The beauty is in the simplicity: Just smash the spacebar when you get bored.

Those are two good examples where someone has ventured outside the lines, but I think content producers can take some adventurous risks without spending a ton of cash. Find a smart web developer, come up with some ways of presenting content that doesn’t look like YouTube, create it in some spare time, and find some users who will give you a shot. Worst case scenario? They don’t like it and you learned something about what people don’t like.

The reward is figuring out a non-traditional experience that users will love, and then being able to share your content in a way that connects with people. It’s not going to be easy, but the only downside is time. Try to carve some out to create a future, and your future self will thank you.

Upcoming API Key Enhancements

If you have been following the Castfire status blog then you have recently seen several updates involving backend changes for the Castfire API. I want to share with you how those changes will manifest for Castfire clients.

There are six upcoming API key enhancements that fall into two general categories.

  1. Unlimited API keys
  2. API key names
  3. Ability to change an API secret
  4. Ability to delete an API key
  5. Limit access to specific API methods
  6. Limit the access to specific content producers

API key management
API keys will be decoupled from a user login allowing for a network to create unlimited API keys. Separate API keys can be created and assigned to a specific task or third-party. For example, if you are working with a digital agency like Digitaria, an API key can be created and shared with just them.

The API key can also be given a name, such as “Digitaria” and if needed the API secret can be changed or the API key can be deleted easily in the Castfire CMS.

API key access restrictions
Keeping third-party integrations in mind, API keys can be restricted to one or more API methods. For example, if Digitaria only needs details about existing shows, the API key can be limited to the shows.getDetail API method. If later on, the ability to set show tags is required then access to shows.setTags can easily be added in the Castfire CMS.

Restrictions also encompass content producers, allowing for API keys to be restricted to one or more. For example, if Digitaria wants the ability to set foreign keys on all shows in the “News” content producer, an API key can be created that only has access to this content producer and the only the shows.setDetail API method

These upcoming API key enhancements will make API key management easier, give control over access restrictions and allow for more flexibility when integrating Castfire with third-party vendors.

Simplifying Our Operations

Over the past 5 1/2 years of business, we have a fallen into a variety of processes and systems. Some are convoluted, some are purely convenience. In almost every case, they were implemented in the heat of the moment and rarely received refinement. We often had huge dreams of building an entire platform for not only managing audio and video publishing, but also providing all of the tools we need to run and build Castfire. In reality, we have found this is a very poor use of our engineering focus.

In the last 6 weeks, we have started putting process in place and locking in our use of 3rd party services. Our engineering time is extremely valuable, so maximizing our time working on core functionality is key. On that note, here are some of the key companies that we rely on as we scale sales and account management while keeping our engineers focused on our publishing platform.

Highrise
We had been using Salesforce for almost two years but found that it was overwhelming for our small sales staff. Unfortunately, during setup, we tried to populate it with all of our contacts throughout the years. The result was a database filled with inactive records and poorly categorized. While Salesforce is a very strong SaaS platform, we needed something simpler.

Enter Highrise from 37Signals, which is a very simple CRM for small businesses. The cost savings was not only substantial, but it also allowed for everyone in the company to have access to the data. We have now begun consolidating all of user management, pipeline, and marketing efforts within Highrise. Our goal by the end of the year is to use Highrise to do monthly reviews of not only our pipeline, but also existing accounts. It will aggregate everything from marketing emails, billing, support and more into a single place. Even early into this process, it has increased our productivity and our internal conversations about Castfire.

Zendesk
We have been a Zendesk customer since July, 2008. They have provided a wonderful support system that has grown dramatically over the years. The email workflow for support tickets has been essential for us. With the addition of Randall Bennett, we have begun taking advantage of the knowledge base and forum functionality as well. We are looking forward to utilizing the integration with GoodData to provide reporting on our response times and the types of tickets.

In our goal to consolidate around Highrise, this October, we will be utilizing their webhooks implementation to add tickets to Highrise automatically. Unfortunately, it is not a simple process to integrate immediately, however, it should only take a couple of hours with some creativity.

Freshbooks
Prior to March, 2009, our billing process was a partially automated, fully pain in the ass system. While there is a separate datawarehouse for every client on Castfire, representing all usage of our platform, the actual process of getting invoices out was slow and painful. It involved quite a bit of back and forth over emailed spreadsheets and often incurred delays.

We implemented the Freshbooks API in less than a week, fully automating the monthly process of creating invoices. While we still incur delays on certain months as we QA all of the billing, we have found that Freshbooks is rock solid and is a fabulous invoicing system. It is such a valuable tool for Castfire it is painful to think of the days we did not use Freshbooks.

In October, we will also be integrating our Freshbooks solution with Highrise. While there is not an existing solution, webhooks again to the rescue. This is a huge step in being able to review account status from a single application.

The most difficult aspect of our billing process has been the refinement of our pricing model. While the iteration process has led us to a greatly simplified model that is resonating with customers, it is a nightmare to keep up with the variety of historical models. We are beginning to consolidate all customers to a single model, but it has been a struggle. Simplifying our pricing model not only makes it easier for our customers, it makes it much easier for our operations staff to accurately bill each month.

MailChimp
There are a ton of email marketing companies on the market. As we have been heavy on video and engineering expertise, and admittedly light on marketing expertise, we looked for a solution that was easy, offered tons of functionality and, most importantly, would walk us through the process of managing our newsletter. Mailchimp has provided us all of the functionality in a simple to use interface with fantastic pricing.

As a bonus, their integration with Highrise is great. We are able to gather all of the stats from our email marketing directly into our CRM to provide a single dashboard to review our current and pipeline customers. All of the functionality was enabled in about 10 mouse clicks. Amazing.

Google Apps
This is the basis of it all for the Castfire team. Google has rolled out an amazing suite of tools for our team. I am not sure where we would be if we had to put together Mail, Calendar, IM, Office apps and simple wikis on our own. I can promise you that it would not be as reliable, would not be as complete and would not allow our engineers to focus on our core business. This has been a major win for Castfire.

The ability for web applications to interact through APIs and Webhooks makes life so much easier for start ups. We picked best of breed solutions and connected them, utilizing very little of our engineering time. We are thrilled with what we have put together in the past 6 weeks and look forward to refining this the remainder of the year. Thanks to all of the companies and open technologies that have made this possible.

Enhanced E Books — The Evolution of Reading

The notion of enhanced E Books has been around for years, but it is the proliferation of E Book readers, and more specifically tablet devices like the iPad and the unreleased Samsung Galaxy Tab that will truly transform the way some people view, consume and read books.  Many may ask what the heck an enhanced E Book is.  The definition is still being worked out in the publishing industry, and the formats are certainly far from being defined.  But the premise is simple:  include additional links, data, video, audio, or even software to “enhance” a book above and beyond the typical text you would see on the screen.

So curling up with a good book in bed can also include all kinds of extras if and when you want: an audio track of the author reading the prose, movie trailers, videos of book critics or additional explanations, links to related articles, games or contests, or even promotions for book signings or giveaways.  Some might find it sad that we as a society want to merge a good book with mass media, but I find it very exciting.  And I do believe that it will eventually lead to more book sales, can actually spur people to read more by making it a little more fun, and will certainly assist with the dissemination of information.

Devices like the Kindle and Nook do enable some enhanced features to be added to E Books, but the real game changers are the highly successful Apple iPad and all of the new tablets based on the Android platform set to be hitting retailers over the next 12 months.  These devices can really bring all of these other enhancements to life and provide a broadband connection for the ease of serving media elements.

The current trend is for the publishers to develop an app for the enhanced E Book, and the app will be device specific (iPhone, iPad, Galaxy Tab, etc).  Of course this adds to the complexity and cost for publishers.  As more and more of these devices hit the market, decisions will have to be made to determine what apps they will provide and what devices they will support.  Standardization will be difficult as each device will have it’s own specs and SDK.

Enhanced E Book apps can be very large in size as well if a great deal of video or audio is embedded in the app.  The market will trend in the future to try to limit the size of the apps for both magazine and E Book apps.  The hard drives on tablets are not very large and really are not designed to hold vast amounts of data.  Some of the apps for magazines and E Books I have seen recently are over 1GB in size.  Think about it….that means that if I have a 16GB iPad, I could only have 16 books or magazines on it at a time!  It will be imperative that publishers think about this as they are developing their E Book Apps.  Embedding large video or audio files in the apps will not be sustainable over time.  Utilizing a media publishing platform like Castfire can enable these apps to serve media content to the Enhanced E Books and can publish audio or video to the multiple different devices you are targeting. These apps should be designed so that as much data as possible is coming from the cloud so that the file size is minimized.

Publishers really seem to be rushing to develop and nurture the enhanced E Book market right now.  I don’t think anyone knows what they will look like even in the next 12 months, but I know that I’m excited to read, listen and watch them as they rapidly come to market.

2011: The year of living room internet video?

It’s been a turbulent ten years for web video. Before the year 2000, we had something that resembled internet video, but thanks to high costs in server hardware and low internet speeds, late 90s web video was relegated to a basic slideshow with radio in the background.

Thanks to broadband penetration in the earlier part of this decade, culminating in YouTube’s meteoric rise to pop culture icon status, 21st century web video feels a lot better than the days of Real. That familiarity with web video has led smart business folks to re-evaluate how they could connect with consumers in the living room. And now, we’re seeing next year as the year where bits start making their jump from computer screens and cellphones, and into your living room.

While savvy video creators have heard convergence claims before, 2011 looks to be different. How? I’d argue everyone in the TV ecosystem is watching how the internet will move into the living room, and some companies— primarily hardware manufacturers— are actually doing something about it.

Two startups I’ve personally been watching with great anticipation are Boxee and Roku. While they’re not the only companies in the mix, but the two represent both ends of the scrappy startup spectrum. In my mind, it seems Roku is taking the tactic of the $20 DVD player and applying it to on-demand content. Right now, you can pick one of these svelte boxes up for $70 and get full HD on-demand access. Boxee, on the other hand, is going for the high end of the market, where a higher priced box ($200 – $230) leads to more available content, and an attempt at unlocking a web-style ecosystem for video.

But let’s be frank: It’s going to be difficult for two startups to make a real dent in the living room. Sure, they’re partnering with content providers to push the envelope, but I’m not convinced that alone, these two guys can change the living room.

Lucky for them, they’re going to be able to draft off of the larger companies coming to play. With larger marketing budgets to educate the consumer, we should start to see consumers understanding the need for internet connected TV experiences, and even making the leap to prefer and purchase them.

Among the companies leading the charge? There’s Samsung, who currently is a client of Castfire. The company is working with Yahoo on the connected TV platform, allowing couch sitters to do things like check the weather, stocks and other basic news information. On the internet side of things, Google’s new Google TV project looks to woo some watchers, and since it’ll be running Android, we could see some mobile-focused developers give a crack at the box too. Oh, and there’s some marginally large company called Apple who has the double whammy of a media focused tablet and an updated Apple TV. That could help a little. Just sayin’.

Realistically, we’re in a phase where all of these technologies are going to be in the marketplace, they’re barely going to interoperate, and it’s going to be somewhat of a confusing time to be a content producer. That’s actually a good thing. After the hardware has done its survival of the fittest thing, and we start to see some consumer consensus, content creators will have better access to the living room, in ways they’d never thought of before.

While I’d love to place bets on who’s going to win, realistically nobody actually knows for certain. But even though there’s no clear winner, that’s not a good reason to sit on the sidelines. With all of the companies out there gathering data, trying new ideas, and iterating on the traditional living room experience, we’re going to see more progress than before with understanding how people want (and don’t want) their living room to change. 2011 is the year to sow seeds. Start planting in 2011 so you’ll see a plentiful harvest later on. I’m not saying to invest lots of money in all these technologies, but I do think having a presence on these devices shouldn’t cost an arm and a leg. It might take a content deal or two, but how much would it take for you to know the future?

If you’ve got the resources, be everywhere. If you don’t, at least pick one and start learning. Even though I’m not convinced next year is the breakout year for TV connected to the internet, I do think it’ll be the year that a lot of people experience it for the first time. And for you, that means it’s your chance to innovate and create the market you’ll be playing in for the foreseeable future.