YouTube music is a big challenge for Apple and Spotify.

Earlier this week, YouTube launched its much awaited Music app, in the US. This is intended to cement the stronghold which the popular video streaming site has over the younger online age groups and to seriously enter the music streaming market. YouTube has been quietly, incredibly popular among younger audiences for consuming music, especially over the likes of Apple Music which is much more premium and Google Music which is too poorly promoted.

Youtube poses a huge challenge however, to music streaming’s biggest  platforms; Apple and Spotify. This is especially true while both suffer with some fairly major problems. Apple, firstly has failed to retain most of the free trial subscribers it got on board. While you can point to the figures of platform vs platform, per user, it’s a pretty bad result given this was a big launch, with the app being automatically added to every iPhone. Spotify has another problem, people are not signing up to premium as much they need to be. The result is that Spotify has to work much harder to sell as space to reach its younger audience who are seemingly unwilling to pay.

Music is an attempt, by Google to do two things. Firstly, to capitalise on the youth market which they have been incredibly successful in doing to date. Secondly, and more urgently it is to monetise YouTube. Famously loss making since its purchase, YouTube has been a long term investment for Google, and this is now coming into fruition with YouTube Red, of which music is a part.

But what makes YouTube music different? Well, it’s been growing a lot of channels over time, to the point at which many are now commercial businesses with loyal audiences. Those audiences it now feels would pay the monthly fee to be ad-free and get special content and features.  Google also has a lot of information about the people who use YouTube, that’s allowed them to create curated playlists through a mixture of human oversight and machine learning. It’s something that Apple struggle with because of their stance on user data collection, Spotify also have no way to gather this information.

Human and machine curation is an interesting approach, Google is using the raft of information about each user to get as much insight as possible, but much like Facebook M, a human go-between ads common sense and context to everything

YouTube music won’t allow you to create playlists like Spotify does though, it focuses in on core feature that the end user wants, the belief (and possibly correct assumption) is that the average person doesn’t want to create playlists, they want to consume content. YouTube allows you not just to listen to music, but to save video content offline to watch wherever you might not have connection. While it has the same 30million odd tracks that the other services have, it also has videos, concerts and a host of other content.

Most importantly, YouTube has done what Apple actually does best. It played the long game and now aims to enter an industry to disrupt it. It has the information, the data and the loyalty to just get away with is

YouTube Red, and YouTube Music are currently available in the US, and should be coming to Europe soon.

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OnePlus, Inviting Social Success

OnePlus Two

The smartphone industry is easily one of the most competitive in the modern market, if not, the most. Apple and Samsung continue to dominate with huge marketing budgets and ever increasing customer loyalty. Factor in concepts like Apple’s leasing programme and it’s now more difficult than ever for the little guy to make it. The most public examples are HTC, who have now stopped posting financial projections, and BlackBerry, a platform with a smaller user-base than Samsung Tizen.

One small manufacturer looking to shift this paradigm and carve out its place in the marketplace, is OnePlus, a Chinese manufacturer based on a team from Oppo. OnePlus have taken the approach of low-price, high feature, aiming at the savvy mid-range consumer.With almost no budget, they have deployed guerrilla tactics to grow a fanbase of early adopters and savvy consumers, not unlike Apple in the buzz they generate, even if at a smaller scale.

OnePlus clearly understand that going toe-to-toe with Apple and Samsung in a marketing war is futile, as many have tried and failed to reach the mass market (HTC for example, whose ads seem content to bounce between weird and bizarre). So OnePlus haven’t bothered. Through social media and an approach to sales which defies standard practice, OnePlus have managed to make headlines across the web. Coupled with a buying system that favours a select percentage, the short supply and high demand has gotten people talking with their famous ‘Invite-only’ approach.

What’s most interesting about OnePlus’s social media campaigns is that they’re entirely organic and driven towards invites; relying on user-generated content and stirring up demand to drive awareness among like-minded people. Example social campaigns have gone from destroying your own phone on YouTube in order to obtain a OnePlusOne invite, to their current campaign of a reflective Instagram-selfie for the OnePlusX.

OnePlus have a huge benefit to play with: they’re brand new. Less than two years old, they’re a company which can afford to take a few calculated risks. With no marketing budget, and no real profit for a company still in it’s early stages, their approach is much more engaging, much more fun and has a specific focus; get people to want an invite.

The biggest challenge for OnePlus, is that it might not be a drop in the ocean forever. Currently, they’re doing all the right things. Their stall at the Dublin Web Summit had people lining up for invites, even though they weren’t quite sure what exactly the phone was, or who OnePlus were. The invite-only list added to the intrigue and people started sharing their OnePlus selfies. It’s a clever strategy to generate awareness, and it’s paying off.

Unfortunately, when you’re no longer a drop in the ocean, Samsung and Apple begin to pay attention, shareholders begin to look for profit (which currently OnePlus reinvests into its devices) and you need to change your marketing approach. Mass market devices can’t be sold via invite-only and online shopping for smartphones is still relatively uncommon globally.

OnePlus is beginning to think about this and how they can keep up newsworthy and engaging campaigns, which create ‘Fear of Missing out’. There are signs of a shift, albeit a slow one. OnePlus is now opening its online store for general sale for one hour per week. It might not sound like much, but it’s a step towards mass purchase that the company needs to consider.

The strategy behind their approach towards moving into the mainstream is fairly clear; as the company grows, all content should encourage invites and create exclusivity. All the while, they can perfect their next generation of phones, which move closer to the real mid-range of the mass handset market. At what point the strategy moves from upstart to traditional will be the real test for OnePlus.

OnePlus2 and OnePlusX, should you settle?

This year at the Dublin Web Summit, OnePlus were out on display showing off their two latest handsets, the OnePlus2 and the OnePlusX. Both phones are fantastic, to hold in the hand and play around with; they’re responsive and lovely. While the OnePlus2 looks almost identical to the OnePlus1 (which is no bad thing), the OnePlusX is unmistakably something different. It’s a lot slicker, a lot more sheen and a lot more premium.

Both phones are not only nice to hold, but in a year when handsets have gotten bigger, it’s refreshing to hold something which you can hold and type on with one hand. However, it’s not what these phones have which is of interest to me (the spec sheet gives most mid-high range handsets a good run), it’s what they don’t have.

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2016 will undoubtedly be about two things; Mobile Payment and USB type-C. Both are in their infancy now, currently only a few select countries support Apple Pay, and Android Pay is US only. USB-C is even more rare, with only the Google Nexus range supporting this. It’s surprising then that neither OnePlus support NFC, or fingerprint sensors. Only the OnePlus2 supports USB-C, the X has dropped this.

While this is not a huge problem at the moment, it will become one. It’s unusual for new flagship releases to fall in any way behind for a young company hoping to make its stake in a competitive industry, particularly when it’s target audience is heavily geared towards savvy consumers, and tech enthusiasts.

At a basic level, if you’re not the kind to compare spec sheets for phones; if you’re in a region with Android Pay, you won’t be able to use your new OnePlus to pay for things. You also won’t be able to utilise fingerprint support, which more and more apps are beginning to integrate.

As to why these were omitted, the official reason boils down to price. With a limited user-base, and an extremely competitive price point of €399, it’s a question of whether you want the new high-end flagship, or you want something that doesn’t break the bank, but still has good specs. Speaking with their staff at Web Summit, in Dublin, their customers also just didn’t really use NFC, and didn’t really see the point in fingerprint sensors. It’s a fair reason on which basis to exclude it, NFC does have limited uses outside of payments at the moment, the same goes for Fingerprint sensors.

What I found interesting was the reason the USB-C was excluded from the X. It seems to come down to bulk, the Type-C connector is a little bigger than the traditional micro-USB, which again seems a fair enough point. While it means the X won’t support faster charging, the 2525mAh battery should charge just fine the old-fashioned way. Arguably this is the thing people will least miss from the spec-sheet. Cables take a long time to become obsolete and Micro-USB will be around for a while. The focus from OnePlus was very much to keep the X looking as sophisticated as possible – it’s something they’ve achieved very well, the X is a very good looking phone.

Price can often be a lazy explanation, so too can ‘bulk’ or wanting to keep aesthetics. You don’t have to look too far to see a competitor delivering on price and specs in one bundle, even if it misses out a little on aesthetics; Nexus 5X. Certainly the US price is extremely competitive and it’s able to integrate a very good fingerprint reader in there also. Apart from that, it’s not a terrible looking phone – but it’s certainly not as premium looking as the OnePl

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usX.

Holding both handsets, it can be hard to believe they’re as cheap as they are. Well built and very premium looking, the screen, camera are all very sharp. They’re responsive and while not quite high-end, they’re definitely punching above the mid/low-end weight. Of the two, the X definitely had the edge for me. It was slicker, lighter and snappier than the 2, it also appeared to have a sharper screen and more responsive camera. The hardware is really great, sturdy and you could almost forget it’s as cheap as it is especially with that battery, which is strong.

The one thing that confuses me is the omissions. Granted price is a factor, but NFC is a fairly cheap technology, also the people had spoken, they don’t want USB-C, they don’t need NFC or fingerprint sensors, for now. While you certainly can’t argue the price, it could be seen as a cynical way to get people buying their 2017 model. Fit the moment though, if you want a cheap phone to replace next year, you could do a lot worse.

Product Placement and Paywalls, beating the AdBlockers.

Ad-blocking has by far become one of the most talked about things for online publishers in recent months. Apple now allowing adblocking, combined with a host of services and add-ons for browsers which supported this previously have led to an explosion in the number of people using the service to view content without distraction.

Statistics vary, but a recent poll by the YouTube star PewDiePie has shown that at least 40% of his audience have admitted to using some kind of ad-blocking tool when browsing the web. Figures for other sites could be much higher. The problem lies, primarily in a lack of understanding many average internet users have of website revenue.  Free services need to generate income from somewhere, to deliver quality reporting, quality content. Something reliable which can’t be gotten from social, or blogs.

This is particularly harmful to newspaper outlets, who have seen a sharp decline in offline sales, combined with a drop in revenue from online ad impressions. As an industry newspapers have had to be increasingly resourceful in their efforts to hold onto online revenue, from sponsored articles, to product placement and even the much maligned paywall, a route The Sun have recently scrapped.

However, adblocking doesn’t just affect large companies, who may, or may not be able to afford the hit (generally speaking, they can’t). It also affects smaller organisations and individuals who are now becoming the new age celebrity. Small news sites now find it increasingly difficult to start out. Separately, YouTube celebrities now have to rely increasingly on product endorsement.

While the YouTube celebrity could be easily dismissed as a fad, their figures say otherwise. Many YouTube stars have video reach both greater, and more qualified than most traditional TV channels could ever dream of. Many have made this a career choice, with YouTube matching this by establishing their own studios. However, all of these millions of views boil down to very little when ads can’t be served to viewers, the content can’t be produced and the service that supplies them can’t exist.

This is where Subscription services, such as the new YouTube Red enter. Red attempts to answer the fundamental issue of declining ad revenue with a subscription based model, not unlike Netflix; monthly charges for your favourite content produced to a high degree of quality.

For any subscription service, the question is always asked just how it can survive. The world we live in, consumers expect to be able to consume high quality content without having to pay and without having to see ads, but seeing no correlation between this and declining quality. Most would dismiss subscriptions as pointless for most content, given the Internet’s open nature.

A separate argument exists, however. The Washington Post paywall has seen growing success for the newspaper, recently taken over by Jeff Bezos. While all content is designed for consumption across multiple devices; the strategic view from the Post is that if content is of good enough quality, with supporting content being tailored as you consume more information then it is something worth paying for.

Speaking at the Dublin Web Summit, Steven Hill of The Post took the example of a person in a specific location, who enjoys viewing video. The site will tailor content served to be more relevant to both the persons locations and their taste, so they’ll get more video. High quality reporting also engenders a strong element of trust, which can’t be gotten elsewhere.

The Washington Post certainly have the numbers to back it up. Year-on-year, desktop and mobile traffic has increased, with 78 million unique visitors and growing with mobile and desktop traffic both increasing. Interestingly, paid subscriptions, while lower than unique visitors, has been growing strongly.

Other companies, such as Spotify may use more straight-forward means to get you to jump onto subscription services, but The Washington Post to some degree have shown that content can very much, still be king.

How this will pay off in the long term, remains to be seen, and whether this will be more effective than product placement or sponsored posts is anyone’s guess. It is interesting however, to see how clever use of content, combined with a level of consumer understanding and quality content still appear to work.
Best guess would have to be that in the end, a mix of both will work. Consumers won’t want to be educated about why they need to see ads, but ads can be smarter to not be as annoying.

Machine Learning changes how we approach Digital Assistants

One of the two most interesting talks, for me of the Dublin Web Summit, have been two of the shortest. Both only lasted about 20 minutes, however both showcased the growing importance of Machine Learning and how it is being applied to change how we interact with technology and our devices.

Facebook M and Instagram’s Explore tool are two products, from the same company which are quietly looking to change how we are delivered content and how we use the web as it currently stands. Both use machine learning, combined with human intuition to develop platforms that learn and become genuinely useful to consumers as they grow and consume more information.

First, to look at Facebook M. This was announced earlier this year, and most certainly aims to take on Siri and Google Now as your go-to digital assistant. The key difference for M as it currently stands is that it doesn’t just rely on a computer supplying responses or results, these are tailored by humans who help teach the machine relevance and to better understand the query and how to respond.

The goal, is never to replace the human, but to make sure that Humans curate the machine to ensure that the personal touch remain, which can generate real usefulness for the end user. M has already been favourably reviewed, but it has been felt that Siri and certainly Google still have the edge, especially in relation to speed and utility.

Facebook believe however, that while Now and Siri are useful, they don’t provide value to you as a person. They don’t proactively engage you with reminders, or understand your behaviours or lifestyle as you ask more questions. They generally, also don’t answer intelligently. This is where Facebook looks to use Humans to add an intelligence to the information being processed and supplied.

The thinking behind this is that if you asked M to order you a Pizza, it will go an order you a pizza, rather than Now, or Siri giving you a list of Pizza delivery services. M will know the nearest one, it will have your details and it will take care of all the work, while you go about doing other things.

Facebook M goes beyond a digital assistant, it becomes a go to place for ordering, and purchasing. Facebook already has many of the world’s biggest brands and retailers seeing the benefit of advertising with them, every day. Instead of booking a flight on one app, then ordering dinner on another, before going to another to buy a travel guide, Facebook wants you to do all of this within Messenger, one app where all brands are present, which offers real utility.

Instagram take a similar approach to their explore feature, using machine learning. Extensive A/B testing using machine learning, combined with a human insight that adds common sense and intelligence to their Artificial Intelligence, have moved a feature that previously gave you images which may have been of no interest, to a section of the app which is curated by your own activity. This is something invaluable on an app as personal as Instagram.

Both of these things combined have looked at something which other services such as Siri and Now have missed. They aggregate huge amounts of data, but without much intelligence, providing information back but not much else. Facebook M looks to move the relationship beyond this to add a utility to a digital assistant as we grow to rely on them more.

The big change this helps bring is usability. More than likely, Siri and Now are not too far behind M, this will make these services really, actually useful as opposed to just handy, as they are now. Both, especially Google have brands and huge amounts of information at their disposal, already Google offers similar, but much more scattered services.

The big challenge will be how do they leave choice in the mix, people like curated content to a point, there are still some things machines, even human curated ones don’t understand. However, it’s an approach, and an insight that makes us shift our view on just how useful social networks, digital assistants and all of the data we supply actually are. Many companies have learned the hard way that walled gardens don’t pay off.

Wearables are the Next Big Brand Challenge.

The average person on the street may not realise it, but everything they do is now being analysed, not just your online behaviour. The Dublin Web Summit is in full swing, and something that keeps cropping up is the growth of data directly taken from wearables and the consumer products we use, without a second thought – even your smartphone.

It’s no great surprise to anyone, that our activity is being analysed, your average person online is used to this from their web browsing. Google search ads, retargeting and Facebook ads are all now expected to be contextual to your online activity. You want to book a holiday, so after you’ve done a little research, you check out your Facebook feed to see an ad that has been generated by a price comparison site, or an airline, etc. This is something we now expect, even if we don’t always think about it.

The big change is that now, more than ever we are handing over data that goes beyond our search history. Many people now wear fitness trackers, often get to their ten thousand steps a day, people who don’t wear one will sometimes have an app that counts their steps anyway and log their activity. This information can, and will eventually be used by brands to create more specific and more targeted content with real relevance to the consumer.

To take the example of the fitness trackers, which are hugely popular. This could be a person who regularly reaches their step goal, or perhaps sleeps really poorly each night. It’s not too hard to imagine a brand-oriented platform which can take this data being generated and allow brands to promote on this. For the person who reaches their step count, it could be a healthy snack deal at a local supermarket, or for the insomniac, a local bed shop or blind fitters which could help them sleep a little more soundly.

This might seem a little Orwellian, but it’s not too far off where we are at the moment. Masses of anonymous consumer are supplied each day to brands looking to advertise. Currently, these are restricted to your search or browsing habits. While they are already very contextual, they don’t really understand you as a person, their data is limited to what you’ve chosen to share (which for most people, is quite a bit).

To put it in context, there are currently 17 billion connected devices in the world, and this is set to grow, massively with 52 billion by 2020, largely this growth will be driven by wearables as they become more mainstream. That’s a huge amount of information being pulled together.  Peggy Johnson, of Microsoft, speaking at the Web Summit said that as a company, they now view the person as the hub, with devices such as Band being built around that.

It might seem cynical at first, but to use wearables to help promote content, in a more context driven way would be more beneficial to everyone. Consumers would no longer get annoying ads which don’t really have any major benefit to their lives, and brands would no longer be able to deliver information much more effectively. The resulting content is much more bespoke and makes advertising do what it’s supposed to do; deliver insight to the consumer and to the brand.

However, with so many different kinds of contact points with a consumer, a brand should always remember that, it is at its heart a more intimate communication. Beyond a TV advert, or a Sponsored social post, adverts generated by wearables will be specific to someone’s actions and their lives, it needs a much more intimate approach than before.

This is where the challenge lies as new technologies reach the mainstream, combined with a growing expectation from people that the content they consume will grow to match it.

[OPINION] The false rise of the Citizen Journalist

Social media is changing the way we consume news, but is it for the better?

Hong Kong Umbrella Protests, using social to defy Censorship

Hong Kong Umbrella Protests, using social to defy Censorship

Increasingly the world we live in is getting more and more digital, relying on social media to consume news, events and activities that shape the world. The Arab Spring first started on Twitter, and instantaneously; the world was aware. The same can be said for the Hong Kong Umbrella Revolution, led by social and showing what really happens, away from the state propaganda. The birth of citizen journalism, where anyone armed with a smartphone and a connection can become a reporter hasn’t just arrived, its now seen as natural order.

This has left many traditional outlets behind in the digital dust. An event happening in the Middle East a few years ago would have arrived in the New York Times offices in about ten minutes, ready for the next days print run. With the arrival of social, that transition is not only too long, but the next day has missed 24 hours of updates, mostly articles on the website also reflect exactly what goes into print, lacking the dynamism and fluidity of social. The Guardian are one of the more progressive outlets, their latest website iteration relies much more on live-blogging and matching social in terms of update frequency.

Twitter has made everyone of us a correspondent, Instagram has made us photographers and Reddit has given us opinion forums as experts. The democratisation is a good thing, broadly speaking. Journalists who are supposed to report objectively, do so swayed by their emotions and political leanings, Newspapers have a long history of skewing news to shift copies and television news relies on correspondents who are very often not near the action. Social means that we can instantly get any viewpoints and real time reporting from the ground, uncensored and largely unbiased.

Here lies the problem of citizen journalism, with so many streams of information and competing viewpoints and opinions, how does the average user make sense of it all? What’s more, how do we verify what exactly is happening? People can be as subjective as a journalist, they can take Instagram pictures from certain angles to make things look completely different. How does the average user make sense if everything. The journalist and reporter can, they are bound, if even theoretically to codes of conduct, and are able to take macro views of situations as they unfold, with a deeper understanding of context and reference than the citizen journalist.

Platforms, capable of aggregating social content and trending information, while allowing seasoned reporters and editors to verify on a real-time basis are increasingly the future of news-wires, ensuring that the news desk at the New York Times or Guardian can get content quickly for their site as it unfolds, in a verified manner.

Citizen journalism has had a profound affect on how we consume the news, how we as a connected and globalised world interact and subverted censorship in places like Egypt and China. This does not mean though, that traditional journalism is obsolete, or their websites. It does mean that they have been disrupted and are being forcibly reinvented into something that can make sense of the maddening crowd.

Citizen Journalism doesn’t really exist, not in any truly meaningful way, and certainly not without being condensed and put in reference. Social activism, however and the generation that created it have been able to change the world, disrupt censorship and change journalism into something much more meaningful and much more honest, ultimately ensuring that the world is a much smaller place than at any time previous.