In digital media, the commercial value of the pile

Recently, the satirical newspaper The Onion captured — and not for the first time — just what I wanted to write about in this post with its article “‘The Economist’ to Halt Production for Month to Let Readers Catch Up.” Still, though, I think the five-issue-high pile of The Economist on my desk could tell us much about what content people are willing to pay for.

The “to be read” pile is so a common affliction that you have to call it a strategy. Before digital times, it took the form of a stack of magazines (waiting for a plane ride), a pile of books on the nightstand, or a messy desk full of papers. In digital times, these have largely been replaced by a full email inbox, a set of open tabs in a browser, and the unread books on my Kindle. The pile — physical or digital — is the outcome of a filtering process to manage information overload. The hope is that the pile will get reduced as time frees up, and that often happens. But it never goes away.

Here is why the pile is important to those in the information business. Current business models that aim to make money off readable content are based on the premise that a reader has two options: to read or not. They ignore the pile. For instance, The Daily iPad app downloads new content, well, daily. That means you have to at least scan it everyday; there is no piling up like you would have for The Economist. While the app allows a user to archive some articles for later consumption, to make it all work scanning the app has to be part of a daily routine. In that respect, it follows a tried and true newspaper model that imagines a daily 25 minutes with the paper over breakfast or a train ride. The New York Times is following the same model.

But for many new readers, myself included, this daily commitment is something long abandoned. Too much other content is available than what can be sorted through the filter of a single publication.

What do the new readers do? In my case, I use Instapaper (and also starred Google Reader posts) with abandon. With Instapaper, I can decide some piece of content is too long to read now and with a single click store it to be read later. That is, Instapaper creates my pile. But it does more than that. It also translates the pile into a common reading format that I can access it from lots of devices (for me, the iPad rules). That means I don’t have to fuss with open tabs, bookmarks, or other hassles. When I have a longer moment I will read the pile through one easy-to-use interface. This is extremely valuable to me, allowing me to handle information overload more efficiently.

Some companies aim to exploit the commercial potential in this model. Indeed Apple has built it into their next OS. And Amazon, in the person of its Kindle, may also have stumbled upon a “read it later” model. At under $10 I don’t even much think about buying a book on Kindle. When I hear about a book I might like to read, rather than try and remember to buy it later, I buy it now with the intention of reading it later. So Amazon is selling more books potentially because they made it easier and cost effective to exploit “read it later” behavior. Add to that a dash of behavioral economics that suggests we are likely to be over-optimistic about our expectations of having future time to read, and Amazon has a formula to sell a lot more books.

Of course, “read it later” is not the only way to sell digital content. One can imagine models to exploit “watch it later” (your Netflix or Hulu queues; and in an earlier day, Tivo), “play it later” (all those iPhone apps you have bought upon recommendation but not yet taken a look at), or “consume it later” (the Groupon model that makes it easier to buy things now to do at some point later on).

But let’s go farther. If delayed consumption of attention is a valuable and people want to have filters and routines to make it work, surely designing features that allow people to do that (as Instapaper has done) is a way to charge for content. What if the New York Times had kept itself free but integrated with Instapaper and charged for subscriptions or micropayments for reading things later? As it stands, the Times is ignoring that value entirely because its model attracts those willing to integrate the New York Times into their day. How many of those people will be around in the future?

As for my Economist pile, that newspaper (as it insists on calling itself) has never tried to deliver a product that required immediate consumption. And, for the moment, it fills an important niche —The Economist can be happily consumed during the electronic-free time on take off and landing. When I travel more, my pile will be reduced.

Joshua Gans will take up the Skoll Chair in Innovation and Entrepreneurship at the Rotman School of Management (University of Toronto) in July. He is currently a visiting researcher at Microsoft Research. All views here are his own. Click here to read this later.

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