EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW

NYTCo Dons Software Vendor Cap: Q&A With News Services Director Christine Topalian

It’s no secret that newspaper companies are seeking new sources of revenue as readers — and the advertising dollars that typically follow them — migrate to electronic media. The New York Times Co. was among the first newspaper publishers to deliver its content to mobile devices. Now, it’s hoping to turn a profit by helping other publishers to do the same.

The New York Times Company has effectively entered the software development business, creating applications that publishers can use to deliver their content to Apple iPhones and iPads.

Several publishing companies are scheduled to adopt the Times’ Press Engine application when it becomes available later this year. These companies, some of which could be considered Times competitors, will pay a one-time license fee and monthly maintenance fees for the Times to maintain their applications. Publishers will retain all advertising and subscription revenue generated by their individual publications.

The E-Commerce Times spoke with Christine Topalian, director, news services, with the New York Times Company, about this new venture and its broader implications for the newspaper industry.

E-Commerce Times: Why is the New York Times Company, in effect, going into the software business?

Christine Topalian:

I’m part of a group called “news services” within the New York Times Company. We are a client-facing organization that serves roughly 1,500 clients globally. We provide content, which is the primary asset of the Times company, to these various media companies. Several clients came to us and asked if we would be interested in licensing the code for our own iPhone applications. That started a process of exploration through which we realized that it was a great idea and something that other publishers could benefit from.

ECT: What will the Press Engine platform offer that publishers can’t get from cutting their own deals with Apple to put their content on iPads and other devices directly?

Topalian:

Typically, publishers don’t do deals with Apple or other device manufacturers. They do deals with vendors who create applications for them. In that realm, the New York Times offers several years of experience in this space. We have an understanding of how users consume content on these devices, as well as technology and design expertise that publishers will find helpful.

ECT: Is the development of what might be considered ancillary products and services that support the distribution of content something we should expect to see from newspaper companies as a way of adjusting to a world in which ad revenue is declining?

Topalian:

It’s already happening. If you look at the mobile market today, compared with four years ago, there has been huge growth — and mobile content would have been considered an ancillary product to the website four years ago.

ECT: The Times company already has signed up a number of customers for Press Engine, including several companies that might be considered competitors. Is there an expectation going forward that newspaper companies that have competed against one another will have to enter into customer-supplier relationships, or even partnerships, to solidify their futures?

Topalian:

We’re not competing with anyone by providing them a framework to distribute content, because their content is stronger than that framework. A user who reads The Dallas Morning News or The Daily Telegraph will continue to do so. Users are coming for the content, and they are very loyal to specific brands.

ECT: Does the Times Company anticipate other publishing companies developing platforms similar to Press Engine?

Topalian:

There definitely will be a certain amount of competition. As I mentioned, technology vendors are creating these types of platforms for publishers; other organizations are doing so as well — and additional competition is to be expected. The difference between getting this type of service from the New York Times as opposed to someone else goes back to what I said about our history of expertise in this area. We have a history of creating products that distribute content.

ECT: The Press Engine business model depends to a large degree on publishers generating a certain amount of revenue through paid content. News Corp., a Times Company competitor, has a project in the works that calls for delivering content to e-readers — and that project also relies on having users pay for content. What has the Times company’s research shown in regard to users’ willingness to pay for content?

Topalian:

Let’s go back to the first part of your question, which assumes that these are going to be paid applications. Advertising revenue is also an important part of these applications, as well as the publishers’ business models. We do have ad units in the application. Publishers can serve ads directly into the applications and generate revenue in that fashion. On the second part of the question, the New York Times Company has announced plans to offer a paid model on its website later in early 2011. Arthur Sulzberger Jr., the publisher of The New York Times, has said that our audiences are very loyal, and we believe they will be willing to pay for our award-winning digital content. We don’t really want to say much more about the pay model.

ECT: What about non-New York Times content that’s distributed through Press Engine? Do you have an opinion on whether users will be willing to pay for that content?

Topalian:

Every publisher has a different audience. We’re not going to make business decisions for the individual publishers. Each of them has its own strategy in this area. Several applications offer the possibility of placing ads, some offer subscription models. There are several different ways that a publisher can look at this business and a number of different factors that go into their decision making.

ECT: How important is the device that readers use to access content to the paid content model? Press Engine is expected to launch by delivering content to the iPhone and iPad, two wildly popular and very trendy devices. Would you be as confident about the product’s chances to succeed if it were slated to start off delivering content to Windows-based tablets, BlackBerries, or desktop PCs?

Topalian:

We’re responding to a market need. Our clients have been asking for iPhone and iPad applications, and that’s where we’re focusing our efforts at this time.

ECT: Does that mean you expect to go to other devices at some point down the road?

Topalian:

We’re looking into it.

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EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW

Metaverse Marketing Offers New Approach To Utilizing Customer Data

In Neal Stephenson’s popular 1992 sci-fi novel “Snow Crash” the author introduced the term metaverse to portray a futuristic world where people interacted in virtual 3D worlds using avatars. While his avatar-laced society is a familiar playing field for virtual game fans, few others but forward-looking marketers envisioned much usefulness in the realities of e-commerce.

That is, until now. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg turned the M-word into a vibrant new name for his now rebranded metaverse company, Meta.

Since the “Snow Crash” novel craze, the metaverse term described multi-user, persistent virtual worlds that incorporate social interaction. The game Second Life, which launched in 2003, was the first metaverse to achieve meaningful user adoption, according to Wendell Lansford, co-founder and CEO of MarTech firm Wyng. Multiplayer online games and platforms, like Minecraft, Roblox and Fortnight, may also be considered as variations of a metaverse.

“Today, the term metaverse describes shared environments that bring together aspects of social media, virtual, and augmented reality, multiplayer online games, and cryptocurrencies to create immersive, digital experiences that both reflect and bridge to the physical world,” Lansford told the E-Commerce Times.

New Frontier for E-Marketing

The metaverse is a digital universe where people as avatars live, play, interact, and work. In the virtual community of the game Second Life, many users work full-time jobs creating and selling digital goods.

That concept of bringing shared environments together gives new life to some tired old marketing strategies. It also suggests exactly where Facebook and the marketing industry plan to go. To borrow a “Star Trek” slogan, it’s a place where no advertisers have gone before.

The online shopping world will become an exciting place. Facebook’s name change as a business force may well carve a place out of the metaverse. Suddenly, metaverse has generated a huge buzz over the potential benefits that this 3D shared environment has to offer.

This new metaverse frontier of digital development may well have unparalleled advantages for enterprising technology enthusiasts. The metaverse concept may well be the driving force to take e-commerce marketing to the next level. But many people are questioning how it could be used.

Zero-Party Data

Digital relationships between brands and consumers and the risk/reward strategies of third-party data have shifted immensely in recent years. As marketers begrudgingly shift away from the practice, the rise of the metaverse presents a unique opportunity for brands to start fresh and employ new privacy-first initiatives.

Being that each user in the metaverse is an authorized user, both brands and consumers are empowered to get the value exchange they want. In exchange for certain coupons, digital goods or access to areas, brands can ensure they are collecting data that was shared with explicit consent.

This eliminates guesswork from both sides. If done correctly, it has the chance to change how we look at data forever, noted Lansford.

Lansford’s company Wyng is positioned to help companies and their customers successfully co-exist with effective online interaction strategies. Wyng uses API-powered infrastructure for zero-party data (ZPD).

Zero-party data is all the consent-based, personal context data that customers share to improve their experience with brands. It gives customers transparency and control over their profiles and builds trust. The process involves personalizing experiences in real time across channels.

Discussing Business in the Metaverse

The E-Commerce Times discussed with Lansford how metaverse technology will impact brands and their customers.

E-Commerce Times: How is the metaverse different than what is non-metaverse?

Wendell Lansford: Think of the non-metaverse as today’s internet as exemplified by Facebook, Google, Amazon, Netflix, Spotify, and any web or e-commerce site.

Metaverse environments, on the other hand, run in parallel to today’s internet. It works much like multiplayer online games. Compared to today’s internet, emerging metaverse environments will offer richer experiences where the virtual and physical worlds converge, and the experience of interacting with others approximates real life.

Is the metaverse concept strictly aligned with e-commerce — meaning doing business over the internet — or does it have connections to other industries, too?

Lansford: In addition to e-commerce, metaverse technologies will have applications in a range of industries. These include entertainment, gaming, social media, education, fitness, travel, real estate, and marketing and advertising.

For example, one popular application today is watching movies (and chatting) with remote friends in a shared virtual theater.

As another example, in November, a plot of virtual real estate in Decentraland (a popular crypto-powered metaverse environment) sold for $2.43 million. The land, purchased by Metaverse Group, will be developed to facilitate fashion shows and commerce within the exploding digital fashion industry.

Fair value exchange (FVE) is a key element of business in metaverse. How is the importance of FVE instead of not shorting consumers in data exchanges a new concept?

Lansford: In the past, brands have primarily collected data about consumers by purchasing data from data aggregators/brokers (i.e., third-party data) or by tracking consumers’ clicks, searches, and purchases on a brand-owned website or mobile app (i.e., first-party data). These ways of collecting data happen behind the scenes, typically without the consumer having any knowledge of the data being collected.

As a result of privacy regulations and privacy-aware consumers, brands are now investing in zero-party data. This is data that consumers knowingly and intentionally share with a brand in exchange for something of value, like a personalized recommendation, loyalty points, and/or a coupon. Consumers will share their data with a brand they trust when the brand makes it worth their while.

How can brands gather zero-party data in the metaverse?

Lansford: The only way to gather zero-party data is by asking for it. On the web, brands ask for zero-party data via micro experiences like guided shopping quizzes, next-best questions, surveys, polls, sign-up forms, and conversational chatbots.

These same techniques can be adapted to the metaverse, but with richer interfaces. The metaverse also opens new possibilities for asking for zero-party data.

For example, imagine a virtual store with a knowledgeable shopkeeper who is there to help customers by engaging them in conversation. The shopkeeping gets to know customers’ personal needs, preferences, goals, and interests (again, zero-party data). Then, with the customers’ permission, the retailer uses that data to provide a more personalized experience with the brand.

Moreover, NFTs or non-fungible tokens, open up new possibilities for value exchange in the metaverse. They can be redeemed for real goods on a brand’s site or in a physical store.

Closing Thoughts

Metaverse commerce is in its early days, with lots of innovation and improvements still to come, Lansford observed. However, the multiplayer online gaming market offers an analogy for virtual worlds and e-commerce coming together.

“[Last year] for example, nearly 20 million people visited a two-week Gucci exhibit, where they could purchase limited-edition Gucci accessories for their avatars,” he said.

Jack M. Germain has been an ECT News Network reporter since 2003. His main areas of focus are enterprise IT, Linux and open-source technologies. He is an esteemed reviewer of Linux distros and other open-source software. In addition, Jack extensively covers business technology and privacy issues, as well as developments in e-commerce and consumer electronics. Email Jack.

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EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW

Remote Work Transformation Calls for Prioritizing Employee Tech Choices

Image Credit: Lenovo

The global remote work revolution the pandemic caused has accelerated and reinforced the need for companies to prioritize the employee experience. This necessity includes providing tech equipment and consumer products from select retailers via a “choose your own device” (CYOD) reimbursement program.

That is the view from two top suppliers of computers and other electronic devices. Lenovo-Intel research found that a solid majority (72 percent) of employees feel that their employers need to focus more on listening to workers to get clarity on their tech needs. That response ranks in the top three things companies should do to improve the employee experience. 

The Lenovo and Intel study, “Empowering Employees Through Technology Can Supercharge Returns,” is now one year old. But companies still face the ongoing challenges of outfitting their remote workforce with the technical tools they need to work away from the physical office productively, suggested Stefan Engel, Lenovo’s vice president and general manager of Visuals Business.

TechNewsWorld discussed the implications of remote workers’ technical support needs with Engel, who sits in the catbird’s seat in seeing how employers are responding to the realities of the high-tech survey.

TechNewsWorld: How is the shift in meeting employees’ WFH priorities impacting companies?

Stefan Engel: The remote work revolution has put employees more in control of their work technology devices than ever before. We found that improving the employee experience, starting with the tech they provide to employees, is more important than previously anticipated.

Both IT departments and employees agree that satisfaction with their work technology has a direct impact on improving employee satisfaction.

This shift has certainly propelled monitor design forward to becoming the center of communication, interacting with all kinds of devices, not just PCs and laptops, but also mobile phones and gaming consoles, basically anything that can benefit from a fully-actualized visual experience.

How widespread is the remote working demand?

Engel: I saw a recent Gartner survey that noted about one in 10 companies that planned to reopen their offices in the third quarter of 2021 have now pushed back their reopening date to sometime in the fourth quarter.

According to Lenovo’s own customer surveys, 90 percent of businesses plan to keep a hybrid model in place where at least some of the workforce is remote. Workers have grown accustomed to flexibility over the last 19 months and have shown that productivity can be maintained regardless of location.

That increased productivity brings new levels of screen time both day and night. Modern modular technology has become key to keeping employees satisfied with their tech options by allowing for personalization.

Modular options include ergonomic stands that lift, tilt, pivot, and swivel to let workers customize their home setup to best suit their needs, or monitor webcams designed for hybrid work with features like a smart traffic light showing colleagues or family members when a user is “busy” in a conference call.

Is this WFH movement driving new purchases or just moving equipment to the workers’ locations?

Engel: From the same survey Lenovo conducted with Intel, 84 percent of employers are upgrading devices, software, and services as part of employee engagement initiatives to improve team engagement and satisfaction.

The pandemic placed greater emphasis on employees using an at-home monitor to expand the screen real estate of their laptop, making their set-up more productive for working with data and graphics.

This resulted in a large uptick of PC monitor shipments in 2021 according to IDC and other industry researchers. Monitor technology is evolving rapidly. Employers should think about replacement after approximately three years to keep work productivity at high levels. It is also worth it for talent retention according to several employee satisfaction studies.

What other tech concerns did the survey indicate?

Engel: Half of employees still say they are frustrated with their PC hardware and software experience. It is evident that technologies are instrumental in driving employee productivity and engagement. Part of what is making this work is the adoption of video calling and collaboration software.

remote employee working on notebook

Image Credit: Lenovo


Potential exists to bridge these two groups and improve employee experience and satisfaction by making new up-to-date purchases, refreshing cycles, and remotely integrating hardware and software.

For example, an upgraded external monitor that supports high refresh rates and is connected to your PC can leverage the enhanced color performance of HDR 10 brought to life by the latest Windows 11 OS experience — certainly an improvement to your day in front of a screen.

What impact on data security does the remote workforce pose?

Engel: Data security and the feeling of still having control with employees working primarily outside of an office are top of mind for IT decision-makers when considering digital transformation solutions.

Malicious attacks targeting businesses moving their critical functions to the cloud are on the rise, as are attempts to exploit human vulnerabilities via phishing and ransomware, which have increased 11 percent and six percent respectively in 2021, according to Verizon.

Besides security software, one way employers can protect their remote workers is by encouraging them to use their physical shutter when not on camera as an added protection to user privacy.

A new feature I really love is the presence detection sensor that detects if a human being is in front of the monitor. If not, it goes to sleep mode to ensure privacy from prying eyes as well as potentially reducing your home’s power bill.

What other options are employers providing to remote staff?

Engel: As we near the second year of primarily remote work, employers are encouraging their staff to design their at-home workspace smarter than before; where they can easily switch between their workstation and laptop with a single keyboard and mouse combination for a more intuitive user experience.

We have seen several models used to equip/update the workplace at home around the world, all of which are better than companies just leaving their remote employees high and dry.

Here are a few examples:

  • Full free choice: The company reimburses employees fully, often with a max cap per item;
  • Flat amount reimbursement: This approach often leads to the user choosing a standard monitor that skimps on important features, like natural low blue light, in an effort to save money;
  • Preferred list offered: Companies provide a short list of approved monitors that employees may purchase to be eligible for reimbursement, which is a win-win because it caters to the employee’s needs while ensuring that the company is considering the impacts of a healthy work environment;
  • Delivering equipment: Companies make the selection and ship the monitor to the employee’s home.

What equipment baseline do remote workers need?

Engel: Day-to-day remote collaboration requires tailored technology that can improve video calls and even large online meetings, meet the unique needs of businesses, individuals or classrooms, and keep IT costs manageable.

Our user insights point to advancements in flexible modular tech, including enabled high-definition cameras and better device privacy and manageability. Our users also want monitors that feature high-performance displays, ergonomic capabilities, one-cable docking solution, easier video collaboration, smart software management applications, and built-in natural low blue light technology.

What are the priorities that ITDMs want for strategic IT integration?

Engel: IT decision-makers can better improve employee engagement and business outcomes by realigning investments, focusing on PC devices, and involving employees in technology decisions.

Create employee investment in your company’s digital transformation. Listening to employee feedback can go a long way towards establishing the hybrid security, software, and device framework with which IT decision-makers are tasked.

One thing that is different now is that the responsibility for meeting rooms or collaboration spaces in offices and conference centers moved from the care of facilities management to the IT department due to all the smarter technology and influx of high-tech devices. I predict this will soon become the standard for most offices.

How can OEMs address this remote technology divide?

Engel: OEMs must recognize the new realities employees face with remote work and provide technology that can not only help boost and maintain productivity at home, but also keep their work from home space minimal and organized. Organizations can improve employee experience by providing a choice in flexible with mobile and modular technology that adapts to employees’ working style from no matter where they choose to work.

Any final thoughts on how remote working is changing employer options?

Engel: I was struck by one of the study’s takeaways for IT decision-makers. It advises IT to also prioritize tech investments that focus on stated employee needs, such as building a strong ecosystem of PC devices, data security, and exploring easy-to-use collaboration tools.

In large organizations, it is common to have employee advocates working behind the scenes making sure that the long-term health and well-being of employees is factored into any equipment purchases. But this same level of compromise happens less often at smaller companies, or when people are left to buy equipment on their own as part of a company reimbursement program.

I think it is important for IT decision makers, employees, and managers to consider an issue that is just below the surface of all these connected devices. That is blue light emissions from digital displays.

Companies are starting to ask the right questions on behalf of their employees, but much more education is needed to make eye health part of the broader conversation when considering new equipment purchases.

Jack M. Germain has been an ECT News Network reporter since 2003. His main areas of focus are enterprise IT, Linux and open-source technologies. He is an esteemed reviewer of Linux distros and other open-source software. In addition, Jack extensively covers business technology and privacy issues, as well as developments in e-commerce and consumer electronics. Email Jack.

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