With Echo, Amazon is emerging as a friend to publishers

In the panoply of platform giants, Amazon is scoring big with publishers, at least for now.

Amazon’s relationship with magazine publishers goes back years, with it handling their print and digital magazine sales and serving as a retail partner that helps publishers turn their editorial content into commerce. This relationship began to deepen two years ago when the e-commerce giant began selling its voice-activated home assistant, Echo, and opened it up to publishers and other developers to create content for it.

Since then, publishers from the BBC to Refinery29 have tried to figure out how to use it and other voice-activated devices like Google Home to reach audiences. So far, publishers describe their relationship with Amazon in positive terms.

Like Google, Facebook and Apple before it, Amazon has a team of people that works with publishers and other developers. Amazon wouldn’t share any details about the size and makeup of its team, but publishers who work with the team say it includes business developers, engineers and people who can help publishers develop “skills,” what Amazon calls the capabilities available on Echo, such as playing music or listening to the news.

“In general, they’re a really good partner,” said Rohit Agarwal, vp of digital products at CNN, which Amazon brought in early to develop skills for Echo. “We get a lot of early insight and access to their product road map. They called us very early on. We like that when we share concerns or needs, they’re very responsive.”

For example, he said Amazon initially designed its news time block for Echo to last 60 seconds, but when CNN suggested it be twice as long, Amazon agreed and lengthened the time block. “They were flexible,” he said. “They not only take the feedback, but they learn from us. It’s a bidirectional flow.”

There are a few possible reasons publishers have a good relationship with Amazon, which also happens to be seen as a company that could weaken the duopoly’s grip on the digital ad market. Before Echo, Amazon was just trying to get publishers to use its existing tools. For Echo to succeed, it benefits Amazon to have a good working relationship with publishers. Unlike other platforms like Facebook and Snapchat, which have other agendas, media content has been integral to the Echo experience from the start. But voice-activated assistants are new, and both sides are learning what the appetite is, what kind of content users want from them and how personalized they want the content to be. Amazon may see publishers as collaborators in this learning process and in creating a good experience on the device for users. So far, Amazon’s and publishers’ interests seem to be aligned.

“In order for Echo to be successful, they have to create great skills,” another publishing exec said. “And they’re not going to create them all by themselves. They’re going to need partners to create great skills.”

Publishers said Amazon has given them a lot of creative freedom in creating skills for the device and been willing to change its terms of service to accommodate publishers. It’s also let them monetize on Echo without asking for a cut of the revenue, as other, more mature platforms do.

Echo also doesn’t threaten publishers like other big platform efforts, like Facebook Instant Articles, Facebook’s fast-loading mobile articles initiative, do. They don’t see Echo as cannibalizing their business, but as a way to get people to spend additional time with them.

So publishers may feel like they’re in a honeymoon phase with Amazon for now, but the relationship may face bigger tests as the market for these devices matures and the business model changes with it.

“There’s a life cycle to these relationships with platforms,” said David Stern, head of product at Slate. “When they first start talking, the partners are excited for content, the publishers are excited about having their content distributed in a new channel, helping define what the content consumption looks like. In the early phases, it’s easy. And we’re not having a lot of pressure to really scale in a big way.”

Three areas of tension between publishers and other platforms have been discovery, data and monetization, and how Amazon will approach these over time are unknowns. Once a publisher creates a new skill, the publisher needs to get users to find out about it, and with the device being new, it’s fallen to publishers to do most of the promotional work themselves.

This raises a lot of questions for publishers because users’ habits with the device are still taking shape, said Trushar Barot, digital launch editor for BBC Indian Languages, who’s studying voice interfaces as a Knight Visiting Nieman Fellow. But given that people who ask for generic information like the weather aren’t necessarily going to specify a certain brand’s forecast, publishers will have to figure out what they can offer that’s unique. “Amazon will want to focus on what makes most sense to users, and news brands want to make sure their brand is prioritized, and sometimes those two won’t go together,” Barot said.

Branding on the device is also an issue. Publishers can get on Echo more easily by having their content read by Echo’s automated voice, Alexa, but they’ll risk all sounding the same to readers if they do that. How Amazon deals with these issues will have implications for its relationship with publishers.

Another question is data. Publishers want to control the information the platform collects on the publishers’ audience. They said Amazon gives them monthly data on how many people tuned in to their content and completed a segment, which publishers can access on a dashboard, but publishers will likely want more if they hope to monetize their content.

It’s also unclear how Amazon will monetize Echo. Agarwal said it hasn’t been a focus yet, but he expressed optimism. “When we talk about how we’re going to monetize, we don’t get any pushback,” he said. “That would lead one to believe we’re in alignment. Also, they’re selling devices. If the primary purpose is that, then the content is what enables it to be attractive. It’s possible that where we make our money is in different places.”


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