Facebook woos retailers and shoppers alike with new features

Facebook is testing new features that will make it easier for its users to make purchases without ever having to leave the confines of its mobile applications.
The move should be very appealing to business owners, especially those already doing some marketing/advertising on Facebook, as it should make transactions easier and quicker for customers.
Some of the features include a shopping section on businesses’ Facebook pages; “Carousel” advertisements that allow retailers to display multiple products in a Facebook user’s News Feed; and the addition of a dedicated shopping channel to the sidebar navigation in Facebook’s mobile apps. These might be small changes on their own, but together, they’re bound to have an impact on Facebook users.
That impact will probably manifest itself in two ways: convincing more people to buy things found on Facebook, and consumers staying in the social network’s apps instead of heading off to other websites (or, Zuck forbid, Pinterest) to shop. Canvas, a new-ish ad unit that shows products inside Facebook’s apps instead of on an outside website, is the update most likely to bring about those changes.
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Canvas has been around since June, but Facebook said in today’s announcement that it’s testing a new version of the ad unit that will make it so “people will see a fast-loading, full-screen experience where they can browse through a variety of products, before going to the retailer’s website to purchase.” It’s basically the shopping equivalent to Facebook’s not-inaccurately-named Instant Articles.
Now, the “before going to the retailer’s website to purchase” bit contradicts my argument. But I suspect it won’t be long before Facebook expands its buy button — the feature which allows Facebook users to purchase goods through its app, and is mentioned right after Canvas in Facebook’s blog post — to include items shown in Canvas. It might just take a while for retailers to warm to that idea.
But Facebook is making a pretty compelling argument. Reuters reports that many online sales happen somewhere other than mobile devices, and for good reason: Shopping on a smartphone is a pain in the ass. It’s hard to type in credit card information on a small display, mobile websites still aren’t easy to navigate, and waiting for image-heavy pages to load is hardly worth the time and effort.
These are the same problems affecting publishers’ mobile efforts. People just don’t have the patience to wait for something to show up on their phones. So if Facebook can speed up the process, like it has with Instant Articles and will with Canvas, there’s a good chance retailers will eventually get on board with letting Facebook users buy things through the social network instead of an outside site.

Verizon’s data-sharing with AOL is worrisome, but not surprising

There was never any chance Verizon would refrain from bolstering AOL’s advertising network with the information it collects from its customers. The carrier paid $4.4 billion for an ad-dependent business; it’s not going to leave that business to its own devices, at least not where revenues are concerned.
So, it should come as little shock that Verizon planned to connect its “zombie cookies” — trackers that collect data from unencrypted connections unless a consumer opts out of the program — with AOL’s advertising network so it can better target specific demographics, as ProPublica reported earlier this week.
The zombie cookies allow advertisers to learn about someone’s “gender, age range, and interests.” When asked for comment on the information-sharing, a spokesperson linked to a blog post in which Verizon chief privacy officer Karen Zacharia says the data will only be shared to “Verizon companies, including AOL, and to a select set of other companies that help Verizon provide services.”
AOL’s Tim Armstrong defended the plan on Wednesday. “If consumers don’t trust you it’s not worth whatever you’re going to do with the data,” Armstrong said, according to a report from AOL-owned TechCrunch. “Verizon is probably more sensitive to data than most Internet companies.” He then compared data to oil and said information and fossil fuels can be used in good or bad ways.
Those defenses won’t carry much weight. There’s still something unsettling about knowing that one of the nation’s largest wireless carriers will be sharing information with an all-but-omnipresent ad network to assist its targeting. Verizon customers didn’t sign up for that when they decided to use the wireless network, nor when they visited any of the sites serving AOL’s advertisements.
Which lends some more credence to the idea that people might wish to install ad blockers. A spokesperson from Eyeo, the company behind AdBlock Plus, told me the tool “can technically help users to defend themselves against this kind of tracking.” Combine the desire to maintain a little bit of privacy with the time and money to be saved by using an ad-blocker, and it seems like a no-brainer.
Those benefits are especially funny when Verizon is involved. Using an ad-blocker to cut down on the amount of mobile data used could prevent many people from having to pay for going over their monthly data limit, while also preventing the company’s shiny multibillion-dollar acquisition of AOL from paying off because people don’t want its ad network to learn more about them.
Still, the company must be given credit for its efforts to let people know about the change. As Zacharia explains in her response to ProPublica’s reporting:

We are alerting customers who are eligible for these programs in the following ways: we’ve posted a notice on our website; customer bills will contain a message notifying them; and those customers for whom we have an email address will also receive an email notification.

I went through the process myself, and while it was frustrating having to “save changes” for every section within Verizon’s privacy controls, it was nice to have everything available right there. Who knows when I’ll have to switch everything off again (companies have a knack for forgetting someone’s preferences, at least where data collection is concerned) but for now it seems like everything’s good.
I’ll still leave the ad-blockers enabled, though. Verizon isn’t the only company trying to collect more information with what Walt Mossberg described as “a form of spyware, scooping up information about what people do online without their knowledge and permission.” So long as that remains true, it seems like a good idea to block ads, even if gives the media industry a series of panic attacks.

Amazon will stop selling Apple TVs and Chromecasts. So what?

Although it seems pretty cut and dry, there are folks in tech media that feel Amazon shouldn’t actually stay competitive, as businesses tend to do to survive.
Case in point: Amazon doesn’t like that neither the Apple TV nor Google’s Chromecast provide easy access to its Prime Video service, so it’s taking steps over the next month to stop businesses from selling the products through its website.
“Over the last three years, Prime Video has become an important part of Prime,” Amazon said in an email to employees. “It’s important that the streaming media players we sell interact well with Prime Video in order to avoid customer confusion.”
This means that products which play nice with Amazon’s streaming video service — like most game consoles, Roku’s set-top boxes, and the company’s own FireTV — will remain available on Amazon. Apple and Google are the only ones being booted.
It’s hard to be too upset about this. Could this frustrate Apple and Google? Maybe. Will it be annoying for Amazon Prime customers who expect to be able to purchase anything through the company’s marketplace? A little, I guess. But that’s about it.
But let’s not pretend this is going to hurt Apple or Google that much. Apple has the highest sales per square foot of any retail store in the United States, and it can easily promote its products by emailing the hundreds of millions of people who gave the company their email addresses so they could download stuff from the App Store.
As for Google? Well, running the world’s most popular search engine has its perks. It can also put ads for the Chromecast on YouTube, in Gmail, and basically anywhere else it desires through its advertising platforms. Sure, it won’t offer free two-day shipping, but I doubt most people are in a rush to purchase a new dongle.
Could this be the start of a worrisome trend? Maybe. I guess it would be a problem if Amazon stopped selling e-readers that don’t support the Kindle Store, given that it’s all-but-synonymous with the product category. But those competitive devices are still listed on the company’s site, and that seems unlikely to change any time soon.
At this point, the only entity harmed by this action will be Amazon. It’ll frustrate people who want to make it their one-stop-shop for all things commercial, and it makes the company seem like a petulant child stomping its feet because the other, more popular kids don’t want to play with it. Does that seem like a stable company?
This move reeks of desperation. Amazon might be the biggest online retailer in the United States, but it’s not the only place where people can buy these products. It would’ve been better off allowing them to be listed on its site, if only to keep up its appearances, than to plan the products’ downfall to serve its own selfish purposes.
But we’re only discussing this because of the companies involved. Remove the brands and this becomes a lot less interesting. A retailer pulled some items from its virtual shelves. There are other stores, and luckily for anyone with a decent Internet connection, it only takes a few seconds to visit them and buy those items.
Yawn.

Social news curation app Nuzzel finds backers in the media world

Though it may be short on manners and healthy discourse, the Internet is almost certainly never short on content. There is so much content floating around the web, in fact, sorting through it and curating it has become a multi-million dollar business. Enter Nuzzel, the personalized news curation app that just secured a slew of new investors from a land beyond the walled kingdom of Silicon Valley.

Nuzzel, a startup founded by Jonathan Abrams (founder of Friendster, the social networking app of yore), is a news delivery service and app that curates web content based on activity in your social circles, news you might be interested in, and things you might’ve missed in a clear, uncluttered feed. Using Facebook or Twitter, Nuzzel pulls together stories that your friends are reading and sharing under the assumption that if you’re friends with or following someone on either site, it’s likely because you have a fair number of shared interests.

To be clear, this kind of socially influenced content curation isn’t new. It exists on a number of apps both operational and defunct, from Digg to Flipboard. However, the fact that it doesn’t play a huge part in the habits of most content consumers and that we’re often still Gchatting links to one another suggests that it the social curation functionality is still missing a vital piece of the puzzle: Nuzzel, perhaps.

Investors in this round include Matter, a startup accelerator funded by the likes of the McClatchy Group, Associated Press, and Google News Lab, along with a half a dozen individuals touting credentials from a laundry list of media money bigs: The Wall Street Journal, Business Insider, The Guardian, CNBC International and more. While the dollar signs are far from unimportant in a funding round, the “who” and “why” are much more noteworthy in this case.

Since the Nuzzel team comes from the Silicon Valley & Internet world, not the traditional news/media world, and our existing investors were mainly from the Silicon Valley world, we thought it would be useful to Nuzzel to add some investors from the news/media world,” says Jonathan Abrams, founder of Nuzzel. “This was less about money and more about getting news industry veterans as advisors to Nuzzel.”

The fact that investors from the news and media world are backing Nuzzel is key because as former publishers, CEOs and board members of some the largest media organizations, they are likely not easily wooed by attempts at distribution and curation. The media industry is rife with plans and concepts to deliver content to willing and eager eyes. In a world driven by page views, there are many trying to crack the code to simple and effective distribution, but most are wildly ineffective and unsuccessful.

“As CEO of the Guardian I saw many new digital products innovating in the news/content space. Few cut the mustard,” says Andrew Miller, former CEO of the Guardian and one of Nuzzel’s most recent investors. “An exception however is Nuzzel which successfully declutters my newsfeeds and surfaces only relevant content.”

A financial vote of confidence from those who have had plenty of contact with new approaches to content curation is a promising sign for Nuzzel, which is looking to beef up their offerings for publishers.

For example, we are thinking of how Nuzzel can work with publishers in the future, i.e. perhaps we should offer some sort of widget or way for publishers to use syndicated feeds from Nuzzel,” says Abrams “Those are the kinds of things that these new investors will help advise us on.”

While the funding round is a big step in the right direction for the budding content curation darling, the key to success for Nuzzel will be something that no funding round can provide: more users. With powerful integrations like Slack, Pocket and Buffer, paired with new incentives and tools for publishers and the pedigree of the investors behind it, though, Nuzzel’s just might become content’s next big “must-have.”

Axel Springer buys 88 percent stake in Business Insider

Axel Springer has acquired 88 percent of Business Insider at a cost of $343 million. This means the German media conglomerate, which previously owned 9 percent of the publication co-founded by Henry Blodget, Kevin Ryan, and Dwight Merriman in 2007, now owns 97 percent of the primarily business-and tech-focused news site.
According to Axel Springer’s announcement, the rest of the company (all 3 percent) will be owned by Amazon chief executive Jeff Bezos’ personal investment vehicle, Bezos Expeditions. Business Insider’s leaders — chief executive Henry Blodget and chief operating officer and president Julie Hansen — will remain in their positions.
The price paid for Business Insider is less than the $560 million reported by Recode last week, but it’s still the most expensive acquisition of a Web-based publication since AOL spent $315 million on the Huffington Post in 2011. So what will Axel Springer get for the hundreds of millions it will spend on the growing news site?
Here’s what the German media company had to say about that in its announcement:

This acquisition is a vital part of Axel Springer’s strategy to broaden its global reach, diversify its English-language offerings and expand its commitment to innovative digital journalism.
The addition of Business Insider’s 76 million unique monthly visitors will increase Axel Springer’s worldwide digital audience by two-thirds to approximately 200 million users, making the company one of the world’s six largest digital publishers in terms of reach.

Recode says Axel Springer might also have been motivated by its failure to acquire the Financial Times earlier this year. The company’s also said to have wanted a Web asset, and Business Insider was “more affordable than publishers like BuzzFeed and Vox Media” despite the record-setting price it fetched as a Web-only news outlet.
Both of those companies have had their suitors, though. Reports surfaced last year that Disney had engaged in acquisition talks with BuzzFeed, and rumors about Vox Media selling to Comcast (one of its investors) have popped up throughout the year. Perhaps Business Insider’s sale will prompt some of these other talks to resume.

While others shut down comments, the NYT wants to expand them

While many other media organizations have gotten rid of their reader comments, including Reuters and Bloomberg, the New York Times says it plans to expand its commenting features and invest more resources in them because they help create a valuable relationship with readers

Medium gets a bit more Twitter-like, and a bit more blog-like

Medium has been known primarily for its long-form, magazine-style pieces — but founder Evan Williams says it wants to be a home for shorter posts as well, so it has launched several new features that make it more Twitter-like and more blog-like

In the age of niche media, everyone still really wants to be mass

As doctoral student Frederik De Boer pointed out in a recent blog post on some of the new-media sites like BuzzFeed and Fusion, if you don’t focus on a specific market or target a specific kind of reader, you run the risk of blending in with everyone else