The New Business of Content Alerts


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Let's take the most lucrative sector of Web content during the last five years—search engines—and flip things around. Instead of using a search engine to sift through years of old data to find the piece you want, what if the data you need was searching for you? The concept of pushing timely, relevant information to a user is not new, of course. CBS MarketWatch and others have developed some excellent systems for notifying subscribers of breaking news, mainly through email and increasingly via RSS feeds for a kind of personalized wire service. Nevertheless, until now, most of these alert mechanisms have been brand-specific, limited to one delivery mechanism, or delivered only unwieldy gushers of headlines.

However, the push model is getting a fresh infusion: new companies like PubSub (www.pubsub.com) and MessageCast (www.messagecast.net) are about to take alert distribution to new levels of immediacy, coverage, and flexible delivery, and hope to bring the search engine marketing model with them.

At PubSub, you subscribe to a search term or a highly specific type of structured data, like airport delay warnings or SEC filings for particular companies. While traditional engines scour years of retrospective information to match a term, PubSub monitors 8 million blogs, 50,000 newsgroups, and structured sources like Edgar to match your term against new, real-time information. Then the company delivers these matches directly to you via RSS, instant messaging, email, etc. "We do the opposite of search," says co-founder and CTO Bob Wyman, who has been in the thick of content innovations at DEC, Microsoft, and Accrue since the early 1980s. "I want to know whenever something happens. We tell them the whenever question. It is the other half of search."

While PubSub works across many content sources (although it can be filtered to specific ones), MessageCast employs a more publisher-centric model, which lets a user subscribe to a specific blog or content source and receive immediate notice of new postings through the company's LiveMessage service. When a new item comes in, whether you are on IM, email, PDA, or RSS, "we will find you on the network and hand-deliver that information to you," says Royal Farros, CEO.

For companies monitoring their reputations online, the value of real-time delivered search can be striking. At a conference last fall, bloggers in the audience posted live reports about the announcement of a new search engine, Snap.com. According to Wyman, Snap staffers had subscribed to a PubSub search on their own company and received alerts of these blog posts by the time the CEO finished speaking.

That kind of real-time awareness is powerful stuff, and one would expect companies like PubSub and MessageCast to create a subscription model around such high-value feeds, but this is not the case. In fact, both companies focus on using the alert model to super-charge the existing search-marketing approach of inserting contextually relevant text ads into the stream of alerts. In the case of alert systems, users subscribe to keywords, thus declaring a significant and, more importantly, persistent interest in a topic. This differs from search engine targeting, where users plug in keywords for many reasons, and not usually because they have an abiding, actionable interest in the term. "Instead, we find the information and find the users on the network and then throw a relevant ad in there," says Farros. The targets are opted-in, self-declared, and highly qualified so they should be much more likely than a search engine visitor to click on that contextual link.

Of course, changing search habits won't be easy, and both PubSub and MessageCast have significant work ahead in order to weave their way into the consciousness of the general public in the way that Web search has. Wyman thinks that young users may grasp this idea of "prospective search" more easily because "they assume the network is out there to serve them and they shouldn't have to go looking around." He envisions music fans getting word that their favorite group's newest video will be broadcast in 15 minutes, investors seeing their company's latest SEC documents the instant they get filed, or shoppers getting immediate word that the product they have been considering for the last two months just got discounted at a specific etailer.

There is great potential in content alert systems both for altering how we get information and for improving CTR and conversion rates on contextual ads. In addition to immediacy, PubSub and MessageCast bring to the search mix a personalization element that all of the major engines are struggling to achieve. If these alert schemes show even a glimmer of promise in the next year, we bet that Google, Yahoo!, and MSN will be knocking on the doors of both Farros and Wyman to have some serious discussions.