Publishing online flip books: useful tool or gimmick?

25 06 2010

Well-designed Web sites seem to me marvelously functional for conveying information online. And I find viewing pdf files on Adobe’s reader perfectly serviceable for sharing designed print documents. But there’s another format out there—so-called “flip books”—that can prove useful in some circumstances for disseminating documents. So, here’s a roundup of the available flip book publishing systems, including those for the iPad and other tablet computers.

The simplest such systems are those such as Youblisher that do nothing more than convert an existing pdf file into an online flip book with a page-turning feature. I gave Youblisher a try by uploading my booklet Working with Public Information Officers. While the flip book format doesn’t seem much more convenient than a pdf file, sharing is far simpler. You don’t have to actually transmit what is often a large document, but only provide a URL for users to view  it. And, you can embed the link in your Web site.

A more elaborate publishing system is Issuu, which advertises itself as not just an online flip book conversion service. Issuu also seeks to become a social networking site for documents, in which users can create an individualized library of  magazines and other publications and share them with others, such as colleagues. Here’s a review of Isuu that discusses its features. And here’s what Working with Public Information Officers looks like on Issuu. It’s a more accessible flip book format than Youblisher’s; for example, including thumbnails that let the reader find a specific page more easily.

More elaborate still are the systems for creating digital magazines. Many of these go beyond text, to allow embedding video, animations, and audio in the document. However, these are not free. Here’s a list of those systems, with links to demos, where available.

Besides such flip book systems, there are also those, such as PicaBoo that are specific for publishing photo books. Here’s a video overview of Picaboo. And there are many digital scrapbooking software programs for creating online scrapbooks.

Then there’s the Big Dog of publishing platforms, the Apple iPad. Unlike many of the flip book systems, Apple iPad publications need professional design and programming, and Apple offers guidance in developing such apps. Samir Kakar, of the content publisher Aptara offers this helpful article on “Publishers Considerations for iPad”

Another distributor of magazines for the iPad is Zinio, and it’s useful to take a look at their publications. Also, there’s the Sideways magazine publisher for tablet computers.

And for those who still like the feel of paper, there’s always the option of publishing a print magazine through a traditional printer or the boutique service  MagCloud and then adapting it to the Web as a flip book.

In an entirely different category of online publishing is KeeBoo, more than a flip book, but an authoring system for collecting, organizing and annotating all kinds of media—text, photos, illustrations, animations, videos, and Web sites—into multimedia e-books. These can be posted on a web site or distributed via e-mail. Here’s a flash demo of the system.





Webinar: Explaining Research: New Tricks for New Media

11 06 2010

Physics World bannerHere is a link to the webinar  “Explaining Research: New Tricks for New Media,” which I  gave on June 9, 2010, as part of the Physics World webinar series.Margaret Harris

The moderator was Margaret Harris, Reviews and Careers Editor for Physics World, and who I’m very proud to say is a (highly talented!) former science writing student of mine. Margaret studied physics at Duke and then did a PhD in atomic physics at Durham University in the UK.

The webinar description:

Your career success depends not only on doing good work. You must also explain that work to important audiences: your colleagues, funding officers, donors, your institution’s leaders, students, your own family and friends, journalists, and the public. Dennis Meredith will offer invaluable tips on using new media technologies to engage those audiences in a clear and compelling way.





Making Pretty Good Videos Pretty Cheap

4 06 2010
Dennis Meredith in SciVee video

Click on image to view video

As video cameras decrease in cost, and video editing software becomes easier to use, video is rapidly becoming an integral part of research communication. To help researchers make better videos, my wife Joni and I created this instructional video for SciVee, which is the leading service for syndicating research videos.

Besides the shooting tips the video itself offers, our experience in producing the video can be useful for researchers and communicators.

First of all, we “aimed low” in our production budget. We strictly limited ourselves to the equipment that an average postdoc or student could afford, and tried to wring the most production value out of it.

The camera was a Kodak Zi8 pocket camera, chosen because it has received excellent reviews, costs only about $140 and is the only pocket camera with an external microphone jack. I learned the importance of having good sound in videos when I took the Izzy Video series of how-to videos. This and other tutorials make the point that viewers will tolerate poor-quality video if the sound is good; and even the best  video will lose viewers if the sound is poor. The microphone in the camera  invariably produces hollow, echoing audio more likely to include room noise and random mumblings of the camera operator. To capture audio via the microphone jack, I bought an inexpensive wired lavaliere mike for about $30.

The Zi8 does lack many features of higher-end camera, including selective focusing, digital image stabilization, and adjustment of white balance, but it worked fine for the Web-quality videos I would be shooting.

If you use a Zi8 or other pocket camera, here are some shooting tips from Izzy Video:

  • Since the camera is very light, it is easily jiggled when handheld, so if you’re operating without a tripod, brace yourself against something and concentrate on holding the camera still.
  • Similarly, the camera’s lightness tends to encourage quick panning, so if you must pan, concentrate on panning slowly.
  • Since the camera has only an autoexposure, you can’t adjust to properly light a particular subject in the frame, so arrange your shot so make sure your primary subject is adequately lit.

The Zi8’s lack of white balance adjustment limited lighting possibilities. I couldn’t use the inexpensive tungsten work light I had bought at a hardware store, since it made the scene look yellowish. So, we ended up shooting in natural light on our screened porch, and coping with the changing lighting as clouds passed in front of the sun. The need to depend on natural light meant that the resulting video shows lighting  variation within scenes and my image is a bit overexposed because of the camera’s autoexposure feature.

A stable image is another key requirement for good videography, so we mounted the camera on an old camera tripod. If you don’t already have a tripod, a cheap alternative is the small tabletop tripod that is available for pocket cameras.

Background is also important. The main background for our shoot was a dark blue blanket, chosen because it was  non-reflective and highlighted the “talent” (me). To add interest to the background, we hung an image of the book cover on the blanket. To make the image, we printed out the Explaining Research book cover jpeg file on 11×17 paper at a office supply store and pasted it on gray cardboard with a 1/2-inch border to frame it against the backdrop.

When we shot outdoors to demonstrate how to include background, I found a place where the woods in the background were in shade, but I could be in sun. With a more expensive camera, I could have used selective focus to  make the subject stand out from a background; that  is, creating a shallow depth of focus so the subject is in focus, but the background is blurred out.

To make the video more visually interesting, I shot additional footage at the Duke Lemur Center, which I used to demonstrate a cutaway. Similarly, when you’re doing a video, think about cutaway shots that will relieve the viewer from having to look at you the whole time. The cutaway shots can be of experiments or relevant subjects in your lab; but they can also be still images or video footage from outside sources. The Explaining Research reference section includes a long list of repositories of both free and commercial still images and video footage.

The need to read from the script presented another production challenge. I wanted to use a script to make the narration as tight as possible, but when I tried reading it from a page holder positioned to the side of the camera, it did not allow me to look into the camera when talking. The solution was to print out the script in a large type font and mount the pages on poster board set on an easel directly behind the camera. Since the large-font script took up many pages, Joni had to shift the poster board as I talked to keep the text in my eyeline, while looking at the camera.

In editing the video, I opted for the high-end package Pinnacle Studio 14, rather than the free editing software that comes with Windows and Mac computers. Those are perfectly good for most purposes, but I wanted to have the capability of more advanced abilities such as special effects, multiple sound tracks and still-image choreography. Learning Studio 14 was certainly more onerous than learning the PC or Mac editing software, but it was worth it for the additional editing features.

Overall, the whole shoot—camera equipment and all—cost about $300. And we plan to use the same basic equipment for other instructional videos. However, although we could continue to use the Kodak pocket camera, I plan to use a high-end video camera we own for its more advanced capabilities.

Certainly, the result is not broadcast-quality, and with experience I can likely do better, but it’s a pretty good Web video, made pretty cheap.





How the iPad is Inspiring New Publication Formats

22 03 2010

Even as it it just coming to market, the Apple iPad—and its tablet computer iCousins—is already inspiring designers to come up with dramatic new interactive publication formats. These dynamic formats offer both a challenge and an opportunity to communicators and researchers. Before a discussion of these new  formats, take a look at the demonstrations below to get an idea of the possibilities.

First, a Time, Inc. demo of what a tablet computer version of Sports illustrated might look like:

To see a more artsy approach, watch the demos of  the iPad version of the online magazine VIVmag featured in this New York Times Bits blog post “A Peek at an Interactive Magazine for the Apple iPad.”

Finally, look at Wired magazine’s description of its plans for an iPad version of the magazine.

So, what does this new  interactive multimedia publication format mean for researchers and research communicators? One the positive side, it will offer a platform for dramatic communication of science and technology. Imagine how stunning would be interactive multimedia  iPad versions of articles on Hubble images, genome structure or airplane design.

On the other hand, such  interactivity wouldn’t add much functionality to such research news sites as Scientific American and Science News. And it would certainly add more production expense, as the Bits blog post points out.  For example, each issue of VIVmag will cost $6, and the blog quotes the magazine’s chief marketing officer, Jeanniey Mullen as saying, “It is an expensive process…. It takes the same amount of time to create as a print edition, but we’re creating a living product that is fully dynamic.”

Also, given that tablet computers will not be ubiquitous for some time, it is certainly not cost-effective for research communicators to consider creating such publications now. There’s an old-time term, “play-pretty,” that people used to denote a shiny toy given a child. That term could be applied to these iPad formats. They’re not practical, but they sure are nice play-pretties.

However, as tablet computers proliferate—and as the production software tools come into routine use—these new formats could prove valuable for adding interactivity, drama and flash to the communication of research.





Newsforce Network: a New Force in News

19 03 2010

As readers get more and more of their news online, and as the number of journalists continues to shrink, communicators are developing new Newsforce Network logostrategies to get their online news noticed, such as search engine optimization and the use of social media. The traditional advertorial is evolving online, too, and one of the most interesting new advertorial services is Newsforce Network. Basically, it enables clients to develop editorial content that readers can access from headline links in a special box on the Web pages of major national media. Here’s an example from the Newsforce Network site.

To learn more about Newsforce, I asked Chief Marketing Officer Dana Todd to explain how it works and what it means to research communicators:

How do the advertorials created by Newsforce differ from traditional banner ads?

Our Newsforce “headline units” rotate in the same spot as IAB (Interactive Advertising Bureau) standard banner ads, so there’s no need to carve out a new box on a publisher template. The difference is primarily in two areas: visual experience and marketer strategy. Visually, we offer a two-part creative: a headline/teaser which looks similar to editorial headlines (but is marked as Sponsored Content)—which then clicks to a micro-site that tells the full story in text, pictures and (optionally) video. In terms of marketer strategy, we find a unique niche with brands that need a longer-format creative to persuade, inform and arouse interest from the public. This might also include communication goals that are typically reserved for PR, such as research publishing, issues platforms, or corporate social responsibility messages. Newsforce advertorials fit that bill perfectly—we combine the sophisticated targeting capabilities of ad serving systems with a unique branded storytelling experience.

What news sites can Newsforce content appear on?

First, let me clarify: we’re not a network per se—we license our technology to news publishers and other networks. That being said, we’ve found a lot of demand for high-quality advertorial like ours. Over 500 websites in the US are now “Newsforce-enabled,” including most major regional newspapers and 100+ broadcast news sites. Some of our sites include Politico, LA Times, Chicago Tribune, San Francisco Chronicle, Investors Business Daily, and New York Daily News. We are actively adding new publisher partners and resellers, and are developing partnerships with key vertical news publishers in Health and Politics.

What are the advantages to the media sites of having such advertorial content?

The main advantages are revenue and inventory differentiation. News is a special type of media, with the highest level of trust among readers—and properly labeled advertorial and sponsored content has long been a successful offering in print, without causing any damage to the news brand. We’re simply helping news publishers automate the process and create more online revenue streams. Banner ads as a rule tend to be commoditized in terms of pricing, with the average banner CPM (cost per thousand impressions) bringing in $1CPM or less. Rich media (animated Flash banners) brings in higher dollars (avg. $18CPM) but is not really an accessible creative type for many advertisers—it’s costly to produce. Newsforce is exclusive to news publishers at this time, is easy for advertisers to produce (they’re already writing content for Web and PR) and lets publishers set their own rates. Most of our publishers are charging $5CPM-$20CPM per headline.

Could a university, government or corporate laboratory target placements to specific media sites or to topic-relevant pages within a site?

Absolutely. That’s one of the exciting product differentiators between us and a syndication company. With a digital advertorial service, you’re paying for extended and higher visibility and you can target not only the content on the page, but also the person reading it! We can target against profiles such as demographics (region, gender, age), political party, lifestyle, job seekers, alternative health, you name it.

What can content consist of?

We typically like to see a well-written and interesting story, 400-1000 words, with plenty of hyperlinks throughout the story for people to click on. We also allow a logo, up to two pictures w/captions, and can embed YouTube videos or other multimedia links. You can see a sample page here of a thought leadership article by a tech company. We’ll be expanding our story templates in the future to try different layouts and branded content styles.

Is there evidence that viewers perceive Newsforce content differently from banner ads?

Absolutely. they’re more likely to “skim” our headlines because they’re in reading mode, gathering the news quickly at a scan and filtering what they want to explore further. We see a significantly higher visual interest in long-form sponsored text links than other types of ads, both banner and text-link ads such as Google Adwords and Yahoo links. We did an extensive eye tracking study early on to determine whether or not people were interested in our headlines. Newsforce headlines, which are of high editorial quality, got an 8x attention from readers over banners, and a 3x attention over traditional contextual text link ads.

How would a client go about creating content for Newsforce placement?

Tell a great story—or even better, a series of stories so you can test reader interest on each. We all make assumptions in our storytelling about what’s interesting, but we’re not always right. There’s higher click activity on personal interest stories, health, lifestyle, and anything with numbers (research) or a local interest. People are most interested in the things they think could affect them or their community (geographic and business community).

How expensive are Newsforce advertorials?

We have regional partners who will sell small packages of $500, and our national buys start at $10,000 per month for an order—it’s very similar to planning and buying premium banner space. Most campaigns run at least 90 days so that you can test properly and get a decent share of voice. If your audience is familiar with CPM pricing, the range is $5-$20 CPM, depending on the targeting options and sites.

Under what circumstances would research institutions consider syndicating content via Newsforce?

Well of course we’d like it to be all circumstances! But we understand that not every storyline merits a promotional budget underneath it. By the way, we don’t call our service a syndication service. Syndication is low-cost and a great option for many PR activities, but it’s relatively passive in terms of providing controls. When companies want to “supersize” their exposure and guarantee its visibility to a particular audience, that’s where Newsforce is a valuable service. You’re not dependent on pickups from journalists—you’re speaking directly to readers.

How do you measure the impact of posted content?

We track everything, and we support third-party tracking tags on our links so that advanced analytics can be employed for follow-on conversion tracking and visitor behavior modeling. It’s certainly the most granular feedback anyone has ever gotten before, compared to traditional PR methods.

How would you say Newsforce represents a trend in online media relations?

There’s a significant and continuing fragmentation of what we consider to be “media.” With over 40,000 journalists laid off just last year, and the emergence of thousands of competing news sources and blogs for people to read, it’s not as simple as just picking up the phone and getting someone from mass media to help you get the word out. Those days are over. Most PR firms are gravitating towards social media as their next tool, since it feels more comfortable and similar to activities they did in traditional media relations (find influencers, pitch them stories). More aggressive and experimental folks in the digital marketing space are taking over a lot of the digital PR activities, and are trying out things like optimizing press releases and other content for search engines, building co-branded content with publishers, and building their own syndication channels. We feel that Newsforce gives companies a “big stick” to wield that helps replace the mass media voice they used to have, and allows companies that aren’t Apple or IBM to have the same chance at getting national attention for their stories.





NSF’s “Science360” Offers a Panorama of Science

17 03 2010

The National Science Foundation’s Science360 News Service Web site and daily e-mail news feed offers an engaging selection of interesting science and also a great opportunity for scientists and communicators to highlight their work. Anybody can subscribe to the news feed by just entering their email address in a box on the site. To learn more about Science360, I interviewed Dana Topousis—acting division director for public affairs in NSF”s Office of Legislative and Public Affairs:

How did the idea for Science360 originate?

NSF decided to create the Science360 News Service in 2008, when we realized that science coverage in the national mainstream media had dwindled.  Most of the remaining science reporters were covering space and health, and NSF funds basic science and engineering across the board. We also began discussions with public information officers (PIOs) at universities and institutions around the country whose researchers receive NSF funding. We wanted to find ways to collaborate with those PIOs to help promote research results across all aspects of science and engineering.  We wanted to create a service to draw reporters’ attention to the amazing discoveries being made every day that they may not have time to track themselves.

What is the editorial mix for the service?

We seek breaking news, fresh video and audio content, engaging images with a brief caption, science blogs, and current highlights from science journals and publications.  Most of our submissions come from public information officers and other federal agencies.  We seek any science-related content, and we don’t limit the News Service to only NSF-funded research news.

What kind of distribution does it have now?

Our distribution list includes mostly journalists, freelance writers, and public information officers, all of whom are welcome to use the Science360 News Service content for ideas or for use on their respective websites and publications.

What kind of impact on science communication do you believe the service has had?

We’ve seen an increase in both subscribers and contributors, and we’ve seen content from Science360 News Service carried on websites such as Popular Mechanics, U.S. News & World Report and LiveScience.com. Each item in the News Service has an RSS feed attached, and we’ve seen items picked up on Yahoo News, Twitter, and other outlets.  We also post some of our News Service content on NSF’s Facebook page.

How are the articles, releases, videos, podcasts and blog posts chosen?

Every day, we receive submissions from public information officers and federal agencies. We also look through EurekAlert! for fresh content. Our editor reviews science coverage and news items to see what topics are popular or what gaps we might fill. We choose our blog posts from Discover, Scientific American, scienceblogs.com, public information officers and researchers.  We also have a multimedia editor who contacts public information officers and federal agencies on a regular basis about submitting video and audio content; some of that multimedia content is from regular-running series. Every Monday, we feature a new episode of Science Nation, a video series that NSF creates—in collaboration with the former CNN science and technology team—that highlights innovations in science and engineering.

Do you do some of your own production?

Yes. We produce video and audio slideshows, videos, and podcasts. We also write our own press releases and feature stories.

How do you choose those stories?

We select our stories based on current news items.

What advice would you  give communicators about developing the best content for Science360?

We look for fresh content and content that showcases the vast array of science and engineering research. We also ask communicators to provide us as much advance notice of their upcoming stories as possible. And we welcome communicators to write to editor@science360.gov if they have any questions. That email address is also how communicators can submit their stories for consideration.





Communicating Research in 3-D Virtual Worlds

5 03 2010

Today you write news releases and feature stories, produce videos and podcasts, and use social media to disseminate research news; but in the near future you could also add 3-D models, interactive simulations, and immersive virtual environments to your communications toolkit. Given that we humans are naturally perceptually three-dimensional, you can imagine how such media could add to the impact and information value of your communications.

The major force driving communications into an online 3-D world is that important audiences are already there. For one thing, a survey by the Pew Internet & American Life Project found that more Americans already get their news online than from newspapers or radio, although both still lag behind television. And another survey showed that more than half of all Americans play video games of some kind, undoubtedly in 3-D.

The education community is already using immersive Web environments, adapting existing 3-D interactive virtual worlds such as Second Life; and there are extensive materials on use of Second Life in education. Basically, the environment enables students to attend virtual lectures, move around in the cartoonlike world as avatars, and communicate with one another—frankly capabilities that don’t seem to add much value to the educational experience. Indeed, “the virtual world has not lived up to the hype,” writes Jeffrey Young in a critical article in the Chronicle of Higher Education. He reports that

Moving around in Second Life can be so clunky that some professors and students have decided that it’s just not worth the hassle …. If all you need to do is chat with far-flung students, there are many easier ways to do it…. Plus, a lot of decidedly nonacademic activity goes on in Second Life, and it’s difficult to limit access so that only students can enter a classroom there.

And while there is a new project called OpenSimulator that aims to improve educational uses of immersive environments, it still does not offer particularly new interactive capabilities.

Writes Young, “It turns out that virtual worlds are at their best when they look nothing like a traditional campus. Professors are finding that they can stage medical simulations, guide students through the inside of cell structures, or pre­sent other imaginative teaching exercises that cannot be done in a physical classroom.”

This promise could be realized by a new flexible open-source system called OpenCobalt. Watch the video below for an introduction:

As the video shows, the OpenCobalt environment enables users not only to naturally interact and collaborate with each other and with traditional videos and Web pages; it also enables them to play with 3-D objects and simulations in an engaging and informative way.

Users of OpenCobalt will not be limited to the usual keyboard and mouse, but can also interact with the environment using multitouch screens, as this video illustrates. To me at least, the authoring system —as illustrated in this video—is intuitive enough that designers can master it well enough to work with communicators to create effective interactive environments and other products.

“Wonderful stuff can happen when you move away from the page metaphor,” asserts Duke researcher Lombardi, one of OpenCobalt’s architects, in an article on the Duke Research blog. “We’re living in a 3-D world. We need to interact with each other and with information in 3-D spaces.”

Certainly, such immersive environment platforms as OpenCobalt are still in their infancy. And, there is an element of trendiness that leads Young to comment that “Maybe 3-D online environments are just one of those technologies that sound cool but never fully materialize, like personal jetpacks.”

But there does seem to be legitimate communications value in such 3-D interactivity. And, of course its flashiness can attract eyeballs. So, it’s not too early to at least begin considering how to use virtual environments to not only communicate research more effectively, but make your communications stand out in the tidal wave of information inundating today’s Web.