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Zite CEO Mark Johnson: 'Our relationship with publishers is critically important'

by David Needle

April 9 2012

Prior to running Zite, Johnson was Product Manager at natural language search engine Powerset, which was purchased in 2009 by Microsoft and incorporated into the company's Bing search engine.
Prior to running Zite, Johnson was Product Manager at natural language search engine Powerset, which was purchased in 2009 by Microsoft and incorporated into the company's Bing search engine.

Zite's CEO talks about what it's like to work for CNN, the platform's possible expansion, and the company's revenue plans.

Zite, a personalized news reading app for the iPad and iPhone, has made news on a couple of fronts over the last month.

The San Francisco-based subsidiary of media giant CNN recently expanded the service beyond Apple and is now available for Android devices. And earlier this month, Zite launched its first publisher program, which gives publishers their own sections on Zite. The news helped settle a firestorm with publishers who had sent the company cease-and-desist letters because the Zite app presented their content, but none of their ads or branding.

Launch partners announced April 4 included: Bleacher Report, CNN, The Daily Beast, FOX Sports, HLNtv, The Huffington Post, Motley Fool, The Next Web and VentureBeat.

TabTimes recently spoke to CEO Mark Johnson on where Zite is headed, what the competitive landscape looks like, and what the prospects for its partners are, as well as publishers in general.

You originally targeted the iPad with Zite. Was that simply a case of going for what looked like, and certainly has become, the most popular tablet?

Zite is intimately linked to the iPad. Originally we were planning on a web service, Zite.com, but decided not to release it. The interface wasn’t what people wanted when, for example, they plop down to bed or at night to browse.

…And then came CNN...

Right. We looked at raising venture capital, but we got a call from CNN and it was an attractive offer. They really believed in the company and they’ve been great. We make our own decisions and run it on our own, but with CNN involved—this is a company that really knows media and mobile well, so we’re able to leverage their expertise.

Your main rival in this space is Flipboard. How do you distinguish the two services?

There are many different products and philosophies about discovery. Flipboard mirrors the magazine [newstand] approach. Zite draws on hundreds of thousands of sources and over 2,000 topics a user can pick from to find what interests them. And the more you interact with Zite, the smarter we get about what you want. We help you discover a lot of content you might have missed.  

How about adoption? How many users does Zite have, how fast is it growing and how much time are users spending with the app?

We haven’t said too much publicly, but we’re very happy with our retention numbers, and Zite readers are voracious.

And there will be other platforms?

Personalization wants to be everywhere. Once you have Zite personalized, it’s jarring to go back to a Web browser.

Eventually Zite wants to be on every platform, but we’re being methodical. We released an iPhone app and learned a lot of interesting things. For example, there’s a difference—iPad gets lots of usage at night, while the iPhone access to Zite is many more times over the course of a day for shorter durations. Users access it less on the iPad but they stay longer.

[NOTE: This interview was conducted before Zite announced an Android version.]

I assume you have plans to generate more revenue?

Clearly our relationship with publishers is critically important. Publishers want to be paid for content, users want easy access to the things they want to read, and we match that up.

The other part of this is that we’re looking at where we can generate revenue. We’ve announced sponsors, including content that’s promoted by Intel.

We’ve found that there are a lot of brands producing content that are having trouble getting it into the hands of the people they want reading it. The Zite platform is very targeted by request and I’ve been pretty vocal about ... how we could make a lot of money selling ads on the pages.

But our brand value is highly personalized content. We’re being very careful to be sure whatever we do fits with the content and makes sense.

So it’s fair to say you plan to continue to engage with readers more closely?

That’s a great way to put it. We’ll find interesting ways to engage and potentially attract a new set of readers.

What are the most popular topics within Zite?

Some of it is what you would expect. For example, Technology is a top topic; Apple products, gadgets and a number of cities like New York, San Francisco and LA.

What’s really interesting are the 2,000 topics beyond the obvious ones. I rarely go to Tech because I’m inundated with that stuff already during the day. When I get home I want to be educated about something new. The Zite users who add long tail categories tend to be the ones that stay.

This isn’t like going to Wikipedia; it’s really about a progressive learning experience over a month or a period of time where you find you can really broaden your education on a topic. 

David Needle is News Editor for TabTimes, and is based in Silicon Valley

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