We launched the new site for The Conversations Network on schedule today. Not without bugs, mind you, but now 12 hours post-launch, I think we’ve swatted the worst of them. Special thanks to David and Francis at Loomia, whose new recommendation engine we integrated as part of the process, Tim McNerney who’s aweseome work as our sysadmin saved endless hours by having great backups of everything, Dorothy Yamamoto for her beautiful graphics, and the rest of our Team for their testing and feedback. It was a soft launch, with no press releases or hype machine, but already a few thousand folks have found it and are exploring its nooks and crannies.
The reaction so far is about 97% favorable, mostly ethusiastically so. The other 3% aren’t happy about the new paid-membership model even though it’s not a tollgate to the content. More on that topic in the next few days, after I’ve had a chance to get some sleep. In the meantime, here’s a rundown of what you can expect on the new site.
- Paid Membership. We closed the IT Conversations Tip Jar, which was being distributed every month to Team ITC, those 40-or-so volunteers who do all our post-production work in their spare time. As we looked at growing the network to 12 channels by the end of the year — IT Conversations will become just one of those channels — we realized we needed something more structured than a tip jar. Like U.S. public radio, membership will be one cornerstone of our revenues, the rest coming from grants, underwriters and commercial sponsors. But we’re serious about listener-supported audio on the web, and that means listener supported. We surveyed thousands of our listeners prior to this decision and learned a lot about how many people would be willing to pay and how much. Basic membership is US$50/year or US$5 per month. Student memberships are available for half those amounts. To ease the transition, and to allow our faithful listeners a chance to evaluate the benefits for themselves, we’ve given every previously registered member of the IT Conversations web site a free basic membership through March 31, 2006.
- Personalization. The primary benefits of membership (other than knowing you’re supporting our vision) are all based on knowing who you are. Registered members can opt-in to a variety of features such as our newsletters, email ballots, etc.
- Recommendations. With nearly a thousand progams in the catalog and more than that number coming in 2006, this is where Loomia comes in. Our members can rate programs in a variety of ways, and those ratings are used both to provide so-called community ratings for all, as well as personalized recommendations using Loomia’s proprietary algorithms.
- Forums. We’ve long wanted a place for our members to discuss our more thought-provoking programs. Two years ago I tried (unsuccessfully) with forum software. I think we just didn’t have enough listeners and the integration of the forum software was weak. This time the software and integration are better by far and we have many, many more listeners. Everyone can read the forums. Only registered members can post messages.
- Personal Program Queues (PPQs). This feature was previously available on the IT Conversations web site, and we’ve preserved everyone’s queue contents for the port to The Conversations Network. This is the only case of charging for something that used to be free to all, but since we decided that personalization was the point at which the tollgate would be errected, PPQs become the one feature that shifted to the other side.
- Infrastructure. This will only interests the geeks, but perhaps the greatest benefit of the new site is its architecture for the future. We’ve abstracted the identity issues, and created single sign-on for the main site (based loosely on WordPress), the forums (punBB) and the individual channel web sites, such as IT Conversations. All of the features such as recommendations, PPQs and forums, will operate across all of our channels and are entirely distributed. You’ll get recommendations from all channels, and a single PPQ can likewise be populated with programs from different sources on our network. Considering that each web site and the forums can live on different servers, this was no small feat, and I’m personally quite proud of the design. We’ve managed to put into place the building blocks on which we can now roll out a virtually unlimited number of channels on as many topics.
If you want to learn more, I suggest checking out our mission, our Recommendation/Queue system tutorial, the new IT Conversations forum, membership info, our Team (and information about our new apprenticeship program) and our FAQs. And of course, I look forward to your feedback and continued support.