Talking Issues with Martin Ferro-Thomsen of Issuu

martin.jpgMartin Ferro-Thomsen is the Co-Founder (and Communications Manager) of Denmark-based Issuu.com, a website / web application that is one of our current favorites of the year. We think there are big, big things in store for Issuu. Ferro-Thomsen holds an MA in Culture and Communication and also blogs about Culture and Technology on www.ferrogate.com. Issuu is up for the People’s Choice Award at the SXSW Web Awards.

Door Number 3: Do you see Issuu as something a printed publication uses to enhance its online presence? Or are you guys trying to finally kill print?

Ferro-Thomsen: From what we know about new media adoption, it always happens on a cumulative basis; e.g. I still listen to AM/FM radio as well as Pandora. Print media, and the book especially, is probably the most durable, lightweight medium ever made. At Issuu we love print and we’re not trying to kill it at all. Instead we look at the obvious pain that is present when print goes online. As a former mag editor myself, I recall how we used to split up the print PDF into plain text, then lay it out in html and publish it on the web. It was insane and I bet it still happens more than you would think. The lazy version is of course making the PDF available for download, but it’s such a turnoff to the average consumer who just wants to see what’s on page 10. Instead we made Issuu, because the timing was right and the technology was there.
I’ve been watching Issuu over the last couple months and at first it was very ‘zine dominant. I’m surprised at how many larger publications have caught on. Is this what you envisioned? Issuu being used by small and large entities alike?
Yes, diversity was a goal from the outset. We wanted people to be able to look at underground photos, browse for a new digital camera and finally check what the local supermarket can offer this week – all on the same site in the same session. And that’s the great thing about this living library of ours: If you can think it, you can publish it. And that’s why we’re getting such diversified content already.
Did you buy a Kindle?
I was tempted! But I usually never buy a first version of anything. Obviously there were both technical advances and limitations to it, but what worried me most was the packaging and design. This is something we have put tremendous effort into at Issuu. If you want people to share their $5,000 business catalog, or creative life blood for that matter, it simply has to look great. The Kindle basically looks like the monitor I had for my C64 in the 80’s, which is geeky-cool alright, but a far cry from Apple cool which it should have been.
Do you see Issuu being formatted for portable devices? Why have portable e-readers not caught on with people?
Yes, I totally see us doing that in the future, and our members have asked for it already. Whenever introducing a new medium or format, you obviously have to get the basic technology ready for the market. Secondly, you must create the medium so it adds personal value to the consuming experience. And I’m not talking about loads of features that scares people away, but nonetheless happens all the time when engineers run amok. No, you need to take the content to a whole new level in a personalized and engaging way; to rethink the book, so to speak; and that’s what we’re still waiting for after several failed attempts.
Issuu brings a print-like look and feel to the web, which is great for artist portfolios and ‘zines and other generally non-commercial ventures. But it also takes away the notion of hyperlinking and non-linear page flow, which is one of the web’s greatest strengths. What do you think this says about users of Issuu? Does Issuu suffer since there’s no adclick revenue?
The only reason we are not supporting links in the document is a technical thing, and we’ll come up with a solution for this soon. You could argue that it’s almost reactionary going back to the book-format now that we have hyperlinks and the never-ending web page. But obviously that’s the way print has always been created and that’s a determining factor. Although I’m a huge fan of the web’s flexibility and ability to always guide me towards more relevant information, I think the bottomless page in essence is rather dissatisfying to the average person, and I believe that constantly changing context and subject with links is still very disorienting to many.I see the Issuu magazine format almost as a metaphor, not unlike the way iTunes continues to talk about ‘albums’ although it hardly makes any sense online. But you know the magazine, you know what to do with it and you know it will only hold a limited number of pages. I don’t think you should underestimate the strength of the familiar when you think of the constant change that is the web reality of today. That being said, Issuu is currently a very simple version of what we plan to do, and 2008 is going to be an extremely exiting year.
Right now, it seems that any company that advertises in a publication on Issuu is getting free exposure. Is this something you anticipated? Is it even that big of a deal?
I don’t think it’s that big of a deal and it was expected. Businesses and privates want the same thing: To be heard by as many of the right people as possible. The way Issuu is organized, only content someone finds interesting gets exposure and this is something we will continue to improve. Advertising is a fact of life and I’m pretty sure most people see it that way. From the little I know about newspaper history, journalism more or less grew out of an advertising leaflet. Now we’re witnessing almost the reverse phenomenon, where consumers don’t want to pay for their information and you need a business model that relies heavily on advertising to sustain itself. The good news, however, is that ads this time around are much more targeted online than with print. And in my opinion a highly targeted ad is not a nuisance, it’s simply just a great service, as long as it’s served in non-intrusive way.
If Issuu ever publishes its own annual report, would it only exist in the Issuu format or would you print it?
(laughs!) This is something we’ve been discussing in relation to other publications we’ve produced. We would probably do both, as nothing beats the smell and feel of a freshly printed copy of something you really want to read. In some places there’s still a certain conservatism when it comes to online media and credibility, where print still is viewed as superior. I’m pretty sure this will change, just as it has happened with hard currency vs. online banking. Just think of the huge usability improvement an online bank is. With Issuu most people immediately get the point, once they’ve uploaded. Most publishers too will recognize the viral benefits and wealth of digital possibilities associated with publishing on the web; in fact this is already happening.
What is the plan for the community aspect of Issuu? Do you think users will ultimately use Issuu as a collaborative tool, or will it just be MySpace-style slandering each other?
We think a successful community should be tailored to the content and the stakeholders of that content. We have a unique type of content and pretty unique members too, and with that we should be able to create something that is not about slandering. I’ve spent months on MySpace, and although I dislike it for many reasons, my respect for it is bigger. I am watching closely what Facebook is doing to not become another MySpace, and still grow bigger than them. For some reason quantity seems much easier to facilitate than quality when it comes to social media, and this is something we are aware of, keeping in mind that quality is not an absolute phenomenon, but something different to every person.
Have you ever personally published printed ‘zines or other kinds of stuff? Was Issuu created to help you with your own needs or the needs of people you know?
Yes, I’ve worked with several magazines and newspapers, both as a writer and editor and know the industry very well. But it was pure luck that I ended up here. I was put in touch with Michael Hansen, our CEO, who had developed document software for large corporations and was aware of the many unmet challenges here. I was introduced by an old childhood friend, Ruben Bjerg Hansen, who is our designer. Now we’re a bigger team that all shape the company somehow, but the original vision still stands: Rethinking online publishing using the best design and technology available.
Issuu in 2009: what’s going on?
Why spoil the fun 🙂 Stay tuned to our blog, where we introduce all the new stuff: blog.issuu.com.
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