Last night Microsoft announced msnNOW, a service that aggregates content around trending topics. msnNOW allows users to choose what the hottest trends are by showing a share count for each trending topic.
Other than the web presence at now.msn.com, users can interact with the msnNOW Facebook app and mobile site.
What Is It?
One of the first questions that came up about msnNOW was “What Exactly Is It?” At first glance the service sounded like the ill-fated Yahoo! Buzz, but is actually quite different. Instead of user submitted news, msnNOW looks for current trends and provides summaries for each story.
Here is the direct quote from the msnNOW site:
“msnNOW is the only place that looks at the hottest trends from Facebook, Twitter, Bing and Breakingnews.com.
We give you the inside scoop so you always know about what’s trending, if it’s true, and why you should care.
And we’re constantly checking the latest buzz, so just look for links with the gray speech bubble on MSN.com to make msnNOW part of your daily routine.”
So what does that all actually mean? Bob Visse, general manager of MSN, described msnNOW a bit more succinctly:
“msnNOW is really about keeping consumers in the know about the hottest topics on the Web”
How Does It Work?
Unlike traditional aggregated social news sites like Reddit, Digg or Yahoo! Buzz , clicking on a trend doesn’t wisk users directly off the site to the story at hand. When clicking on a topic, users are delivered to a summary of the trending story. Many times these summaries will have external links that will take users to other sources. A sample story may resemble the following structure: photo, short write-up with link(s) ability to comment.
Next to each trend a small MSN logo and a share number exist and help to rank trends. This represents the share count for each article. A trend can be shared by a variety of options (Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn) which will count towards the share total:
The various trends on the side bar are ranked by this share total. However, the homepage seems to be unaffected by these share numbers.
Again, all of the content on msnNOW is not submitted by users, nor can it be a simple link to another source. This requires a team of editors to write up the summaries for each trend. To help identify these trends Microsoft has created an in-house tool deemed the Demand Dashboard. Everything from the demand dashboard is pushed into a publishing tool for editorial curation & publishing. In a press release on msnNOW Microsoft described the process used with the dashboard:
“The msnNOW editorial team lives and breathes the Demand Dashboard feed, using it to handpick the most interesting and popular items to present to its audience of “info snackers.”
Some of the top trends allow for on-page commenting by logging into a Live ID account:
Newer trending articles don’t allow for comments on the site. Instead they have a Tweet box to encourage comments via Twitter:
msnNOW also has an advantage that many other social news sites don’t: msn.com. Stories from msnNOW are filling the popular homepage which has roughly 75 million visitors a month. The defualt ‘Now” tab is currently displaying when a user now arrives on the MSN homepage:
Issues With msnNOW
While msnNOW looks slick and has some nice features, there are a few glaring items that exist that may hinder its success. msnNOW claims to provide a real-time view of breaking trends and the hottest social conversations it intrinsically doesn’t work in a real-time format. In order for an article to show up in the system, it must be identified by the MSN editing team, written up then added to the site. If a trend isn’t deemed important or hot enough, it will be entirely absent from the system. True real-time sites like Trendspottr actually identify trending articles, topics and hashtags on the fly rather than being reactive and writing up summaries for hot topics.
One of the strangest parts of msnNOW in my experience was the way that some articles and links were presented. While all of the articles feature a summary, their is not one specific source for each. For example this article “The dog food ad that’s making everyone cry doesn’t feature the video:
Nor does it even link directly to the video in question. Instead it links to a Bing video search:
Adding in a source or more coverage (like Techmeme) would make sense from a usability standpoint. Many of the trends have very short write-ups as well and it seems that a direct link to the source would make more sense then a three sentence recap.
Lastly, the commenting system is downright confusing. Some stories allow for comments via Live ID while others force users to Tweet a response.
Overall, msnNOW seems to be very capable of covering trending topics and stories and has the added bonus of MSN’s visibility. While not a true social aggregation site, that might not be a bad thing seeing past failures. msnNOW’s success will likely come from the capability of the editorial staff to cover large quantities of news in a way that is beneficial to the audiences.