There are few really great news discovery apps out there, but Prismatic hopes to be one of them. To become the go-to service for finding things that might interest you, the startup just launched a new version or its iOS app, which takes the best of its recommendation system and combines it with a better on-boarding flow and engagement tools.
Since launching about a year and a half ago, we’ve written a fair amount about Prismatic, which made the uncharacteristic decision to go Web-first, before launching a mobile app later in the summer. Along the way, just about a year ago, Prismatic raised $15 million from Jim Breyer and Yuri Milner to dig deep and make a recommendation engine that would be suitable for the masses.
“Prismatic as a company is about making life more interesting,” Prismatic co-founder Bradford Cross said. “And the goal of our first product is to be a home for all your interests. It’s where everything you’re interested in can be followed.”
The problem today is that most recommendation models today established upon interests are siloed, and as a result, don’t really work. My Twitter feed, for instance, is heavily populated with tech people talking about tech news all the time, which would be great if all I ever cared about was tech.
But I am large, I contain multitudes, and maybe every now and then I wanna geek out on learning about beer. Or read about my favorite sports teams. Or find interesting new restaurants or exotic travel locales to add to my bucket list. There’s no really good way to pursue all of those interests all in a single place.
And most systems out there today — they kind of suck. Content either comes to me based on my own self-selected interests, which really isn’t great for discovering anything new, or it’s recommended because some friend of mine shared it, which is a poor way to judge whether it’s of interest to me.
As my boss (and mentor) Alexia wrote when she covered Prismatic’s funding a year ago, good content aggregation and recommendation services are like a good party:
If you arrive and you already know everyone, stuff gets really boring really fast; but if you don’t know anyone, there’s no entry point, so what’s the incentive to stay?
This is (admittedly) a long-winded precursor to describe the problem that Prismatic hopes to solve. The question is, does it actually succeed?
With the latest version of the app, I think it does.
Part of Prismatic’s success in this regard comes from having a lot of good content and interests to choose from. Prismatic brings in more than 5 million stories a day and has more than 10,000 interests you can follow.
But frankly, that’s not good enough. What you really need in content recommendation is an app or service that’s going to surface stuff that you’re interested in but might not have seen already. And in limited testing, the app actually excels at that.
Normally when you come into a news aggregator or other recommendation service and fill it up with interests or feeds or follow a bunch of people, you’re sent back a hodgepodge of non-relevant content, usually just the most recent or most trending articles to be released. (You may think you are interested in knitting, but are you ready to be bludgeoned by the 20 most recent articles on knitting culture upvoted by the most influential of knitters?)
Not so with Prismatic.
“Prismatic is smart, so you can follow a lot of shit but it doesn’t overwhelm you,” Cross told me.
More importantly, it’s “smart” in that it doesn’t pigeonhole users into reading just a certain type of article because they’ve given it a thumbs up or commented on it. Cross notes that some recommendations algorithms become overtuned to specific interests and then don’t introduce users to anything new. Prismatic works hard to highlight those other occasional interests every now and then, even if you express a heavy inclination to favoriting or sharing news on one or two topics.
That’s all stuff that Prismatic did before anyway, but what’s new and different?
For one thing, the app has a faster on-boarding flow, which should help people identify people and interests to follow a lot more seamlessly. The biggest issue that Prismatic had before this update was mainly just grabbing enough data with which to make its recommendations.
“A lot of people didn’t really understand it, but those who did used it ravenously,” Cross said. It had a hard time getting users to commit on day one, but if they did, most found a lot of value in the app and became regular users. A quarter of its weekly users came back to the app six or seven days during the week, and viewing sessions last about 11 minutes on average.
The other thing that Prismatic has done is to try to encourage interaction and sharing of content, to keep people engaged. To that end, it enables easy commenting and provides notifications when others comment or share articles that you’ve commented on. There’s also Twitter and Facebook shares, which helps to bring others from outside of Prismatic in.
“The goal is to get the discussion going,” Cross said.
But more than anything else, it’s just beautiful, and fun, and a joy to use. It’s got a full Frankly, I wasn’t a Prismatic user before but I’ll be turning to it a lot more in the future whenever I have a few spare minutes and want to geek out on more tech stuff, and everything else as well.