Wednesday June 24th saw Circa News cease publishing. In a brief announcement, CEO and co-founder Matt Galligan ended months of speculation, thanked his loyal readers and expressed his deep sadness that Circa was on ‘indefinite hiatus’. Just like the poignant bugle call, Galligan’s last post commemorates the fallen, a ground-breaking news app that fought the good fight for almost three years but finally succumbed to the total lack of a business model.

The team at Circa believed that to crash its app’s slick mobile-first user experience with advertising or to make people pay to use it would have compromised their mission – to create a news company that would deliver ‘factual, unbiased, and succinct information’. Instead, they chose to rely on VC funding, and Circa editor-in-chief Anthony De Rosa summed up that experience like this:

“We tried to do something very different, we took huge risks, we built a product that spawned a whole new category, and we enjoyed every moment of it, at least until the money ran out and that sucked.”

To take its innovative approach to mobile news forward Circa needed fresh investment.  Back in December of last year Newsonomics analyst Ken Doktor reckoned Galligan was looking for second round funding of $8 million, or to be acquired. That would enable the start-up to move out of product development into audience development and more importantly, revenue development. But it never happened.

The future of journalism?

Forgetting the inconvenient truth of financial failure for a second, and focussing on the experimental nature of the product, Circa made a huge impact with the digerati. When it launched in October 2012, it was touted by some as the future of journalism, a post-article future, easily read on mobile, delivering the facts without the fluff. The attention the San Francisco-based start-up attracted throughout its brief existence way outstripped its user base – never confirmed but rumoured to have been just 100,000 users at the end.

The stripped-down ‘card’ formats introduced by Circa have found their way into the latest generation of news aps launched by old and new media alike, from NYT Now to AJ+, Yahoo New Digest to Buzzfeed News. The fact that these and other major consumer publishers have already built ‘Circa-like’ features into their own apps possibly goes some way to explaining why Galligan didn’t find a buyer. As big an impact as Circa made, the VC-value of the business was probably just too much for a publisher to buy the arguably replicable knowledge that the Circa team had developed.

Or maybe Galligan was looking in the wrong place… maybe Circa would have fared better out of the general news business and in the B2B news business.

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Circa’s rolling interface

For one thing, it’s really not easy to get people to spend money on general news online – less that one in five online news consumers is willing to pay according to the Reuters Institute Digital News Report 2015. But consumers of B2B media are a little less reticent about laying their money down, especially if they are signing up to an information service that delivers a competitive edge or makes them better at their job.

Paying for B2B content

Speaking at FIPP’s Digital Innovators Summit in Berlin this March, Emap CEO Natasha Christie-Miller reported that her team has grown subscriptions for the first time in 25 years, with individual renewal rates at 70 percent and corporate renewals hitting 90 percent. That’s on products like the Health Service Journal’s £12,000 a year Intelligence product which Christie-Miller said was ‘smashing’ targets. Selling a revolutionary B2B mobile-news app for a few pounds a month should be a piece of cake in comparison.

Even if you’re sceptical about subscription revenues saving the day, B2B people are still a little more open to advertising and sponsorship than their ad-blocking alter egos in the consumer space. B2B ads and white papers are often seen as just extra edge-sharpening content. Put a clever native spin on B2B promotions, preferably with a strong lead generation component, and the money for a B2B Circa is surely there.

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Regardless of revenue opportunities based on niche-B2B audiences’ ready acceptance to pay and be pitched at, Circa had features that B2B publishers could use to add real value to their existing multiplatform business intelligence plays.

In an unsentimental obituary to Circa, Verge Silicon Valley editor Casey Newton blamed its failure in part on its presentation style, calling it a ‘flavorless bundle of bullet points’. He criticized a shortage of original journalism and a ‘cold and rational presentation’ that lacked personality. Those are certainly failings in a consumer app, but in business… on my phone… sign me up!

Content atomisation

Circa’s biggest innovation was the atomisation of content, creating points of information that could be digested at speed, but that could be strung together over time to form a longer narrative – perfect for busy executives that need news on the go, but also the full picture for decision making.

To make sure readers could get the complete context of a news story as it developed, Circa pioneered the facility for readers to ‘Follow’ specific threads, giving them the option to subscribe and receive notifications as new, pertinent, content atoms were released. It even kept track of how much of a given story users had seen and sent new information only if it hadn’t been previously viewed.

When Circa was first launched, angel investor Scott Belsky described it as being like the US President’s Daily Brief, explaining that the super-busy President doesn’t read the news, he’s briefed only on the things that matter to him at any given time.

Circa picked up on this and called itself ‘The ‘President’s daily brief for the rest of us’. Imagine a B2B Circa that was ‘The CEO’s Daily Brief for the rest of us’. It could be a mission-critical, mobile-first news layer over the business intelligence dashboards, directories, data products, opinion and analysis already in place.

Mobile growth potential

The best B2B media cleaves hard to the mission of making people better at their jobs and connecting buyers and sellers wherever they happen to be – in print, in person and online. The sector has done pretty well delivering on the platform agnostic promises it has made; most work print, web and email hard. Mobile, however, is still something of a new frontier for B2B, despite the growth potential created by what PWC has called ‘soaring mobile internet penetration’.

It’s not that there is no mobile content in B2B. Email newsletters are ubiquitous, responsive websites are becoming the norm and there are mobile first news services like Industry Dive developing fast. But none of these do mobile with the time-saving panache of Circa.

Throughout Matt Galligan’s goodbye, there are clear hints that the Circa story might not be completely over. Wistfully, he expresses the hope that someone will finish what Circa started. More practically he said the company is still working on opportunities to keep the technology and ‘spirit’ of Circa alive.

It would be really interesting if one of those is in the B2B space. What better environment for Circa to resurrect its ‘Save Time. Stay Informed’ ethos? 

Image courtesy of Takashi Hososhima via Flickr used under a Creative Commons license.