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InContext / An inside look at the business of digital content

There’s more than one way to succeed at digital

January 28, 2016 | By Ron Miller—Independent Technology Journalist @ron_miller

Back in the 1990s in the early days of the World Wide Web, media companies created websites, sensing that distribution was changing, even if they didn’t completely understand it. At the time that meant creating content for print or broadcast and then after some period of time dumping it onto the website. Today, those delivery silos are gone and editorial and product work side by side in a symbiotic relationship, moving the content wherever it needs to be in whatever format makes most sense.

That sounds obvious enough, but in reality even the most successful digital media companies haven’t figured it all out. It’s hard to do when new delivery methods turn up all the time. That’s why organizations that have made a successful transition to digital like CNN, The Washington Post and the New York Times are constantly experimenting.

They understand that none of this is fixed in time, and whatever you think you know about digital delivery, it’s probably going to change.

Giving the user control
Understanding that change is constant, media companies strive to deliver that content wherever the user happens to be. That could be a SnapChat story, SMS headline alert, sharing a story on Facebook or the new Facebook Instant, accessing content on the company’s mobile website or via a company app.

“My sense is that we’ve optimized operations so that news is the driver and then we distribute it to where and how people are consuming the news,” says Alex Wellen, chief product officer at CNN. The tech and editorial voice needs to meet consumers where they are, he explained.

Julia Beizer, who is director of product at The Washington Post says for her publication, it’s a marriage of technology and content including embedding 100 engineers in their building and bringing on new writers over the last couple of years who understand the cadence of online writing. After that, it’s a matter of developing those products and services alongside editorial to deliver content to multiple delivery channels.

Putting the content in context
The Post must be doing something right. comScore reported that it had an all-time high of 76 million monthly digital users in December. Beizer says one of the reasons for that success is that they have been paying attention to what people want in their digital content, and it’s not always bite-sized chunks.

“One of the early misplaced assumptions around mobile was that mobile users are standing in line waiting for coffee. A lot of people are doing that, but a lot of people are on their couches at home too. Research shows upwards of 70 percent are at home,” she said. She adds that in that context the idea that people only want snackable content doesn’t hold true.

Then there’s the on-going battle of developing apps versus building a good mobile website. As with everything else, there is room for both and it depends on your goals — engagement or views.

Consider that in its study of apps versus mobile websites between June 2014 and June 2015, comScore found people used mobile websites twice as often as mobile apps. While both boasted impressive year over year growth, apps were growing at 21% year over year with the mobile web showing 42% growth.

The important thing to remember is that this isn’t about rigid choices: Each channel has its own purpose. Mobile web is about single engagements, while a consumer using a mobile app tends to be constantly engaged with the brand. Wellen points out that they see four times the engagement on mobile apps, but the mobile web has six times the audience of their apps, so you can’t choose one over the other.

What the app demonstrates is loyalty to your media brand. As a brand, you can learn what the consumer likes and there is an explicit relationship between the two that you don’t necessarily have on the mobile web, comScore’s VP for marketing and insights, Andrew Lipman explained.

The desktop lives on
Yet even while we have all of these new digital delivery channels, the oldest one, the desktop, still lives, even as PC sales are plunging. The most recent IDC numbers for the 2015 fourth quarter show PC sales down over 10%, but Lipman says it’s a mistake to think of the various channels as a zero sum game. He points out that lots of people access content on their PCs at work or laptops wherever they happen to be (and those are still technically PCs).

“This is one of the biggest misconceptions I see out there. Often in the media, it gets framed as a zero sum game. Since the clear winner in recent term is mobile, then desktop must be the loser,” he said. In reality, they both have importance and it depends on what the audience needs to access your content at any given moment in any particular channel.

It’s clear that companies that have successful digital strategies are always looking for new ways to engage with the audience, even while continuing to develop the older ones. As Beizer points out, when she started at the Washington Post 40% of the people on mobile were accessing their content on a BlackBerry. That’s obviously changed and it’s constantly changed.

That keeps things interesting for folks working on digital products inside media companies. “It would be boring if we had it all figured out,” she said.

Ron Miller is a Freelance Technology Journalist and blogger. He is enterprise reporter at TechCrunch and Contributing Editor at EContent Magazine.

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