CNN is not new to digital. Its first iOS offering dates back to 2014. Things have changed a lot since then, though. Today, the market is overflowing with more than 600 streaming services and mobile apps from news and entertainment brands of all kinds. However, the company views its latest digital play as the most important step since Ted Turner launched CNN in 1980. With CNN+, the company is betting on an enhanced, interactive product that offers a truly premium digital experience.
As Robyn Peterson, CNN’s Chief Technology Officer, described the opportunity to me, “The New York Times has cornered the market in subscription text news. There is a white space in video news and there is not a video news subscription service of the caliber of CNN+. CNN is the only news organization with the resources, global credibility, and experience in video storytelling to offer a compelling product worth paying for.”
At launch, CNN+ offers an impressive slate of original and exclusive programming. They’ve dedicated roughly $100 million in development and a team of 500 staffers to the product, an investment that the company believes will set it apart from rivals, and compel free viewers to pay $5.99 a month for the enhanced offering.
In addition to the daily live shows CNN viewers already know and love, CNN+ adds the news brands’ first interactive streaming programming. For example, “Interview Club” is a service it’s counting on to “give subscribers access to newsmakers like never before.” This offering invites subscribers to submit questions from their computer, tablet or mobile device live or in advance of daily scheduled interviews between CNN’s journalists and newsmakers
“Interview Club fundamentally transforms what it means to become part of the story,” Courtney Coupe, Senior Vice President of Content Strategy and Operations for CNN+, said in a press statement. “Weaving this crucial element of interactivity into the core of CNN+ sets it profoundly apart from anything else that exists in the streaming marketplace.”
Historic depth and cultural relevance
Another attraction (and a first for news streaming apps) is exclusive on-demand access to more than a thousand hours from the library of CNN Original Series, CNN Films, and CNN Special Reports. This positions CNN+ to be a one-stop destination to access Emmy Award-winning titles and 40 years of history as told by CNN.
But CNN+ isn’t just opening the archives. Another selling point is the production of Pop Docs. These premium documentary specials, focused on pop culture stories, are more than an attempt to tap into our collective Zeitgeist. They are a part of the eclectic content arsenal CNN+ is counting on to expand its audience beyond die-hard news fans (the median age of a CNN viewer hovers around 64) and engage cord-cutting Millennials.
“With CNN+, we are expanding the reach and scope of the CNN brand and delivering additive content to our fans,” Peterson explains. “Offering content exclusive to CNN+ gives them something valuable worthy of pay.” The focus, he adds, is “global news highlighting our global resources around the world.”
The monthly subscription package is priced at $5.99 (the same amount Fox News charges for Fox Nation, which launched in 2018). CNN+ is also offering early subscribers access to the “Deal of a Lifetime,” or 50% off the monthly plan – as long as they remain subscribers.
CNN+ is also revamping its mobile app to remove friction and fuel subscriber numbers. Currently, CNN+ is not a standalone app. It is integrated into the primary CNN app (launched in 2008). It appears as a plus sign that features prominently in the bottom navigation bar to allow easy navigation between platforms.
“The CNN+ logo and experience is also prominently featured on top of the CNN.com homepage for users to access the new streaming platform from CNN.com,” Peterson explains. While a user interface that is essentially a tab on a newly updated CNN app means more clicks, there are advantages to providing subscribers CNN+ and TVE (TV Everywhere) access. “We are working to make this the best experience for our customers, and part of that is featuring all CNN content within one CNN app so we can limit any potential customer confusion.”
This and other perks pave the way for CNN+ to achieve what Andrew Morse, Executive Vice President and Chief Digital Officer of CNN Worldwide and Head of CNN+, has called a “very ambitious but achievable subscriber target.” While Morse doesn’t disclose the exact figure, he has hinted that a bundled offering with HBO Max and Discovery Plus is on the roadmap. The $43-billion combination of Discovery with AT&T’s WarnerMedia will undoubtedly result in a plethora of assets and bundles. The question is: Will audiences pay for it?
It’s tricky to call, particularly when the Corona bump that marked a surge in audience interest in subscription streaming services is ebbing. While the streaming market continues to grow, the pace of that growth has slowed significantly. Last quarterly earnings from most streaming service providers fell short of expectations, and Netflix even reported its lowest year of subscriber growth since 2015.
With CNN+, CNN is making an ambitious premium play in a crowded market. However, its investment in new interactive offerings, as well as the decision to offer a deep archive may put it in a class of its own in a sea of streaming apps.
Video shopping is being hyped as the next big thing in video and shopping. But it is kind of hard to believe that livestream commerce, which has its roots in the home shopping experience we know from cable TV, will be truly transformational. Now reconsider it as a new paradigm that combines information, entertainment, and retail. And, even if you count live callers to shopping shows, livestream shopping provides a whole new level of customer connection and conversion. So maybe activity and investments are booming for good reason.
This year will be remembered as the biggest year yet for video commerce revenue. Research firm eMarketer reckons the global market for livestream shopping will rake in a massive $500 billion this year.
Break this down by region, and China accounts for the lion’s share of earnings ($480 billion). But more astounding than China’s percentage of global revenues is the speed at which livestream commerce completely has transformed the country’s retail industry. Global management consulting firm McKinsey reports it took less than five years for livestream commerce to develop into an innovative sales channel and one that regularly attracts more than one-third of Chinese Internet users.
Western companies ramp up to revenues
The U.S. market may be nascent in comparison, but the pay-off for early adopters is impressive. Data from management consulting firm Activate’s Technology Media Outlook 2022 pegs revenues at $11 billion this year, up from $6 billion in 2020.
Big names need little convincing. From online retailers Amazon and Alibaba to big tech and social giants Facebook, Pinterest and TikTok and Twitter, companies are “jumping into livestream shopping hard.”
The pandemic provided a big push. At one level, strict lockdown measures have accelerated the trend of shopping online and in-app. At the other end of the spectrum, isolating at home has increased the desire of consumers, who crave connection and diversion, to interact with a new breed of creators and influencers lining up to make shopping informative and fun.
Media companies engage audiences primed to purchase
Right now, the most popular combination to power livestream shopping is social networking platforms and retailers. However, media companies offer ideal partnerships. They alone can position offers where they matter most: the point of inspiration where customers are consuming content and open to suggestions.
“It’s really about creating an experience where content meets commerce,” Bryan Moore, co-founder and CEO of talkshoplive, a live streaming, social sales network, told me in an email interview.
He believes that the ideal intersection occurs by “connecting the retail and media landscapes.” His company has worked with Conde Nast and Hearst, retailers like Walmart, and creators from Oprah Winfrey to Dude Perfect on live commerce. Which maximizes distribution and, he says, “converts the most sales by cutting out all friction.”
This month BuzzFeed was the latest media company to announce a partnership with talkshoplive. The live stream with creators Carolina Reynoso and Vivian Nweze celebrates BFF-entine’s Day, highlighting product recommendations, gifts and much more. It follows a string of more than 50 livestreams on destinations, including Amazon Live, the retailer’s shoppable livestream offering.
Another fast-mover in livestream commerce is NBCUniversal. The media company launched its commerce capabilities on its One platform in 2020. Since then, the company reports it has created over 250 different pieces of shoppable content and counts over 200 active retailers on its platform.
From experimentation to execution
The number of media companies doubling down on livestream commerce continues to grow. But so does the competition.
New data from Sensor Tower, a company providing market intelligence and analytics for the mobile app economy, shows that one-third of the top 15 apps (measured in downloads) in the U.S. have “either already experimented with livestream shopping events or have announced plans to test livestream shopping in the near future.”
To up their game, media companies will need to be brave and broaden their approach beyond just driving affiliate conversions. The real power of livestream commerce is not about pushing products or driving sales.
The deeper goal should be to build affinity for an interactive shopping experience – not just drive a purchase. Done right, whether the consumer purchases or not, the experience continually and consistently delivers something far more valuable: memorable and meaningful engagement.
How to do live shopping right
On the face of it, livestream commerce is a perfect match with campaigns to sell beauty, fashion, decor and other items where brands and merchants pay the highest commissions. But this opportunity goes far beyond lifestyle. There are opportunities in many other verticals, including B2B software and services. Whether you opt to target consumers, or cater to business professionals, your first task is to enable the conversations and interactions that power commerce.
Cultivate creators to add authenticity
Encourage niche creators who can enhance the experience (and the reach of your retail partners) and open the aperture of how you view opportunities in the Long Tail. Reams of research show the engagement rates for nano-influencers are up to ten times those for mega influencers and major celebrities.
Expand capabilities to create customer value
Position your company to present shoppable products to your audience in a way that maximizes convenience and minimizes friction. Choose platforms and partners that will allow consumers to enjoy the programming and the purchase experience. If possible, don’t just align with a livestream partner. Build the talent and tech in-house to run your own livestream platform. It can be a significant investment, but it also positions you to go after brands and opportunities that value access to your audience and are willing to pay a premium for it.
Draw from data and consumer behavior
Livestream commerce requires deep commitment and insights. Be prepared to set up a team to manage these activities and “own” the customer. More importantly, equip them to build personas of potential customers and segments to understand the audience. This will also help you understand which interactive perks (games, giveaways, quizzes) are likely to keep these consumers engaged and entertained.
Experience, engagement, and (yes) earnings
Content is king. But it takes more than compelling and trustworthy reviews and recommendations to enhance the livestream shopping experience. While incremental – or even significant – revenue is a compelling reason to move into live shopping, it offers other meaningful rewards.
Today’s consumer enjoys an end-to-end experience that media companies are uniquely poised to offer. From the moment of interest, to inspiration and even investment, the media ecosystem can truly engage consumers in a way few others can. Live shopping experiences offer a new way to leverage content-based customer experiences to increase engagement and, yes, feed the bottom line.
The subscription economy is firing on all cylinders and across all verticals. However, an avalanche of subscription offers turns up the competition for audience attention. Content companies must find innovative ways to drive customer connection and conversion to rise above the noise.
The stakes are high and so are the profits. The 2021 Subscription Economy Index published by subscription technology platform Zuora, reveals an impressive 21% uptick in subscription revenue growth in Q4 2020 alone compared to the previous quarter. That’s yet another data point in a growth trajectory that has seen subscription revenues increase 6x over the last nine years.
But cashing in on the boom requires publishers to embrace flexibility and customer convenience, even for cancellations. It’s not enough to build the capabilities to sell as a one-time transaction to readers. Publishers must reach potential subscribers in the right context, and at the right stage of the customer journey, to reinforce the decision to commit to recurring costs.
Personalize pricing and paywalls
Each customer is an individual, not a generalized demographic. Their willingness to subscribe also differs widely. Most efforts focus on moving consumers from free trials to the full-meal deal. However, an increasing number of content companies are experimenting with flexible pricing and new subscription billing models.
Some publishers offer readers the option to commit to smaller, more frequent payments instead of annual subscriptions. Others remove friction by providing options that allow consumers to manage or upgrade their accounts quickly and easily. While these efforts to convert consumers deeper in the funnel can yield impressive results, they bypass the business benefits publishers can gain from customizing pricing earlier in the consumer journey.
Publishers are “leaving money on the table by not changing subscription offers and upsells based on acquisition source,” according to Andy Carvell, CEO and partner at Phiture, a mobile growth consultancy that specializes in app engagement and retention.
Keynoting at CleverTap Quarterly, Carvell advised publishers to use data to optimize pricing and advertising based on acquisition source. At a basic level, this means showing consumers a different offer or pricing depending on whether they come into the app via paid advertising versus if they discover your app organically.
Customize for customer wins
Different platforms attract different audience segments. But publishers should resist giving away discounts based on generalizations. “The theme here is: Go in high and then drop prices after they [consumers] have resisted a few of your paywalls,” Carvell says. However, rather than assume a GenZer exposed to your content via a TikTok ad can’t afford a subscription, check the data. Metrics such as low time-to-install or time-to-conversion suggest high intent and signal a strong willingness to pay.
Consistency across the funnel is critical. Align the pricing on the paywall with the ad campaigns and copy currently running on your acquisition channels and ad networks. That way, Carvell says, “the user feels like the subscription is right for them because you’re speaking the same language as you did in the app.”
Cancellations and connections
Customizing top-of-the-funnel communications can attract and convert subscribers. But what do you do when your audience makes the conscious decision to cancel?
This is the cue for most publishers to show apologetic pop-ups or send emotional emails asking for a second chance. Granted, a sincere message to remind consumers their subscription matters or helps support quality journalism can be convincing. But if publishers are delivering this nudge after consumers click the button and prepare to make their exit, it may be a moment too late.
A better approach is to preempt the decision altogether by playing to FOMO fears and showing consumers upcoming content they don’t want to miss. It’s the strategy Sasha Kurdiuk, head of customer experience at Shahid MBC, has followed. Shahid is the leading Arabic language video-on-demand service globally known for the largest library of Arabic movies, shows and dramas – including two Emmy–nominated series.
In a podcast interview, Kurdiuk told me how he uses personalized perks and content shorts to stop churn before it starts. “Rather than pop-up and ask you not to go, which is a message that could enrage you if you are determined to cancel, we asked ourselves what might happen if we showed you a bit of the top content you haven’t watched.”
Drawing from behavioral and analytics around what subscribers view and enjoy, Kurdiuk’s team personalizes messaging to influence them at this critical moment. “Contextually relevant communications convince many subscribers to think twice and then press resubscribe,” Kurdiuk says. It’s also the well-timed and highly customized nudge that has allowed Shahid to “reduce voluntary cancellations by more than 20%.”
Given the pressure on content companies to compete for advertising, it is only good news that the subscription economy is booming. However, as an increasing number of products, entertainment, and information services compete for subscription revenue, companies must work hard to stay competitive. They will need to stretch their models and personalize offers and experiences to drive connection and conversion across the subscriber lifecycle.
The subscription economy is booming. From music and movies to meals and clothing, consumers want what they want to be available when and how they want it, and without onerous upfront costs. For publishers facing the uncertainties of digital advertising — dominated by the duopoly — subscriptions offer predictable and powerful revenue streams. They also bring with them an even more intimate understanding of the audiences they serve.
One of the biggest media success stories in capturing reader revenue, The Washington Post has introduced a new mobile-first product that encourages audiences to multitask. The 7, launched in September, distills the top seven headlines into digestible snippets and delivers them daily to time-crunched audiences at the same time (at 7 am Eastern) on the channel of their choice.
Website, app, and email newsletter are just a few of the channels consumers can use to skim through the headlines (roughly 300 words in total). And, if readers don’t have time to scroll or swipe through the stories, they can opt to listen to the news instead.
But the real power of the product isn’t the multi-channel delivery. It’s the way it fits into multiple stages of the funnel, allowing The Post to attract new audiences and convert existing ones with the same content. Even if readers don’t subscribe on the spot, their continued interaction provides valuable data points (email address if readers signed up for the newsletter) that equip The Post to market and move audiences ever deeper into the funnel.
Continuing with our series of DCN video interviews, I talk to Coleen O’Lear, Head of Mobile Strategy at The Washington Post. Drawing from experience growing The Post’s digital audience and cultivating stronger reader habits, O’Lear shares how The 7 has evolved from being “an accessible, digestible on-ramp for the news” to a product that “drives exceptionally high engagement.” She also discusses the “experimental mindset” publishers must adopt to make content readily accessible and digestible, not to mention enable their success to be scalable.
Peggy Anne Salz: It’s a morning routine for many – wake up, reach for the phone, check the headlines. Now more than ever, we rely on trusted sources to inform our perspective on what’s happening globally, as well as close to home and the stakes have never been higher. What a responsibility then to be the steward of one of the most trusted names in news charged with making sure those headlines are what we want when we wake up and that they are there, they are there for us. And in the middle of all this, how do you infuse a nearly 150-year-old legacy brand with a sense of ‘always on’ experimentation to produce this? How can you then scale both, maybe the cool new products that I’m talking about here and the number of subscribers who pay to access them? A lot of tough questions, and we get the inside track here today on Digital Content Next, the series from DCN, which is a trade association serving the diverse needs of high-quality digital content companies globally.
I’m your host Peggy Anne Salz and my guest today is Coleen O’Lear, she is Head of Mobile Strategy at the Washington Post, which I’ve been talking about. Coleen focuses on editorial and product development aimed at growing the Post’s digital audience and cultivating stronger reader habits. She was a founding member of the emerging news products team where she shepherded complex projects and initiatives from inception to implementation, including the Washington Post’s select app By The Way, its channels on Snapchat, Apple News, and Facebook news. And most recently, The 7, which is the big part of our focus on the show today. Welcome Coleen, great to have you here.
Coleen O’Lear: Thanks so much for having me, Peggy.
Salz: So you’ve said it yourself, and I quote you it’s all about creating new and exciting ways to surface news for time-crunched readers to consume. I’m just wondering, how many ways can readers currently access the news we’re talking about on how many platforms speaking here, of course, about The 7.
O’Lear: The 7 is something that we offer in a lot of different ways for you to be able to consume it, how you want it, when you want it and where you want it. So, we offer it on the app, we offer it on the website, we offer it on social off of our owned and operated platforms, we distribute it on Apple news, we have a newsletter and an SMS experiment. People are really busy, and they have a lot of options and preferences.
So, we created The 7 to really be an accessible, digestible on-ramp for the news for busy readers who really just want a rundown of the morning’s news quickly. So, it’s something that they can really fit into their morning routine as it exists. And it’s something that they can consume, how they want it, where they want it. So maybe some days you don’t have time to read it, and some days, you would rather listen, we offer people that opportunity with The 7.
Salz: So, you launched in September, not a lot of time to make a lot of observations. But you have seen how audiences are interacting with The 7, maybe you can tell me a little bit more about what you’ve seen, you know, it’s on the app, on the email, maybe just have the headlines read to you while you’re brushing your teeth getting ready for work, what is working?
O’Lear: Yeah, I mean, there’s a lot working so far, which we’re really excited about. So, we created The 7 to really be a mobile-first platform, or mobile-first product, we really wanted you to be able to multitask with it. Like I said before, we wanted it to fit into your routine. And as we hoped, we’ve seen really high engagement across platforms, including the site and newsletter, but the majority of our users have been on the apps. And that’s a place where we can drive deeper engagement. And that’s a place where we have seen really high engagement with The 7, with the briefing itself but also, with the audio component specifically, readers have really been listening to it there and they have been completing it. So they’ve been listening to the whole thing. They’ve been reading the whole thing, and they’ve been coming back to it again.
That’s something that was really built into how we wanted to think about The 7, we wanted it to be something that added value to your day, something that told you the seven things that you needed to know and the things that you wanted to know. So we really think that that’s come across and what we’re seeing from readers so far, and we’ve even extended our experiment with The 7 by launching an SMS project. So that’s been interesting, too. And we’ve had exceptionally high engagement with that early on, that’s even newer than The 7 itself, it’s only been out for less than two weeks now. But we’ll text you every morning and send you that link. And people have really been engaged which has been exciting.
Salz: A little bit of a comeback, a little bit of a Renaissance. I haven’t been hearing much about SMS, it’s all been about messaging. And of course, you have products on messaging, as well. SMS is intriguing. Where did that come from? Just experiment, try another platform?
O’Lear: Yeah, we like to experiment with platforms like we’ve talked about before. The Washington Post is about experimenting at scale. And SMS was something that we saw an opportunity to do that with. We thought that this was a real value-added proposition with The 7, right? That it is going to cover the things that are breaking, the hardest news, the most important news of the day. But it’s also the stories that you want to know, because you want to talk about them with your friends, right? It’s that balanced diet and we thought that SMS really lends itself well to that. We started experimenting with SMS primarily around the Olympics. But we saw a lot of success with that experiment and thought that The 7 was a good vehicle to have another opportunity with SMS.
Salz: I’m going to stay with The 7 as content for a moment, because it’s fascinating. First of all, it averages around 400 words.
It’s also probably a huge responsibility to pick the seven, then to write it and wow, it’s written by human Tess Homan who has an actual byline. You know, there’s someone responsible for this, how important is that? You know, why not AI because AI is certainly up to – we’ve seen those experiments, but you chose a human and this format, what’s behind that?
O’Lear: For us, there’s really no replacement for human touch when it comes to something like The 7. It’s a very focused briefing, it’s really critical that an editor’s honed news judgement and sharp editing skills can be taken to the day of the news, right? The Washington Post publishes hundreds of stories every single day and readers rely on us to tell them what of those stories they really need to know. And with The 7, just the seven that they need to know, at any given moment, too.
So, while it does publish at 7 am Eastern, that doesn’t mean that news is going to stop just because The 7 has published right? There may be something that breaks after it has published, that is going to be the news of the day, that’s going to be one of the seven most important things. And so that’s something that we really feel a human touch an editor’s judgement needs to be on. Our readers rely on The 7 being something that they can turn to when they want to turn to it in the morning. And so Tess is able to give that a real human touch by making appropriate updates, by really keeping it tight, by making sure that the essence and the heart of what you really need to know, the background and context to why a story matters for you, is truly in The 7 every day. And I think that that’s something that, you know, AI is great, but a human is better.
Salz: So human judgement, definitely a plus here. And as you said also the appropriateness of the content and the update, the purpose of your overall strategy is to build a habit, to turn readers into subscribers. Tell me a little bit about where and how The 7 fits in, it feels like a top of the funnel play. But I’m sure there’s an impact on deeper funnel engagement. And also, I’ve read that people who engage with your app stay longer. I don’t know if the case is with The 7 and how that impacts it. But tell me a little bit about where it fits into the scheme of things?
O’Lear: So we offer different opportunities for different kinds of readers to come into the funnel at different points. So for subscribers, there’s a value-add to The 7, it makes your subscription even more worthwhile for you. And we hope that over time that leads to retention. The 7 is also something that could potentially attract or bring a new audience to The Washington Post, potentially more accessible. Maybe somebody is very driven by audio experiences or doesn’t have a lot of time, right? It’s for time-crunched readers. Well, any story from the Washington Post is typically going to take you at least five minutes to read, right? We’re covering seven stories, you’re going to be able to consume it in less than three minutes and I think that that’s important.
We really hope that that can sort of create a pathway to the post that might not have existed before. And so there are different opportunities there, you could get a newsletter, if that works best for you, you could consume it on our site or on our apps that might lead to an app download where somebody hadn’t downloaded the app before, or a subscription sign up, or a newsletter signup, or even giving us your phone number for SMS.
Salz: That’s really interesting that it can be a little bit of everything. Because at one level, it’s bundling it in as a value add for the whole package, in a sense, and the other, it’s maybe acquiring a different type of audience, maybe one that you haven’t necessarily been able to win over. But now hey, time-crunched is maybe a sort of persona with you. And this allows you to approach that segment as well. So it’s top of funnel, and it’s deeper in the funnel. What can you tell me about the audience overall?
O’Lear: Well we don’t really get into metrics specifically. So I can’t tell you in specifics about the audience, but I can say that we have heard from a lot of readers, a lot of consumers all say because they’re not all reading it they’re listening to it too and some are getting the newsletter and some are coming to us on our ONO, and they’re reading the briefing live on their site.
A common theme that is coming back is that they appreciate the thoughtfulness of The 7, they appreciate that they have an expectation, and that it’s meeting that need, that it isn’t just the seven hardest news stories of the day, it’s also the things that you want to talk to your friends about. It’s the things you want to turn to your colleague and discuss. It’s the things that you drop into the group chat and say, can you believe this happened? Or did you know the ways that Google is trapping you or the defaults on Venmo.
We’re giving you utility content that can help make your life better, and also the news of the day that’s going to affect your life. And so I think that that has truly been something that’s distinct and unique about The 7 is really showcasing the breadth of the journalism that the Washington Post has to offer.
Salz: So I’m going to look at what drives The 7 and I would call it an always-on experimental mindset at the Washington Post. I’ve been following you for quite a while looking at all the different experiments, you’re one of the very first to really take audio very seriously, right? And now we’re talking about super short-form content – three minutes. And it’s great to experiment in a sandbox, you have a great job, because that’s what you’re doing. But then there’s the question of like, okay, now we’ve nailed it, this is really exciting. Now we need to experiment at scale. So what allows you to experiment at scale?
O’Lear: Experimentation is just built into the ethos of The Washington Post, we always try to approach things in an iterative way too, what launches may not be the thing that it is, eventually, if that wasn’t working for an audience. We are constantly doing health checks on our products, and on our audience and making sure that we are really meeting them where they need us to be, that we are delivering on the value and what they need from the Washington Post.
I think that when we see that something works, we don’t hesitate to double down on it, and to apply those learnings to the other places where they may be applicable. And so if something doesn’t work, we also identify what’s causing it not to work, and we try to make modifications to be able to, like I said, just be more responsive and to be more agile. And I think that that’s part of what has helped us experiment at scale, sometimes it’s about starting something in a small way and seeing where it may apply. I mean, AR is something we’ve been doing for many years now. And really started in small but meaningful ways. And now you can find AR in our app, it is built into our native core products, because it is something that we invest in.
The takeaway, essentially, from being able to experiment at scale is to really identify the opportunities, be realistic about your resources, be realistic about the impact that you have the potential to make, and what is most valuable, both for your audience and for your company. And then look for those opportunities and pursue those.
We never launch a product without goals associated, right? Both company goals, strategic goals, but also goals for the reader, what value is it supposed to bring. And so I think that what we really try to do is be strategic and deliberate about what we choose to invest in. And if something isn’t working, we’re not afraid, like I said, to sort of react to that and to try to change things. And so I think that essentially gives us the flexibility of nothing being too precious.
Everything is always being an evolution, just because something has launched doesn’t mean that it’s final and it’s done. I think that you always have to maintain a mindset of experimenting, improving, reacting and making things better. And iteration isn’t just something that you do in the experimental phase, it is something that you continue to do after a product is fully baked for lack of a better way of putting it.
Salz: At the end of the day you are Head of Mobile Strategy. What are you bringing here? What is it that you see as your role or someone in your position? Is this about orchestration? Is this about innovation? Inspiration? What is it that keeps this going?
O’Lear: It’s all of the above? I mean, I really…
Salz: Then I love your job, Coleen.
O’Lear: I mean, it’s all of the above, it’s hard to say that you always have to be of different minds. But you do. Anybody who is a strategic thinker, also has to work in practicalities, and realities, right? And so I think that we really tried to be measured in our approach.
So, I think that you really have to take a strategic lens toward everything but then you have to think about people and the people building the products, the people consuming the products. And that’s everything from how we curate something to the UX of something. And I think that that often comes across in very clear goals, but also even in simplest terms in documentation, if you don’t lay out to your team, the workflow that they should follow and why, I think it’s much harder to get people to understand what you’re trying to do, especially when you’re trying to do things that are big or different, or potentially challenging.
Salz: I’d like to go from The 7 that we’ve been talking about to the future, right? You’re evolving your product, you’re iterating your product, you’re always doing something there. But you’re also uniting your product. What’s next at the Washington Post? What’s your next focus?
O’Lear: Yeah, one of the big things that I’m working on right now is the unification. So we have two core apps that are news apps. They were originally for different audiences but journalism has changed, audiences have changed, technology has changed. And essentially what we’re doing is we’re taking what works well and we’re using the unification process to really build what is the classic app into a core flagship product that is truly representative of the Washington Post of today. And it is a first in class experience for users. And so that user-first mentality, really making decisions with the reader front of mind, thinking about what an app of today and tomorrow should be, is really exciting.
I think that we’ve learned a lot of lessons from having two different apps with sort of a different reading experience. And from those we’ll be able to make something that really feels like it meets the needs of different kinds of consumers.
Salz: I’d like to just go into a little bit of depth there, because not everyone, for example, will know about the two apps, the two experiences, the two audiences. Give me an idea about why you’re approaching app unification the way you are and how you’re going to keep those two audiences because combining them can be very tricky. And if you have any tips to offer, I’m sure we’re all ears.
O’Lear: Ask me about tips after we’ve done the unification and I may have some more tips I can offer at that time. Right now, like I said, we’re approaching it very deliberately, and we’re listening to our readers.
One thing in that was that we were listening to our readers and we were finding out that the audiences aren’t that different, potentially you stumbled upon one app for one reason and not the other, or you liked the design effect of what was essentially started to be a more national app, the Select app. That was its original purpose, its original intention, we think that there’s a way to marry all of those things together, that we’ve evolved our thinking as the Washington Post, our journalism has evolved, readers habits have evolved. We want to take the lessons and the things that work really well in both of the apps to build one core product that is truly first in class.
So I think that we’ll be able to take a lot of the sort of curation philosophy and the design philosophy and showing you both the breadth and the depth of the Washington Post into our core app. And you can see that in the classic app, which is the longest-running of the apps, that we’ve already started to make those changes. So what you’re experiencing today and what will be our flagship app is actually closer to what you had experienced in Rainbow or the Select app, as it’s formerly known.
At the end of the day, our audience doesn’t need two apps. They need one app that is best in class, there isn’t really a reason to split audiences. I’m not saying that there isn’t a reason to have multiple apps for some publishers. But for us, we really want to invest in making our flagship app the destination for you to come on your mobile phone, on your mobile product, on your mobile device. And we think that we can take lessons from experimenting at scale on both of the apps for many years now. And do that better in one place?
Salz: Coleen, I’ve lost track, how many products does the Washington Post have?
O’Lear: So many I’ve lost track. We have dozens of newsletters, we have two apps, within the classic app, you can also consume the print product. So if you really love the print paper, you can read it as print inside the classic app, that’s a good example. The print app was something that was a distinct app that you could also download. And maybe you had the print app, and you had the classic app. Well, from the classic app, you can also get to the print app, so we’re just really making that connective tissue between our products stronger, I think.
Salz: Excellent. And I will, of course, take you up on your offer, maybe as you’re further on into the unification process, what stays, what goes, what flies, what fails, to share some of that decision-making process. Let us walk inside your mind, your thinking. In the meantime, Coleen, thanks so much for sharing and for being on Digital Content Next today.
O’Lear: Thanks so much for having me.
Salz: And of course, thank you for tuning in, taking the time, more in this series about how media companies are taking charge of change in their business. In the meantime, be sure to check out DigitalContentNext.org for great content, including a companion post to this interview with Coleen or join the conversation on Twitter @DCNorg. Until next time, I’m Peggy Anne Salz for Digital Content Next.
Mobile is a massive opportunity only heightened during the pandemic as audiences turned to their smartphones for the comfort food of apps and entertainment. Significantly, though, throughout this period consumer tastes and appetites changed. Users had both the time and the desire to discover new apps and content, a dynamic that allowed many niche apps and content creators to gain mainstream appeal and profits. In some markets, it created a perfect storm of opportunity for hyperlocal news and entertainment that meets consumers where they are.
Continuing with our series of industry interviews [video below], I talk to Jani Pasha, Founder and CEO of Lokal, who is harnessing hyperlocal content in a play that has the potential to make it the NextDoor of India. With a model built on monetizing connections and transactions at the intersection of community, content, and commerce, Lokal is making the most of a booming opportunity.
The model is smart and replicable in other markets. However, Lokal also benefits from a seismic shift in the fabric of its addressable audience. For the first time, India now counts more Internet users in rural areas than cities. And rural users typically aren’t as interested in national and international news developments. Instead, they crave information about civic, political and social issues that impact their towns and villages.
But India isn’t the only country experiencing these shifts. The explosion in the number of Internet users, accelerated by the pandemic, reveals opportunities in regions such as Central and South America. While we might think that growth has slowed, in the last 12 months alone, the total number of Internet users globally has grown nearly 8% to reach 4.72 billion. That’s more than 60% of the world’s total population.
From silver surfers to app initiates, new users in these regions rely on mobile and apps as their personal lifeline for news and information (even education). They turn to them to make daily decisions about how they live and what they buy. Tapping that potential requires companies to micro-segment audiences and tailor content to the needs of towns and communities, not cities. It also helps to focus on fundamentals.
Understanding that new users are likely to be low on the learning curve, Pasha made a bet on voice that paid off. Bypassing bell-and-whistle tech features for a dead-simple interface like voice fast-tracked new users to frequent app use and interaction. Ease of use also increased trust in the app. And that trust allowed Lokal to acquire new users easily through the most effective advertising on the planet: word-of-mouth.
Voice also empowers every user to make a contribution. This enabled Lokal to grow its ecosystem at minimal cost. Users call in stories about developments in their local towns, creating the content that keeps other users engaged and loyal. They rely on the app to learn about offers and events nearby, sparking conversations that end in commerce conversions.
And this is where Lokal’s strategy to be a local content platform, not a content provider, makes business sense. By positioning itself as a super app — one that allows a user to access several services in one place — Lokal establishes itself as the trusted middleman in interactions and transactions. What’s more, Lokal drives in-app activities it can monetize. And let’s not forget that first-party data is gold.
In our interview, Pasha shares how Lokal is training creators to ensure its content is fresh, relevant and relatable for audiences who crave hyperlocal content on their terms. He also weighs in on the future technologies and opportunities local news apps and outlets everywhere should embrace to grow their revenue streams.
Peggy Anne Salz: The pandemic had a massive impact on local media. In the U.S. alone, more than 300 national newspapers closed their doors. Local newsrooms also shut down contributing to the growth in news deserts, that is, cities where people depend on one local news source, if any at all.
But one company is bucking the trend big time, Lokal, a hyperlocal news app in India is not just growing its user base, it’s also making money. It’s a new twist on monetization. And we get the inside track here on Digital Content Next. I’m your host, as always, Peggy Anne Salz, mobile analyst, content marketing consultant, and frequent contributor to DCN, which is a trade association serving the diverse needs of high-quality digital content companies globally. And in this series, we shine a light on the people pushing the envelope. That’s why I’m so excited to have Jani Pasha, Founder and CEO of Lokal. Welcome, first of all, to Digital Content Next, Jani.
Jani Pasha: Hi, Peggy. Nice to be here.
Salz: Absolutely. And coming to us from a very hot Bangalore today, I understand.
Pasha: Yeah, right. It’s very hot, actually.
Salz: So let’s start with Lokal. You have described it as a hyperlocal Tinder because it cuts out the middleman in finding a date or partner. But it’s also a news service. It’s much more than that. So tell me about Lokal and, above all, the user experience.
Pasha: Yeah, Peggy. So we are not just only the Tinder of that place. We do quite a lot. But I’ll tell you the backstory of how we started. So essentially, if you take India, it’s a very diverse country with 90% of its population living in tier-2, tier-3 cities, and towns of India. And these people, most of them, have not traveled further than their adjacent district, because it’s so diverse that with every 50 to 100-kilometre radius, your food habits change, cultures change, language change quite frequently.
So they are staying in those locations of their towns and cities generationally with their parents, grandparents, their homes, and businesses. So naturally, they’re so curious to know about what is happening around them. And there is one more factor that kicked in, in 2016, Jio, a mobile operator who has reduced the prices of internet drastically to make India the cheapest place for 1 GB data for you to use mobile internet.
So then we have this, all these 90% Indians who didn’t have access to internet previously suddenly had access to internet. But essentially, these users are new internet users who are not comfortable in English language. And so then what will they do with the internet, right? So Lokal is the platform which we started it as a platform to deliver hyperlocal content, which is extremely useful for them. And that is the gateway of how they’re adapting to the internet to use internet more usefully in their life. So today, if you take this 90% Indian audience who are new to internet, they are using internet prominently for entertainment, either to… You know, we used to have TikTok. We don’t have it anymore. It is banned by the government. So there are many TikTok parallels and YouTube and Facebook. And then they use WhatsApp for communication.
Apart from that, they can’t use internet meaningfully. And Lokal is actually being that platform giving them the content that they can use and that is of importance for them. Then naturally, making them use internet for multiple use cases. And as at a location, our density of usage increased. We evolved as a platform. So you rightly said we evolved as a Tinder, a place where people find other people to get married. It’s a place for businesses to advertise about their businesses to local community. It’s a place for businesses or people to actually sell their properties. And all this is happening in their native languages of Telugu, Tamil, and Kannada. We are expanding across the country. And we have seen because we have a lot of density in that location, users are adopting platform like crazy with more use cases coming up almost every day.
Salz: But, of course, internet penetration alone doesn’t spell the profits that you’re getting. Part of it is also the experience. You talked about ease of use. You talked about local languages. What are some of the innovations in the UX and UI design that contribute to your success? What does an app with local news need to look like and offer?
Pasha: Very interesting and relevant question, Peggy. So when you talk about these new users right, so all the smartphones have the keyboards in English language. So one challenge when we’re trying to build Lokal was how can you make the content creation easy on Lokal, especially that of text format.
Like, a lot of information about what are the vegetable prices in that location to what are the updates happening in that town, not everything can be captured on video. So they have to be typed. How can you make that easy? So, the first thing that we did, or we built was, making this creation easy, where the user will input the content by voice instead of typing. So they are using voice to actually create the content. And once we started doing that, we realized that creation with our voice is much more convenient than typing on a keyboard because you have to… It’s not natural, right?
Like humans, we speak to each other. So that’s a major shift, right? So if you go on a website today like on Amazon, you have multiple navigation. There are filters, there is sorting, there are multiple pages, multiple categories, but for an interaction, like the natural interaction for a shopkeeper in our location is to go and ask to a small retail shop owner that, “You know, what is the cost of this item? And how can I get it?” It’s natural voice-based input. In India, a lot of businesses are SMEs, sort of small and medium businesses unlike in U.S. where you have a Walmart. You go and then you select. It’s a voice-based communication. You ask, the shopkeeper goes and gets the information, and we’re replicating the same because the technology has caught up.
Salz:Interestingly enough, you were talking about how your audience is very focused on local content. I mean, hyperlocal is really hot in India right now. It’s fascinating that local newspapers, right, newspapers are growing at a double-digit rate. Now, you also have impressive growth results. Now, I’ve seen numbers growing 25% roughly month on month, that’s the last I’ve read, and that’s because of your monetization model. So one is the content, but it’s also a very smart approach to how you generate revenues. Tell me about that.
Pasha: We have built a playbook, via which we launch a location, and we get local content creators in that location to create content, which is very relevant to that community, very, very hyperlocal in nature. And then you get a density of users using the application. And once you have that critical mass of density at a location level, then it becomes a platform where everyone…like, everyone relevant started coming onto the platform, and then they start doing a lot of things, which are monetizable.
Even this is true for people in the West also. Newspapers used to be the place for everything, right, at a location level. You want to do real estate, you want to do jobs, classifieds. Everything used to happen on newspaper. Internet came in. All the small, small parts became large businesses, right? Craigslist, Airbnb, they’re all part of this local newspaper, right? Had these newspapers, you know, are technology-friendly or had they been…had they had that vision or foresight, they would have been the super applications that everything is happening on them.
It’s just that the news publishers migrated their digital publishing online, but they left the rest of the parts for others to pick. In India, we have that opportunity right now, where it’s a very new audience. Internet is being built for them in their native languages. And Lokal is trying to do that with our approach of delivering hyperlocal content. So we don’t consider ourselves as a local news platform. We consider ourselves as a local content platform. So that is the different approach that we are taking compared to newspapers, Peggy.
Salz:That is fascinating because you’re showing that there is a great deal of benefit to being a fast follower here. I mean, you have purposely… It sounds like you have thought this through, Jani. How to be a content platform, keep the social media, keep the connection for yourself and not give it over to the big tech giants or the big social media platforms. That’s the focus. That’s the essence of your strategy. How do you keep the momentum? Because, of course, you’re on a growth trajectory, all of India is on a growth trajectory. And high growth usually means high competition. And how are you keeping these large companies literally from eating your lunch?
Pasha: Our competitive advantage that comes in is based on how hyperlocal we are and how much our team understands the nuances of India, which is very difficult for a tech platform sitting in the U.S. or sitting in some other place to understand and build for it. And these are very new behaviors Peggy. So, as I told you, right, how does a business establish trust digitally? What happens on Amazon is that you go and list on Amazon their ratings, and those are the places how you do it. But how will it happen for a new internet use case, right?
For these very new people where the trust on internet is low, right? How will you do that? It’s a new challenge that we will solve probably for a small business to establish trust very quickly on our platform, and how they can do it. So it’s just that, the nuance, I would say. I would like to summarize that the nuance is very difficult for someone to understand. And hyperlocal in general, is a network effects business, right? You have large density using your platform for multiple use cases, someone coming and replacing it would be difficult.
Salz:It’s interesting that you started monetizing wishes. Tell me about that.
Pasha: It’s just crazy. We never expected all this to happen. We just thought we’re solving a problem of local content not available digitally. When we started creating content, people started coming. So that is the nuance. Like, in India, you have this behavior.
In the small town of India, especially in the southern part, this is very prominent, so that south Indian part, that if Peggy you were a friend of mine and I want to wish you a happy birthday, and I want to do this in a way that everyone in the community would know that I care for you, and we are actually close friends. And how will I do that? I used to either buy advertisement on newspaper with your photo, my photo coming and I’m wishing you happy birthday. Or I am sticking a big banner in the city or town center wishing you a happy birthday.
So the same behavior has been adopted on Lokal now, where the same people who used to do that are posting their wish, like I’m wishing Peggy happy birthday. So there is a standard template where your photo, my photo, will come and I’m broadcasting it to 10,000, 15,000 people in the town, the same purpose they wanted to accomplish previously, now, they’re accomplishing on Lokal. And they have that data to see also that how many people are actually looking at it. So this is being monetized on Lokal. And this is a very, very interesting, unique use case, Indian use case that we are monetizing. And we are seeing a lot more use cases coming like this, and we’re super excited for that.
Salz: You’re also speaking very much as the maker of a content platform. And, of course, a content platform needs creators, needs citizen journalists. It’s all local. So it’s probably very much just about empowering individuals at the local level to grow your business, how do you do that? How do you find them? Train them? How do you make it possible for them to contribute to your platform?
Pasha: The prominent content distribution platforms used to be newspapers like how it happened in the West also. And over the last three, four-, or five-decades time In India, large news publications, this content distribution platforms, have created a lot more content creators in these locations by training them, by informing them, by letting them know what is happening.
And most of these creators in this town used to work for this large distribution platforms like newspaper or television for free, most of them. Why? Because I told you, right, how important these small locations and communities are for these people.
So if I am a creator who can get the word out in a big distribution place like a largest newspaper, I get invites to events happening in the town. Anything big happening in the town, I get to know about it first. So I’m an influencer in that location. So then we have these influencers across India, hundreds of thousands of them. What we simply do is that we have this network of people. We have this digital crunch of hyperlocal content; we just connect them. And that is how we are getting this content.
Salz: You are more than a Nextdoor in India, you’re a content platform, news platform connecting, making business possible, helping merchants. And the reason I have you here today on Digital Content Next is because there are lessons here for publishers everywhere. What do they need to pay attention to if they want to succeed in hyperlocal news?
Pasha: My take is that technology is evolving very rapidly. Publishers should be open to work with new technology coming in. Like, Substack is a great platform where publishers are able to monetize their content. So there are a lot more innovation that is coming. So publishers should be thoughtful and be open to experimenting with these technology players because these new platforms are coming in. And with the creator economy coming in, I’m also very hopeful of how publishers becoming much more important than what they used to be before.
Salz:We started off by talking about the situation particularly in the U.S. where local news, local newsrooms, they are declining, there’s no question. What would be some advice to those that are there to say, “Here’s what you can do to up your game. Here’s what you can do to be sustainable and successful?”
Pasha: I think for small-level publishers, I think what is working for us is being hyperlocal and having a plan. And for us, it’s about figuring out that playbook of how you can get or make the things work at a location. So I think for publishers, especially individual publishers, I think hyperlocal play is going to work, with them also having…who are open to work with, new technology players, which essentially are tools and not platforms possibly.
So Substack is a tool for you to distribute your content. It’s a tool, right? And essentially, for payments, you can use a tool. So someone who is more open to work with these technology platforms and having hyperlocal focus would be able to build sustainable businesses. That is what our belief is. And I can’t compare clearly India to U.S., but in India, specifically, because of how the market is, the maturity of the user towards internet interest, it’s going to be very, very large play in India, especially the focus of hyperlocal.
Salz: So very, very much about being a platform, which is what you’re doing connecting people, connecting businesses, that’s what local content can do really well. The monetization model currently is about classifieds. What’s it going to be going forward as you try to be more and more a super app?
Pasha: So, yeah, Peggy, we are today connecting people, and monetizing on that for the sake of making money, for the sake of selling property, for the sake of improving…giving deals to people, small businesses advertising about their offerings. As the trust increases among these people, we would eventually go into a place where we will enable commerce as well. So that is what the plan is.
We will enable commerce. We will enable these local economies much more digitally. And we are a user-focused company, Peggy. So we have a creator who creates content, and we always think about how we can empower him or her, how can we make their lives easy. Similarly, we have businesses and how can we better help them to get more business. In that, the natural next step is to enable commerce on the platform to have additional revenue streams for them. So we will figure out how we will monetize. But we want to build that use case on our platform. It can be search, it can be something else, we’ll figure out. It’s too early right now. Probably in a year or two, I can tell you a lot more about it.
Salz: Great, Jani. And I think I’ll be back to hear it as well. Thanks so much for sharing your story at Lokal with me today.
Pasha: Thank you, Peggy. And nice talking to you too.
Salz:And thank you, of course, for tuning in and taking the time. More in this series about how media companies like Lokal are taking charge of change in their business. And in the meantime, be sure to check out digitalcontentnext.org for great content, including a companion post to this interview, and join the conversation on Twitter @DCNorg. Until next time for Digital Content Next, I’m Peggy Anne Salz.
Audiences are spending more time than ever consuming content. Still, even an explosion in digital subscriptions couldn’t prevent massive job cuts across the nation’s newsrooms. Any argument that closures hit companies that churned out poor quality journalism or fake news falls flat when looking at the data. Of the 10 newspapers that have earned Pulitzer Prizes for local reporting in the past decade, all but one were impacted by cuts in the last year.
Why is online news in a crisis? There are lots of theories. Many point to the impact of the Google/Facebook duopoly. The two behemoth companies gobble the bulk of ad revenue, leaving scraps for news organizations. Others suggest that the digital media industry itself is to blame. Ethan Zuckerman points to the “original sin” of building the entire Internet around advertising, putting algorithms, not audiences, in control.
New research confirms that media organizations need to do a critical rethink, but not just of the business model. It appears that media organizations are relying on a faulty content-creation and evaluation formula. The good news is that there’s plenty they can do to rethink storytelling to better engage and monetize audiences.
The findings, part of the Clwstwr Policy Brief project, reveal that audiences prefer “inclusive and reflective” storytelling models that help them understand and navigate their world. This, the research says, “challenges the perceived – and long-established journalistic principle – that the inverted pyramid model of news storytelling is the most efficient way to deliver news.”
The traditional approach for news — arranging facts in descending order of importance — lacks creativity and flexibility. What’s more, the research says this style alienates younger audiences that crave a “more thoughtful, considered and purposeful approach” to online news. They want it to reflect the reality of their lives, rather than industry norms.
Media organizations have an opportunity to rethink the way that they report the news. And, with new formats, they can encourage consumers to engage more actively with content.
Continuing with our series of video interviews, I talk to the lead author of the report, Shirish Kulkarni, an award-winning journalist and researcher. He makes a case for a complete rethink of news storytelling models. He shares the “seven building blocks” that successful news stories have in common. These include a linear narrative, personal context, and transparency about where the information comes from in the first place.
Kulkarni also walks us through the “narrative accordion,” a prototype model that gets high ranks from readers because it allows them to sort and skim through the key elements of a story on their terms. Finally, he discusses how news organizations can drive meaningful engagement and revenues by harnessing AI to “individualize” content at scale.
WATCH OR LISTEN TO THE FULL INTERVIEW
Peggy Anne Salz, Founder and Lead Analyst of Mobile Groove interviews Shirish Kulkarni, a researcher focused on identifying and prototyping innovative forms of news storytelling.
Peggy Anne Salz: Mainstream journalism is in crisis. Now we may think it’s due to a lack of trust or a lack of interest, but new research suggests people aren’t consuming news because the wrong stories are being told in the wrong way, by the wrong people. Now, new storytelling models, provocative prototypes, new building blocks.
They may offer the answer and we get the inside track on this and more today on Digital Content Next. I’m your host as always Peggy Anne Salz, mobile analyst, content marketing consultant, and frequent contributor to DCN. My guest today is an award-winning journalist and researcher, who’s going to share eye-opening results of his latest research project that goes to the core of what is broken in online journalism and how to fix it. Shirish Kulkarni welcome to Digital Content Next. It’s great to have you.
Shirish Kulkarni: Thank you very much. It’s great to be here.
Salz: Now you’ve got our attention with these results, the wrong people, doing the wrong thing, in the wrong way. That is something pretty provocative. You spent the last two years asking these fundamental questions about journalism, and now you’ve come up with a construct for a model of what you call reflective journalism. Now it’s not just, you. It’s had global impact. You’ve presented it at Reuters Institute, World Association of News Publishers, and many more. Tell us what is reflective journalism.
Kulkarni: Yeah. So I think we have…well, I have two reasons really, for calling it reflective journalism. Firstly, I think it’s important that we, as journalists, reflect on what journalism is for, right? What the needs of audience is rather than our organizations. Because that’s something that’s really been missing a lot in journalism. And we need to take the time. We’re in a crisis, as you said, and we need to take the time to stop and think, what are we doing wrong? What could we do better?
The second reason is that it also is super important that our industry is much more genuinely reflective of society. So, largely, if we’re talking about Western Europe or the U.S., this is a very homogeneous industry. And frankly, it’s driven largely by white, middle class, Metropolitan men, for the most part. And actually, when you think about it, that is a really small proportion of the population. And they don’t reflect, or frankly, understand the experiences, the day to day lives of most people in society. And as journalists, I think it’s our job to reflect what’s going on in society. And I don’t think as an industry, we’re actually structurally prepared to do that. So, two reasons for calling it reflective journalism, because we need to reflect both on the industry and also reflect society.
Salz: And it’s interesting Shirish because you’re making this point that. We need to reflect, and we’ve done that in a way you could even say we’ve been forced to reflect. Let’s put it that way. So we do know what is broken in principle at the core you’re stating it’s all about new forms of narrative. We need new forms of narrative. This is actually very good news because we know what is broken. We know how to fix it. And this is where your policy brief, your news storytelling, storytelling research hits upon the answer. You propose linear narratives. Now, how does this differ from what we’ve been doing? Because what we’ve been doing is the inverted pyramid style. So what makes linear better?
Kulkarni: It helps to start by thinking, why do we do the inverted pyramid, right? And actually, the kind of prosaic reason for that is because of the telegraph, the original news wire. But actually, the telegraph, when it was used widely, was expensive and unreliable. So people thought, let’s put all the important stuff right at the top, because then it’s cheaper. And if it drops out, then we haven’t lost too much of the important stuff, we’ve lost some of the boring stuff, right? So, technology has clearly moved on by about six generations since the telegraph. But largely, we are using those same habits and formulas, which come from the telegraph era. So that is strange in and of itself. So that’s why we use the inverted pyramid now. And actually, there’s not really a reason for it anymore.
When I talk about why writing linear stories is better, or producing stories of whatever kind, whether that’s text or whatever, in a linear format is better, we just go back to what are stories for? And stories are there for a kind of evolutionary, anthropological, there’s a neuroscientific basis for storytelling. They help us navigate the world. If you wanted to bring in kind of modern day techniques, they’re like a virtual reality simulator for the world. That’s what stories teach us. And I’d really recommend a book by Jonathan Gottschall, called “The Storytelling Animal.” And in that, there’s a really beautiful quote, where he says, “We are, as a species, addicted to story. Even when the body goes to sleep, the mind stays up all night, telling itself stories.”
And so, we know that to be true, right? But those stories aren’t told in inverted pyramid style. They’re told as a linear narrative. Starting at the beginning and ending at the end. And that is what we’re hardwired for as human beings. But as journalists, if we’re writing in an inverted pyramid style, we’re essentially going against what we’re hardwired for. We’re putting up a barrier between the storytelling and the engagement with a story, from the get go. And that, again, is not logical. It’s not rational. It doesn’t make any sense.
So actually, just on that kind of linear storytelling, we built a bunch of prototypes. But actually, what I was really interested in testing, for exactly the reasons you’re interested is, what if it was just linear storytelling, there’s no other formatting, would people find that interesting? So we did a prototype, which we just called kind of a plain text, dramatic prototype. And that was literally plain text, writing a story, sort of casting it quite badly, in my own opinion, because I wrote it, in a kind of three act dramatic structure, like we were just talking about. And the results from that were absolutely startling.
We tested it with more than 1300 people, against options of news which were currently available to them. And what we got the people to do was essentially, say whether they thought that it was more engaging, more informative, and more useful. And we created, I guess, a net approval rating. So on the kind of engaging axis, people have found just a plain text narrative more engaging than a BBC story, or an ITV story, or Sky News story here in the UK. The rating for that was plus 57, not 57%, plus 57, of the positives against the negatives. On informative, it was plus 41. And on useful, plus 37. So those are big, big numbers. And in some ways, you’d say for news organizations, they’re a no brainer, right? If you can, tomorrow, do something which is more engaging, more informative, and useful by big margins, just by essentially changing the structure of your story, why wouldn’t you do that?
Salz: Now we’ve had some companies here on Digital Content Next, they have been sharing what they’re doing and they are already taking a more modular approach to news and to storytelling. So there are companies moving in this direction. They understand that just by encouraging readers to skim, they’re not really driving engagement. And they have to do it in a different way. They need to break down the stories. How can news organizations further improve what they do to draw their audiences in? What is it that you’re telling them?
Kulkarni: So the very first thing is clearly thinking about what the audience, what citizens want, right? So when I was writing my prototypes, really, the first thing was to blank my brain. I’d tried to forget all the conventions of journalism, and ask myself the question, what do I actually need to know about this story to help me understand this? Rather than, what would a journalist normally write here? Because those two things are actually surprisingly different. And I think it’s where I think the kind of practice of journalism has become quite disengaged from the purpose of journalism. And as you say, there’s lots of hand wringing over, you know, people in newsrooms looking at analytics, when they are looking at analytics, and probably not enough people are sort of hand wringing over, well, people only spend 10 seconds on our page. Well, kind of, of course, they only spend 10 seconds on your page if you write an inverted pyramid style, where you’ve put in the headline, and in the first paragraph, something that looks like everything you need to know about that story. And then people think, well, actually, it gets more boring, and less interesting as I go down.
Now, actually, the truth is, it’s not everything you need to know about the story, because we all know, headlines don’t represent a story. They’re largely used as a sales technique. And the first paragraph often is a kind of one side of the story or just a really quick summary. But actually what people are telling us they want routinely, and not just me, in lots of research, they want more context around a story. What we tend to do is drop people into an on the day story, just on the day. And not everyone consumes news in the same way as journalists, right? They don’t read the news necessarily every day or every hour. We need to explain to them what’s led up to this point, and actually to some extent, what’s going to follow from this point. And so, actually providing all those things as a service, because yeah, journalism is a service, again, something which we forget. Then all those things are going to help people engage.
Salz: News as a service, you’re absolutely right here. And you’re also talking about what news organizations need to do to embrace the linear approach. Fortunately, it’s something they don’t have to do on their own because your research also shows that it’s really about collaborating, co-creating whatever you want to call it with AI to keep reader attention, as the story unfolds. Even determine the best starting points in the news. Ways to draw the audience in. So how does this collaboration working with AI? Look, what is the role of AI to get people to come into the story and stay?
Kulkarni: Lots of journalism organizations are using AI very well now, already. And so this is going to be the future of journalism. The next stage of journalism will be driven by automation and AI. So we have to be in that space. And I think the starting point is, look, right now online news is largely just newspaper articles put online, right? We’re not using, we’re not taking advantage of all the digital and technical storytelling tools that are available to us.
And I think what we’re seeing is that we should be in a post-article world, right? We can’t provide, or we shouldn’t be providing exactly the same article to everyone, right? We can’t be all things to all people. And where that leads to is personalization, essentially. That actually, we can provide news, information, in a way that is personalized to meet individual user’s needs in a really efficient way. So that might be, for example, I’m based in Wales, where we have quite a big immigrant community as well. If I’m a Chinese person living in West Wales, accessing BBC Wales’s news, wouldn’t it be interesting if I could access that in my first language, even though it’s news about Wales? That’s going to be more accessible to me. Working in that modular way, where we’re taking out a lot of interstitial language, we’re building short modules of information, which we’re putting together in different ways for different people. That, for example, takes out a lot of translation problems. It actually takes out a lot of inherent bias that exists within us as journalists. So it’s more accessible and more inclusive in that way.
So providing fact-based modules of journalism, that can be put together in different ways, by AI, to match the personalization preferences of users, citizens, audiences, has to be one big part of the future of journalism, I think.
Salz: That’s fascinating Shirish because we did start with personalization in news. It was about the categories asking audiences to choose the categories they wanted. Now it’s about personalization taking that personalization to a next level, a new level. And we agree it’s about the audience. It’s also about context, transparency, diverse perspectives.
Now these are the guiding principals, but it also comes down to the experience and that’s where your research also offers some answers. You’ve come up with ways to allow a different experience for different readers. The linear story is the concept, but you have accordions, timelines, videos. What can you tell us about the best on-ramp right now for organizations listening in, they want to know what is the best way to make the biggest difference in their stories and their metrics?
Kulkarni: The narrative accordion is really my favorite prototype. And actually, the favorite generally, with users. And what we’ve done here, essentially I’ve gone back to the basics and asked myself the question, what do I need to know about the story? What’s going to help me understand it? And I put these kind of expandable and collapsible questions, which means that people can either read them from top to bottom, so they make a linear story from top to bottom. Or if you’re interested in a particular question, such as, is this a green solution? I can go straight to that and check out the answer to that first, and navigate around exactly how I want it. Because what audiences really told us they wanted was some agency in storytelling. They wanted to be able to decide how they navigated the story. And we all understand that, don’t we? Like, when we go to find something out ourselves, we remember it better. We understand it better, because we feel like we’ve been part of that investigation process.
And as I say, the narrative accordion overall, in our testing, did really well. So basically, 75% and upwards, comparing the narrative accordion to options which are available to them in the general market, said it helped them understand the story better, and was more engaging.
Now, again, going back to the commercial needs or publishers, if you can do tomorrow, this doesn’t take a lot of kind of tooling or engineering, you could do tomorrow, something which more than 75% of people say helps them understand the story better, and is more engaging. Now, that, in a commercial sense, to me, is a no brainer, right? If you can do that tomorrow, why wouldn’t you?
Salz: That makes perfect sense. Absolutely. It’s a no-brainer and there’s no reason not to pursue that, but you’ve also found something else interesting in your research. You’ve found out that we are hard-wired, literally for the hero story or the heroine story. We want to have that arc of the story. Now, how can organizations apply that to journalism and still keep a credible balance? Because of course, drama can quickly become melodrama. It can become exaggeration very easily. So how do they approach this to give us the story? But again, also the engagement, because that’s the way of generating revenues.
Kulkarni: So, I see the tension, I’m all for kind of fact-based journalism, which sometimes, we get into kind of click bait stuff, which is about creating a particular kind of drama, right? When I’m talking about, this kind of hero, heroine story, it’s that fundamental evolutionary need for a particular kind of story, which you might describe as essentially, a fairy tale, is a great example of that. It’s why they’re so popular and successful. And that could be by just thinking about who are the characters in this. We don’t have to go off into kind of writing “non-objective,” but I’m going to put objective in quotation marks there, “non-objective” stories. What’s the sense of character, a resolution as well, because fairy stories always have a resolution. And new stories very rarely have a resolution. And actually, at that evolutionary level stories which don’t have a resolution leave us feeling uncomfortable.
So actually, that’s where we get into kind of news avoidance, because so much of our storytelling is inverted pyramid storytelling. Leaves us feeling uncomfortable and unresolved. So that’s a really important point as well.
Salz: So the answers here are context, narrative, linear narrative, AI, imagination, innovation, engagement, but achieving this, internalizing, this can take time, maybe even other talents. So what would you leave us with here? Give me a few steps news organizations can take right now to change the old habit.
Adopt the new model, adapt the new prototypes that you’re proposing such as the accordion, and also integrate AI more into this process. What can they do that they’re not already doing?
Kulkarni: When I started doing my research, I think people wanted me to come up with some kind of nonlinear gamified piece of storytelling, innovation, right? And I quickly realized that’s like putting a $100,000 kitchen in a house which doesn’t have a roof, right? We need to sort out the fundamentals. It’s journalism which is broken, and we need to fix that.
So, that comes down to understanding the user need, the audience need, remembering that journalism is for citizens, it’s for people. It’s not for journalists. So our audiences shouldn’t be other journalists. They should be what people really want from journalism. And so we need to listen to that research, not going with preconceived ideas of what we think journalism should be like in the future. We need to listen to what people actually want from journalism and then action that. And in terms of the storytelling, yeah, I think it’s using personalization, meeting people where they are, meeting their needs. And to do that, we need to leverage AI, essentially. Because to do that at scale, we need to use automation.
People want that information, they do want to understand the world, they do want to engage with it, but they’re feeling let down by journalism at the moment. So there’s repressed kind of need for that, which we can tap into. And actually, yeah, people are willing to pay for that if they get something which meets their needs. I talk about it in terms of, if you were working at Procter & Gamble or Unilever, and you never listened to your customers needs, you just carried on doing what you’ve always done without thinking about what you need to change, then you wouldn’t work at Procter & Gamble or Unilever for very long. But actually, in journalism, that’s what we do. We just carry on doing the same thing we always did, because we like doing it and we know how to do that. Regardless of the fact, we know people aren’t engaging with it or consuming it. So, there’s a really clear, hardnosed business model for doing storytelling better.
Salz: Shirish, I can’t thank you enough for sharing and, yes, for being exactly like your research, open, transparent, a bit provocative. It’s been great to have you.
Kulkarni: Thank you so much. It’s been a real pleasure.
Salz: Thank you. And of course, thank you for tuning in taking the time.
Of course, more coming in the series around how media companies are taking charge of changing their business and also increasing revenues. And in the meantime, be sure to check out digitalcontentnext.org for great content and including a companion post to this interview. And of course, join the conversation on Twitter at DCNorg until next time I’m Peggy Anne Salz signing off for Digital Content Next.
The demise of identifiers such as third-party cookies or Apple’s IDFA presents both challenges and opportunities for publishers. Some complain performance marketing will take a hit. This would force marketing teams to refocus on delivering product excellence and ditch bait-and-switch schemes that promised audiences better experiences than they delivered.
Others praise the advance of a more privacy-oriented approach to targeting that will finally prioritize consumer preference. They point to a “golden opportunity for a re-imagining of digital advertising.” Companies would reap the benefits of an ecosystem that isn’t tied to tracking a user’s every move, nor beholden to GAFA. Publishers who wisely embrace this worldview are also taking impressive steps to leverage their valuable direct relationships with audiences.
For some, including Vox Media, Condé Nast and, most recently, Penske Media, this means offering up their own first-party data directly to advertisers. For others, it means leaning further into digital subscriptions. Subscriptions offer publishers a proven monetization model in a post-pandemic environment that has seen digital advertising collapse and revenues driven by paid content rise through the roof.
But winning with a subscription model is hardly a walk in the park. This is more keenly felt at at time when marketing departments may need to spend more resources to collect and leverage customer data to clinch the sale
Driving conversions and convincing consumers to commit to a recurring cost for content demands publishers do their homework and innovate. They must build the capabilities to understand their audience, identify valuable users likely to take the plunge and define clear pricing (at the level subscribers are willing to pay). What’s more, they should muster the resources and resolve to develop, deliver and continually improve a great product that meets customer expectations.
Continuing with our series of video interviews, I talk to Sheri Bachstein, global head of IBM Watson Advertising and GM of The Weather Company. Bachstein has overseen a wildly successful pivot to paid as part of a larger move to diversify revenue at the IBM-owned property. Since launching a premium subscription offering just 18 months ago, The Weather Company counts nearly one million paid subscribers, a figure Bachstein says is seeing double-digit growth every quarter.
Bachstein shares her step-by-step journey to subscription success, including insights on tailoring the product to the consumer, targeting potential subscribers and building a winning customer service team. She also reveals her take on the future of advertising and a call to action for the media industry at large.
WATCH OR LISTEN TO THE FULL INTERVIEW
Peggy Anne Salz, Founder and Lead Analyst of Mobile Groove interviews Sheri Bachstein, global head of IBM Watson Advertising and GM of The Weather Company:
Peggy Anne Salz: Does it pay to pivot from an ad-supported model to subscriptions? Well, my guest gives us the inside track on the strategy that has allowed subscriptions to become the fastest growing line of revenue in the company. It’s impressive. And we’re going to spotlight some of the step’s publishers can follow to diversify their revenue streams. But first, of course, a bit about us. I’m Peggy Anne Salz, mobile analyst, tech consultant, frequent contributor to Digital Content Next, which as you know is a trade association serving the diverse needs of high-quality digital companies globally.
And now to my guest, she is the Global Head of IBM Watson Advertising and The Weather Company. And The Weather Company is an IBM Business. It offers the most accurate actionable weather data insights to millions of consumers via digital products that we’ll be hearing more about from The Weather Channel, weather.com, as well as Weather Underground. And previously, she was the global head of the consumer business there and was responsible for product management and design, content development, and global expansion across the organization on the weather’s owned and operated properties. So Sheri Bachstein, welcome to Digital Content Next. It’s great to have you here.
Sheri Bachstein: Hi, Peggy. How are you?
Salz: Good. And even better because we’re going to zero in on, I think the question of the hour, the pivot. It’s a time of transition, accelerated change, and you’ve made a move. And I think a lot of publishers are thinking about this move, which is diversifying your business model, specifically ad-supported to subscription, as I said. In a nutshell, why the pivot, Sheri?
Bachstein: So we just found that we want to continue diversifying revenue, it’s really just that simple. You know, to have a business and if you have a bulk of your revenue coming from one stream, that’s dangerous, especially in changing times. And so we started on a diversification path, actually several years ago. And really subscriptions was the next thing in that funnel of what we’re trying to do to diversify.
Salz: I said at the top, it has paid off. I know the numbers. Our viewers don’t. So why don’t you share some of those numbers that show just how subscriptions are evolving?
Bachstein: Yeah, so our subscription business launched about 18 months ago. So I think we’re still just starting, I like to say, because I think that’s a short period of time, and we’ve rolled it out on our apps. And actually, just next week, we’ll be rolling it out on our web platform as well. But in a very short time, we are approaching a major milestone with a million users that are subscribers to our business, and you know, it’s taken other publishers twice as long to reach that volume. So we’re really pleased with the number of subscribers that we’re getting. And then if you look like our quarter-to-quarter growth of subscribers, it continues to be in the double digits. So every quarter bringing on more subscribers.
Salz: That is amazing because this is a time where you’re asking someone to commit to a recurring cost. But it must be that way because they’ve gotten the value proposition or rather, they grasp your value proposition. How important is the product in this mix?
Bachstein: It’s extremely important. It’s the foundation of a subscription business, you know, the value exchange you have with the consumer, very important. With subscriptions, I feel that value strengthens. You actually have higher expectations as a subscriber. I know I do in my own personal apps that I subscribe to. You have a higher expectation. So it’s really important that the product live up to that expectation and that your customer service, very important as well, that you’re able to connect with those consumers if they do have a problem and resolve that very quickly. So the value exchange is very important, whether you’re doing a subscription business or you’re actually doing an ad-supported business.
Salz: I do want to get to those steps, step by step so that publishers can benefit or at least think of a roadmap that they can be following as they make this shift from ad-supported to subscription. But let’s take just a step at a different perspective, just zoom out a little bit because another big question is not just how do I get more value out of my customers, my users, my readers, my audience, but also, what are we doing right now? Because pretty soon the way we do this marketing is going to change very drastically. So from your perspective, what are some of the ways that this shift from cookies and identifiers and toward privacy-first might actually represent an opportunity for publishers because you have certainly grasped that?
Bachstein: So I do agree Google does plan to deprecate the cookie, and so that will go away. But really, I think as it relates to identifiers, identifiers is a really broad word because there’s a lot of ways to identify someone. It could be an email, a lot of different data points. I don’t necessarily see identifiers going away. What I do see is how we use those identifiers is what’s changing. So what’s happening is we’re moving from a society where we had consumers opt-out to a society where we’re having them now opt-in. So that gives them more choice, more transparency upfront, and really the decision of how they want to share their data.
Consumers should have control of their data. So again, we’re really moving into an opt-out society as it relates to advertising and targeting and giving consumers that choice.
Salz: What can you share about what has worked for you and what maybe other publishers need to get right? Because one thing you’ve done is, for example, really focused on getting the product, right, as you said, but there are other aspects of it.
Bachstein: So first, we did exhaustive customer research and listening. We asked our customers, one, “Would you pay for a weather app?” That’s first and foremost and what percentage would. And then secondly, “Okay, if you paid for it, what are the features that you would pay for? What is it that you want?” So we really listened to our customers. And that’s the part of the plan, the product plan came from that. Then we did testing, we did learning, and we kept improving. So a lot of testing went into what’s the right price, you know, to charge for a subscription app?
Again, asking the consumers, “How much would you pay for this feature? So when I think about what are three tips I could give to fellow publishers because I think us helping each other is really important to protect the open web. First takeaway for me is get rid of those perceived inconveniences for your customers.
So for my customers, those that start their day with us, end their day with us looking for weather, some of those customers, they just want to get into the app, find out what their weather is and move on to plan their day, mornings are very busy for a lot of people. And so they felt that ads clutter their experience that it was in their way, so we removed them in the premium experience. So that’s one tip.
The second tip, trusted human expertise is highly valuable. So how can you humanize the information that you’re giving? So for us, you see all this weather data, but how do you give context to that? How do you humanize that weather data for those that want more in-depth coverage?
And so we’re working on that, how to humanize that. And really the third thing is really around what you said before, the product.
Salz: That is really interesting, Sheri. I mean, I know it makes sense to ask the users. I wouldn’t say I would ask the user about the price, but that is surprising because I’ve also read a lot of research that we are actually more willing to pay a price that is higher than even, in many cases, the app developers, the companies themselves would charge. So it does make sense.
The humanizing of the information, now that is intriguing. Is that saying that you tap a team of writers, of journalists, of experts and trying to get that into the app? Because I think our publishers would be really interested in this at a time when, yes, we can automate a lot. And we’ll get to that in a moment. But this human part doesn’t seem to be something that you can automate or in any way streamline. This is roll up your sleeves, get down to work. How are you doing it?
Bachstein: Yeah. So for us, obviously, we’re unique in the weather space. But we do have some consumers that they want more information. So they want a meteorologist to explain, why is an outbreak of tornadoes actually happening? We actually are doing a test right now and we’re using Twitter to do the test where we had a meteorologist create a very short video that really explained how we forecast a tornado, what are the three elements that we look for in forecasting a tornado and describe it so people could see better like on a radar map those areas that may be under a tornado threat. And the response has been great. For those people who like to geek out on weather, they love having that extra information.
And news organizations could do it as well because you have journalists like yourself that have amazing expertise. And how do you take that story, just one level deeper, to really dig in with your consumers around more information that they might want? So almost, probably, getting into some debate, I would imagine, in the news world. So I think there’s ways to do that. But I think, for some, it might be easier than others. But you’re right, it’s something that’s unique. It’s not something I would say that can scale to millions. But if it’s a unique offering, someone’s really willing to pay for it, you could probably get a premium for that.
Salz: Exactly. And that’s the point because subscribers are the valuable users. They’re willing to pay. They’re worth customizing to. Interestingly enough, they also leave a very interesting data trail. They’re frequently engaging with the app or service. They show behavior patterns like no other. That’s why they are the valuable users. What are some early signs for you of a high-value user so that we can also help other publishers focus their efforts and investments?
Bachstein: So we are doing a couple things to really help target who are those consumers that want to be subscribers? One of the things that we’re doing is around propensity modeling. So who are those subscribers that really have an interest in a more premium experience? And so we’re looking at that, we’re using machine learning to do that. We didn’t do it in the early days. We kind of had this one blanket promotion that we did. And we learned a lot from it. Again, it’s that test and learn. And then we learned, “Well, we really need to just focus on these consumers that would be interested in this.”
Same thing that you do in advertising, right? The whole premise around understanding the consumer by the data that they share is so a brand can connect with the consumer. And that’s what publishers do, they bring the two together. So that same type of targeting information is important as you do a subscription business.
Salz: And you’ve leveraged AI to create a more compelling product as I understand it. What has actually worked for you? I mean, you’re lucky, you’re sitting on the source with your AI abilities within Watson, but what has worked for you?
Bachstein: So the propensity modeling I just spoke of, we’re just rolling that out so we can better target the right consumers so we’re not burdening people seeing our promotions who aren’t interested. So that improves the experience. But the other thing that we did is on the IBM Watson advertising side, which is the other part of my business, we’ve created ad-tech solutions rooted in Watson AI.
One of those solutions is a predictive real-time dynamic, creative solution. So I actually took that tech and used it on the publishing side, I’ve got to use my own products, to drive subscriptions. So what that really did was it enables you to create a lot of variations of an ad. So you put in a few images, call to action, and then using AI, it’ll target consumers differently based on what we can learn about them with the information that they share or their behaviors.
And it’s been an amazing tool for us. We actually did a test by using that ad tech. We got three times the number of subscribers than when we just did a normal promo doing it manually on our own.
And so it’s really been beneficial to use AI because you can put all of this data in there. It does the work for you and delivers amazing results. And frankly, we offer that ad-tech to everyone. Any publisher can use it, any DSP, SSP. So we are creating open ad-tech solutions that can drive business for a marketer or brand or it can help a publisher increase their subscription business or even their loyalty programs.
Salz: That is really interesting because dynamic. That’s the key here. It needs to adapt to the users. And actually, publishers need to adapt to this as well. So you’ve also called for industry-wide collaboration on privacy initiatives as we move into our cookieless future. Why is it important for publishers to be a part of those conversations?
Bachstein: It’s extremely important for actually everyone in the ad ecosystem, publishers and ad-tech providers, to be part of that conversation. What’s happening right now is you have about…we have two states. We have Virginia, we have California that have come up with their own privacy laws. There’s another 12 that are thinking about doing that by the end of the year. What happens is we get a patchwork of laws, really challenging for publishers. It’s not scalable to have different laws for different states. It’s really, really hard to be able to scale that and to do that.
And so, me along with many other publishers and leaders within this space, including the IAB, DCN, we are pushing for federal legislation so we can all be working from the same laws, the same rules. And then we have to clear up some of those rules as well. There’s a lot of gray areas when it comes to this. So let’s all be working on the same definitions of words. Very important that we’re all working together so we can become our consumer privacy focus. None of us are saying that we shouldn’t do that. We all think it’s a good idea. Let’s do it together in the right way, and let’s build some consistency across publishers so consumers know exactly what to expect.
Salz: Good point. I’m based in Europe where we’re still figuring out.
Bachstein: Yeah. But at least all of your countries got together and put it together, GDPR. There are still some gray areas, no doubt. But at least you guys took that step to do that, which is important.
Salz: What can help publishers better understand and even stop churn before it starts? So it’s about understanding subscriber behavior and reducing churn.
Bachstein: Yeah, so definitely two parts to any subscription business. There’s acquisition. I think consumers will say, “Well, I’ll try something once,” or, “I’m up to try something.” And certainly, you can give free trials. That’s been a technique that’s worked really well for us. But then the retention side, a really big part of the business. We’ve been fortunate to have retention as high as 75%, which is much higher than the industry. But it all comes down to the product. If you are delivering on the expectations that a subscriber has for your product, you will retain them.
And so, again, it’s really having a great strong product. We’re choosing to enhance the features and give them more as subscribers. So are we improving their experience? And so we found that to be really successful with retention. So we definitely pay attention to that. But I also feel customer service is important. When your subscribers have an issue, you have to respond to them. They are paying money out of their pocket and so they deserve to be listened to and to have their problems troubleshooted as quickly as you can. And so we definitely have made a big investment to focus on our subscribers to make sure that if they have issues that we are solving them for them very quickly.
Salz: You really do love a challenge in your job. What’s the hardest part of your job?
Bachstein: Oh, well, how much time do you have, Peggy? No. It’s funny, I think for every leader, you have to have a strong strategy. And it’s got to be a focused strategy. And then you have to stay focused on that strategy. That can be challenging sometimes because the world around you is changing. But if you really believe in that strategy, only working on that. Stop working on things that just don’t align to that. It’s very important, not only my business but all of IBM is doing that as well.
Salz: What do you see overall as the biggest opportunity on the horizon for publishers?
Bachstein: I absolutely think the biggest opportunity is the use of AI, especially in the ad-tech space. Using AI to really bring together the brands and the marketers with the consumers in a way that uses all different types of signals that doesn’t rely on the cookie is just a really big step forward. And one of the reasons I think so is because AI has the ability to predict. So the cookie only tells us what happens in the past. With AI, we can actually go forward, and we can predict, and we can forecast. And so being able to do that with AI is just, I think, a really great tool and it really has a bright future. I really feel it’s a transformational part of the industry. And really is a new tech that we need to embrace.
Salz: And to your point, I mean, advertising…which works, I’m not saying it’s broken, but through using cookies, identifiers, IDFA, we’re looking backward. And with AI, we’re going to be looking more forward, more predictive. So it does make a lot of sense to say that the opportunity is to understand what I may be doing, what I may be wanting, and to target that rather than maybe my past behavior.
Bachstein: That’s right. It’s all about a new technology, a new foundation or backbone to the ad industry, having it be AI instead of what we’ve been using in the past with cookies. It’s a way forward. I mean, advertising is not going away, but it is evolving. And we can be smarter, and we can use better technologies to connect consumers with our brands and marketers.
Salz: And speaking of connecting, Sheri, it was great to connect with you today. Thank you so much for sharing. How can people stay in touch with you if they want to maybe continue the conversation or understand a little bit more about tips, they can follow to move their app from ad-support to subscription?
Bachstein: Yes, reach out to me on LinkedIn. You can find me on LinkedIn. I’m happy to have a chat. And I’d love to just know what other companies are doing as well and how can we collaborate and work together?
Salz: Absolutely. Well, thank you. And thank you for tuning in. More to come of course in the series. And in the meantime, be sure to check out all the great content, including a companion post to this interview at digitalcontentnext.org and join the lively conversation on Twitter at DCNOrg. Until next time, this is Peggy Anne Salz for Digital Content Next.
As McKinsey reminds us, great products result when companies build bridges between technology innovation and audience preference. It is critical to deliver a holistic experience across functions and every stage of the customer journey. In media, aligning teams to develop data-informed products that engage audiences is more than a pathway to excellence. It’s essential for survival.
However, it can also be expensive to support. The record number of newsroom closures in 2020 offers unsettling proof that quality content cannot be the only draw. Organizations need to combine content and experience in new ways that decrease friction, increase satisfaction, and adapt to how consumers want to interact and where they are in the journey.
Continuing with our series of DCN video interviews, I talk to Millie Tran, chief product officer at The Texas Tribune. A local news success story, the Texas Tribune has built a sustainable business, employing more than 60 journalists through a range of revenue sources, including thousands of paying members.
Drawing from her experience at the Tribune, as well as The New York Times and Buzzfeed, Tran shares how the Tribune aligns editorial with the back-end processes to adapt content and coverage to what most readers find most useful. She also reveals how her team harnesses audience data and innovative news modules and visualizations to drive a 2x increase in homepage views and keep readers coming back.
Watch the video or read the full transcript below.
Peggy Anne Salz: Product is the new marketing, but it’s not a new focus. It is gaining new significance as content companies’ perfect ways to draw from their data, to customize content and measure the results. But what are the business benefits? How can you individualize flagship products to drive views and longer sessions? How should you focus efforts and investments? Tough questions, yes, but we get the inside track here today from The Texas Tribune on Digital Content Next.
I am your host, Peggy Anne Salz, mobile analyst, content marketing consultant and frequent contributor to Digital Content Next. Of course, DCN is a trade association serving the diverse needs of high-quality digital content companies globally.
So my guest today is the chief product officer of The Texas Tribune. So it is a perfect match with our topic. That is where she leads audience, engineering, data, design, marketing, and communications and loyalty teams. Before this, she was deputy off-platform editor at The New York Times and before that global growth editor.
I am so excited to have her here today to talk about how she creates a holistic and successful product. Millie Tran, welcome to Digital Content Next. Great to have you here.
Millie Tran: Thanks for having me Peggy. I am excited to talk.
Peggy: It is a great topic. Product is so important, and I would like to start by understanding the alignment between product and the newsroom.
So, just thinking about your day-to-day routines, strategically and in practice, what does that look like?
Tran: I love this question. You know product can feel really opaque. I think traditionally we think of product as sitting in the center. But at a news organization, the news is the product.
So that alignment between product and the newsroom really manifests in the alignment with me and our editorial director Stacy-Marie Ishmael. I would say we are constantly in communication. And one of our core functions in each of our roles is just making decisions, making a call under conditions of uncertainty, conflict, complexity and increasing and sometimes unknown interdependencies.
We make a decision over here it can affect two things over there. And we are in a process of constantly anticipating those downstream effects so we can make the smartest decision based on our strategy. The balance between editorial decisions, product decisions and revenue decisions.
How I see my job. I think it is a mix of people, process and product. And I think it has to be in that order. It has to be that you understand people, their roles, their jobs, their skills, to work together most efficiently and effectively to build that product.
Salz: I love that because first of all you have people first, that resonates with me and you are thinking about not just the output, not just the articles, videos, podcasts, whatever it needs to be. You are focused on an experience. What you yourself have called a more holistic product. I would like to understand what you mean by that. I think you have also tweeted about that as well.
Tran: Probably. Speaking of tweets, I was just reminded of this tweet that Margaret Sullivan shared the other day about how she is a big fan and supporter of local news. But the websites are so horrendous, and I think that neatly ties up with what you are asking. Holistic to me means the whole experience. All of those things you mentioned, those modules, articles, videos, podcasts. There are micro experiences to each of those things, but all of those add up to the overall user experience.
When I say holistic user experience, I also mean not just the engineering, not just the CMS, it is also the design. It is also the way we write headlines, for example. So it is organizationally something we want to provide our users. I know even the ads we consider putting on our website, are not random ads that are offensive and distracting to the journalism. If you go to our website, you will see right now the ads are very relevant to someone interested in Texas, for example.
Salz: That is very important because relevancy, as you said, it is the entire experience, and it has to fit together. What are the systems I am even interacting with or working with in the first place? It goes far beyond CMS is what I’m hearing.
Tran: It is, and I would say we have a great tech setup here, our CMS is homemade, so that is our engineering team’s biggest product, and that powers our website. We have our data visuals team who are doing one off projects that we can test and learn from.
So we have a way to experiment with new products and a nice process to build it into the broader systems to make it easier. It is this nice feedback loop of experimenting, learning, and then integrating it into how we just do our work.
So our journalists and editors can also make these things easily because that also informs the work product at the end.
Salz: I want to get back to the whole idea of delivering a product, a product is the new marketing. We said that at the top and it is a success when it either acquires audiences or deepens the connection with existing ones. What is it at The Texas Tribune? What is your audience approach? Is it acquisition or retention or maybe, something else?
Tran: That is a great question. I think it has to be both acquisition and retention.
One of our big strategic priorities right now is double and diversify. Doubling our audience and making our audience reflect Texas, be more representative of Texas.
I often think about our membership. We want to grow the number of people who are supporting us through small dollar donations. The way to increase the members is to either have more people come to your site and then you have this natural conversion flow.
A percentage of our total readers are members so there is this natural conversion flow already. So you get more members by increasing the number of people who come to you or you increase the effectiveness of converting them. So at every point, do they come back, do they potentially sign up for a newsletter? We have seen that newsletters are our most effective channel in membership conversion. So: getting a reader to donate to us. I think it is about putting both of those things into a framework that helps you understand the costs and benefits of each at every point.
So, I think it is about having all the data, putting it in a model and framework that helps you balance all of these things. I don’t think you can just choose one or the other. Having that broad view will help you make better decisions.
I said that is a quantitative framework and to loop back to what you said about product is the new marketing. I think people subscribe to things. They support organizations, they support brands for reasons that we can’t always quantify. It is really important also to understand the emotional connection that someone has to your product and your organization, your brand.
I think in addition to having that quantitative framework, you need a way to understand why people are supporting you. I think that goes back to an organization’s mission and values.
Something that I am really proud that we do is have our journalism free to publish for kind of any news organization.
When you support us, you support Texas overall having a better news ecosystem. I think people, that resonates with people. I think understanding that resonates with people is really important, even if you cannot quantify it in that model I just talked about. To your question it is balancing the acquisition and retention, but also balancing the measurables and immeasurables.
Salz: I like that because that is exactly it, it is very holistic. It is about looking at what you can measure, and we will talk about that in a moment.
There are events, there are metrics, there are things you want to optimize too, but you also want to optimize the experience. That is thinking about the people, the audience, what resonates with them, what did they appreciate?
Now I would love for you to unpack that. Maybe you can give an example, walk us through the homepage because that is where the conversions happen. That is where the conversations happen.
Tran: Yes, so let me just pull up my homepage for you. This is The Texas Tribune homepage. There are two things on here already that I can talk through that we just launched within the past year during my time at the Tribune.
So this navbar is something we launched and what you’re seeing here, by the way, these little green numbers are live audience data. We use Parse.ly for this so we can see in the last 10 minutes or whatever time period, what people are clicking on. We can see what is of interest, what is resonating with people, that will inform, not necessarily decide, what we choose to feature.
Going back to what I was saying, about our two teams, the data visuals team, which is in the newsroom and then the engineering team. This navbar was code that was in a previous, I think it was in an election page, a way for us to highlight different topics on that page. We ended up pulling that code and the engineering team made it a part of our core CMS.
So we took something that was a one-off, we learned about how people used it and then saw a need for it. There are so many coronavirus stories that we did not know how to surface all the different lines and angles. We knew that we had the code. We took it and then the engineering team built that feature into our CMS. Now editors can just choose their own topics each day and highlight the most important. I think that is a great example of the culture of experimentation, it is a culture of learning and iterating.
When the most people are on our homepage, we want to optimize for the most important things that they should see.
That was one quick way that we did that. Another way is this coronavirus in Texas model you will see here.
I think the beauty in all of this again, is the flexibility and adaptability. It’s actually not a coronavirus in Texas model. It is a model to feature any kind of series that we choose.
You can imagine this not being here. If you are scrolling through, it would take so long to see all the relevant stories in one place. This in itself is such a great product because it does a lot of things. It gives you the latest coverage in a very skimmable way. So you are not having to scroll so deep because most people don’t, and again, that is understanding the audience behavior and making it a better product, given that information. We also have feature coverage, so it is not just chronological, it is our editorial priorities.
I talked about newsletter subscribers and having that module there is really important to us because if we can get people to subscribe to our newsletters, they can become part of our email universe and therefore eventually hopefully become a member.
Salz: Absolutely. You can re-engage with them and talking about engagement you have some other modules that you were showing me in prep that I was very interested in. How you turned a news story into a module. Can you walk me through that as well?
Tran: Yes, absolutely. This is a story that we did, late last year about how Texas has made it easier and harder for people to vote in the pandemic.
You will see if you notice the order here. This was not the original order and what we did was make sure that we were tracking what people were clicking on, so we can get a sense of what people needed to know most. We ended up moving that question about when was the last day to register to vote first. And again, I think that’s just being responsive to reader needs, working with our newsroom, working with our engineering team, working with our data visuals team to really have an integrated news driven, but reader informed product. And you’ll also see here there’s fiscal support, right?
So April Hinkle who’s our chief revenue officer was able to take it to market and get funding for it. Again, this is just one way that we really tied in, the newsroom, product and revenue.
Salz: You more than doubled your views to the homepage in just one month.
So you went from 400,000 in February to more than a million in March, obviously breaking news, very important. We’re all talking about COVID, but that number is also consistent. So you keep them coming back. We talked about how that works when there’s news, breaking news, but of course it’s not a static world out there.
So I’d like to understand how you adjust to make the changes in the editorial product accordingly to keep that number as high as it is.
Tran: We found that our readers who visit the homepage are just also more engaged with us, right? They’re more loyal. They visit an average of 2.3 pages versus 1.4 of all visitors on site. They stay on the site for longer to 2 minutes, 45 seconds compared to 1 minute and 10 seconds for all visitors.
So they are more engaged. They’re reading more, they’re staying longer. So I really want to retain this audience. If this goes down, that would be a huge red flag to me because there are people who have come to, I would say, depend on us.
So I think it’s one, meeting that editorial promise and mission. And then two, it’s about making that experience better. And that’s all the things we talked through about making the homepage, you get more information in one glance, it’s fast. Speed matters in page loads.
And going back to your very first question about alignment between news and products, that’s one way to bring together that news promise and also making the best product experience for that person looking for information.
Salz: Of course, there’s another side to this. There are the challenges, you see it everywhere. Local newsrooms are crunched, even closing down. I’d like to have an understanding about the investment and staffing necessary to achieve what you’ve been able to do.
Tran: I’ll always say that it begins like starts and ends with the journalism, but I think just as important is having the kind of architecture and infrastructure to support that journalism.
So I think it’s really important to invest just as much in the scaffolding around the journalism to enable that journalism, with a continued focus on the reader and I think it’s important to say also the revenue.
And in terms of investment, we’re hiring two people right now for our marketing team because that marketing function actually serves several parts of the organization.
It serves our republishing strategy. It serves our event strategy, which has a direct line to revenue. And it serves our membership strategy, which has a line to revenue. Thinking about all the things that make things you see at the back end possible is really important. So that’s where we’re focusing our investments for this year.
Salz: I’d like to just think about going forward in a different way. You talk about holistic product and I’m looking at this all the time, what is the next big thing? Although I have to say we have a lot of work to do on the existing products we have.
We haven’t really nailed it in apps, but we are talking about AR, we are talking about voice, both are poised for explosive growth.
So let’s talk about what other innovations you might be looking at or ways you want to make your product or plan to make your product more engaging, more accessible, and increase of course engagement retention in the process. What’s on the horizon?
Tran: You mentioned AR, that’s definitely not in my roadmap. But voice on the other hand, that is more plausible.
With voice for example we have a pretty robust suite of audio products already. We just rebooted Point of Order which is our podcast with our CEO, Evan Smith ahead of The Texas Legislature being in session again. So I think it’s about aligning what we have currently to build off on and then really sizing the opportunity for us. Again, I’m really laser focused on understanding the ROI of every investment, predicting and modeling the outcomes of that. And I think in doing that you’re balancing high risk with high reward. And I think not everything will fall into that. But you also don’t want to limit yourself in not taking those risks. So anyway, to your actual question… I’m thinking about all of it and hoping that we can make the smartest decisions that aligns with our strategy, with the information we have.
Salz: I think you will, because of course you have these very specific guidelines. You’re thinking about people, you’re thinking about process, and you’re aligning to create a holistic experience. Some of these will play a role. Some of them, of course, maybe not. But all of it will be very interesting to watch as it goes forward.
Thank you so much for sharing Millie, for speaking about what you’re doing at The Texas Tribune, showing it as well in your homepage and giving us a little peek into where your thinking is going into the future. Thanks again for being on.
Tran: Thank you so much Peggy. This was great.
Salz: Thank you. And of course, thank you for tuning in and taking the time today. In the meantime, of course, be sure to check out all the great content here on digitalcontentnext.org or join the conversation on Twitter @DCNorg.
So until next time, I’m your host Peggy Anne Salz signing off for Digital Content Next.
The proliferation of on-demand platforms and services combine to drive what Nielsen calls “the most profound media disruption of the last half-century.” Record-high audience numbers and time spent using streaming services and apps add up to make 2020 the biggest year yet for streaming.
But the real growth could be in serving culturally relevant content to underserved audiences such as Hispanics, which now make up nearly 20% of the current U.S. population. It’s a demographic that demands balanced content and appreciates diverse views and voices. It’s also an audience of cord-cutters that uses streaming services, smartphones and apps. During March, Hispanics increased their weekly viewing of movies or TV shows using a streaming service by “about 8 hours.” That’s well above the numbers reported by non-Hispanics.
It will be a stretch for many mainstream content companies to bulk up on content and capabilities to cater to this mobile-first audience with culturally relevant content. But not all companies will be in catch-up mode in 2021. Vix, a free Spanish-language ad-supported video-on-demand streaming service (AVOD) company founded in 2016, has a significant head start.
Inside Vix’s success
The move to acquire Pongalo, a market-leading Hispanic AVOD, in August 2019, has established Vix as the largest Latino AVOD player in the world, growing its audience more than 10x. Today, Vix, backed by Discovery Communications and HarbourVest Capital, creates, acquires, and distributes Hispanic-focused content to audiences in the U.S., Latin America and across the globe. It counts over 20,000 hours of Latino-focused films and TV shows.
Blockbuster and premium content is a crowd-pleaser. But it’s the company’s social media footprint, which includes 100 million Facebook followers, that keeps audiences engaged. Importantly, social media is also the motor that drives customer acquisition and allows a modest 50-person ad sales team to achieve ambitious growth targets and expand efforts to Brazil.
The company has also grown the number of partnerships (Amazon, Google and Roku). The top-ranked app (the #1 most downloaded entertainment app on Android devices in Mexico ahead of Netflix) recently became a top-five free film and TV streaming app on Roku in the U.S. Vix is the first-ever free streaming app to hit that benchmark.
Continuing our series of DCN video interviews, I talk to Rich Hull, formerly the CEO of Pongalo. Hull, now the Head of Streaming Platforms and Chief Strategy Officer at Vix, received Variety’s Dealmaker of the Year honors for his part in architecting one of the most significant media deals of 2019. He is also instrumental in growing Vix’s platforms and partners.
In this interview, we discuss why all media companies must acknowledge the demographic revolution and the requirement to serve up culturally relevant content to 60 million Hispanics in the U.S. alone. We also debate the future of streaming, the role of personalization and the business benefit at the “collision of advertising, international and content.”
Here are three key takeaways from our talk:
Drive discoverability through platform diversity
U.S. Hispanics are ahead of the curve when it comes to digital. They lead in the adoption of new devices and services. And they are the power users of mobile and over-index in video consumption.
To keep pace with consumers and cater to a growing and global audience for Spanish language content, Vix has maintained a mobile-first approach. It’s all about choice and letting consumers decide for themselves how they want to consume our content, Hull says.
To date, Vix is available on multiple platforms including Apple TV, Fire TV, Roku and connected TV devices from Samsung and Vizio. “We’ve put ourselves there so that they can discover us.” Following this strategy has allowed Vix to “punch above its weight” and leverage partnerships to build scale. Amazon counts Vix as its biggest supplier of Hispanic content, Hulls says. It’s more than an accolade. It’s also an inroad to Amazon’s Alexa, a platform Hull says is important for his company – and many others – to extend the brand and win new audiences.
Tap social media to fuel your audience growth flywheel
Social media presence boosts awareness and buzz. But there’s no reason to stop there. Vix has tapped its community to create a new kind of funnel, Hull says. The audience of 100 million Facebook followers alone is one that Vix cultivates and activates with content. “It’s a really massive audience that we can speak to and it’s a very powerful megaphone that we have,” he explains.
At a high level, Vix works with major brands to create content and branded entertainment to amplify key messages and recruit audiences. “So we’ll do things like say: Here are the top five J-Lo movies ever made and, as it turns out, we’ve got two of them, so click here to install our streaming service.’” The outcome, he says, is a “very elegant way to drive people down the funnel.” It’s also helping Vix increase organic reach and reduce dependence on Facebook or Google or Apple search ads to target audiences.
Engage consumers by making free content the “front porch” of your offer
In the search to find the right mix between subscription models and advertising companies, Hull says companies should widen the aperture of how they view the potential of free content supported by advertising. He points to the example of NBCUniversal. Rather than compete head-on with Disney, AT&T’s WarnerMedia and others that have launched subscription-based on-demand services to compete (or at least catch up) with Netflix, NBC has launched a free, ad-supported service. Free doesn’t just bolster audience numbers, he says, “As the space evolves, where [streaming] is monetized with ads, it is also becoming a better user experience.”
In addition to challenging the viability of locking content behind a subscription wall, Hull also debunks the myth that original content is the way to win audiences. Granted, Game of Thrones and original content has paid dividends for Netflix, but it’s a competitive space where smaller players can go broke fast. Instead, Hull advises companies to keep content free, and bottom lines in the lack, by curating quality content, not creating it. “For us, it’s about volume and choice,” he says. The value is in curating content in a “very authentic way.”
The subscription model is not new, but it has taken on a new significance. Over the past seven years, revenue for all subscription companies – from software to healthcare – grew by 321% on average. In the case of apps, this positive trend was bolstered by a 32% year-over-year increase in the number of users who sign up for a subscription after installing an app.
However, these record increases may be short-lived. Already aggregate data from subscription technology platforms shows monthly subscription rates for digital news has declined from 3x the average (over the previous 12 months) in March to 2.4x in April. Growth rates, despite signs of slowing, still outpace pre-pandemic rates by a healthy margin. But there are other developments publishers need to watch.
“News fatigue is [also] setting in, and the short-term and long-term economic impact of the crisis is likely to be profound,” warns the Reuters Digital News Report 2020. It combines insights about digital news consumption and the survey results of 80,000 online news consumers in 40 markets to highlight the factors “likely to accelerate long-term structural changes towards a more digital, more mobile, and more platform-dominated media environment.”
Move to a retention-first model
As advertising budgets are slashed and a recession looms, content companies have two choices. They can persuade more people to pay directly or they can find ways to keep their existing subscribers.
It’s not a toss-up. Seminal research reminds us that it can cost five to 25 times more to attract a new customer than retain an existing one. The Financial Times sums it up in cost savings. Drawing from internal research, the FT concludes that “it is four to five times cheaper to retain an existing user than to acquire a new one.”
The task of keeping customers active and interested turns up the pressure on media companies to adopt a retention-first mindset. That starts with understanding who your customers are and then investigating the “why” of what motivates your audiences to interact with your content and keep coming back. That is where marketers need a retention framework that will allow them to develop a more nuanced view of customer engagement and stop churn before it starts. (I’ve written here on DCN about a new Engagement Pyramid model, also known as AIC. But you should choose the model that is right for your company and your audience.)
To help companies as they architect strategies to cash in on the “corona bump” and maintain robust subscriber numbers, I draw from two standout interviews with retention marketers and app publishers featured on Retention Masterclass, the video podcast series I co-host with fellow Forbes Senior Writer John Koetsier.
Build a “radically superior” product
Marketers who want consumers to commit to a recurring cost need to offer a product worth paying for in the first place. But they should also be prepared to “burn some boats” to get there. This was the advice offered by Nick Hobbs, an ex-Google manager who is driving a phase change in thinking around how to design and grow a subscription news product. Today he is the founder and CEO of Brief, a news app aimed at GenZ and Millennials and doubling its subscriber base every month. He told Retention Masterclass this growth is fueled by his determination to build a “radically superior” product.
“It can’t be the same product with a new coat of paint,” Hobbs says. It also can’t be a product that is a little bit better than the rest. “It has to be fundamentally a completely different experience that’s vastly superior to what came before it.”
One terrific example of a company taking this approach is Spotify, which does more than distribute music tracks. They offer an emotional soundtrack that delivers what audiences want and need. More importantly, Spotify has built a business model on access, not ownership. “Gen Z doesn’t want to buy things anymore,” Hobbs explains. “They want access and they want services.”
Accordingly, Brief is a customized news service produced by human journalists and algorithms. Rather than offering audiences endless news to scroll, or a lot of options to personalize their feed, Brief focuses on curation. “Instead of trying to feed you more content, we’re trying to give you less.” The takeaway: When “product is the new marketing,” enabling a better experience is essential to achieve high subscriber numbers and strong retention rates.
Keep it fresh with “situational” communications
Push notifications are growing up. And content companies are getting smarter about ways to deliver them. I’ve written that organizations, including ABC News, get high marks for strategies that use push and other communications channels to power personalized news experiences.
However, while push notifications can be incredibly useful, they can also be noisy. Christian Eckhardt, CEO and co-founder of full-stack mobile marketing and tech consultancy Customlytics, called out companies for using push to alert users of every mundane activity. It’s a practice sure to backfire, Eckhardt told Retention Masterclass.
Push is part of product
Companies have to shift from attempting personalized push (which no company has mastered) to delivering more “situational” communications, Eckhardt says.This approach to communications is shaped by real-time analytics to “continuously improve the messaging, determine what is working and do more of it.”
So: Is push related to mobile CRM or marketing? “If done right,” Eckhardt explains, “it’s probably more part of product than it is of marketing.” Ultimately, push is a great asset for driving retention and engagement. Harness analytics to customize messaging to the situation in which users find themselves in your product.
What my conversations with Hobbs and Eckhardt demonstrate is that whether you are looking to add subscribers or retain them, the power of the product can not be underestimated. And, as we see that retention needs to be top of mind in any subscription model. And, again, product takes the front seat.
The explosive growth of subscriptions for content online and in-app is a clear confirmation that users are willing to pay a monthly fee provided the value exchange is on the money. These days, a me-too product may help you attract new subscribers. But it’s the ability to offer a consistently excellent experience – informed by analytics and customized to audience activity – that builds relationships to last.
There’s no precedent for holiday shopping this year. It could be muted, or it could be massive. If data from the 2008 financial crisis is a guide, then holiday shopping is likely to stay the course. Back then, consumers reported they would spend 29% less for the holidays. As it turned out, retail in the U.S. dipped just 4.7% as compared to the year before.
Still, with so many variables and unknowns, we can only be sure of one outcome: This will be a holiday season unlike any other. The impact of the pandemic is profound. But mandatory lockdowns and self-isolation have accelerated a number of digital trends, including ecommerce. It has also opened opportunities for ecommerce marketplaces and mobile apps.
In particular, mobile shopping is set to skyrocket. App store intelligence provider App Annie estimates U.S. consumers will spend more than 1 billion hours on shopping apps on Android devices alone. That’s a 50% increase from the same time last year. App Annie is convinced this year will be the biggest year for shopping apps yet. The ecommerce explosion is good news for brands and businesses. However, content will be a critical component for companies that want to clinch the sale. In particular, they will need content that drives upper-funnel awareness and deeper-funnel engagement.
While most content companies today have a mobile app, they need to raise the bar by better integrating content into commerce. Serving the pandemic era shopper means being nimble and adaptable,
Today’s consumers want experiential content that brightens dreary days and drives meaningful connection. Here are two strategies content companies should consider as they prepare to be ecommerce-ready for the holidays.
#1 Refocus your approach to mobile development
Mobile is a stage in the customer journey where content companies can make a huge impression, provided they position their media properties and assets to be a growth driver for retail businesses.Today, more than ever, that means being able to iterate your mobile app at the speed of change.
Mobile and apps have combined to become the “the central nervous system of our connected lives,” according to App Annie’s State of Mobile 2020 report. Ease of use, convenience and personalization are driving a surge in shopping-app use and downloads. They are also factors fueling a massive increase in new shopping app releases.
The race to be app-optimized in time for the holidays is one even industry laggards can win thanks to the evolution of low-code solutions. At its core, low-code allows companies to fast-track mobile app development allowing companies to cut development time by “an average of 50%,” according to Samir Addamine, Founder and President of low-code platform provider FollowAnalytics.
But it’s not enough to deliver content that supports shoppers every step of the journey. It’s critical to embrace what Addamine calls an “always-on innovation” mindset. This means relying on low-code to “surface the same experience as the website and leverage mobile capabilities such as push notification, augmented reality and geolocation.”
Even better if the outcome is an app experience that anticipates, not just answers, shopper requirements. Because of their intimate audience understanding, and first-party data, content companies are uniquely able to deliver on this.
Aspiring to this level of integration is a must for companies seeking to add or enhance their commerce experience. From advice and assistance based on location, to chat dialogs that infuse messaging with a personal touch, apps are evolving because they must.
The pandemic has accelerated this dynamic, creating a “forcing function” that pushes audiences to apps for all their needs. It also turns up the pressure on content companies to evolve a full-funnel strategy, powered by feature-rich apps, to meet ever-evolving customer requirements.
#2 Prepare now to enable “content-enhanced commerce”
Content companies can win big if they position themselves to deliver what I call “content-enhanced commerce” to consumers online and in-app. In this scenario, content companies do more than offer advertising space or craft native advertising. They forge partnerships and harness platforms (including their own) to deliver commerce-complementary content, relevant messaging, and riveting storytelling.
The concept of content-enhanced commerce is in its infancy. However, it draws inspiration from a mature and massively successful model: home shopping. Thanks to mobile devices, chat apps and live streaming, this reboot makes ecommerce a two-way conversation. Hosts, brands, companies and consumers connect in real-time. And that authentic engagement makes this model unstoppable.
While technology is a must, the right content clinches the sale. This means priming audiences with expert reviews, entertaining hosts, and exciting approaches to drive content and product discovery. If it sounds like heavy lifting, then consider the enormous market potential. In China alone – a mobile-focused country where shoppable live streaming got its start – sales revenues reached $63 billion in 2019.
Elsewhere in APAC, content companies are teaming up with brands and broadcasters to deliver a local and lucrative spin. Mediacorp, Singapore’s largest content creator and national media network operates a suite of TV channels, radio stations and multiple digital platforms. The company has partnered with ecommerce platform Lazada. The alliance turns shopping into a retail experience. To go one better Mediacorp plans to leverage more “immersive content marketing. That will allow people to discover products, compare prices and shop items, all while watching content.”
Is APAC an indicator of what will come next to the west? Let’s just say Asia has a first-mover advantage in what is shaping up to be the next trend in e-commerce.
Content companies need to use this unusual holiday season as an opportunity to experiment. They should test ways to infuse the shopping experience with credible content and reviews. It is important to partner with brands that understand that content is an asset.
Content companies are in the enviable position of employing experts in any number of areas. This allows for a seamless integration between that expertise and commerce, which is far superior to the social media influencer model.
Finally, if your content has a local focus, explore partnerships with local brands and businesses. Research shows that new audiences gravitate to companies that support local interests and enterprises. Clearly, working with local-focused companies is the best way to show your support.
Maybe you plan to drive full-funnel engagement through your app to empower ecommerce. Or perhaps you want to enhance a shoppable live streaming experience. The precise path you take will depend on your content assets and strategy. But these pathways are sure to pay dividends and prepare you to ring in the revenues at a time when the pandemic is wreaking havoc with physical retail and driving consumers into digital at a breakneck pace.
Global interactive platforms such as TikTok may strike a chord with younger audiences. Still, they miss the opportunity to drive hyper-local content and shape tight-knit transnational communities. It’s a significant and growing gap that Kumu, a Filipino-centric social app and livestreaming platform, seeks to fill with customized content channels. The combination of communication, commerce, and community allows fans to interact and purchase products while watching their favorite livestreamers.
It’s a smart move when platforms everywhere on the planet are forging relationships to become Super Apps. But content will be the factor that sets some of these Super Apps apart. By cultivating relationships with media companies and content creators, they can reach audiences with entertaining content that inspires lasting passion, not just one-off purchases.
It’s a blueprint that makes business sense for companies lining up to engage Internet-addicted populations in emerging markets. Boston Consulting Group’s Center for Customer Insight forecasts that Internet users in emerging markets, which include India, Indonesia, Kenya, Morocco Nigeria and the Philippines, will contribute 3x the number of new Internet users compared to developed markets. It’s a young community that will engage in “digitally influenced” content. They’ll also make purchases worth a whopping $4 trillion by 2022.
Continuing our series of DCN video interviews, I talk to Roland Ros. Ros founded Kumu, a livestreaming app that counts a community of more than 5 million GenZ and Millennial Filipinos spread across more than 50 countries. Kumu recently raised $5 million in a Series A funding round led by an impressive mix of investors including OpenSpace Ventures, Summit Media, and Philippines-based media conglomerate ABS-CBN. We discuss the importance of trusted conversations and the efforts of media companies, including Cosmopolitan and Esquire, to unlock the creative and commercial potential of its growing and global audience.
Here are three key takeaways from our talk:
Power community-driven commerce with authenticity and positivity
Younger audiences are eager to participate (and purchase) on platforms that make them feel involved and accepted. “GenZ and Millenials are tired of the social anxiety that comes with pretending life is perfect,” Ros explains. Authenticity has replaced attention as members no longer value millions of likes or hundreds of thousands of followers. The payoff is positivity, he says. Kumu’s “Kumunity” appreciates “microtransactions and virtual gifts that simply say ‘thank you’ for the content you create.”
Segment according to journeys, not customers
Ros encourages companies to rewrite the marketing playbook to emphasize the “aha” moments that keep audiences everywhere hooked. To pinpoint these events, he relies on CleverTap to track behaviors, patterns and architect a customer journey to make each member feel like an individual. “The logic has to be clean: if this, then that.” Building these capabilities has allowed Kumu to reach “month four retention rates in the 40% range,” he says.
Micro-influencers have a massive impact
Ros reveals the fastest-growing business on the Kumu platform is driven by influencers and creators on the platform talking about their passions and interests. This realization has prompted him to partner with media companies to launch “the concept of an interactive social television network,” amplifying the content and content creators the community loves.
Ros also talks about blending content and commerce to pave the way for “Super Social Apps” fueled by connection and microtransactions. He also lifts a lid on the best practices that allow Kumu and its partners to reach “up to 10%” conversion rates for livestreaming commerce on the platform.