When it comes to building direct relationships with readers, newsletters boast a superpower: intimacy. In addition to being a direct avenue for relationship-building with readers, newsletters are also major drivers of revenue diversification and provide insights from first-party data. As such, they have become an all-purpose survival tool for publishers.
“There are so many ways technology has helped email newsletters become a replacement for the newspaper and magazine as people’s view into the world and how they get news and information,” says Kerel Cooper, CMO of email service provider LiveIntent. “It’s in your inbox. It’s there almost on-demand when you’re ready to consume it.”
LiveIntent’s Industry Pulse Survey, published in July, found that 87% of publishers and marketers were actively investing in email and 94% were prioritizing scaling their email programs this year.
“Prior to the Covid pandemic, we were seeing newsletters trending in a very positive direction. People were spending more than five hours a day between their personal and work emails,” Cooper explained. “With the pandemic and everyone being home, that growth accelerated.”
The FT’s newsletter machine
Sarah Ebner, Head of Newsletters at the Financial Times, agrees with Cooper that newsletters were already “having a moment” before Covid struck.
“Newsletters have been ‘the big thing’ and then ‘not the big thing’ for probably a decade,” says Ebner. “[In] the last year, with the pandemic, because many people found themselves in a situation where they were stuck at home and hungry for information, newsletters became a very big tool. People wanted information and news sources they could trust.”
Currently offering 32 curated newsletters and counting, FT was early to embrace the newsletter distribution channel. Way back in 2019, shortly after crossing the 1 million subscriber threshold, they began using newsletter polls to increase subscriber retention.
“We know that the engagement rate is very high for FT subscribers,” Ebner explained. “It’s even higher if they’re newsletter readers, which is a really good thing.”
According to Ebner, readers on a trial are 134% more likely to be retained if they subscribe to a newsletter. “[Newsletters] drive traffic and engagement. They also definitely enhance loyalty and create habits and they really can push people to subscribe and donate,” Ebner told me. “You can also promote events or other newsletters through them. So, they do a lot of things in a really simple way.”
The personality-driven future of newsletters
Again, given the intimacy of the inbox, it isn’t a surprise that readers develop a relationship with newsletter authors, not just the publishing brands behind them.
Last April when David Leonhardt was appointed to lead The New York Times’ flagship morning newsletter, he was given the title of “writer, host, and anchor.” For a newsletter that reaches the inbox of over 17 million subscribers, Leonhardt has the equivalent audience of some primetime news programs. “Host and anchor are the language of TV, which I’m sure isn’t accidental,” wrote Nieman Lab’s Joshua Benton. “Morning shows have used the personal connection between anchor and viewer, reinforced daily, to build extraordinarily profitable businesses.”
Independent publishing platforms like Substack are leveraging this connection and luring top writers from newsrooms like salaried moths to a self-employed flame. In response, publishers have begun to embrace the personality-driven content structure more boldly in their newsletter offerings.
“One of the amazing things about newsletters is that you build up that direct relationship with the writer and you trust them,” FT’s Ebner said. “When we relaunched Brussels Briefing as Europe Express, I spoke to [Britain After Brexit newsletter author] Peter Foster and asked him, ‘Can you mention it?’ Because he wrote it in his own words, saying ‘This is really good and you should sign up for it,’ it didn’t look like it was from an advert. That was the most clicked-on link in his newsletter that week.”
Publishers are not blind to the power of personality-driven newsletters. In fact, many are embracing it. Just last week, The Atlantic announced it would be hiring independent newsletter authors to write under their brand (and behind The Atlantic’s paywall). Still remaining semi-autonomous, newsletter writers will not be full-time employees and “will have some light oversight from Atlantic editors.” They will earn base pay and additional incentive payments if their readers convert to Atlantic subscribers.
“When you think about how brands and publishers want consumers to spend more time with them, the more of a direct relationship you have, the more you can understand who the users are and their likes and their intent, the better you are in a position to provide them services to continue to stay engaged with your brand,” said LiveIntent’s Cooper.
“It’s definitely part of the strategy to have a strong anchor to many of these newsletters,” said incoming VP of Audience at Axios, Ryan Kellett. “You’ll notice that some of them come from teams. And some of that is the sustainability of the newsletter. It is very very hard to write a daily newsletter.” Kellet joined Axios last month after over a decade at The Washington Post. He most recently worked as Senior Director of Audience where he oversaw digital strategy and subscriber growth.
Axios Local’s rapid expansion
While some publishers like The Telegraph have recently chosen to embrace the “less is more” newsletter strategy by offering “fewer, more focused newsletters,” other leading media organizations are maximizing their newsletter model by replicating it in local markets.
Late last year, Axios launched a free-to-readers newsletter model for local news markets called Axios Local. According to Axios, “The daily morning newsletters cover the most consequential news and developments unfolding in each of the cities.” Their editorial model embraces personality-driven content by recruiting the most prominent writers from each of those local markets to “anchor” Axios Local’s newsletters.
Kellett cites Axios Chicago’s Monica Eng and Justin Kaufmann, two veteran reporters and “former pillars of public radio in Chicago,” who began co-anchoring Axios Chicago’s morning newsletter in August, as examples of how personality-driven content is integral to the success of certain newsletters. However, speaking on broader terms than just one company, Kellett emphasizes the challenges of newsletter writing that often go overlooked.
“It is often underappreciated how hard it is to put out [newsletters] on a day-to-day basis and do a number of other things like attending community events, actually reporting stories, engaging on social media…” said Kellett. “Obviously, we want to have the strongest writers and the strongest personalities to be the anchors. But part of it is thinking about sustainability and the teams that are required to feed some of those newsletters as well.”
Leveraging first-party data in a cookie-less world
Apart from the outward benefits of fostering engagement and revenue, the email address itself has become all the more valuable with regard to first-party data collection, especially considering the impending death of the third-party cookie. According to LiveIntent’s July survey, “99% of survey respondents believe that the email address is vital to the future of identity resolution after the third-party cookie’s demise.”
LiveIntent’s Kerel Cooper supports this position strongly by saying, “Third-party cookies have been a staple of targeting and monetization for a very long time in our space. As a publisher or brand, you have to think, ‘Okay, if this data set, this foundational element that I’ve used to build my business is going away, I need to replace it with another data set.’ First-party data and first-party audiences are going to be super key to that transition.”
“The email channel has already operated in the same manner in which the browsers have been wanting to get to forever,” Cooper continued. “There’s no third-party cookies. You have to opt-in or in some cases double opt-in to receive content from publishers or brands. And there are heavy privacy rules and regulations. Think CAN SPAM. It’s an environment where browsers already want to go.”
However, the value of email addresses may prove to become even more coveted, given Apple’s recent rollout of the iOS 15 update, which introduces Mail Privacy Protection to Apple Mail users.
As AdWeek’s Ronan Shields explained, “Mail Privacy Protection will prevent brands from knowing whether a user opens one of their emails and hide IP addresses so that senders can’t link that action to other online activity or determine a user’s location.” The jury is still out on just how detrimental this change will be to publishers existing strategies for leveraging first-party subscriber data.
As our digital sphere barrels forward to 2022, newsletters rightly serve as a powerful multi-purpose survival tool for publishers. Now that the churning momentum of independent newsletter platforms has gained the attention of tech giants like Google, Twitter, and Facebook, each of whom has announced plans to “get in the newsletter game,” publishers must plan to keep this particular survival tool very sharp. At the same time, while exploring all of a newsletter’s advantages, they must never forget the simplicity of the medium and its eternal superpower: intimate, welcomed, and frequent access to readers’ attentions.
TREE KEY ‘C’S FOR NEWSLETTER SUCCESSES
Newsletter expert Ryan Kellett outlines three basic tenets to foster reader loyalty in newsletters:
1. Create high-quality content on a frequent and regular basis
“As we all know, that email address is very valuable. You want to really try to deliver as consistently and as best as you can and at as high a quality as possible on a day-to-day basis.”
“Consistency is really important in developing that relationship so the reader trusts that you’re there on a certain cadence, be it daily or weekly or bi-weekly…I think one of the reasons why daily works so well is because it says ‘Every day at 7am, that [newsletter] is going to be there for you consistently.’ You could have anything happen in your life and it will be there.”
3. Community-building capabilities
“I think with newsletters being so intimate, oftentimes it can be a little bit tough to say ‘newsletter community.’ It may or may not actually exist. But I think with really great newsletters, you are building a community there, despite it sort of being a one-to-one experience…It just depends on the medium… Podcasts, websites/comments sections/forums, and newsletters all have their own type of community.”
Make it short. Show real stuff. This may seem obvious, but these are best practices in video length and content authenticity for Gen Z audiences.
Gen Z, born between 1998 and 2016, spends a lot of time watching videos on social media. And last year, Gen Z’s video consumption increased: Snapchat reported that Gen Z watched over an hour each day of video content on social media apps alone. They value video more than any other media platform, by a margin of roughly 2-to-1 over social, gaming, music or Google search, according to a recent study by DCN. They prefer video, specifically user-generated content, due to its relatability and personability.
Understanding that Gen Z viewers and consumers have different behaviors, values, and attitudes when it comes to video is important because it can impact your audience of the future, your strategy, and your revenue. It will also help you withstand shifts in viewer tastes and larger shifts in the media landscape. Building relationships with this generation of viewers, readers, consumers, starts now.
Video length on TikTok
Video length varies by platform, and there are a lot of platforms to choose from. Gen Z favors Instagram, Snapchat and TikTok, according to a Pew survey in 2021.
Video content on TikTok must be extremely short. In fact, 50 seconds is long, according to Erin Weaver, Group Nine Media’s Senior Director of Audience Development. For Gen Z-favored platforms Snapchat and TikTok, video length needs to be short and videos need to be fast-paced, according to Weaver. “On TikTok, I consider anything between 30 and 60 seconds to be almost the default. And then slightly longer is over one minute up to three minutes. We’ve seen some success with longer videos, as long as they’re really engaging and interesting.”
Brittiany Cierra Taylor, director of audience development at BET, says she sees similar results. “Our audience development team has been trying out shorts and they’ve seen that they were amazing in getting new views, new viewers and from an ad perspective, we see more ads, more earned views. That shortness really is the key because we noticed that the sweet spot on TikTok is seven seconds where you see that jump that engagement,” she said.
“Our TikTok partners always encourage us to create shorter and more succinct videos, as they do tend to perform well on the platform,” says Kelsey Alpaio, an editor and producer with Harvard Business Review’s Ascend brand for young professionals, “But, that doesn’t mean long videos are off limits. The majority of our top-viewed videos are more than 50 seconds long. If people are interested in the content, they will stick around.”
Video length on YouTube
On YouTube, videos that are 2-4 minutes long work well for Harvard Business Review, but they also see success with videos that are longer, about 10-14 minutes each.
Scott LaPierre, Harvard Business Review’s senior editor for multimedia, says that for YouTube, trends around length are similar. Length is less important than topic and storytelling. LaPierre says HBR’s more authentic and honest videos on YouTube, which are casual, host- and personality-driven, perform about as well in the long run as their more traditional content. “Both have about an even number of breakout successes, and comparable average performers,” he says. “The video’s topic, and how compellingly it delivers on that topic are still the primary factors in the number of views and how long people watch, whether traditional or authentic in style.”
Short and medium-length videos at about two to nine minutes each work best on YouTube, for a broad reach. And longer (10-15 minutes) seems to work to deepen engagement with established fans, LaPierre said. “Shorter videos seem to have broader reach while longer videos seem to have deeper engagement. Long for us is around 10-15 minutes. Short is two to four. Most of our current video lineup is in the middle: six-to-nine-minute range. Anything over about 15 minutes does not perform great on our channel.” (Live video is a different conversation where lengths over 15 are more the norm.)
Optimize for story
“It really depends on the goal of the story and whatever length makes the storytelling complete,” says Zainab Khan, associate director of audience, video at The New York Times. “We might do a months-long investigation that merits a 12-minute video. What we see, because we edit our videos for pacing and storytelling, if a video is longer, we get more overall watch time. But we’re really rigorous about thinking about length so it fits the needs of the story. And in some cases, that means the best way to share a story means to do a quick 30-second snippet, showing viewers what’s happening on the ground.”
All of the digital content companies we spoke to said that storytelling trumps minutes and seconds. Video content should be as long as it needs to be, to tell an engaging story. LaPierre says, “Topic and storytelling generally trump length or style. So, my rule of thumb is: make it as short as possible, but no shorter.”
Best practices for user-generated content are that video content must be low lit, not super polished, and not have a high production quality.Often, it is a selfie-style cell phone footage. It’s casual, host- and personality-driven. It is concise, engaging, and easy to produce. It shows people talking about what they care passionately about.
Harvard Business Review aims to make some of their videos in that user-generated style, LaPierre says. “For me, the best way to get authentic-feeling video is to have people talk about what they care passionately about,” he says.
Ascend Multimedia Producer Andy Robinson explains they try to find a sweet spot between having a polished feel and showing the real world. “My rule is, show the real stuff whenever possible. We’ve been leaning heavily on less-overly produced elements in our video content. Audiences can smell something that is highly produced, over scripted, over thought.”
Group Nine makes a point of putting people as the focal point of their UGC content, explains Weaver. “For PopSugar, a tutorial on applying makeup does a lot better than a product review or something that’s mostly focused on beauty products or a workout. You should see people doing the workouts, not so much like a description of the movements.”
At The New York Times, best practice for finding authenticity in a creator’s work is to have a deep understanding of the company’s values and to find common ground with their audience, Khan says. “It’s really important for us, when we want to build trust with our audience, we show our authentic selves. We literally put our reporters on screen in a way that helps the audience understand who is doing the reporting,” Khan says.
Gen Z has a bullshit detector
Gen Z’s desire for authenticity has been well documented. They want brands to be transparent, authentic and trustworthy. Gen Z audiences have spent their lives surrounded by digital technology. They’re incredibly discerning and know how to filter content that lacks the right tone, language, relevance or value. “What I love about Gen Z is that they hold companies more accountable,” Taylor says. “They’re doing the fact-checking, they’re doing the homework, they’re seeing if your staff resembles the world, if your content resembles the world year round. Is your message consistent and congruent in the content that you showed me? That’s actually one thing I love about them because it forces brands to be authentic.”
Authenticity is the way to grow audiences, Taylor explains. “I think that if you want to stay around, that is the basic component that audiences are resonating with. So, if you’re not going to be authentic, you’re not going to meet the KPIs you want, you’re not going to grow your audience, you’re not going to hit your revenue… So, from an audience perspective, a revenue perspective, authenticity is just the way to move forward.”
Be real, not trendy
“In the long term, if your identity and authenticity are dependent on a trend, you only last as long as that trend,” Khan says. “On the other hand, if your company has a handle on its core values, and what sets you apart from your peers and competitors, you can choose which trends to follow. And it means you can withstand shifts in the media and shifts in viewer taste.”
LaPierre says content authenticity connotes honesty, vulnerability, transparency, and relatability, which may not always have been top priorities for publishers. “And, we’ve seen some of the distrust in media that can result,” he says. “Show your flaws, show that your content is made by real people with real concerns that overlap with your audience’s, and show your work–it’s about building a trusting relationship over time.”
For their audience of the future, digital content companies need to put real intention behind the content they create and innovate constantly. As one expert put it, you need to think about who you’re talking to, and create content that is meaningful to them. It’s a lot of effort trying to please Gen Z, but if you’re not putting in the effort, you’re not going to get the results. This is your future audience, after all.
Ever opened an article and started reading, only to lose your spot because you were bumped down the page? This annoying occurrence is the result of layout shift, one of many performance issues that can crop up without consistent care and attention.
Improving the experience of our users is always a top priority at The Washington Post. With Google’s focus on user-centric performance metrics via new page experience signals called Core Web Vitals (CWV), we can better monitor and iterate on those experiences.
CWV signals are currently being rolled out globally. They consist of three new performance metrics: Largest Contentful Paint (LCP), Cumulative Layout Shift (CLS) and First Input Delay (FID). We set a target to reach the highest threshold across all three metrics by August 2021, as Google’s rollout of the new signals is set to be completed by the end of the month.
For publications like The Post, which need to balance rich advertising, rich content and page speed, CWV poses an interesting challenge: How do we ensure a performant experience on all pages across our domain in the short term? And, looking ahead, how can we bake good performance and attention to UX into our long-term processes and culture?
Last summer, the engineering team at The Washington Post began exploring just that. Since then, we’ve seen significant lifts across all three scores.
To accomplish this positive shift, we put our users at the forefront of our engineering and design practices. Here are some key takeaways.
Understand the baseline
We began by determining a baseline for our CWV scores across our site using several different monitors to understand the complete picture. Luckily, there are a lot of awesome tools to help.
Step 1: Identify Patterns with GSC
The Google Search Console dashboard for CWV provided a good first pulse. This allows us to drill down into our less-performant urls and begin to identify patterns in templates or features.
Step 2: Get more granular segments with real-user data
Next, we collaborated with our Analytics team to set up dashboards that would show us an approximate distribution of scores for real users. This gives us more granular insight to triage issues on lower connection speeds, varying devices, etc.
Step 3: Automate and monitor release impact
We highly value continuous deployments and set up synthetic monitoring using Calibre App against our common page templates, with automated alerts going to Slack when we fell below our threshold. This allows us to gauge impact of each release so we can #alwaysbeshipping.
Make it a priority and assemble the team
Communication and a shared commitment to deliver high-quality user experiences are the cornerstones of our success. From engineering to design to advertising and our newsroom, web vitals became a common language and a common goal through a series of communication and alignment methods:
Recurring (and actionable) checkpoints across departments and teams to check in on progress, flag concerns and share tips
Slack channel for sharing web vitals wins, resources and questions
Company-wide presentations on web vitals in town halls
Getting company buy-in for performance work is possible by illustrating to stakeholders how CWV will benefit customers, increase the bottom line and speed up engineering productivity to ship more features, faster! It’s a win-win-win.
Fix the things!
We took several strategic steps to improve CWV scores at The Post.
Optimize Rendering of Main Images for LCP
We reworked the way we rendered the main image in our standard article layout, and as a result, it was the biggest improvement we saw in LCP.
How it worked:
Preloaded the img element’s srcset
Used an LQIP (low-quality image placeholder) in the form of a blurred svg as the background-image of the image element until the high-res request loaded
Assigned the attribute decoding=”async” to the img element
These changes resulted in an improvement to our LCP score that was immediately noticeable.
Reserved Space for Components to Minimize CLS
Anywhere we used lazy loading, we used a placeholder element with a min-height — and potentially min-width — to reserve the space so the element would not jump in and push content elsewhere on the page. We invested in skeleton states to improve the user experience for our readers. This is one of those techniques that became a pattern for us in our quest to improve our CLS scores.
One example of this execution is with our advertisement placeholder. Previously, ads would jump into the slot and push content down the page, which could be frustrating for users, particularly on mobile devices or on smaller displays.
Improving our CLS score required close collaboration with the advertising team. To evaluate impact, we developed and ran extensive A/B tests that served different creative with predictable sizes into the slot for a split segment of users. By analyzing the CWV and broader impact, we were able to make data-driven business decisions. In most cases — and to our surprise — serving predictable creative sizes increased revenue and we were able to commit several units to a set size and eliminate CLS. By opting to serve larger ad sizes (300×600 units only instead of a combination of multiple sizes, which caused a layout jump), we saw higher CPMs. We also eliminated several ad format types that were jumpy. These were traditionally poor performers with our users. We replaced those formats with units that loaded fully in view, resulting in higher ad viewability metrics and, ultimately, higher engagement and improved ad performance.
As the page loads, min-height is reserved with a skeleton state for inline ads:
Because of this, the ad can be fully loaded in without impacting CLS:
Code-splitting for Faster FID
Maintain, maintain, maintain
As with many things, improving CWV scores is not something you do once and then move on. We’re working at The Post to integrate CWV into our ongoing product, design and development processes, in addition to regular review of changes in our scores. It’s an ongoing effort.
We were able to introduce CWV as a new set of standards in cross-team collaboration — and dedicate resources to maintaining these standards. This will serve as a point of reference for other cross-team initiatives in the future. Now, we’re looking at structuring other projects the same way, for example, on web accessibility.
This article originally appeared on The Washington Post Engineering blog and is republished with permission.
Want to share CWV tips, interested in working with us, or just feel like saying hi? 👋
Contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com.
This project wouldn’t be made possible without the hard work of this outstanding team: Holden Foreman, Robyn Bortz, Anna Scalamogna, Taylor Scott, Christopher Kankel, Erika Johnson, Hannah Mahon, Amanda Bozzi, Arturo Silva, Dan Weaver, Joey Weed, Sarah House, Amanda Hicks, Ted Cook, Thomas Chan, Tommy Lisiak, Eric Lin, Hope Tambala, Ryan Luu, Leo Dominguez, Nathan Walker, Gregory Auld, Ryan Coughlin, Matt Callahan, Dave Merrell, Jeff Turner, Julie Bacon and Kat Styons.
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.
The business case for diversity has been made time and again. In fact, according to McKinsey, the relationship between ethnic, gender, and cultural diversity and financial outperformance has only grown in the years since the company first outlined its importance. And when it comes to newsrooms, the philosophical, moral, and business rational for improving diversity are also evident.
It is certainly heartening to see the impressive — even historic — rise of female and diverse newsroom leadership in the past year or two. For the first time ever, Black executives lead every major broadcast news network in the U.S. Women and people of color have also assumed leadership roles at dozens of major media brands. However, as HuffPost Editor-in-Chief Danielle Belton, who is Black, suggested to CNN, truly diverse representation in media won’t be achieved simply by hiring women and people of color to fill top roles.
In order to better serve the diverse population it reaches, the media industry must reflect that population from the boardroom to product development and from the newsroom to the sales team. It must also reflect these audiences in its sourcing and reporting. Hiring is one of the most visible ways media organizations are changing right now. However, there are also a number of taking tactical approaches that are meaningfully moving the needle.
50/50 and beyond
In 2017, the BBC launched the 50:50 Project, challenging its teams to achieve 50% female representation in BBC content. Today, the company says that 70% of its content features 50% women contributors. And this initiative is not limited to the BBC. The project partners with more than 100 organizations in 26 countries. The network includes public and private media, academia, conference businesses, law, public relations, and corporations. The 50:50 Project recently announced it will also strive for better inclusion of ethnic minorities and disabled people and those. The aim to achieve a 50:20:12 balance.
The BBC approach is fairly straightforward. Participants monitor the numbers of contributors in their content to set benchmarks for their chosen diversity measures. They then track their progress against those benchmarks as content is produced. Teams continually share and discuss the data which informs editorial decisions.
The BBC has found that the longer teams monitor and share data regularly, the more likely they are to create cultural change. 50:50 has enabled teams to identify topic areas where women or other diversities are under-represented, such as science or sports. It has also encouraged content makers to think differently about the stories they choose to tell. Reporters continually seek new voices and different perspectives to enrich their output.
Working on workflow
NPR recently announced a new initiative to track the demographics of its sources in real time. The tool, called “Dex”, is integrated with the company’s content management system. Dex allows NPR reporters to easily monitor the diversity of sources’ race and ethnicity, gender identity, geographic location, and age range. Over time it will also become a robust database to identify more diverse sources as well.
Deputy director of news operations Rolando Arrieta told Poynter that incorporating the tool into the company’s CMS makes diversity an integral part of the newsgathering and reporting process. Dex also allows for continuous monitoring, unlike the annual diversity reports many organizations produce. And, as Arrieta points out, simply counting sources is not enough. Creating a continuously updated resource for diverse sourcing and integrating diversity into content creators’ processes facilitates continuous awareness and improvement.
Tactics and tools beyond hiring and sourcing are increasingly emerging. They are intended to assist in diversity objectives, but sometimes create a business opportunity in themselves.
Nielson introduced a tool earlier this year designed to better allow content creators, distributors, and advertisers to quantify their progress in diversifying representation on the small screen. Gracenote Inclusion Analytics measures how the screen time of various identity groups (such as people from a specific gender identity, sexual orientation, race, or ethnicity) stack up against certain benchmarks.
Bloomberg’s Gender-Equality Index (GEI) tracks the performance of public companies committed to disclosing their efforts to support gender equality through policy development, representation, and transparency. The organization’s New Voices initiative works to increase the representation of women and minority executives as sources in both online and on-air content. Recently, the company expanded its objectives to be more inclusive of a range of gender identities as well.
Certainly, it is heartening to witness the recent spate of DEI executive appointments. It is encouraging to see the newsroom leadership begin to lose its pallor. However, it is also significant to see media companies not only recognize the value of diverse leadership, but also the critical role of incorporating diversity into the culture and workflow of their organizations. If diversity is the goal, there is no one simple answer. But with a combination of leadership, trust, transparency, and tools the media business can begin to build solutions.
National Geographic is an Instagram powerhouse. The publisher has just topped 175 million followers, which makes it the 12th most followed account on the platform and the only media brand to crack the top 50. Their photographs and stories reach tens of millions of people around the world each day.
With such a vast following comes great responsibility. The world as we know it is changing. But explanations about how, why, and what to do can be divisive. National Geographic’s mission is to use science, education and storytelling to illuminate and protect the wonder of our world. But how is it being translated into its social media strategy?
National Geographic’s Director of Instagram Josh Raab knows that many younger people aren’t subscribers to the publication. For many of them, their primary interaction with the brand will be through social media, rather than longform journalism.
Instagram’s audience skews much younger than many other social platforms, with two-thirds of users aged 34 or under. So ,for a publisher like National Geographic, there is a huge opportunity to reach younger people with key messages about climate, conservation, and our changing world. But it requires tactful handling.
Finding the nuance in conservation conversations
Raab’s aim with NatGeo’s Instagram accounts is to educate, rather than overwhelm followers with problems. “Anything that we do is impact driven,” he emphasised. “We know the change that we want to see is going to have to come from future generations. So our hope is that [Instagram] is the way that we can cover a lot of what we see in the world, and further[people’s] knowledge and understanding of it.
But it’s a delicate balance. As social media grows increasingly divisive, Raab is keen that NatGeo remains a place to go for information, rather than explicit activism.
“What we don’t see enough is the nuance in some of these conversations,” he said. “I think that the biggest way that we can help is to really educate people on the complexities of some of those problems or some of those subject areas that we’re covering, and let them make up their mind for themselves.
“At the end of the day, you won’t see us yelling and screaming in ways you’ll see in other places. Social media for us is more about telling people about the world and highlighting some of the changes that we’re seeing over time.”
He sees Instagram as a way of learning by stealth, even if that means competing for audience’s attention spans. “We try to trick people into learning,” he said. “How do we get people who might be on a platform for instant gratification to walk away with an unexpected understanding of something they didn’t necessarily go looking for?”
A unique curation process
In order to encourage a range of voices and perspectives, NatGeo has come up with a unique model for curating their feed. Posts are actually submitted directly by the photographers themselves. This includes the captions. Although they are reviewed by the publisher, each one is in the photographer’s voice, which avoids the text sounding too corporate.
“It’s a great way to connect the audiences directly with the photographers, who are really the storytellers, the explorers, the people behind the stories,” Raab explained.
This approach also helps NatGeo avoid the trap of posting content just for the sake of high engagement. Raab noted that the team have a good sense of how a post will perform before it’s put live, but that doesn’t influence whether or not it’s posted. “For us, it’s about whether or not the story feels relevant,” he emphasized. “We’re pretty focused on having a broad coverage… rather than only the ones that would perform. If that were the case, you would see a lot of polar bears and cute animal content!”
Raab believes there is a distinct advantage to having an account the size of NatGeos when it comes to posting about issues like climate and conservation. “You can guarantee that you’re reaching people across the globe, of every interest and political standing,” he explained. “So we do the storytelling we think is important, and that the world needs to see.”
“We’re lucky enough – or simultaneously unlucky enough – that regardless of what that is, we will have people who love it and those who like it less!”
Comprehensive storytelling through Stories, Reels, and AR
When it comes to getting the most out of Instagram, Raab has noted that although the algorithm changes, it consistently favors new functionalities like IGTV, Lives, or more recently, Reels. “We try to play into those, because we know that’s where we can reach the most people,” he explained.
This approach led the publisher to be an early experimenter with Instagram’s Spark AR tool. Although producing AR experiences aren’t yet on the regular schedule, the team have released over a dozen filters over the past year. These range from an AR tour of Mars to a Yosemite National Park filter, complete with a bear selfie experience.
“We saw an opportunity to do more comprehensive storytelling within a platform that is intended to be used more for social purposes,” said Raab. “We’ve tried to find a way to integrate both storytelling and social experience into singular creations. And, for the most part, I think we’ve been successful.”
The more informal nature of Stories complements what NatGeo is aiming to do with inspiring the next generation. The off-the-cuff feel, where scientists and photographers are telling their stories from the field, help show NatGeo’s followers that although they are incredibly talented, they are people. “I want them to watch it and think, “That could be me one day,”” said Raab. “That’s just integral to what we do.”
Inspiration through education
Climate change and conservation are polarizing political issues, especially in the social space. But NatGeo’s commitment to bringing in the voices of leading scientists, educators, storytellers, conservationists, and more into its photos, captions and stories makes it a place that people can come to learn, rather than be preached at.
“Getting the message out to younger audiences is important. But we also want to inspire them to do some of what they’re seeing,” Raab emphasized. “We want to educate them about the world, rather than yelling at them about the exact changes they need to make, or making them feel like change is hopeless.”
“Ultimately, it will be up to these younger generations that we’re able to reach there to make the change that the world will need.”
As the most-followed publisher on Instagram by a country mile, NatGeo is doing something right. Education by stealth – and the occasional cute polar bear picture – seems to be a winning formula for inspiring the next generation to care about our world.
Allow me to pose a few questions: Why doesn’t the U.S. have a modern high-speed rail system or solve the issue of droughts? Why doesn’t the U.S. have a national electronic grid to leverage solar and wind power? At least part of the answer is a reluctance to accept and adapt to new technologies.
Blockchain can and will play a significant role in each of these applications and services. However, blockchain is plagued by the negative stain of cryptocurrencies and a lack of understanding of the technology and its capabilities. That does not mean that we can afford to ignore it.
So, my question for you is, “Are you preparing your company to take advantage and leverage blockchain technology to grow your business and remain competitive?”
Without a doubt, blockchain is poised to impact the media business. That future will demonstrate the full force of Tim Berner Lee’s paper about the semantic web and blockchain will play a critical role. The blockchain train is about to leave the station, and you’d better make sure you have a ticket and get on board.
Blockchain technology will create new business opportunities in all sectors. Media companies have been slow to adapt to some critical technology evolutions in the past, which cost them dearly. We can’t afford to let blockchain to be another missed opportunity.
Are you blockchain-ready?
As an executive, understanding new technologies is essential. That’s because it could mean the difference between growing your business or going out of business.
So, how ready are you and your company for blockchain? Take this simple quiz to find out:
My company and I have a complete understanding of blockchain technology.
Blockchain will become an intricate part of business processes and applications.
We have or are currently working on an application of blockchain technology.
We have a working blockchain application that we are commercializing.
My company sees blockchain as the strategic next technology for the next 10 years.
For every question that you answered, yes, give yourself 20 points. I have applied a score across each section of Roger’s Diffusion Curve in my rather unscientific study.
If you scored under 60 points, I would like you to consider the “what ifs” of not first understanding blockchain technology and how it could play a significant role in your business.
History has taught us that even brilliant minds can miss out on significant shifts. To put this in perspective, here are three examples of how a leading company ignored emerging technological and business model changes and eventually lost their business as a result.
Telerate vs. Bloomberg
Before Bloomberg, there was Telerate. Founded in 1969, the Telerate system was the dominant terminal for Fixed Income Securities in the world. Dow Jones & Company, Inc. initially purchased a 32% stake in 1985. Eventually, Dow Jones purchased the remaining shares, bringing their total investment to $2 billion.
Founded in 1981, Bloomberg’s terminals first started to appear in Merrill Lynch offices in 1985.
By 1998 Bloomberg had displaced Telerate. Dow Jones had to sell Telerate to Bridge Information Systems for $510 million, a loss of $1.4 billion!
What happened? How did Telerate lose their luster, their dominance, and market share to Bloomberg? Data analytics, back-office systems, and customer service were the differentiators.
Blockbuster vs. Netflix
Founded in 1985, Blockbuster, became the dominant player in the consumer movie rental business, only to be upended by Netflix just over a decade later. Netflix created a new business model by mailing discs versus Blockbuster brick-and-mortar stores. The Netflix business model provided selection, convenience, low price, and satisfaction.
But Netflix did not stop there. Instead of just shipping DVDs, Netflix created a streaming service that competed with linear television and every premium film channel. Netflix beat HBO in a business that HBO created. Now media brands are trying to claw their way back with branded streaming offerings, but this isn’t going to be easy to do.
Sears vs. Amazon
Last but not least is Sears, which published the Christmas wish book catalog, and iconic brands like Craftsman and Kenmore, only to be squashed by the e-commerce king, Amazon. While Amazon was building a seamless ecommerce platform, Sears remained anchored to brick and mortar. Consumers loved the convenience of shopping from home. So, Sears — along with any number of retail businesses that failed to evolve — fell by the wayside.
Time and again, newcomers leverage new technology and business models to overtake the industry leaders. Blockchain is no different. If you aren’t already figuring out how it will transform your business, you are ripe for disruption by someone who is.
These days, blockchain is being used for Asset Management, Insurance Claims processing, Cross Border Payments, Smart Property, and the Internet of Things. This article from Sam Daley highlights 30 Blockchain applications across many industries. The developments he outlines are just the beginning.
Blockchain and the future of media
Clearly, media companies have fully embraced digital. However, they are overlooking the possibilities blockchain has to offer to improve many aspects of their businesses. Blockchain technology can be integrated into multiple areas but here are a few examples that should appeal directly to media executives:
Launched in 2019, Eluvio Content Fabric uses blockchain technology to enable content producers to manage and distribute premium video to consumers and business partners without content delivery networks. It provides low latency, high quality (4K) content distribution, content monetization, and just-in-time streaming. It’s already being used by MGM Studios and FOX Networks, so it’s time to consider new ways to deliver streaming content.
Blockchain-based smart contracts are contracts can be partially or fully executed or enforced without human interaction. Smart contracts are digital and embedded with an if-this-then-that (IFTTT) code, which gives them self-execution. In real life, an intermediary ensures that all parties follow through on terms.
Mediachain uses smart contracts to get musicians the money they deserve. By entering into a decentralized, transparent contract, artists can agree to higher royalties and get paid fully and on time. Streaming giant Spotify acquired Mediachain in April 2017. Given the increasing complexity of multiplatform content distribution, media executives will want to take a closer look at this business opportunity.
MadHive is a blockchain-based advertising and data solution for digital marketers. The platform tracks, stores, and generates reports on customer activity, saving all the data to a private blockchain. MadHive’s targeted audience reports and real-time data monitoring give advertisers’ insights into their customers without compromising data privacy.
Clearly, digital advertising remains one of the largest revenue streams for many media businesses. However, increased consumer concern (and regulations) around privacy point to a need for new strategies. Blockchain provides detailed and precise information and data points that media executives would be wise to explore.
Steem is a social media platform backed by blockchain. Its “Proof-of-Brain” community uses tokens as incentives, encouraging people to create original content. The amount of tokens distributed is based on the number of upvotes each article receives. Steem has paid over $40 million in tokens to creators. Blockchain is providing new business models and content creation models like this and media executives cannot afford to ignore the possibilities.
Blockchain for better business
My recent book, “Transforming Scholarly Research with Blockchain Technologies and A.I.”, provides a slew of examples of how Blockchain is transforming a wide range of industries. Don’t be lulled into under-rating its potential to impact the media business because of the shadow of cryptocurrencies. Blockchain will open new networks, improve efficiencies that will reduce cost, increase accessibility, transparency, and effectiveness.
Media companies that adopt this technology will position their company and team members for extraordinary success.
About the author
Darrell, an experienced digital publishing executive, has been at the forefront of significant information industry initiatives, i.e., Factiva, ScienceDirect, Scopus, BiomedExperts.com, ReviewerFinder, Underline, and Ripeta. Gunter Media Group, Inc. has advised many CEOs from startups to the most prominent publishers.
He is the author of the edited volume, “Transforming Scholarly Research with Blockchain Technologies and A.I.” His other publications can be accessed via his ORCID profile.
He is a graduate of Seton Hall University’s W. Paul Stillman School of Business (B.S. Business Administration- Marketing) and Lake Forest Graduate School of Management (MBA).
Covering any Olympics is a monumental challenge. But broadcasters of the Toyko Games face challenges like no other in history. Few are feeling it more than NBCUniversal (NBCU) and its parent company Comcast, which hold rights to the Games. The announcement that Tokyo 2020 would be delayed until 2021 due to Covid-19, hit the media across the business – from advertising revenue to the launch of Peacock, its new streaming service.
However, just as the athletes are coming back stronger from a season off, NBC says this extra year has left them fully prepared for the challenge ahead. It recently announced plans to present 7,000 hours of Olympic coverage, making the 17-day affair the “biggest media event ever.”
“We have spent the better part of the last 14 months learning how to do things differently,” Pete Bevacqua, Chairman, NBC Sports Group, said in a recent press event on the network’s coverage plans. “Those skills … will absolutely apply themselves as we tackle what should be, I think, one of the most interesting and special Olympic Games ever.”
Part of this new, improved package involved working up with other platforms to ensure that people can watch what they want, when they want. In addition to Comcast’s X1 pay-TV platform, partners like Roku and Apple TV will feature Olympic dashboards, which will guide viewers to the Games. NBCU has been working directly with a range of platforms to develop content that fits with the needs of their audience, given the specific delivery channel.
The network has also created strong partnerships with Google Search and Google OneBox. Many people will decide what to watch by going to Google, and NBCU is prominent in the Google OneBox with viewing information and highlights. And, significantly, NBCU will do a major programming push on Peacock, to help build audiences for the streamer. The company also recently announced that Peacock will launch on Amazon Fire TV and Fire tablets.
Peacock will feature new daily live shows and dedicated Olympics channels, as part of its Tokyo Olympics destination, which goes live on July 15. The streaming service currently has around 42 million subscribers. Matt Strauss, Comcast Chairman, Direct-to-Consumer and International, is “very optimistic” that the Olympic coverage will bring a new, larger audience. However, Strauss says the company is not prioritizing premium subscriptions as part of the Olympic push. Instead, the focus on ensuring that consumers check out the free, ad-supported, basic tier of Peacock.
The rights stuff
In addition to the 7,000 hours of content, across a plethora of platforms, NBCU will also flex the fact that it negotiated exclusive rights to the Olympics until 2032, which cuts out rival networks. The deal, which covers all media platforms, including free television, subscription TV, Internet and mobile rights, is valued at $7.65 billion.
What this means is, NBCU has rights across every platform – even those that have not yet been developed yet.
“We have the most complete set of rights of any sport that we have on any of our networks and that any network really has,” says Mark Lazarus, NBCU’s chairman of television and streaming. “Essentially, every technology known today or to be invented between now and 2032. That gives us the ability to try new things and to experiment. That’s what we’ll be doing across the platforms.”
“Our job is to pick the best platform for each piece of content, while trying to take the incredible reach that the Olympics have, the incredible reach that the NBC broadcast network has, and put it on the biggest stage.”
One new partnership they are particularly excited about is Twitch. The collaboration will feature programming tailored to the Twitch community. This includes highlight studio shows, game-ified pre-Olympic activations, Olympic athlete interviews, and Olympic-themed gaming competitions.
“The way that people consume traditional sporting events is changing,” says Michael Aragon, Chief Content Officer at Twitch. “They no longer want to simply spectate. They want to be as close to the action and athletes as possible. We’ve seen this first-hand with the growth of our sports community on Twitch, as viewers tune in not only to watch their favorite athletes but to also take part in pre- and post-game interviews and virtually connect with other fans from around the world.”
Friends and family
Covid not only saw the Games postponed, 12 months, it has also put a stop to any international travel to Tokyo. This means friends and families of the athletes won’t be able to support in person. Plus, the audiences at big events will be capped at 10,000 people, or 50% capacity, whichever is smaller. This means there is even more pressure on the network to provide a ‘real’ experience for those that can’t be there.
This new challenge led to the creation of a new “Friends and Family” production unit, that will capture the reactions of loved ones back home.
According to Molly Solomon, Executive Producer, NBC Olympics and GOLF, the work and thought put into the Tokyo Games, during the pandemic, means they are going to be the “most meaningful Olympics of our lifetime.”
“After everything the world has gone through, as we begin to emerge from this pandemic, the world coming together is an incredibly impactful experience,” she says.
“We really have put together the most ambitious coverage plan ever. We’ve also adapted to the changing consumption habits. Our goal was to be everything for everyone. It’s our most coverage we’ve ever had.”
Over the last decade, digital publishing has seen tremendous development and technological advances. However, one thing remains constant: content is king. The rapid and always shifting market has forced many publishers to change their marketing and publishing models. This has impacted both readership and retention and also forced technical innovation to capture minds tuned for instant gratification.
Stagnating platforms and user experiences can be the difference between a reader looking for more content and returning, or never coming back. Fast, immersive, responsive, and non-intrusive experiences drive adoption and minimize churn. And they are best executed closest to the reader – at the network edge where the ever-important response time can be minimized.
The edge explained in 30 seconds
As mentioned above the edge means bringing your articles as close as possible to your reader as you can. It means deploying your applications no longer on your own servers. Instead, they are distributed across the U.S. or even internationally. Using an edge cloud caching product (such as ours at Fastly) means caching copies of your content not at the origin, but close to your readers. This provides scale and speed that would otherwise be extremely difficult and costly to achieve using your origin servers alone.
As an additional benefit, this approach opens the door to serverless computing. This brings your application closer to the customer and frees it from conventional cost and rules associated with server space and infrastructure maintenance
Power of the edge
If you’re still wondering how the edge can change your publishing platform, let’s talk specifics:
1. Increase response times
How quickly does your website respond to new users across the country or on the other side of the world? An optimized platform at the edge will be able to store copies of your web page in servers globally, reducing the time to first load of your web page and every subsequent content load after. This will increase user satisfaction. It can also improve typical SEO ranking pushing your news to the top of search results.
2. Publish – and update – instantly
Ever since the advent of cache, clearing it has been a problem. Stale or outdated goes against what any digital publisher is all about. With an optimized edge publishing platform, copies of your content are instantly stored around the globe. So, when needed, you and your readers will benefit from its ability to purge or update in an instant.
3. Effective and rapid A/B testing
A/B testing is detrimental to rolling out new (web) features. While there are many ways to do this, certainly the easiest and most effective way is to execute rapid A/B tests right at the edge. Using a programmable caching layer, developers can easily route a small percentage of traffic to a test site or add a test header to expose a fraction of the readers to a new feature or headline before going live.
4. Unintrusive paywall
We live in a world of paywall, but is it slowing your visitors down? Is it dragging out load times, slowing down the overall user experience, and therefore discouraging returning readers? By migrating your paywall to the edge, you can significantly increase the speed of reader validation to confirm variables such as identity, location, and subscription status.
5. Ad blocker detection done right
Ads continue to be the primary source of income for many Digital Publishers and the proliferation of ad blockers is a serious challenge to the industry. Do you have appropriate ad blocker protection in place? A powerful publishing platform at the edge will be able to quickly detect and deny traffic to any and all readers using ad blockers.
6. Content targeting for increased engagement
One of the benefits of the digital workflow and process is the immense flexibility it gives you as a content delivery service. With the amount of programmatic power available at the edge today, why deliver the same content to everyone? By using powerful customer insights paired with a strong edge preflight system (to figure out who a user is when they request your website), you can tailor content to the reader and deliver it at high speeds.
7. Reap the benefit of targeted ads
It can seem like nobody wants ads. However, readers often pick “irrelevance” as the reason why they ignore and dislike ads within content or on news outlets. As is the case with above, ad revenue and engagement also benefit greatly from personalization. Making intelligent and localized at the edge brings benefits to the publisher and reader.
8. Image optimization on-the-fly
A modern edge platform should be able to enhance your publishing workflow by letting you customize and optimize images. This may be cropping or fine-tuning resolution, as well as other transformations, but it should be done close to your reader and on the fly when the requests come in for ultimate performance and cost savings.
9. Deliver right-sized content with device detection
With the sheer number of devices existing today, building responsive websites to serve your digital content is no easy task. However, when using a powerful edge platform, you will be able to automatically detect devices and help you steer your users to the correct application (mobile or web).
Success on the edge
An industry-leading edge cloud platform should let you securely edit and publish at the edge of your network—right where your readers are and do so at speed and scale. In light of the challenges digital publishing is facing, the key to customer retention and satisfaction is serving the most up-to-date personalized content instantly. You must also ensue that online experiences are fast, safe, and secure.
Overall technology continues to shift away from centralized infrastructures. We hope to have demonstrated the significant amount of power available at the network edge. Whether you have an established content platform already or you are planning to start from the ground up, you must take advantage of every bit of speed and power you can get to bring your publication into the next phase of digital delivery to delight and retain.
As the publishing industry seeks stability in the wake of the pandemic, Meredith Corp is making video an increasingly important part of its long-term content strategy.
Meredith’s newly-appointed Chief Digital Content Officer Amanda Dameron is leading an expansion of the publisher’s video portfolio. The most recent launch is a new Food & Wine show, “Pastries with Paola”.
The series, which stars celebrated pastry chef Paola Velez, debuts with 13 episodes. The videos focus on how to make easy desserts like empanadas and chocolate cake. They also celebrate Paola’s Dominican heritage and culinary traditions.
Collaborating with diverse talent is a vital part of Dameron’s vision for video at Meredith, “as represented by Paola’s show, and every show that we have in development. We are interested in telling stories that are uplifting, that are optimistic…and are told in an inclusive way, in a multicultural way, in a way that truly embraces the world as it is,” she said. “We take tremendous responsibility in that.”
Video as a vehicle for expansion
Long gone are the days of a simple printable recipe card. Increasingly, audiences turn to their social media feeds for food inspiration and helpful information.
Dameron believes that video as a format is more important than ever before. “Rising generations are looking for content that shows them how to do something correctly, how to break down the steps,” she explained. More than that, she sees video as a conversation between content creators and the audience. At Meredith, the tone is informal and intimate, and allows for feedback, especially when distributed via social media.
“When you couple that with a platform in which it’s easy for the audience to share their insight, their questions, and to be able to use that insight to refine the series itself, there is no format better made for that than video,” she emphasized.
However, Food & Wine’s video strategy is not limited to short-form on social media platforms. The video team is experimenting with producing content in a range of styles and lengths, from short how-to’s to longer, documentary-style pieces.
In fact, the brand was recently nominated for an ASME award for “Tasting Home”. The three-part video series follows Chef Kwame Onwuachi who traces his culinary roots by travelling to Trinidad, Jamaica, Louisiana, and Texas.
“We’ve been really gratified to see that our audience responds very passionately to the series that we present, no matter what the format,” Dameron said.
It’s not just video length that varies. In response to evolving viewing habits, many of Meredith’s videos are now produced for both traditional landscape viewing and portrait mobile phone viewing. This means that video content has to be carefully planned for both orientations from the outset.
“We have a lot of different versions of a hero asset or video, and we have to apply a high level of rigor to the way that shots are composed,” Dameron outlined. “You have to be mindful of it every moment of shooting the video itself. Having both landscape and vertical perspectives gives the ability to create the best possible viewing experience, no matter where the audience chooses to find us.”
Active engagement for success
For Dameron, the key success metric for Meredith’s videos are views. However, she also takes a close interest in watch time and active engagement. In particular, she uses these as a way to improve programming.
“I’m really interested in a deeper engagement that shows when we are circulating stories and series. What is the audience saying to us? And more importantly, what is the audience asking us?” she explained. This can often be quite a time-consuming, manual process, but Dameron believes it pays off in terms of quality.
“Comments, questions, those active points of engagement, these are things I’m always looking for. When that symbiotic relationship that exists between audience and content creator happens, you start to see content become better.”
“You must be in the plumbing of it all if you are to understand how to really harness your opportunities in the best way possible and to be able to do so with a quickness and a confidence.”
It’s clear that a multiplatform approach is key to the future of Meredith’s content strategy. Dameron’s role sits centrally at Meredith, and she is planning further video expansion across other brands in Meredith’s portfolio. However, although her position working across brands allows her to apply a framework and resources across titles, she is also keen to emphasize that each video strategy has to be as unique as the brand.
“That centralized approach allows us to have a framework that is strong, but flexible. But that being said, it’s really important to emphasize that each particular brand is at the helm of its own creative manifestation in video.”
A flexible, evergreen future
As Dameron gets her feet under the table at Meredith, she is planning to expand the company’s pool of evergreen video content. The goal is to realize longer-term value. “We’re also very interested in developing a long-form video strategy; one which really focuses on the lifetime value of the video library,” she said.
Crucially, this will involve building flexibility into the process, and anticipating how the videos will be used in the future. From being able to shoot for multiple orientations to distributing across social and OTT, careful planning from the outset is essential.
“We want to give ourselves the flexibility to create content and programming across every distribution channel and every screen that exists here today, or is yet to be built tomorrow,” she explained. “If you have a rigor and a framework for assembling the strongest video library you can, then you’re unfettered in the future from distributing it however you wish.”
Diversity of on-screen talent is firmly on Meredith’s agenda. But to ensure it makes the most of that investment for the future, it is also firmly focused on building a diversified video portfolio that is future-proofed both in format and content.
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.
When the pandemic took hold in spring 2020, travel publishers had to think, and move, fast. In a world where travel became unsafe, if not outright banned, this segment of the publishing world faced long odds. However, many—including Conde Nast Traveler, Travel + Leisure, Thrillist, and National Geographic—refocused their strategies to keep housebound audiences informed and entertained. But now, as parts of the world reopen to travel, while others are still profoundly struggling with Covid-19, travel brands are poised to make another pivot.
Destination for information
Last spring, Conde Nast Traveler shifted its digital content strategy away from bread-and-butter destination content to travel news. In particular, it dove into how the unfolding Covid-19 pandemic was impacting travel. And, after a precipitous drop off when the world essentially shut down in March, traffic began to rebound in April as homebound readers spent more time on the site, driving up total engaged minutes 10% in 2020.
As lockdowns set in around the world, Conde Nast Traveler focused on creating a deep well of
evergreen content aimed at inspiring grounded readers to daydream about future travel. It highlighted adventures closer to home. It also provided virtual travel experiences to transport and engage housebound audiences.
However, now that actual travel is back on the rise, Conde Nast Traveler is pivoting again. “As regulations ease and attitudes towards travel shift, we’re focusing on content that helps people get back out into the world,” said Jesse Ashlock, Conde Nast Traveler’s Deputy Global Editorial Director.
Traffic to domestic destination-based content and road-trip related content began to climb last summer. Interest in vacation rentals also spiked. Audience time spent with that content rose more than 1,100% between January and October 2020. Ashlock expects those trends to continue through this summer, as people explore the great American outdoors.
Travel + Leisure made a similar pandemic pivot, leaning into the leisure aspect of the brand as the world was shutting down in the spring of 2020. The brand even updated its Twitter bio to reflect its #LeanIntoLeisure strategy.
“We maintained a very flexible approach to our content, particularly in March, April and May 2020, so that we could be nimble and change course depending on what made sense given shifting world events,” said Deanne Kaczerski, T+L’s Digital Content Director.
The brand also shifted it’s commerce-related content from travel gear toward products related to face masks and work-at-home accessories.
Aspiration and inspiration
On Instagram, Travel+Leisure chose to double down on aspiration. The team shared images meant to inspire far-flung daydreams and asked followers to share images of the places they missed most. “We didn’t entirely abandon the aspirational element of travel,” Kaczerski said. The brand continued to highlight dreamy itineraries for cooped up wanderers looking for an escape from daily pandemic life but also began covering more wellness stories.
There are several indications that strategy worked. “Overall, the website experienced tremendous traffic in the last year. People sought out trusted information, expert advice and compelling content to satiate their wanderlust in a very challenged time,” Kaczerski said.
At Thrillist, the gaze shifted toward learning more about the places that captivate travelers.
“Rather than encouraging people to go out, we encouraged people to dig into learning the history of spaces,” said Helen Hollyman, Thrillist’s Editor in Chief.
As the world reopens, Thrillist’s focus is on service journalism that aims to help readers figure out their pandemic travel comfort level. While things are looking up, “it’s still a little bit of a question mark where things will be at the end of 2021,” Hollyman said.
Given the uncertainty of international travel, Thrillist opted to emphasize domestic travel by highlighting adventures that can be had. These include camping, stargazing, and exploring national and state parks.
Advertisers are ready for the change, Hollyman said. “Everyone’s kind of in this space of let’s get back in there,” she said. “People are tired of Netflix, and they’re tired of streaming.”
George Stone, Editor in Chief of National Geographic’s travel coverage, described the pandemic as a bit of a break. It offered a breather, which allowed the publication to shift gears and return to its roots. “In a way, it gave us the opportunity to do better National Geographic storytelling,” he said. “We were stepping away from consumer travel objectives, and that was a relief.”
With consumer travel largely off the table for several months, National Geographic felt free to focus its website on looking at the world through the lenses of science, history, and culture. “We started to dig into the stories of people and places more so than the immediate story of the traveler,” Stone said.
There were also more Covid-19 stories, a reflection of National Geographic’s deep commitment to covering science. “Our traffic really shot up last March,” said Alissa Swango, Managing Editor for National Geographic Digital.
Homeschooling parents drove up demand for science-related kids content like experiments to supplement schoolwork. A popup pandemic newsletter has remained so popular it still hasn’t pivoted. “Our open rates are still very high,” Swango said.
As travel opens up, National Geographic hopes to help usher in a new more thoughtful era of travel. Like other publishers, it plans to focus more on sustainable travel and responsible tourism through its content.
The goal is to “encourage people to get out into the world for a firsthand encounter with the issues,places, communities that bring geographical and cultural context,” Stone said. “We want people to know the world and love the world as conservationists and explorers.”