Subscription growth is expected to scale far more quickly than digital advertising. So, it is fair to say that many papers’ survival is predicated on perfecting a paywall strategy. To that end, subscriptions are becoming a primary consideration for publishers. According to PWC’s Media Trends 2020-2024 report, it is one of the few bright spots for newspapers, growing from $4.5bn in 2019 to $7bn by 2024.
As a result, few accusations raise hackles in digital news like the suggestion someone’s paywall strategy is wrong. We’ve seen that discussion play out many times between adherents of hard paywalls and the advocates for metered models. Now, though, there is growing sentiment that there may only be two or three big subscription players in any one niche. Consequently, rather than focusing on the terms of access, we are now talking about points of differentiation between what is included in each package.
At some titles, non-news products round out the subscription bundle, making it more appealing overall. For example, The New York Times’ Crosswords and Cooking products have long driven subscriptions. And they actually appear to be growing in importance to the company’s subscription strategy. In its latest earnings call, CEO Meredith Kopit Levien also confirmed that the Times’ plans to build a subscription service around its review site Wirecutter.
Few outlets have the funds or the products to be able to bundle additional products into their news subscriptions, however. The points of differentiation for most have to come from their core content. For regional publishers making a play for subscription revenue, that uniqueness comes from the fact that they are the only provider of local news in the area.
However, national titles must differentiate in other ways. That might be a star columnist, or an edition-based publishing method as we’ve seen employed by The Times of London. Or it could even be putting the core product – the news – outside the paywall itself. And that’s where we get back to the accusation that people are doing paywalls wrong. Indeed, putting news outside a paywall is a grievous, unforgivable sin to some in the industry.
High value, no cost
We saw that with the reaction to news sites like The Financial Times and The Atlantic making their coronavirus coverage free-to-access. That was despite arguments from some of us that doing so would benefit their subscription businesses in the long-term. Even so, putting critical news outside the paywall is hardly unprecedented. But what if a national title were to put all of its rolling news outside the paywall, and instead rely on old content to convert people to subscribers?
That’s exactly what the Daily Nation, Kenya’s largest national title, is planning to do. Per Nieman Lab’s write-up: “To read Nation articles more than seven days old … users will have to pay up.” Essentially, the value proposition shifts from free-to-access to paying for content that, in the world of digital news, is practically ancient. Subscriptions start at 50Ksh for one week, 150Ksh for one month, or 750Ksh for one year. (50Ksh is about 45 cents USD.)”
So, can an approach like this work? Can you effectively sell a “news” subscription where the content you’re charging for isn’t, well, new?
Deep dive archive
To answer that question, we need to look at other types of publications that have made access to archives the core tenet of a subscription.
Exact Editions operates a business that runs specifically on offering access to back-catalogue bundles, and a few years ago its managing director Daryl Rayner said: “A large proportion of our partners’ magazines are earning more from institutional subscriptions than they are from app sales in iTunes. It is an important market, not to be neglected.” I can’t imagine the propensity to pay for archives has fallen even as more people become willing to pay for digital subscriptions.
If not strictly news, these are news-adjacent articles, hopelessly out of date and yet hugely valuable. They are snapshots of a given time in history; small wonder that people will pay for access.
Beyond the back issue
Beyond the appeal to the consumer of archived feature writing, however, there is undoubtedly still inherent value in news archives. If there weren’t, there would never have been a drive to collect microfiches of old editions in libraries.
While it has done so with no eye to charging for access, the Internet Archive has digitized “almost the entire back catalog” of the Editor and Publisher. As Joshua Benton writes: “Newspapers’ archives are an incredible storehouse of information about the history of our country. And too many of those archives are, as E&P’s were, left crumbling in some storage facility or hidden away on unindexed rolls of microfilm.”
It’s a social service to archive these old stories, and doubly so at a time when digital news is frequently ephemeral. The half-life of news is infinitesimal. This was a concern as far back as 2009. And it’s only become more important as audiences wise up to the nature of digital news publishing. They appreciate having resources like this to the point that they will pay for it, as the British Library found when it began selling access to its archive of newspapers.
So, why is there reluctance to make these archives the core tenet of a news subscription as the Daily Nation has done, rather than hitching our future to up-to-the-minute coverage? It’s partly due to a discrepancy between what journalists and editors value versus what audiences consider worth paying for. I recently spoke to Ramus Kleis Nielsen, the director of the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, about that dissonance. He argues:
“When news organizations who are turning to reader revenues are trying to sell subscriptions, that light is very focused on us and not very focused on the public that we aim and claim to serve. They are the ones who have to convince. You don’t need to convince me or journalists that what we do is important, or that we want more people to engage with it and even pay for it. You need to convince the people who aren’t doing it.”
Because those of us who work in journalism focus on the now, on being first. And, therefore, we can lose sight of what audiences actually need: context. It’s natural that we should fear putting our most valuable content out there for free. This is why hackles raise whenever someone brings it up. But if what we value isn’t what audiences value? How can we know what they think is really worth paying for?
More crucially, those archives offer perhaps the most valuable point of differentiation from rivals. “Breaking” news is easily replicable online. And, while it’s important it isn’t necessarily uniquely valuable. What is valuable is the analysis – the context – built around that news. As with the viral “Who is the banana republic now?” column that the Daily Nation found drove subscriptions, that evergreen content – abundant in newspapers’ archives – is both differentiator and draw for audiences.
Since its founding, Digital Content Next has been at the forefront of emphasizing the importance of brands as proxies for trust and advancing the future of trusted news and entertainment.
We share this message about trusted digital publishers with policy makers, advertisers, and the public. We share how the trust DCN members’ brands have built – both their reliability and integrity – is critical to their on-going relationships with advertisers and consumers. And today, we also share that message through an innovative new way – through the trust.txt framework.
What is trust.txt?
The idea is disarmingly simple.
Trust.txt is a machine-readable text string that enables any web-crawling robot to easily understand there is a relationship between DCN and our members who also choose to install a trust.txt file on their sites. The concept will be familiar to anyone familiar with robots.txt or the more recent ads.txt. Scott Yates, founder of JournalList.net is the caretaker of the trust.txt framework, along with a few members of his non-profit board.
This simple idea helps to solve a long-standing challenge: Research has repeatedly shown that membership in DCN is a clear positive signal of trust to the industry, press and others. However, that “trust signal” is not actionable for social networks, search engines, programmatic ad networks, researchers and others that wanted to transact only with trusted publishers. Over the years, platforms, agencies and advertisers have asked us to manage lists of trusted publishers however we’ve always been concerned those lists would be too narrow unless they recognized the entirety of the media ecosystem – not just DCN members. And that’s what the trust.txt framework does.
In support of this framework, DCN has placed a small text file on our website. You can actually look at it here.
We recommend that all of our members install a similar file. It’s easy. And, significantly, it signals that the trusted publishers that do so have a relationship to DCN. It confirms our association with each other in a decentralized and secure way.
Why do this?
As you likely know, DCN has consistently expressed concerns about how Google and Facebook have undermined the power of brands to serve as proxies for trust. We’ve held their feet to the fire in many ways. But they do have one valid excuse for why they do not send more users to more trusted publishers: They don’t have a way for their web-crawling robots to see that trust relationship. The same can be said for automated advertising systems and brand safety filters begging for automated inclusion lists.
What they need are machine-readable signals that they can plug into their algorithms. With trust.txt they will have that and their last excuse for why they don’t more prominently feature trusted digital publishers evaporates.
When these trust.txt tags are on more trusted publishers’ websites, DCN will have a new way to hold the platforms accountable. We’ll also be able to use it with new and emerging advertising systems to encourage smart ad spending on trusted content creators.
Members of DCN: I encourage you to install your own trust.txt file. The instructions to do so are here. I also encourage you to join JournalList.net, a member-owned cooperative that manages the whole system. It also means that Yates, the founder of JournalList, can help you get your trust.txt file built and installed.)
DCN is pleased to be the first national organization to sign up for JournalList, and we encourage every other membership organization to start using this tool right away so that the network effect of trust will be visible as quickly as possible. The framework was built as a starting point that is truly open and available to all. DCN is, and will be, only as trusted as its members. The same holds true for any other membership, whether it be a new coalition or an organization that has stood the test of time like the Associated Press.
The last few years, and especially the last few months, have provided stark evidence that the underlying problems that plague society are made worse when the information ecosystem is weak. It’s time to strengthen our digital infrastructure with trustworthy information, We are hopeful that trust.txt is another powerful step in the right direction.
Physical and digital provisions are no longer silos in themselves, and are forming parts of a more unified strategy
Payments and subscription dates can be disconnected for greater flexibility
Offering the ability to pause subscriptions rather than cancel outright can reduce churn
Bundling products together to form more focused packages can be more enticing than the all-you-can-eat approach
Streamlining registration and payment journeys is critical to maximizing conversion
A common strategy in the publishing sector is to provide a certain amount of content for free. This might be a limited number of free articles, or content types/genres that is free to unregistered customers. Meanwhile, in OTT and SVOD, the general rule is to have content locked behind a paywall or have all content available for a limited free trial period. This is a commercially restrictive “all or nothing” approach.
An alternative value exchange would be to provide a metered registration wall. In this way, you offer customers the ability to watch selected content for free in return for creating an account and sharing their personal details.
For services that do not provide a free trial, this can help entice new customers who get the opportunity to see the quality of the service. For churned customers, it is an opportunity to bring them back in. It also generates an opportunity to increases customer loyalty through other strategies.
A common scenario within the publishing sector, particularly those publishers that operate physical delivery, is where customers wish to “pause” their subscription for reasons such as going on holiday, or a financial decision. These customers do not want to churn. In this “subscription holiday” approach, access and payments are paused for a set length of time agreed by the customer and the provider.
OTT, on the other hand, is either active or inactive. Customers who need to make this decision must typically cancel their subscription and then remember to reactivate. Once churned, they may choose not to come back at all. There are some services, particularly sports services such as BT Sport and Sky Sports, which offered to pause subscriptions in part of 2020 due to a lack of sports events. In the case of BT Sports, the payments could be halted, or donated to the NHS. Other sports-based OTT services offered payment holidays to their customers during this time.
For OTT Sports, this is helpful for retaining customers who would otherwise churn in the off-season. Instead, customers can be at ease knowing their subscription and billing will only be active when they need the service.
Bundling is the process of combining multiple products and offering them in a single package. Using customer data insights and personalization solutions such as Zephr, businesses can get clear insights into the reading and viewing habits of their customers.
This data can be used to identify products that often perform well together. Then, those products can be offered in a package to the customer dynamically as an acquisition incentive. For publishing, this could be discounted access to certain articles based on topic, a group of magazines, or relevant discounts on third-party services. For larger OTT providers, this can be access to specific categories such as kids shows or movies.
Express registration and checkout
Netflix offers a model example of easy signup. Provide an email address and password and the customer account is ready. Amazon and Now TV both have simple sign-up pages to get customers viewing their content quickly. The key element is reducing the amount of personal data collected at the point of sign-up. The typical registration flow will offer email and password, or Social Sign On. Long signup forms are rare in the OTT space.
Publishing can stand to learn from this lesson: Customers expect as frictionless a sign-up process as possible. Where metered registration walls are used, it is a good idea to put the single sign-up process in a prominent place, using SSO and email/password only.Ensuring the registration and payment appears on a single page also reduces time and friction, which can increase acquisition rate. Publishers and OTT providers based in the European Economic Area (EEA) should also be aware of regulations around Strong Customer Authentication (SCA) and factor customer identity checks into their billing journeys.
Best of both
Acknowledging that content does not have to be an all or nothing approach. Using data to personalize offerings and create bundled content tailored content is a great way to win signups from customers.
Physical and digital are no longer separate silos but are both key parts of the acquisition strategy. The popularity of video only continues to increase and is now the expected content format of any brand. The lines between OTT and publishing are continuing to blur. So, organizations that learn from this shift in expectation early stand to see major gains in customer acquisition.
Held virtually and expanded to five days, the 2021 edition of the member’s-only DCN Next:summit (February 1-5) was certainly unlike any that came before. Fittingly, CEO Jason Kint kicked things off by reflecting on all that has changed over the past year and, perhaps more importantly, what has not.
“Publishers have been covering three of the biggest stories of our generation, all intersecting at the same time,” he said. “Your ability to stay true to your brands and to the public trust, despite personal and professional obstacles, has been remarkable.”
Amid all of this, Kint reminded attendees that the industry will need to keep its priorities straight to fuel a stronger digital media marketplace. Indeed, a broad theme of the event was the many ways publishers are adapting to shifts accelerated by the pandemic by deepening their direct relationships with audiences.
Platform power plays
Constellation Research founder and chairman Ray Wang expanded on that topic in the opening session, an interview by BBC correspondent Larry Madowo. Noting increased competition from outside the industry, Wang called for greater cooperation among media companies.
“What we have is a fracturing in the marketplace, which is making it very hard to compete with the digital giants,” he said. “In order to succeed, you have to band together.”
Axel Springer CEO Mathias Döpfner told Axios media reporter Sara Fischer that the “immensely powerful position” of tech platforms will need to be addressed by regulators. At the same time, he shared an optimistic outlook for the future of journalism. Unlike the print-centric business he took over 20 years ago, digital journalism carries lower costs, he said, allowing media companies to invest more heavily in editorial.
“You have no deadline. You have unlimited space,” Döpfner said. “And you can combine all aesthetic forms of journalism. It can be video, it can be audio, it can be text, it can be all combined. I think we are still in the early days of digital journalism and its creative potential.”
Monopolies and media models
Döpfner added that there’s a future for both subscription- and ad-supported journalism on the web, and that many organizations will continue with a mix of both. The future of advertising, however, depends on the role of platforms.
On the contrary, NYU marketing professor Scott Galloway said the key to survival for media companies will be subscriptions. He said that giving content away for free to “innovators and algorithms” was “the biggest mistake journalism ever made.”
Interviewed by Henry Blodget, the CEO of Axel Springer-owned Insider Inc., Galloway added that regulators should further address platforms’ data collection capabilities to mitigate their harmful effects.
POLITICO antitrust reporter Leah Nylen and Yale economist Fiona Scott Morton then explored potential regulatory remedies to the anti-competitive practices of tech companies. Scott Morton encouraged media companies to help educate regulators on the impact of “dominant advertising intermediaries,” such as Google.
“These markets for digital advertising are not something that most people understand,” she said. “It requires effort on the part of the affected parties to help move the conversation forward and push regulators in a direction that’s good.”
“There’s plenty of room for other digital journalism outlets to survive and thrive,” she said.
“We’re still in the early days of the pay model. It wasn’t that long ago that everybody said things like ‘digital news wants to be free.’ Some of our journalistic competitors are having great years for subscriptions. We look at all of that as making a market.”
To build on the 2.3 million digital subscriptions the Times sold in 2020, Kopit Levien said the outlet will be investing in covering live and developing news. Additionally, she suggested that publishers should work to reduce their dependence on third-party data to help create better digital experiences for subscribers.
Meeting audiences whenever, wherever
CNN chief media correspondent Brian Stelter sat with CBS News president Susan Zirinsky for a discussion on how the pandemic has accelerated shifts in the TV news business. Gone are the days of holding major scoops or interviews for primetime, Zirinsky said. Even broadcast news must adapt to a 24/7, cross-platform model.
“We want to give people facts,” Zirinsky said. “We want to share information. This is really what it’s about: being on every platform that is available, taking our unique content and putting it in as many places as a consumer is.”
One of those rising platforms, audio, was the topic of conversation between Gimlet Media head of content Lydia Polgreen, Pineapple Street Studios co-founder Jenna Weiss-Berman, and Recode’s Kafka.
While advertising remains a lucrative source of revenue, Polgreen said the medium needs some advancement in terms of measurement and audience-based selling, similar to other formats. Weiss-Berman added that the mechanisms for connecting ad buyers with content creators need development. Both agreed that there is still tremendous room for growth. The next big challenge will be reaching people who don’t currently listen to podcasts.
“If you look at the research, podcast listening has tripled since 2014, in terms of share of time, but only from 2% to 6%,” Polgreen said. “In a world where audio is completely on-demand, the possibilities are pretty endless.”
The future of media and journalism
Elsewhere on the program, Snap CMO Kenny Mitchell and Clubhouse CEO Paul Davison each explored growth strategies for their respective platforms. They also touched on the importance of creator relationships and the intersection of content and community.
Julia Angwin, editor-in-chief and founder of The Markup, took attendees behind the scenes of The Atlantic’s highly successful COVID tracking project. Staff writer Alexis Madrigal, who co-founded the project, reflected on the many challenges involved in merging numerous disparate sources of data to meet a critical need for information in the early months of the pandemic.
Angwin noted that the project exemplifies the tangible benefits that journalistic endeavors can provide to the public, particularly when providing information that might be “politically inconvenient.”
On the final day of the Summit, Stacy-Marie Ishmael, editorial director at The Texas Tribune, led a lively conversation with 2PM Inc. founder Web Smith and The Washington Post’s VP, commercial, Jarrod Dicker, on the future of media. In line with the trends, the discussion largely focused on the rise of independent creators.
“Twitter and other platforms have enabled individual people to build their own reputation. It’s created an entirely new landscape,” Dicker said. “Creators can see what their individual value is. I think that’s a change in the discourse.”
New year, same values
In closing, Kint said that, despite adapting well to a virtual event, he hoped to see everyone back in Miami for the 2022 DCN Next: Summit. In the interim, he advised those in attendance to focus on three key things: strengthening bonds with audiences and partners, understanding the core needs of both, and emphasizing agility in response to change.
“Every member of DCN has a direct and trusted relationship with their users and advertisers,” he said. “Our Summit is the one place where, in the comfort of a closed-door environment, surrounded by others who share our values, we can also share our successes and vulnerabilities.”
As McKinsey reminds us, great products result when companies build bridges between technology innovation and audience preference. It is critical to deliver a holistic experience across functions and every stage of the customer journey. In media, aligning teams to develop data-informed products that engage audiences is more than a pathway to excellence. It’s essential for survival.
However, it can also be expensive to support. The record number of newsroom closures in 2020 offers unsettling proof that quality content cannot be the only draw. Organizations need to combine content and experience in new ways that decrease friction, increase satisfaction, and adapt to how consumers want to interact and where they are in the journey.
Continuing with our series of DCN video interviews, I talk to Millie Tran, chief product officer at The Texas Tribune. A local news success story, the Texas Tribune has built a sustainable business, employing more than 60 journalists through a range of revenue sources, including thousands of paying members.
Drawing from her experience at the Tribune, as well as The New York Times and Buzzfeed, Tran shares how the Tribune aligns editorial with the back-end processes to adapt content and coverage to what most readers find most useful. She also reveals how her team harnesses audience data and innovative news modules and visualizations to drive a 2x increase in homepage views and keep readers coming back.
Watch the video or read the full transcript below.
Peggy Anne Salz: Product is the new marketing, but it’s not a new focus. It is gaining new significance as content companies’ perfect ways to draw from their data, to customize content and measure the results. But what are the business benefits? How can you individualize flagship products to drive views and longer sessions? How should you focus efforts and investments? Tough questions, yes, but we get the inside track here today from The Texas Tribune on Digital Content Next.
I am your host, Peggy Anne Salz, mobile analyst, content marketing consultant and frequent contributor to Digital Content Next. Of course, DCN is a trade association serving the diverse needs of high-quality digital content companies globally.
So my guest today is the chief product officer of The Texas Tribune. So it is a perfect match with our topic. That is where she leads audience, engineering, data, design, marketing, and communications and loyalty teams. Before this, she was deputy off-platform editor at The New York Times and before that global growth editor.
I am so excited to have her here today to talk about how she creates a holistic and successful product. Millie Tran, welcome to Digital Content Next. Great to have you here.
Millie Tran: Thanks for having me Peggy. I am excited to talk.
Peggy: It is a great topic. Product is so important, and I would like to start by understanding the alignment between product and the newsroom.
So, just thinking about your day-to-day routines, strategically and in practice, what does that look like?
Tran: I love this question. You know product can feel really opaque. I think traditionally we think of product as sitting in the center. But at a news organization, the news is the product.
So that alignment between product and the newsroom really manifests in the alignment with me and our editorial director Stacy-Marie Ishmael. I would say we are constantly in communication. And one of our core functions in each of our roles is just making decisions, making a call under conditions of uncertainty, conflict, complexity and increasing and sometimes unknown interdependencies.
We make a decision over here it can affect two things over there. And we are in a process of constantly anticipating those downstream effects so we can make the smartest decision based on our strategy. The balance between editorial decisions, product decisions and revenue decisions.
How I see my job. I think it is a mix of people, process and product. And I think it has to be in that order. It has to be that you understand people, their roles, their jobs, their skills, to work together most efficiently and effectively to build that product.
Salz: I love that because first of all you have people first, that resonates with me and you are thinking about not just the output, not just the articles, videos, podcasts, whatever it needs to be. You are focused on an experience. What you yourself have called a more holistic product. I would like to understand what you mean by that. I think you have also tweeted about that as well.
Tran: Probably. Speaking of tweets, I was just reminded of this tweet that Margaret Sullivan shared the other day about how she is a big fan and supporter of local news. But the websites are so horrendous, and I think that neatly ties up with what you are asking. Holistic to me means the whole experience. All of those things you mentioned, those modules, articles, videos, podcasts. There are micro experiences to each of those things, but all of those add up to the overall user experience.
When I say holistic user experience, I also mean not just the engineering, not just the CMS, it is also the design. It is also the way we write headlines, for example. So it is organizationally something we want to provide our users. I know even the ads we consider putting on our website, are not random ads that are offensive and distracting to the journalism. If you go to our website, you will see right now the ads are very relevant to someone interested in Texas, for example.
Salz: That is very important because relevancy, as you said, it is the entire experience, and it has to fit together. What are the systems I am even interacting with or working with in the first place? It goes far beyond CMS is what I’m hearing.
Tran: It is, and I would say we have a great tech setup here, our CMS is homemade, so that is our engineering team’s biggest product, and that powers our website. We have our data visuals team who are doing one off projects that we can test and learn from.
So we have a way to experiment with new products and a nice process to build it into the broader systems to make it easier. It is this nice feedback loop of experimenting, learning, and then integrating it into how we just do our work.
So our journalists and editors can also make these things easily because that also informs the work product at the end.
Salz: I want to get back to the whole idea of delivering a product, a product is the new marketing. We said that at the top and it is a success when it either acquires audiences or deepens the connection with existing ones. What is it at The Texas Tribune? What is your audience approach? Is it acquisition or retention or maybe, something else?
Tran: That is a great question. I think it has to be both acquisition and retention.
One of our big strategic priorities right now is double and diversify. Doubling our audience and making our audience reflect Texas, be more representative of Texas.
I often think about our membership. We want to grow the number of people who are supporting us through small dollar donations. The way to increase the members is to either have more people come to your site and then you have this natural conversion flow.
A percentage of our total readers are members so there is this natural conversion flow already. So you get more members by increasing the number of people who come to you or you increase the effectiveness of converting them. So at every point, do they come back, do they potentially sign up for a newsletter? We have seen that newsletters are our most effective channel in membership conversion. So: getting a reader to donate to us. I think it is about putting both of those things into a framework that helps you understand the costs and benefits of each at every point.
So, I think it is about having all the data, putting it in a model and framework that helps you balance all of these things. I don’t think you can just choose one or the other. Having that broad view will help you make better decisions.
I said that is a quantitative framework and to loop back to what you said about product is the new marketing. I think people subscribe to things. They support organizations, they support brands for reasons that we can’t always quantify. It is really important also to understand the emotional connection that someone has to your product and your organization, your brand.
I think in addition to having that quantitative framework, you need a way to understand why people are supporting you. I think that goes back to an organization’s mission and values.
Something that I am really proud that we do is have our journalism free to publish for kind of any news organization.
When you support us, you support Texas overall having a better news ecosystem. I think people, that resonates with people. I think understanding that resonates with people is really important, even if you cannot quantify it in that model I just talked about. To your question it is balancing the acquisition and retention, but also balancing the measurables and immeasurables.
Salz: I like that because that is exactly it, it is very holistic. It is about looking at what you can measure, and we will talk about that in a moment.
There are events, there are metrics, there are things you want to optimize too, but you also want to optimize the experience. That is thinking about the people, the audience, what resonates with them, what did they appreciate?
Now I would love for you to unpack that. Maybe you can give an example, walk us through the homepage because that is where the conversions happen. That is where the conversations happen.
Tran: Yes, so let me just pull up my homepage for you. This is The Texas Tribune homepage. There are two things on here already that I can talk through that we just launched within the past year during my time at the Tribune.
So this navbar is something we launched and what you’re seeing here, by the way, these little green numbers are live audience data. We use Parse.ly for this so we can see in the last 10 minutes or whatever time period, what people are clicking on. We can see what is of interest, what is resonating with people, that will inform, not necessarily decide, what we choose to feature.
Going back to what I was saying, about our two teams, the data visuals team, which is in the newsroom and then the engineering team. This navbar was code that was in a previous, I think it was in an election page, a way for us to highlight different topics on that page. We ended up pulling that code and the engineering team made it a part of our core CMS.
So we took something that was a one-off, we learned about how people used it and then saw a need for it. There are so many coronavirus stories that we did not know how to surface all the different lines and angles. We knew that we had the code. We took it and then the engineering team built that feature into our CMS. Now editors can just choose their own topics each day and highlight the most important. I think that is a great example of the culture of experimentation, it is a culture of learning and iterating.
When the most people are on our homepage, we want to optimize for the most important things that they should see.
That was one quick way that we did that. Another way is this coronavirus in Texas model you will see here.
I think the beauty in all of this again, is the flexibility and adaptability. It’s actually not a coronavirus in Texas model. It is a model to feature any kind of series that we choose.
You can imagine this not being here. If you are scrolling through, it would take so long to see all the relevant stories in one place. This in itself is such a great product because it does a lot of things. It gives you the latest coverage in a very skimmable way. So you are not having to scroll so deep because most people don’t, and again, that is understanding the audience behavior and making it a better product, given that information. We also have feature coverage, so it is not just chronological, it is our editorial priorities.
I talked about newsletter subscribers and having that module there is really important to us because if we can get people to subscribe to our newsletters, they can become part of our email universe and therefore eventually hopefully become a member.
Salz: Absolutely. You can re-engage with them and talking about engagement you have some other modules that you were showing me in prep that I was very interested in. How you turned a news story into a module. Can you walk me through that as well?
Tran: Yes, absolutely. This is a story that we did, late last year about how Texas has made it easier and harder for people to vote in the pandemic.
You will see if you notice the order here. This was not the original order and what we did was make sure that we were tracking what people were clicking on, so we can get a sense of what people needed to know most. We ended up moving that question about when was the last day to register to vote first. And again, I think that’s just being responsive to reader needs, working with our newsroom, working with our engineering team, working with our data visuals team to really have an integrated news driven, but reader informed product. And you’ll also see here there’s fiscal support, right?
So April Hinkle who’s our chief revenue officer was able to take it to market and get funding for it. Again, this is just one way that we really tied in, the newsroom, product and revenue.
Salz: You more than doubled your views to the homepage in just one month.
So you went from 400,000 in February to more than a million in March, obviously breaking news, very important. We’re all talking about COVID, but that number is also consistent. So you keep them coming back. We talked about how that works when there’s news, breaking news, but of course it’s not a static world out there.
So I’d like to understand how you adjust to make the changes in the editorial product accordingly to keep that number as high as it is.
Tran: We found that our readers who visit the homepage are just also more engaged with us, right? They’re more loyal. They visit an average of 2.3 pages versus 1.4 of all visitors on site. They stay on the site for longer to 2 minutes, 45 seconds compared to 1 minute and 10 seconds for all visitors.
So they are more engaged. They’re reading more, they’re staying longer. So I really want to retain this audience. If this goes down, that would be a huge red flag to me because there are people who have come to, I would say, depend on us.
So I think it’s one, meeting that editorial promise and mission. And then two, it’s about making that experience better. And that’s all the things we talked through about making the homepage, you get more information in one glance, it’s fast. Speed matters in page loads.
And going back to your very first question about alignment between news and products, that’s one way to bring together that news promise and also making the best product experience for that person looking for information.
Salz: Of course, there’s another side to this. There are the challenges, you see it everywhere. Local newsrooms are crunched, even closing down. I’d like to have an understanding about the investment and staffing necessary to achieve what you’ve been able to do.
Tran: I’ll always say that it begins like starts and ends with the journalism, but I think just as important is having the kind of architecture and infrastructure to support that journalism.
So I think it’s really important to invest just as much in the scaffolding around the journalism to enable that journalism, with a continued focus on the reader and I think it’s important to say also the revenue.
And in terms of investment, we’re hiring two people right now for our marketing team because that marketing function actually serves several parts of the organization.
It serves our republishing strategy. It serves our event strategy, which has a direct line to revenue. And it serves our membership strategy, which has a line to revenue. Thinking about all the things that make things you see at the back end possible is really important. So that’s where we’re focusing our investments for this year.
Salz: I’d like to just think about going forward in a different way. You talk about holistic product and I’m looking at this all the time, what is the next big thing? Although I have to say we have a lot of work to do on the existing products we have.
We haven’t really nailed it in apps, but we are talking about AR, we are talking about voice, both are poised for explosive growth.
So let’s talk about what other innovations you might be looking at or ways you want to make your product or plan to make your product more engaging, more accessible, and increase of course engagement retention in the process. What’s on the horizon?
Tran: You mentioned AR, that’s definitely not in my roadmap. But voice on the other hand, that is more plausible.
With voice for example we have a pretty robust suite of audio products already. We just rebooted Point of Order which is our podcast with our CEO, Evan Smith ahead of The Texas Legislature being in session again. So I think it’s about aligning what we have currently to build off on and then really sizing the opportunity for us. Again, I’m really laser focused on understanding the ROI of every investment, predicting and modeling the outcomes of that. And I think in doing that you’re balancing high risk with high reward. And I think not everything will fall into that. But you also don’t want to limit yourself in not taking those risks. So anyway, to your actual question… I’m thinking about all of it and hoping that we can make the smartest decisions that aligns with our strategy, with the information we have.
Salz: I think you will, because of course you have these very specific guidelines. You’re thinking about people, you’re thinking about process, and you’re aligning to create a holistic experience. Some of these will play a role. Some of them, of course, maybe not. But all of it will be very interesting to watch as it goes forward.
Thank you so much for sharing Millie, for speaking about what you’re doing at The Texas Tribune, showing it as well in your homepage and giving us a little peek into where your thinking is going into the future. Thanks again for being on.
Tran: Thank you so much Peggy. This was great.
Salz: Thank you. And of course, thank you for tuning in and taking the time today. In the meantime, of course, be sure to check out all the great content here on digitalcontentnext.org or join the conversation on Twitter @DCNorg.
So until next time, I’m your host Peggy Anne Salz signing off for Digital Content Next.
The new year brings new cheer to the advanced TV advertising sector, with an exceptional outlook for 2021. Following months of accelerated change in 2020, a remarkable 84% of marketers across five European markets expect to increase their investment in advanced TV during the next 12 months. This positivity signals a recognition of the channel’s potential to reach highly engaged audiences in premium video environments that are on-demand, connected, and addressable.
Media owners – whether programmers or distributors – have a golden opportunity to tap into this wave of optimism for a channel that includes multiple interconnected solutions and platforms. This includes video-on-demand (VOD), connected TV (CTV) and over-the-top (OTT), to audience-based linear, programmatic, and addressable. Here are just a few of the trends media owners should be aware of as they prepare for advanced TV’s take off in 2021.
Unification of linear and digital
Linear TV and digital video have been on a convergent path for some years. However, in 2020 it became perfectly clear that viewers see no difference between the two. People switch effortlessly between channels, platforms, and screens to satisfy their appetite for video content everywhere, any time. Advertisers are adapting to this evolution. They want to deliver seamless experiences across all premium video environments, regardless of whether they are linear or digital.
In 2021, the ability to sell and deliver inventory across all devices and platforms in a unified way will be a top priority for media owners, enabling them to meet advertiser demand. Significant steps are already being taken towards achieving this goal, including the advance of linear schedule optimisation through digital ad decisioning tools. However, more still needs to be done to achieve greater unification over the coming months so media owners can make a greater portion of inventory available for advertisers to buy simply and holistically.
Availability of addressable inventory
Marketers are increasingly keen to target TV advertising at household level through the use of high-quality data insights. Traditional TV advertising is still the most effective option for achieving scale. However, marketers can supplement it with addressable advertising to access niche audiences and achieve incremental reach.
Across Europe, over three-quarters of marketers expect to increase investment in addressable advertising next year, with a 9% growth predicted overall. This does vary however, according to the maturity of individual markets, the technology capabilities and the availability of addressable inventory. Spain has the most optimistic outlook, forecasting a 13% increase in addressable advertising, while France is the most cautious at just 4% growth.
To take advantage of increased investment in addressable advertising, media owners should focus on making more of their inventory addressable. This will mean breaking down silos between TV and digital teams. It also requires exploring how they can effectively use first-party and second-party data – while complying with data privacy regulations – to enable richer targeting.
Preparing for addressable advertising will require a degree of collaboration and European media companies can take inspiration from the U.S. Across the Atlantic, industry initiatives such as On Addressability are driving progress towards simple, scalable addressable capabilities across TV formats. And project OAR (Open Addressable Ready) is establishing a common technology for dynamic, addressable advertising management.
Collaboration with competitors
The trend for cross-industry collaboration doesn’t just apply to addressable advertising, but to advanced TV as a whole. Advertisers demand more streamlined solutions that allow them to buy across channels, platforms, and devices. So, media owners will need to put aside traditional rivalries and take a collaborative approach. In this case, working with competitors well help them gain mutual advantage.
There are already examples of successful collaborations around addressable TV within European markets, including partnerships between FranceTV and both Bouygues Telecom and Orange, as well as the LOVEStv platform in Spain. In the U.K., Sky, Virgin Media and Channel 4 are all partnering on AdSmart. ITV has extended an open invitation to broadcasters to join its Planet V platform. More established cross-market collaborations are also in place, such as the European Broadcaster Exchange, which was established in 2017 between Mediaset, ProSiebensat.1, TF1 and Channel 4 to enable programmatic video advertising across multiple countries.
Over the coming year, more media companies will form partnerships or join existing collaborations. This will allow them strengthen inventory offerings to allow advertisers to access premium, brand-safe advanced TV environments at scale.
After a turbulent year all round, the next 12 months look extremely promising for the TV and video ecosystem. Media executives will be poised to maximize the opportunity by embracing the unification of linear and digital and making more of their inventory addressable. If they also find ways to collaborate with partners and competitors across the industry, media companies can put themselves in the best position to make the most of advanced TV’s 2021 take off.
“Women’s representation in the news has flatlined (if not reversed) in the 21st century.” That was one of the damning conclusions in the recent report The Missing Perspectives of Women in News by Luba Kassova.
The claim is drawn from many factors including analysis of online news publications from six countries – the U.K., U.S., Nigeria, India, South Africa, and Kenya. The report also cited that, in political coverage, men accounted for up to seven times more of the voices heard than women.
It cited from a separate report: “Given the deeply political nature of the Covid-19 crisis, women’s structural marginalization in the political leadership roles established in response to the crisis locks in the suppression of women’s voices in the story.”
Some of the research used was conducted by Media Ecosystems Analysis Group, which wrote, for a study conducted between 1 March and 15 April 2020, that “when looking at non-coronavirus stories, gender equality metrics tend to be better than 2019 levels.”
So, what are journalists doing differently for non-Covid stories? It comes down to control. And we’ve made control a core principle of the BBC’s 50:50 Project, which uses data to increase the number of women contributors on content. Control in this context means a journalist or content-maker’s ability to choose the people they include in their article, TV, or radio news piece.
For example, when the British Prime Minister Boris Johnson makes an announcement around the latest coronavirus restrictions, a journalist would be compelled to include a statement from him. He is intrinsic to the storytelling. Therefore, he’s not an element of the news item that can be controlled. However, sourcing the business owner impacted by the new announcement is in the power of the journalist to control.
This is what 50:50 concentrates on. It looks to create change by identifying the voices that are in the power of the journalist and content-maker to influence, and it is working to increase women’s representation at the BBC.
Data effects change
Understanding what content-makers can control has required the BBC to subtly change its thinking. BBC News presenter Ros Atkins, who started 50:50 in 2017, talks of how he wanted to move the BBC from being in a “constant state of trying” to increase women’s representation to actually doing it.
His approach was simple: Use data to effect change.
“We ask content creators to count each of the contributors in their work that they control and try to reach 50% women over a month. Every person who counts, counts as one. That makes the data collection very simple,” explained Atkins.
In the earlier Boris Johnson example, this would mean the British Prime Minister would not count but the business owner would. And counting people once, no matter how many times they appear in a piece, means the monitoring can be done quickly.
Atkins continued: “The approach means you can measure your work as you produce it, when it is still fresh in your mind. That gives the data the best chance to influence your thinking and your actions.”
Find new voices
The golden rule of 50:50 is that the best contributor always takes part. Atkins explains that it is not a quota system. Rather, “It is an opportunity to identify where representation may be lacking and then for content-makers to go out and see if they can find new voices to enrich their content, while improving the output’s gender balance.”
There are more than 650 teams across the BBC taking part in 50:50. That means not just the news, but also sports, factual and entertainment are seeking out new voices themselves. To support their search there is also a central expert database with more than 1,500 women contributors available to the content teams.
Implementing these actions – using data to effect change, measure what you control and widening the pool of voices – has made a tangible impact at the BBC – and the audience has noticed. A survey of 2,000 BBC online users found that 39% had noticed a shift toward more women contributors and 32% of women aged 25 to 34 are now consuming more content as a result.
In March 2020, as the world went into lockdown, two-thirds of BBC teams that submitted data reached 50% women representation. This is up from a third when they joined the project.
50:50 Project Lead Lara Joannides, who spearheads the initiative inside the BBC, had feared that the challenges of coronavirus could have a detrimental impact on representation because 50:50 is a voluntary scheme, and the Corporation moved down to critical services. Despite this, the challenge results saw a nine percentage point increase on the previous year.
“The determination of BBC colleagues to make change and the conditions created by the pandemic have resulted in a really positive shift,” said Joannides. “We’re confident that while there is still a way to go, we’ll be able to maintain and improve on these figures going forward.”
The Covid effect
In more recent months, the BBC wanted to better understand the impact Covid-19 may have had on the representation initiative. So, the BBC took more than 2,500 snapshots of the gender balance on its programmes, online content, and events across a six-month period. Between June and November last year, the BBC took 2,563 snapshots, with 1,219 (48%) reaching 50% women contributors. During the same period in 2019, we took 2,528 snapshots and 988 (39%) reached the 50%. As mentioned, that represented a nine percentage point increase on the same period in the previous year.
For Director of BBC News Fran Unsworth, a key factor behind increasing women’s representation has been the removal of barriers in the news making process that existed before the pandemic. “We’ve all embraced new ways of working this year. One definite benefit is that we’ve had a wider range of guests on air,” she said.
Such a theory is supported by the content-makers themselves including Rachel Foley, Senior Journalist and 50:50 Lead for the BBC News Channel. “There haven’t been many upsides to Covid-19. But one is that it appears to have made it easier for women to appear on air,” said Foley. “I’ve noticed more female contributors are able to speak to us live on the BBC News Channel since the pandemic began because they can do so from their own homes using apps like Zoom or Skype.”
Dr. Linda Bauld, professor of public health at the University of Edinburgh and a regular contributor on BBC News programmes, is one such example. “Not having to go anywhere has been absolutely brilliant,” she explained.
“It’s just made it much more possible for me to fit it in with my family responsibilities as well as my working life. It’s now not unusual for me to do TV or radio interviews before my youngest goes to school in the morning. I’d not been able to easily do that before.”
The Kassova Report may see the women’s perspective as missing overall however, it also points to solutions. In fact, the report cited 50:50 as one of them. It points out how BBC News achieved “a wave of change in a short space of time against all odds and despite the numerous societal, cultural and systemic barriers that stand in their way.”
Since launch, more than 75 organizations across 22 countries have begun to do so as well by using 50:50 to monitor their content and communications to reach gender balance. In October, the BBC’s Director-General Tim Davie invited more organizations to join the 50:50 partners network saying that it is “only together we can deliver positive change.”
50:50 is simple solution to increasing women’s voices on content but it is an effective one. It cannot fix a company’s workforce inequalities but it can act as a tool in a its diversity and inclusion armory.
I truly believe that the more of us embracing the 50:50 way the more likely we will be that, one day, we will read a report on gender representation that is not about the absence of women’s voices but the inclusion of them – loud and clear.
About the author
Nina Goswami is the BBC’s Creative Diversity Lead and is spearheading initiatives to support the Corporation’s aspiration that its on-air representation reflects society. Nina is also a journalist and, before her current post, was a BBC News senior producer. She has worked in media her whole professional career including The Sunday Times and The Sunday Telegraph.
With restaurants, bars and clubs closed, you might assume that Covid has created a surge in live TV viewing, but it has not. If you compared U.S. TV audiences in September 2020 with the previous year, all television watching was actually down 10% during prime time. This may seem counter intuitive considering that the average time spent interacting with media has shot up 17% to a whopping 12 hours, 21 minutes a day according to Nielsen’s Total Audience Report for August. However, digging into the reasons why reveals important opportunities to re-engage audiences.
There has long been a simplistic narrative that live sports viewership is declining. Yet the reality is that huge amounts of sports content is still being consumed. And that number is growing, especially in international markets. The change is predominantly around two axes. The first is that sport is no longer “the only game in town.” It must co-exist within a much wider array of activities. The second shift is that fans are redefining what “sport” content means to them – along with how they want to consume it.
This diversity of content is highlighted by 2020 offering up another landmark. As the year when time spent using an app and/or web via a smartphone or tablet finally overtook live and time-shifted TV. This cross-over has undoubtedly accelerated due to Covid, given increased home working, less travel, and more screen time. However, the data has been moving that way for a few years. Nielsen also points out that 25% of total TV consumption is via streaming. This includes the rise of highlights and “instant” sports news services that are the equivalent of fast food compared to the three-hour banquet of a typical NFL game.
Highlights packages are not new but what has changed is the way in which they are delivered. The big networks have jumped onboard. Fox, ESPN, and others have now added more content available via the web. Yet the mindset for many is still around the “big game” and reporting that fits into a traditional schedule.
In a generation, Netflix transitioned from renting a million DVDs through the mail to touching 200 million monthly global subscribers. However, sports media still trails behind the curve when it comes to the model of instant access.
Bleacher gets it right
However, sports publications like Bleacher Report highlight one possible direction. The Turner owned brand has always delivered exquisite reportage but its rapid diversification into video and social has been striking.
Its “House of Highlights,” an Instagram feed offering highlight clips across several sports, now reaches over 20 million subscribers. Their viewership that has grown 150% in just two years. Highlights describes itself as “Everything you need to see in sports and youth culture.” It offers huge amounts of user generated content. And, while this content is still sports themed, it has much broader in its appeal – especially to younger audiences.
Bleacher is joined by a growing cohort of app and clip-based ways to consume sports content including CBS Sports and Fotmob – with the latter particularly good at notifications. If done well, personalized mobile app notifications, can drive customers into full game viewing as well as scores and highlights.
These brands and others recognize that it’s not all about the game. They help people get their highlights and sports fix from following athletes, teams, leagues, and media companies via social on the go. They also feed the growing sports engagement around fantasy and sports betting. However, these data points do not necessarily translate into full game viewing.
The fear of cannibalizing traditional TV audiences through online offerings is still deeply ingrained in the psyche of TV executives. But instant gratification culture means that failure to offer a wider buffet of visual sport experiences will make decline inevitable.
And it’s not just creating a like-for-like facsimile. The audience expectation of TV watching versus engaging with on-demand via smartphone, embedded highlights on Instagram, Twitter, TikTok, or the cacophony of social-led platforms requires producers to rethink program formats.
This raises several challenges. It starts with nurturing a new generation of creatives that are digital natives, with the ability to engage with fans of today. There’s also a need for technical retooling to simplify the production and distribution process. This enables content to be disseminated easily across multiple platforms. It needs to be done efficiently and with the controls in place to ensure that rights obligations are enforced as demanded by contract terms. Last, but no means least, is the ability to monetize multiple platforms by spreading CPM across a wider reach and unlocking far more targeted advertising models.
A great example of innovation in action is NFL RedZone, an all-in-one channel that when a team reaches the 20-yard line, (i.e. the “red zone”) cuts to the local broadcast of that game. The channel also offers the option to watch any turnovers, game-changing plays and scoring plays outside of the designated area. RedZone also has an “octabox” mode with simultaneous 8 game highlights designed for fantasy football fans.
This ability to deliver “highlight packages on the fly” uses dynamic playlists. It is is part of a surge in Cloud based technologies that are leading the charge to build streaming platforms that can pivot output to match the increasingly diverse audience profile.
The long-term issue is more cultural than technical. Live sport is still a huge deal in terms of direct and ad-related revenue. Messing with a successful formula is certainly a hard call to make. However, the Bleacher report and its siblings illustrate ways to respond to a shift in audience demand. Ignoring the opportunity makes the prospect of an empty dinner table much more likely.
Many publishers have experimented with virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR), but few have gone beyond test projects into longer term developments. However, as mobile devices have become more advanced and social platforms have started integrating AR technology into filters and tools, audiences are warming up to using AR as part of their everyday lives. This presents an opportunity for publishers.
USA TODAY was among those running early experiments. Now, the publisher has a team dedicated to emerging technologies. They’re exploring how stories can be told using virtual reality, augmented reality, data visualizations, and more. It’s a way for the publisher to enhance their storytelling capabilities, as well as drive users to spend more time in USA TODAY’s native app.
“As AR technology became embedded natively into mobile devices, we saw an opportunity to really adapt,” said Ray Soto, USA TODAY’s Director of Emerging Technology. “People were really interested in the new technologies, and our audiences were starting to seek out different experiences.”
The publisher’s Emerging Technologies team achieved “exceptional engagement” across their immersive stories in 2020. From interactive guides on germ spreading to an AR graphic novel on the 100th anniversary of women winning the right to vote, USA TODAY boosted its total views of interactive content 288% year over year. Their interactive experiences have been viewed by more than 1.3 million people over the past 12 months.
On the back of such strong metrics, Soto spoke to us about what makes USA TODAY’s AR content a success. He also discusses their plans to further develop immersive storytelling approaches.
Explore and discover
There are no restrictions on the subject matter of an AR story for USA TODAY. They have produced interactive experiences on topics from science and technology to history and entertainment. However, the type of story matters. So, the team work from the outset to ensure it’s one that their audience can spend time with, digest, and can come back to.
“We encourage all our reporters and all our editorial teams to reach out when they’ve got a story that they feel AR could be a great component of,” said Soto. “We don’t want to replace the existing story that they have. Rather, we want to use it as a form of storytelling that provides a different perspective.”
His Emerging Technology team sits with the editor. Together, they brainstorm what type of enhancement would be appropriate for the story, from traditional video to AR, or even 360 interactive widgets on the web. The core question they bear in mind at all times is one of value.
“We need to make sure we’re leveraging AR in a way that adds value to the story and ensures that we’re not treating the technology as a gimmick,” Soto emphasized. “We really don’t want to do a ‘one hit’ type story. It comes down to two words: explore and discover. And we have to feel very strongly that interactive AR storytelling is a great path forward.”
Development and collaboration
The timeline for turning around these kinds of stories can vary, according to Soto. For long-form and major editorial initiatives like their “Women of the Century” project, development can take from six to eight weeks. These types of stories involve collaborating across the business, with reporters, editors, designers, graphics researchers, narrators, and others contributing.
However, the team has achieved faster turnaround times with more news-driven stories. Some of USA TODAY’s Covid-related interactive content was developed and released in days. These were among the brand’s most engaged with pieces in 2020.
One example, “Flattening the curve: An AR guide to social distancing” was developed as a gamified experience. Users were offered a series of behavior choices relating to social distancing, in order to help teach users safe practices. The experience, developed in just five days, was viewed over 164,000 times.
AR and social media
At present, much of the AR development has been done on USA TODAY’s own app. One of Soto’s priorities for 2021 is to expand beyond the publisher’s native platforms. He plans to further explore Snapchat, Instagram and other social platforms, not just on the storytelling side but from a marketing perspective as well.
“We are looking to expand because for us, we see an opportunity to learn,” he said. “What does social engagement look like for an AR story through Instagram or Snapchat? Where are they at with accessible storytelling?”
Strengthening their AR experiences on social media will be a valuable way of introducing new audiences to the publisher’s stories. Native app users are valuable. However, social media users are more likely to share stories and experiences that resonate with them. This, in turn, helps build trust in USA TODAY’s journalism.
Visualizing the future
Soto also has data visualizations and 3D interactives in his sights. He’s also thinking about how they can apply AI to visualizations. “What is really exciting for me though is the convergence of all these technologies,” he explained. “How can we work with 5G, AI and AR? How can we leverage that conversation with our brand from not just the storytelling, but also from a product perspective?”
For now, the technology for VR hasn’t advanced to the point where enough people have the devices to make significant development on those platforms worth it. However, Soto is optimistic about these technologies becoming more accessible and cost-effective.
The success of the team’s work in 2020 has set them up for a strong year ahead. The primary focus at the moment is on growing audience confidence in engaging with the stories, as well as increasing the time spent with USA TODAY’s content. As these metrics increase, they are beginning to explore opportunities across the business to test the viability of AR storytelling as a revenue stream, such as branded content.
“There is a lot of interest, which is fantastic,” Soto explained. “We’re very fortunate to be able to share our numbers like we did for 2020, which shows that our audiences are going to [the app], they’re spending quite a bit of time there.”
“We’re focused on making sure that it’s a nice user journey, from the native app into the story, and then following whatever CTA [call to action] we might have embedded in there. So we’re beginning to explore those revenue opportunities.”
A path to profitability may not be clear yet. But as the technology evolves to enable faster and cheaper development of immersive storytelling, publishers like USA TODAY, who are spending time refining their approach, will be at an advantage.
The identity solution landscape is growing fast. I can count at least 10 solutions that launched last year alone. Third-party cookies are approaching their final exit. Identity is seen as a viable and sustainable way to keep digital advertising running and help large and small businesses alike survive. That’s all good news.
But like most things in adtech land, parsing through how technical solutions differ often requires an advanced degree and a good translator. It is technical for a reason. However, that doesn’t mean technology can’t be accessible and approachable.
I’ve spent the bulk of the last two years working on an identity solution, so I have some opinions. I’ve also spent a good deal of that time talking to other identity solution providers. There are a lot of smart people working on very difficult problems from a multitude of angles. If you’re not excited about the amount of innovation happening at this tremendous clip, you may be in the wrong industry.
For those not steeped in the tech parlance, however, vetting identity solution partners is daunting. So, in an effort to provide clarity, I’ve culled my top four starter questions that every identity solution partner should be able to answer. Frankly, these are questions every marketer, publisher, SSP, DSP, and data provider should ask.
Four critical questions to ask identity solution partners
1. Does your solution support the authenticated or open web?
The authenticated web refers to those users that register and login to a site, app, or platform. Email address is the most common form of authentication, and that identifier then becomes the key to accessing content or other services. Early estimates predict that publishers can achieve at best 10-20% of authenticated users by 2022. That’s great progress to be sure. But what about the other 80% of consumers? Capturing their attention is just as important as authenticated users. This is particularly true for those businesses interested in top funnel activities like prospecting. For maximum scale and coverage, consider leveraging both authenticated and open web identity solutions.
2. Does your solution support enriched or empty IDs?
An enriched ID is exactly what it sounds like. These solutions were built with data enrichment at the core with the goal of helping marketers and publishers execute more relevant and responsible advertising. Some IDs offer up to 200+ behavioral attributes within their IDs. This offers a treasure trove of privacy-compliant, pseudonymized data for targeting, optimization, reporting, frequency management, and more. But not all identity solutions are created equally. Many others are empty. They exist to leverage first-party data alone, which may sacrifice accuracy based on a single contextual visit or single point of view (the publishers), as well as scale. Additionally, some require a fee to use them and charge additional costs to coordinate and attach relevant data for addressable advertising. Weigh all of these costs and factors when evaluating your identity partners.
3. Where privacy is concerned, is your ID transparent or opaque?
You could ask “Is your ID privacy compliant.” However, the above question will tell you much more about a company’s actions when it comes to compliance. Until U.S. federal law exists, I’d advise to look to Europe’s GDPR, some of the strictest regulation around consumer privacy, for guidance on how to vet an identity partner.
GDPR prioritizes control, transparency, and accountability when it comes to consumer data. In that spirit, look for a solution that makes it easy and accessible for consumers to access, request, and delete their data. Further, seek a partner that minimizes its data collection and communicates accountable IDs to every channel. This ensures a clear, auditable trail as opposed to opaque providers who obscure themselves to users, reduce the ability to see data sharing across platforms, and hide tracking methods.
4. Is your ID solution interoperable or siloed?
You may be wondering with so many ID solutions out there, can they and how will they talk to each other? That’s an excellent question. This is a critical area to dive into with your partners for several reasons. Number one, there may be translation activity fees you need to build into your budget if the ID solution is not interoperable out of the gate. Second, if the ID isn’t freely accessible, you may experience some technical difficulties with sharing across various platforms in other regions. And, third, if the solution doesn’t permit communication across and between IDs, all that rich consumer profiling and segmentation work you did on the front-end may be lost in the lack of translation.
All the right answers
If, however, you find a solution that does all of the above — true interoperability across channels, platforms, and other IDs — that means your portfolio approach will be working most effectively. I trust these four questions will lead to lively and transparent conversations. We all need to be talking more and more openly to solve for a post-cookie, privacy-first world. What questions are you asking identity solution partners? I’d love to hear what’s top of mind for you as you navigate this landscape
The proliferation of on-demand platforms and services combine to drive what Nielsen calls “the most profound media disruption of the last half-century.” Record-high audience numbers and time spent using streaming services and apps add up to make 2020 the biggest year yet for streaming.
But the real growth could be in serving culturally relevant content to underserved audiences such as Hispanics, which now make up nearly 20% of the current U.S. population. It’s a demographic that demands balanced content and appreciates diverse views and voices. It’s also an audience of cord-cutters that uses streaming services, smartphones and apps. During March, Hispanics increased their weekly viewing of movies or TV shows using a streaming service by “about 8 hours.” That’s well above the numbers reported by non-Hispanics.
It will be a stretch for many mainstream content companies to bulk up on content and capabilities to cater to this mobile-first audience with culturally relevant content. But not all companies will be in catch-up mode in 2021. Vix, a free Spanish-language ad-supported video-on-demand streaming service (AVOD) company founded in 2016, has a significant head start.
Inside Vix’s success
The move to acquire Pongalo, a market-leading Hispanic AVOD, in August 2019, has established Vix as the largest Latino AVOD player in the world, growing its audience more than 10x. Today, Vix, backed by Discovery Communications and HarbourVest Capital, creates, acquires, and distributes Hispanic-focused content to audiences in the U.S., Latin America and across the globe. It counts over 20,000 hours of Latino-focused films and TV shows.
Blockbuster and premium content is a crowd-pleaser. But it’s the company’s social media footprint, which includes 100 million Facebook followers, that keeps audiences engaged. Importantly, social media is also the motor that drives customer acquisition and allows a modest 50-person ad sales team to achieve ambitious growth targets and expand efforts to Brazil.
The company has also grown the number of partnerships (Amazon, Google and Roku). The top-ranked app (the #1 most downloaded entertainment app on Android devices in Mexico ahead of Netflix) recently became a top-five free film and TV streaming app on Roku in the U.S. Vix is the first-ever free streaming app to hit that benchmark.
Continuing our series of DCN video interviews, I talk to Rich Hull, formerly the CEO of Pongalo. Hull, now the Head of Streaming Platforms and Chief Strategy Officer at Vix, received Variety’s Dealmaker of the Year honors for his part in architecting one of the most significant media deals of 2019. He is also instrumental in growing Vix’s platforms and partners.
In this interview, we discuss why all media companies must acknowledge the demographic revolution and the requirement to serve up culturally relevant content to 60 million Hispanics in the U.S. alone. We also debate the future of streaming, the role of personalization and the business benefit at the “collision of advertising, international and content.”
Here are three key takeaways from our talk:
Drive discoverability through platform diversity
U.S. Hispanics are ahead of the curve when it comes to digital. They lead in the adoption of new devices and services. And they are the power users of mobile and over-index in video consumption.
To keep pace with consumers and cater to a growing and global audience for Spanish language content, Vix has maintained a mobile-first approach. It’s all about choice and letting consumers decide for themselves how they want to consume our content, Hull says.
To date, Vix is available on multiple platforms including Apple TV, Fire TV, Roku and connected TV devices from Samsung and Vizio. “We’ve put ourselves there so that they can discover us.” Following this strategy has allowed Vix to “punch above its weight” and leverage partnerships to build scale. Amazon counts Vix as its biggest supplier of Hispanic content, Hulls says. It’s more than an accolade. It’s also an inroad to Amazon’s Alexa, a platform Hull says is important for his company – and many others – to extend the brand and win new audiences.
Tap social media to fuel your audience growth flywheel
Social media presence boosts awareness and buzz. But there’s no reason to stop there. Vix has tapped its community to create a new kind of funnel, Hull says. The audience of 100 million Facebook followers alone is one that Vix cultivates and activates with content. “It’s a really massive audience that we can speak to and it’s a very powerful megaphone that we have,” he explains.
At a high level, Vix works with major brands to create content and branded entertainment to amplify key messages and recruit audiences. “So we’ll do things like say: Here are the top five J-Lo movies ever made and, as it turns out, we’ve got two of them, so click here to install our streaming service.’” The outcome, he says, is a “very elegant way to drive people down the funnel.” It’s also helping Vix increase organic reach and reduce dependence on Facebook or Google or Apple search ads to target audiences.
Engage consumers by making free content the “front porch” of your offer
In the search to find the right mix between subscription models and advertising companies, Hull says companies should widen the aperture of how they view the potential of free content supported by advertising. He points to the example of NBCUniversal. Rather than compete head-on with Disney, AT&T’s WarnerMedia and others that have launched subscription-based on-demand services to compete (or at least catch up) with Netflix, NBC has launched a free, ad-supported service. Free doesn’t just bolster audience numbers, he says, “As the space evolves, where [streaming] is monetized with ads, it is also becoming a better user experience.”
In addition to challenging the viability of locking content behind a subscription wall, Hull also debunks the myth that original content is the way to win audiences. Granted, Game of Thrones and original content has paid dividends for Netflix, but it’s a competitive space where smaller players can go broke fast. Instead, Hull advises companies to keep content free, and bottom lines in the lack, by curating quality content, not creating it. “For us, it’s about volume and choice,” he says. The value is in curating content in a “very authentic way.”
The automation of repeatable and scalable processes, especially marketing processes, has become a competitive imperative for all brands and business. A dramatic drop in costs, combined with increasing access to technologies that underpin access to content and shopping, allows an increasing number of customers to use different channels and devices to make buying decisions. And for sellers, the ability to acquire new audiences while retaining and communicating with existing customers has enhanced the customer experience. It also permits insights to evolve rapidly.
However, it is no longer humanly possible to effectively manage digital marketing at scale. That is where automation comes in. Employing automation for digital processes helps with stabilization. It will also result in fewer opportunities for human error, fewer unproductive work hours, less burnout, and reduce training and HR costs. There are some key components that must be considered to embark on a successful automation journey, though.
The importance of creating a future state
Before an organization can implement any kind of useful automation strategy, they must establish a well-defined and achievable set of objectives and goals for the business as a whole. This future state vision is vital for creating sustainable automation practices. Without it, only short-term issues can be solved, if anything at all.
Of course, an organization may not yet have a full understanding of the uncertainties and wild cards of their business. Or the maturity levels of the market may differ significantly from what has already been put in place internally. Whatever the variable, businesses need to work backward from a clearly delineated future state to create a strategic plan that brings value to the entire organization.
Look at the automation journey holistically
Over the last two to three years, many Fortune 1000 companies have started to see automation as a strategic imperative. Acquiring and retaining talent is becoming very expensive, and manual tasks are becoming commoditized or simply not scaling. In addition, many of the cutting-edge technologies that help with automation, including cryptocurrency, machine learning, AI, and big data, are becoming more affordable and accessible.
This is particularly critical for organizations that tend to be stifled by legacy practices and systems. Disrupting existing processes will inevitably cause contention and create push back. This is particularly true if they’re working well in the here and now. You will be met with resistance and it will be a challenge to arbitrate. That is why impossible to pivot overnight. But if you know that these changes are necessary for your business to scale when looking at it from a future state, the challenge must be faced and taken head-on.
For these reasons, it is critical to start the journey. The best way to begin is by using hyper-automation. This approach involves looking at an organization holistically across multiple departments, identifying as many business processes as possible, and by focusing on the organization’s future state as the main objective.
Then, you’ll use a combination of tools to automate them. One type of automation will not work for each and every process. So, comprehensive tech stacks must be developed across the entire organization. A mix of technologies, packaged software, machine learning, and infrastructure will be necessary to deliver the work.
Marketing teams are not alone in this need. In fact, in some industries, the necessity has been much more obvious. Take BPOs and call centers, for example. As voice recognition software has become increasingly accessible and mainstream, these types of organizations have had to rapidly adapt in order to scale. Now, the majority have created workflows that can recognize the human voice associated with a specific account. This enables calls to bypass human interaction entirely.
Many companies are also automating their “back offices,” which refers to processes that are not client-facing and do not impact the market. This low-risk approach gives organizations the opportunity to build and develop automation processes internally, without having to worry about significant revenue damage if the strategy fails.
Human resource departments serve as a good example. Both recruitment and employee onboarding are process-driven tasks with many manual components. From posting job descriptions and mining for resumes, to handing out and filing benefit forms, automation simplifies and scales these processes. It enables large volumes to be handled faster, more efficiently, and with less error.
Building your center of excellence
Comprised of key stakeholders across all areas of an organization, a center of excellence (CoE) works across business units to provide leadership, share best practices, and improve overall efficiency. Establishing a strong CoE is a critical precursor to the automation journey. That’s because this team is responsible for developing and driving the business’s all-important future state.
It can be helpful to think of the CoE as the gutters along the sides of a bowling lane. Their purpose is to provide the bowler (i.e. a company’s teams) with guidelines for aiming the ball (i.e. a set of tech tools) down the lane. The pins are the company’s future state. And, if the execution is successful, the ball will reach the pins without veering into the gutter. Whether there’s a strike, a spare, or a split will depend on the bowler’s aim and execution. The CoE sets the guidelines while the teams execute the plans.
In other words, the COE will map your business’s existing state and future state, and balance the transition from what’s working well in the now to the gradual adaptation of what will work in the future at scale. They’ll also take human creativity into account—your company’s “secret sauce,” so to speak—when determining what does and does not need to be automated.
Success, organizational adaptation & measurement
Speaking of that “secret sauce,” you can use it as a general guideline for evaluating automation need. If human creativity is your organization’s secret sauce—i.e. the main ingredient driving revenue and growth—automation may not be right for you. But if you have many repetitive tasks and/or elements that have been commoditized, it’s a tactic to strongly consider.
Success metrics for implemented automation processes can be measured in two phases—internal, then external.
In terms of the first phase, it’s okay if internal back-office processes fail because they are not impacting the market or revenues. But eventually, an organization will have to automate externally in order to have a real ROI. Based on the success of their internal automation, the organization will need to figure out how to turn their strategies outward to create front-office, market-facing processes. That’s when the automation journey becomes fully holistic and the businesses can arrive at its true future state.
It’s also important to make sure individuals across the organization are aligned with the automation journey. This is critical, as there is always resistance—especially in the case of employees who fear losing their jobs. Properly educating the workforce is essential for encouraging this mindset change. It is also critical to invest in career pathing, reskilling, and other professional development rewards.
When embarking on an automation journey, you should never lead with technology. Instead, the most critical component to consider at the outset is the future state of your business. If you put your tech needs first, it will be very difficult to create sustainable automation processes that will benefit the organization as whole. Instead, focus on creating a solid CoE that provides a framework for implementation and evaluation. Doing so will greatly improve your automation success.