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.”
There are a number of reasons why legacy media faces fierce rivals in digitally native media – such as Netflix, Spotify, and Stitch. However, a critical competitive differentiator could be the fact that many of these brands are committed to delivering accurate, actionable recommendation systems.
Recommendation engines aren’t just about recommending content to your readers, according to Michael Schrage, a research fellow at MIT Sloan School’s Initiative on the Digital Economy and author of Recommendation Engines. They are platforms that facilitate online interaction. When designed well, they help organizations rethink how they can get more value from their data. They also offer more value to their customers.
“The biggest mistake media companies make is they think they are in content business. But they are the data business – and their data management sucks,” states Schrage. “While they won’t be able to rival Netflix, they still can engage with their communities so much better. It’s not just about how to tell a better story, it about how we can learn from people who read our stories and engage with them.”
Recommendation engines, or recommenders, are nothing new. Amazon founder Jeff Bezos spoke about the value of recommenders back in 1998. He said that they offer an “opportunity to develop very deep relationships with customers.”
The good news is that, while they were once a feat of extraordinary technological effort, machine learning is changing that. In fact, it’s the ease with which they can be built, applied and utilized that makes them the most exciting and valuable applications of machine learning right now.
“The big difference now is that anyone can build a recommendation engine,” states Schrage. “They are cheaper, faster and better than ever. Plus, the underlying algorithms have moved away from simple correlations to much deeper and richer analytics, around diversity and relevance. As a result, the levels of sensitivity and specificity of recommenders have improved. And they keep learning how to get better.”
Virtuous cycle of engagement
That is the key to well-designed recommenders. The more people use them, the more valuable they become. And the more valuable they become, the more people use them, creating a virtuous cycle of data with audiences. However, according to Schrage, legacy media often miss this vital opportunity to improve both customer insights and engagement.
“These organizations treat recommendation engines as a sales tool. But they need to understand how to use their data and turn it into virtuous cycle,” says Schrage. “And the low-hanging fruit is advice and recommendations.”
In other words, recommendation engines are more than a UX differentiator. When effective, they enable organizations to build customer lifetime value (CLV). The former is transactional, while the latter embraces a longer-term view.
“It’s the difference between ‘always closing’, and a salesperson who wants to forge a relationship,” says Schrage. “The question is: Do you treat customers as ‘one offs? Or do you seek to use data-driven advice to get people to come back and explore, while also building brand credibility?”
Reader regularity is a key factor in preventing churn. The industry has long been concerned about unengaged subscribers. Recent research reinforced this concern when it revealed nearly half of digital subscribers to local news outlets are ‘zombie’ readers who visit a site less than once a month. These customers are far most likely to cancel their subscriptions than are frequent visitors.
The study also found that personalized, local content is a key factor in retaining subscribers – which is where recommenders play a big part. One great example of this is with the Dutch newspaper, NRC. After personalizing its newsletter, using an AI tool, 22% more readers demonstrated habitual reading behavior. However, there is a lot more to recommendations than personalization.
While recommendations can be personalized, it’s not the only – or the best – option. Personalized recommenders require large amounts of data on users, which a system won’t have with new visitors, or those that don’t sign up. This can cause what is commonly coined ‘cold start’ problem. This occurs when a recommender system cannot draw inferences, due to a lack of information. Another problem with personalized recommenders is the potential for bias, which can be a particular problem for news sites.
This was a concern for the non-partisan news organization POLITICO Europe, when it launched Pro Intelligence in 2019. Pro started as a pure news service. However, it bought the start-up Statehill in 2018, so that it could build out a one-stop shop for policymakers. The platform, which accounted for 60% of POLITICO’S income in 2020, now offers news, analysis and relevant, external information within a single dashboard.
Every piece of content on the Pro platform features recommendations, from legislation to court cases, and press releases to news from the editorial team. However, the algorithm doesn’t require user input to customize the experience. Instead, it employs an auto-tagger, which uses key words, dictionary mapping and natural language processing. [Editor’s note: An in-depth look at this is available to DCN members.]
“We don’t have the engineering capabilities in our organization to dedicate to a personalized algorithm. And we’d probably be too afraid to introduce it, in case of bias,” said Karl Laurentius Roos, Director Technology Development. “But our auto-taggers mean we can surface news and data automatically, which has a real impact on the end user’s productivity and understanding.”
Pushing news, via email or mobile notifications, remains POLITICO Europe’s most effective way to integrate their services into their users’ day. However, Roos and his team are currently building products that will pull the user into their ecosystem.
“If we can enable user access to pull more content themselves, we’re increasing the product utility and value captured each time a user accesses our content,” said Roos. “For us this translates into connecting news with data and wrapping it seamlessly across our desktop and mobile experiences.”
According to Schrage, other media brands doing a good job with their recommendation systems include the Wall Street Journal, Dow Jones, Bloomberg and Pocket. However, not everyone agrees that recommenders are beneficial to business. Slate built Myslate in 2015, which worked on personal recommendations, based on users telling them what they wanted, rather than machine learning. After an initial experiment, the online magazine decided that keeping the infrastructure running wasn’t worth the amount of reader minutes it generated.
“For the recommendations to work we needed to ask them to sign up, which added friction to the experience,” explains Greg Lavellee, VP, Technology at Slate. “But I’m not convinced that recommendation systems are worth it. People tend to personalize their own experience. They know where they want to go on the site. They find the content they want – you don’t have to shove it in their face.”
Try telling that to the likes of Jeff Bezos, Reid Hastings, and Katrina Lake. Nonetheless, media brands may be concerned they don’t have the capabilities, budget or data to build a successful recommendation system. However, Schrage says the issues aren’t necessarily technological or financial, they are organizational and cultural. Recommendation systems don’t just require an IT upgrade, they require a rethink of business fundamentals.
“Legacy media have had the sh*t kicked out of them by companies that literally didn’t exist 10 or 15 years ago,” he states. “It’s because the tech giants have committed to using data to learn. They take good design, good data and good recommendations seriously.
“This is what other media brands need to emulate in order to bridge the digital divide.” In fact, he says that media companies need to learn how to leverage customer’s behavioral data to drive value and grow business. “Algorithmic plagiarism is essential to future health of legacy media.”
We have all purchased some sort of insurance to protect against the risk of an accident or a total loss. We often do this with little consideration because we all want to be able to sleep soundly at night. Yet few of us think about applying the concept of insurance to the tech that is mission-critical to a company’s revenue. As the dominant big tech players expand the control they have through their browser and ad tech ecosystems, publishers are rapidly losing flexibility. This means the time is now for media owners to think about what their “insurance policy” should cover.
In my last post, I mentioned there would be a lot of uncertainty when operating within multiple sandboxes (aka monopolistic platforms). Frequent rule changes and regulations imposed by the big tech platforms challenge media owners’ core business. And, as publishers must operate their sites or apps to survive, it is important to explore alternatives.
This new dynamic means publishers will need to change strategies to navigate and extract the most value for themselves. The key to success is remembering that each sandbox, privacy rule, etc, is but one element of that sprawling big tech ecosystem. And the ecosystem itself is where publishers should heighten their focus.
Is your tech stack creating risk?
The technical stack is the beating heart of any media organization’s revenue production. While it is a necessity, if left as the sole engine for driving a majority of your revenue, it creates the biggest dependency and single point of failure for any media owner. Why? Simply because the big tech platforms control the browser, the buy-side tech, the sell-side tech, and the identity tech… Talk about being a superpower. They own the whole ecosystem. And this has created an imbalance of control. This intentionally manufactured dependency allows big tech to generate vital revenue streams for their benefit first. It also poses a significant risk of revenue loss for publishers.
Operationally, it is possible to switch tech providers, but the stack isn’t easily replaced. I’m not advocating an outright replacement, as that is not the answer for most publishers. A singular tech stack may have worked in the past. However, it’s no longer tenable to depend solely upon a single company acting as judge, jury, and executioner. Publishers must be ready and willing to mitigate risk through diversification. A singular stack will no longer offer rules to monetize all types of traffic.
Protecting against loss
If the future means navigating a world dominated by the big players, the best way to protect your interests is to understand how to work with multiple providers. To start, one should use the main tech stack to extract the most value from what that stack will deliver. For most publishers, GAM serves as the main stack and requires publisher data to feed it. As long as consumers provide consent, revenue should remain intact. However, with the rise of consumer privacy regulations, we will see an ever-growing pool of users who won’t provide consent.
Without consent and data, a secondary tech stack can complement a publisher’s monetization efforts. Additional value can be unlocked through options for targeting non-consented traffic. In instances of no consent, these impressions can be paired with semantic contextual targeting to help ensure ad delivery. Additionally, this helps protect against potential revenue loss.
Insurance policy: a second stack
A secondary stack may also provide rules that complement the rules of the main stack. For example, content classified with an R rating that gets excluded from one platform can be monetized by engaging another tech provider. The same can be true for niche advertising categories, such as cannabis. As more states legalize cannabis, depending solely on a provider that limits access to sensitive categories can have a large impact on revenue. Diversifying the stack also offers better monetization options for different ad formats and can provide access to different regions. So, while it may seem counterintuitive to operational efficiency, leveraging the respective strengths of multiple tech providers can result in greater efficiency and decreases your dependency on a single platform. Understanding what each offers can help you tailor a solution that best protects your interests and insures you against potential risk.
In conversation with Digital Content Next’s Michelle Manafy, Flipboard founder and CEO Mike McCue and Washington Post managing editor Kat Downs Mulder explore the evolution of digital media, serving the audience “where they are,” and leveraging emerging technologies to better meet their needs. Their talk, which was part of Collision Conference 2021, covers the challenges and opportunities of social media news distribution and consumption and the rise of Substack. They also talk about the challenges facing local news in particular. Their discussion explores AI and other technologies that increasingly impact news creation, delivery, consumption, and user experiences.
Last Friday marked 100 days since Donald Trump officially left the White House as U.S. president. His departure ended a chapter crammed with chaos and controversy for hundreds of millions of Americans, and many more around the world.
As the pandemic enters a second year, a deafening lack of Trump has been coupled with a general public malaise from too much news. As a result, the historic ratings bump enjoyed during the Trump administration quickly turned into a slump. Few outlets have been spared.
The Washington Post reported that of the three largest cable news networks, only Fox News has held relatively steady. Its three prime-time opinion shows fell just 6% in viewership since the first weeks of the year. MSNBC and CNN, meanwhile, declined 26% and 45% in the 8-10 p.m. ET time slot, respectively.
But it’s not just cable networks that have been affected. The Washington Post itself saw a 26% fall in the number of unique visitors to its website from January to February. The New York Times experienced a 17% decline in the same period.
A slump by any other name
While the “Trump Slump” is a legitimate reason for the downward trend, it’s not the only cause. Nor is it a universal experience.
At The Atlantic, SVP of growth Sam Rosen says that, “We’ve found even in just the past five or six months, what has really changed is that the motivation to understand this historic moment has decreased and the desire for personal intellectual growth has increased.”
As he points out, “It’s been an exhausting five years for many people and especially the past year. So, it kind of makes sense that the core desire to just understand what’s happening in the world still exists. But people want to invest in their own growth.” And the company is banking on that willingness to invest.
On the retention side, The Atlantic focuses on the fundamentals. For example they’re migrating as many subscribers to auto-renew as possible. Targeted email campaigns are also reawakening dormant subscribers.
Acquiring new subscribers has been more colorful. For example, experimenting with new slogans such as “Read. Think. Grow.,” which are a change from more newsier lines of messaging in the past. Rosen said The Atlantic thinks of its audience in terms of psychographics: people that are curious, interested in the world, willing to consider multiple perspectives, and open to new ideas.
“Looking at the vanguard of marketing technology is one of our biggest priorities right now,” Rosen said. “We’re evaluating a slew of technology partners that do customer journey orchestration, dynamic paywalls, personalization, and content recommendations. So that is where we’re doubling down.”
Not content with the content
Another newsroom building value not reliant on Trump’s hoopla is Axios, which was launched in January 2017. The well positioned itself strategically for a post-Trump world. Though the fall in traffic is unmistakable, Axios’ director of audience and growth, Neal Rothschild, believes this could actually be a good thing.
“I think if you were going to ask the founders of the company [Axios] whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing, they would say it’s 100 percent a good thing,” Rothschild said. “Jim VandeHei, our CEO, has maintained that people needed to wean themselves off of politics during the Trump years. It was like fast food and it became very unhealthy. So, we’re starting to see the news landscape kind of clear out and make way for the topics that were core to the founding of Axios. Though it may not have seemed like it just because Trump sucked up so much oxygen.”
Those other topics include the rise of China, climate change, and the gaming industry. For the latter, Axios hired Stephen Totilo and Megan Farokhmanesh from Kotaku and The Verge, respectively, to write Axios Gaming. Their newsletter launched this week and will focus on the multi-billion dollar gaming industry. Rothschild added that the company isn’t limiting its expansion to specific topics. Its strategy of hiring experts to build readership extends to local journalism in news deserts, where just a single outlet currently operates, or where no community newspaper exists at all.
“To stand up a newsletter in each city, we try to hire two experts that can helm that newsletter so that we can speak to the city and have it growing quickly. I think that’s a departure from previous models for supporting local news. Usually, you need more of a physical presence in that city or at least need to invest more on the ground,” Rothschild said. “That’s not a huge site traffic audience strategy. But it is a pretty good growth and revenue strategy. And it is increasing our footprint around the country.”
As important as local news has been to CBS, Trump was an international story. Significantly, the international audience it gained over the past four years remains. While many U.S. outlets have cut their international presence in recent years, CBSN — CBS’ 24/7 streaming news service — last year expanded to almost 100 countries. That global presence was critical in CBSN delivering 291 million streams in the first quarter of 2021, up 30% from the same period a year ago.
Christy Tanner, EVP and general manager of CBS News Digital said her team has only just scratched the surface of its global potential. Through Network 10 in Australia, which ViacomCBS owns, its partner the BBC and its own international bureaus, it’s creating even more international programming.
“With streaming audiences, we do not see what was at one point conventional wisdom in the news business: Allegedly, U.S. audiences are not interested in international news. That’s simply not true from our perspective.” In fact, Tanner said, “We think it’s an important differentiator. It’s important to tell the stories. We at CBS News digital have been extremely fortunate that CBS has continued to invest in international coverage.”
The local news
That said, Trump was as much a local story as he was a national and international one. So, CBS is also taking advantage of the dearth of local newsrooms. It now offers 14 total live streams including 10 in local markets such as the Bay Area, Pittsburgh, and Minnesota.
One new feature Tanner is especially excited about are video push alerts. Launched last fall, the proactive alerts nudge CBSN viewers whenever news is breaking across the U.S. Instead of only watching that day’s White House news conference on the national live stream, viewers could easily toggle over to CBSN Minnesota to watch Minneapolis’ police chief providing an update to the George Floyd case.
Tanner says her team sends out alerts dozens of times a day. This means that viewers are engaged in numerous stories, as opposed to any one story such as Trump or Covid-19.
Fail to prepare, prepare to fail
The past four years certainly provided newsrooms across the country with a welcome surge in readership. However, the smartest strategists were planning for Trump’s inevitable departure well in advance. As a result, the fall in traffic hasn’t been enough to hurt their bottom lines too much.
For Tanner, who entered journalism as an editor at the AP in 1991, the Trump presidency was just another wild cycle. And she’s experienced many. Tanner says to work in digital media, one always has to be ready for what’s next, and make intelligent fact-based decisions.
“Things are constantly changing and those who don’t adapt fall by the wayside.”
In the publishing world, Substack has grown into a bit of a phenomenon. It’s a somewhat low-tech, self-publishing newsletter platform. However, it’s gotten outsized media coverage from top brands, including The New Yorker and The New York Times. Substack has also managed to attract a number of high-profile journalists from the industry.
So why does this relatively no-frills newcomer – along with its emerging competitors like Buttondown, TinyLetter, and Revue – get so much buzz? Substack and others like it offer a bit of a twist on the typical software offering: They encourage writers to monetize their newsletters through a revenue share agreement. The company is poaching top writers with upfront incentives in order to build their footprint. This is nerve wracking for premier editors and publishers. Will their own star writers get the bug and make the switch?
The rise in popularity of self-publish newsletter platforms is now forcing media brands to consider whether they’re keeping star writers and reporters happy. It is also forcing them to reckon with their own email programs.
Newsletters are often an under-developed product. However, they have major potential to give writers a platform on which they can build a profile for themselves. They can also drive a lot of revenue. In traditional terms, it’s not much different than a writer having her own “FOB” column. These days, it’s not much different than a reporter’s active Twitter or Instagram profile. Rather than fear these emerging players, publishers should think about how to tap into their ability to retain top talent and make money doing so.
Publishers, make writers and readers happy…
First and foremost, the problem isn’t Substack. Email is a channel with enormous potential for many publishers. Substack, however, is a blaring wake-up call.
Some writers may leave for the big advance that they were promised. But many others are leaving because they want more creative control and a more direct connection to their readers. They also want the ability to directly profit from that connection.
There are publishers who have newsletters written by individual reporters, creating a more personal voice and a lighter touch in editing. CNN’s “Reliable Sources,” run by Brian Stelter, is a great example of this. Often writing late at night, Stelter confides in his readers and shares a bit about his personal life in a way that wouldn’t make sense on the website. He has a huge following. And it’s not just for a faceless roundup of the day’s headlines.
Email is an intimate, low-risk channel with which publishers can experiment to give key reporters a more visible persona. Axios has built a loyal readership by allowing reporters to publish emails under their name, encouraging them to create a human connection. Axios’ Sara Fischer is just one example.
Often, newsletters are templates that provide a list of links. Or they recycle content based on verticals of interest like travel or automotive, but with very little personality. Instead, give your travel editor the chance to write an intro paragraph. Or allow a field reporter to provide real-life snippets of what life is like on the job. These elements create more engaged readers and more differentiation from generic pubs.
Despite this proven approach, publishers are likely worried about giving it a go. They have successfully built reputable names for themselves by holding their identity close and in doing so, ensuring brand integrity and quality. Loosening the grip on the brand by allowing individuals to forge direct relationship with audiences sounds risky.
However, not doing so also creates risk. Stifle the creative potential of individuals who attract loyal followings and suddenly, publishing your own newsletter becomes enticing. Empower those same individuals to help grow the brand and tap into new revenue potential.
…And earn revenue doing it
Speaking of improving email performance, newsletters like Morning Brew, The Hustle, and The Skimm show that entire media businesses can be launched and expanded within the channel with a lot of revenue potential. Individual writers see that. They read these titles and want that same opportunity. The good news is that publishers can give it to them.
Revenue comes from a combination of factors. The first is to create a product that attracts brands. This requires scale, quality content and an engaged audience. Then, the publisher needs to have the tools to optimize advertising with flexible templates, reliable data collection, and good testing capabilities. To maximize engagement and conversion, publishers must incorporate elements like personalization and dynamic content.
Across all of these components, publishers already have major advantages over the upstart platforms. First is the benefit of scale. Even the worst newsletter program at a major publisher is competitive against the entire volume of the independent platforms. (Substack was recently estimated at only 250k total readers.) That scale means that audiences can be segmented. Content can be targeted for more relevance, which provides another major advantage with higher chances of success.
Publishers also tend to have key software capabilities in email like personalization (often tied to customer data from the website, subscriptions, events, and the like). This allows writers to get creative with their content development, offering different elements to readers based on past behavior and content preference, for example. They also probably have tools to create dynamic elements in email. Not every writer wants to pen 1,000 words of prose. Some may be talented producers and want to share videos, TikToks, or snippets of a podcast they recently hosted. Publishers have the tools for them to play with these capabilities, and more.
Substack isn’t a threat if publishers commit to improving their newsletter program. And writers will stay if given the chance. Not only do newsletters provide writers with a relatively low-risk venue for building connections between a brand and its audience, but it’s a revenue machine in the making.
Providing the incentive for writers to make their newsletters successful doesn’t require a jump to a self-publishing platform. In fact, most publishers can provide a much more robust set of email tools for writers with what they already have. This approach just takes a publisher that’s willing to ease up on creative control and allow their reporters’ personalities and names to become a part of the product.
About the author
Allison Mezzafonte has worked in the media and publishing industry for 20 years and is currently a growth consultant, as well as a Media Advisor to Sailthru. A former publishing executive for Bauer Media, Dotdash, and Hearst Digital, Allison serves as a strategic partner to media clients.
Launching a new product during a global pandemic could be classed as a bold move. However, given its customer-centric approach, The Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) team knew the time was right. “The feedback from our clients was they didn’t want things at EIU to change. But they wanted to navigate our products more easily, so that they can compare information at speed,” EIU’s Chief Digital Officer, Sharon Cooper told DCN.
Launched this month, EIU Viewpoint integrates EIU’s subscription-based services into a unified digital platform. It combines the EIU’s expert insights and analysis with forecasts and proprietary data to offer clients a 360-degree view of the world, encompassing politics, policy, and economics. “Before, these were separated, so clients might only have one aspect,” says Cooper. Now EIU has integrated them under one umbrella product. This allows them to provide “a more nuanced perspective of the world and the forces shaping it.”
However, EIU Viewpoint wasn’t launched in response to Covid-19. It launched in spite of it. “We had to deliver Viewpoint remotely, with every single person working for home. We didn’t miss a beat.” She says that “It’s testament to the global nature of our business, as we have over 650 analysts in 130 countries. It was also our ability to pivot quickly, but not lose sight of the thing we needed to deliver for the client. We stayed focused on our end goal. But were flexible to the changes brought about by Covid.”
A customer-focused approach is at the heart of EIU, which was created back in 1946, in response to the needs of The Economist’s readers. They wanted to know how to better run their business in a challenging and changing post-war environment. Today its team of economists, industry specialists, policy analysts, and consultants help businesses, financial firms, academics, and governments understand the shifting global landscape.
It’s a business model that clearly works. EIU revenue increased by 1% for the six months ending 30 March 2020. And The Economist’s circulation revenues rose by 6%. EIU Viewpoint hopes to build on these figures by combining EIU’s award-winning political insights, policy analysis and economic outlooks, with curated forecasts and proprietary data.
This global view includes forecasts for the global economy, daily insights, and country economics. It also incorporates political analysis, medium- and long-term forecasts, macroeconomic datasets, and proprietary ratings and rankings. But what makes Viewpoint’s offering unique is the editorial team.
“Anyone can access the data we produce. But our key differentiator is our analysis. It’s a critical part of what we do” says Cooper. “EIU Viewpoint isn’t a news business, it’s a forecasting business. We are saying what will happen as a result of the news. EIU Viewpoint allows clients access to our editorial team’s thinking. We try and contextualize the news for each of our clients.”
Creating a platform that offers such a tailored user experience had it challenges, as their clients range from industry experts to total amateurs. “Bringing this context to life and making it simple to navigate was the toughest part of the build,” says Cooper. “We had to ensure lots of different types of users could navigate the same system and get all their questions answered in a consistent way.”
Preparing for opportunities
The product is a great example of how listening to your audience and responding to their needs adds value to a brand. The Economist is a well-respected title that offers news. EIU is a trusted resource that explores the impact of that news. The two go hand in hand to offer an independent and authoritative voice, which has resulted in loyalty and high levels of engagement with some of the biggest brands in business.
“Our content is about looking forward and thinking ‘what does this mean for our clients?’” explains Cooper. “There might be 101 things that happen in a day. Rather than just giving a bunch of facts, we weave them together to make a comprehensive overview of a country and how its changing.”
As a result, EIU has been able to guide their customers during the toughest times over the past 12 months. This includes providing a “huge amount” of additional data, to help with risk management and forecasting. The EIU also built its own Covid tracker, which looks at when the global economy will get back to pre-pandemic levels. It also reports on vaccine rollouts and how they impact the economy.
“It’s all about preparing for opportunities and helping our clients understand the whole market” says Cooper. “There are different models for different countries. We think about each one, in terms of what is happening today, what this will look like tomorrow, and what this means for our clients.”
EIU Viewpoint manages to hit that sweet spot that all media are trying to achieve: identifying opportunities for customers that translate into revenue opportunities for their own business. By working closely with their clients, EIU has become an integral part of their business. Thus, its clients have a “strong commitment” to the brand.
“If you look at most big banks, NGO organizations and governments around the world, you will find EIU at the heart of them,” Cooper says. “We believe Viewpoint will consolidate this relationship. It will help both our clients and the Economist Group plan for the future in order to operate effectively and profitably.”
Compared with the automotive industry’s “teenage years” when it dallied with radical interfaces for how to drive a car – including levers and pullies for steering, acceleration, and brakes – the TV world settled down quickly in terms of accessibility. The TV channel model with sequential numbers and +/- volume controls led on neatly to the Electronic Program Guide (EPG) which celebrates its 40th birthday this year.
The biggest change to the EPG was the arrival of pay-TV services in the 1980s and OTT/VOD in the 1990s. However, as it enters middle age, stagnation of innovation may have set in. For many, the Netflix-style carousel has become the defacto standard. However, there are a few market insurgents. Pluto TV and even non-traditional platforms such as TikTok are challenging how an increasingly “tech savvy” audience engages with content.
TV: Wounded but far from dead!
The recent pandemic has accelerated a growing trend away from linear towards on-demand viewing. Yet, the TV is still winning overall. Nielsen’s 2020 total audience report highlighted that the average U.S. adult spends 27 hours per week watching the TV. This includes live, on-demand, and DVR. Only 19% of video consumption is through subscription streaming services. And, while not explicitly broken out by Nielsen, areas such as video gaming and even DVDs saw significant rises during the pandemic.
Even at a time when Netflix breached 200 million global subscribers and Disney+ edges over 100 million, most viewing is still initiated through an EPG. And there are probably several thousand variants in use across the 1.8bn global TV households.
Its ubiquity has led to familiarity but also a potential constraint to innovation. On the plus side, the EPG’s simplicity and almost universal “scroll down for more” methodology is easy to use, fast, and well understood. The left and right functions to show timeslots fit neatly with the way broadcast schedules work. This familiarity is a factor in why TV viewing is still number one – at least for the over 25s. And, for better or worse, many of its rules have been passed to the OTT/VoD world.
However, the EPG has recently evolved within OTT and Netflix’s own research group. This provides insights via controlled A/B experiments to test most proposed changes to its product. These include new recommendation algorithms, user interface (UI) features, content promotions, and other areas. Some of the nuggets to emerge include 75% of all Netflix watching is based on its own suggestions and algorithms. Content slate images, when tweaked, can result in up to 30% percent more views for a particular title. However, the Netflix kimono is not completely open. For example, few data points exist around key areas such as churn and session duration.
Yet, the biggest shift for the EPG concept is not even coming from Netflix. The real insurgents are the likes of Facebook and, more recently, TikTok. It might seem odd to define TikTok as built around an EPG. However, the interface design – with instantly playing videos, up and down swipes to move forward and back within a linear output – and follower model (…remember ‘favorite channels’ from old TV remotes) shares the same traits of simplicity and ease of use. At its heart, it is not a revolutionary. That said, it takes an evolutionary step from the “so uncool” EPG era.
As an app launched in 2016, downloaded over 2 billion times, and with around 700 million monthly active users worldwide, its model can teach the wider media industry a few lessons. The TikTok experience is both wonderfully simple yet incredibly powerful. In 2019, TikTok generated an average session time of nearly 11 minutes, which is over twice that of Facebook.
TikTok is clearly in the category of social media rather than TV platform. However, it stands out in terms of high engagement levels – and ad revenue for ByteDance. According to AdAge a single ad on TikTok can cost between $50,000 to $120,000 depending on format and duration.
Behind the scenes TikTok (as with all social platforms) is crunching data troughs filled by its audience to create a “TV for one” format. And this concept is at the heart of where the EPG is heading as an interface. It is becoming more personalized and dynamic to reflect a similar shift in content better tailored to the audience.
Can’t all data just get along?
Yet building engaging EPGs that draw in audiences for longer sessions requires several components. The technology is already here. However, what is missing is the data to underpin the creation of highly personalized, dynamic, and relevant services. This data must flow between those who produce content, those who distribute content, and the content consumers.
Unfortunately, at present, the various parties don’t share much of this data. That means that linear TV output and, to a lesser extent, what is surfaced on OD platforms, is still very much trial and error. We need is an Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB) style organization that can help standardize data sets and broker stakeholder data sharing agreements. Although a potentially radical idea, the result is a net win for all involved – especially consumers that can finally get more relevant content. And, within a Free Ad-Supported Television (FAST) model – they will also see more relevant advertising based on their aggregated preferences.
This data sharing is starting to happen, albeit slowly. We are also starting to see real-world services populate content via the EPG with a dynamic playlist that updates the content in real time. This way, the time slot for content is not static. With sports as an example, the highlight of a goal from the most recent game would be inserted into the feed – like consumers expect from linear TV today.
EPG innovation is not dead – far from it. However, it is inexorably tied into the wider question of how our industry manages relationships, data, and privacy within an increasingly complex content distribution chain.