“The whole premise of NFTs is that they are unique. But while the token might be unique, it doesn’t mean the item attached to it is,” explains Andres Guadamuz, a Reader in Intellectual Property Law at the University of Sussex in the UK, who wrote a paper on NFTs and copyright.
“Blockchain is public, so anyone can download and view the item for free,” Guadamuz adds. “But these issues are nothing new; they already exist online. You can easily copy and paste an image on the internet.” With this in mind, it is important for publishers to be cautious, and consider the same digital rights management issues that have been a part of digital publishing since its inception.
“The digital rights management aspect might prove to be an important part of NFTs,” says Guadamuz. “But the potential for copyright infringement could have a more immediate effect on the development of NFTs. Given the hype that exists about the technology, as well as the prices that are being paid for NFTs, there is considerable scope for legal action in this area.”
So, while Doug Shapiro claims “NFTs represent a massive financial and strategic opportunity for traditional media companies,” they may also represent a massive headache.
What does it mean to own an NFT?
Each NFT has a unique identifier, with metadata recorded in a public ledger, including who originally minted the NFT and who owns it. The NFT can only have one official owner at a time, and no-one can modify the record of ownership or copy and paste a new NFT into existence.
However, the blockchain is unable to store the actual underlying digital asset. That means when you buy an NFT, you are only buying a link to the item – not the item itself. Aram Sinnreich, professor and chair of the communication studies division at American University, explains, “Mostly, what you ‘own’ is the exclusive right to transact that little entry in the ledger.”
He adds, “For instance, owning an NFT of a song doesn’t mean you own the song — unless the prior owner of a song also wrote a contract saying ‘whoever buys the NFT also owns the song itself.’ In which case, why not just buy the song, and skip the NFT part?”
He does have a point. According to Sinnreich there are two kinds of people buying NFTs: “gullible people and scam artists.” One of the key drivers behind the NFT phenomena is scarcity, because each one is supposed to be unique.
“A creator can write a song, and everyone can listen to it, but the NFT is sold as a unique version of the work, digitally signed by the author,” explains Guadamuz. “NFTs are therefore seen as collectors’ items and not property of the original itself. However, there is practically no ownership transfer involved in NFTs.”
NFT copyrights and wrongs
Confusion about what you own when buying an NFT is further muddied by the aforementioned copyright concerns. The buyer of an NFT doesn’t necessarily acquire its copyright. Similarly, if you already own an original work of art, photo, or song “off chain,” it doesn’t mean you have the right to sell it as an NFT.
This confusion has led to a number of high-profile disputes. An NFT of a Jean-Michel Basquiat drawing was withdrawn from auction on the platform OpenSea, after the late artist’s estate confirmed the seller did not own the license or rights to the work – even if they did own the original piece of art.
Miramax accused Quentin Tarantino of violating the company’s copyright and trademark, when he minted NFTs based on “Pulp Fiction.” More recently, a website called HitPiece was accused of selling iconic songs as NFTs without the artists’ permission.
The sellers of the NFT of Basquiat’s “Free Comb with Pagoda” claimed the transaction would “memorialise ownership” of the physical drawing, as well as “reproduction and IP rights that will be sold to the highest bidder in perpetuity.” While some parts of the law surrounding NFTs remain uncertain, there is no question that NFTs do not have the power to overrule existing copyright protection. Only the lawful copyright holder can transfer the reproduction rights.
Caution: Copyright questions abound
“NFT is a smart contract, but it doesn’t include copyright,” says Guadamuz. “So, you can claim you own the original link, but not the original artwork – unless the copyright transfer is explicitly stipulated.”
According to Sinnreich, one of the reasons NFTs don’t include copyright is because “they are not creative works, and don’t warrant copyright. They’re also not derivative works, so they don’t infringe on copyright.”
Guadamuz adds, “The issue is that an NFT is just code with a link; I don’t even need to have a copy of the work.”
But to confuse matters more, Guadamuz says, “However, most NFTs actually do link to a copy of a work, and that copy could be infringing. So, I could mint an NFT of a picture I don’t own, and I would upload a copy of it to the intermediary, say OpenSea. In this case I am infringing, not by the minting of the NFT, but by uploading an infringing copy to a website, where it is publicly available.”
The bottom line is: The same copyright laws apply to digital art as to physical works of art. The fact that the work has an ownership certificate in the form of an NFT doesn’t change the rules. In publishing, this means ensuring you have permission from the creator of the original content before minting an NFT of their work.
Publishers may be keen to get a piece of this very profitable NFT pie, while the market is booming, but it pays to be cautious and careful when it comes to copyright.
Across the publishing, media and streaming industries, ad supported revenue models remain a central source of income, despite the growing popularity of subscription models. As we look to the future, we know that ad supported revenue models are here to stay, but to remain profitable and scalable they must evolve. Automation offers the ability to optimize processes and future-proof these models at scale. But implementation can be challenging for organizations that have long standing manual processes tied to revenue models.
Through the past few years, shifts in consumer behaviors have compelled many publishing, streaming, and entertainment brands to focus on optimizing their current ad models. To stay competitive, many concluded they would need to innovate their current strategies by leveraging automation as a tool to streamline processes.
Additionally, many organizations had to take a hard and fast look at their current business models and make changes that enable scale and ensure success in current and future markets. Let’s face it: This would be no small task at any time. However, it is particularly challenging these days given the impacts of the pandemic across all industries and the tremendous growth of digital marketing initiatives fueled by the shifts in consumer behavior.
The act of developing new ad modeling formats to engage with evolving consumer habits does involve innovation and proper management. Organizations going through these pivots can be vastly different in terms of structure, size, and strategy. However, their goals and the path to achieve them are the same: Streamlining processes and future-proofing business by automating the processes that enable advertising campaign deployment and successful ad model revenue streams.
Implementing automation is worthwhile, but it can be challenging. When implementing automation strategies into your organization, you should focus on three critical elements: managing the human element, enabling effective change order, and enhancing data analysis and utilization. These must be addressed to allow you to effectively implement automation, to optimize for today and build a foundation for the growth of tomorrow.
Managing the human element
Advertising is both an art and a science. The art piece is the element in which human creativity is necessary for innovation. The science is the technology that can be leveraged across repetitive elements to increase bandwidth in terms of scale and reduce the time required of teams.
For many, balancing the human element within their technology and automation implementations can be a challenge. Optimization of redundant tasks through automation is necessary to streamline internal processes, which enables scalability and business growth. But developing an automation strategy cannot be done without the human element of the business.
No matter what type of challenge you facie, and changes you are working to implement, one critical element of balancing the art and science of it all is transparency. Encouraging teams to embrace changes through open communication and collaboration and building a structure based on accountability is key.
The human element of your business is necessary part of the technology and automation implementation. The only way to succeed when implementing an automation strategy is to enable buy-in to the process by way of transparency from the start. It is critical that you involve you team in every step of the automation implementation process—and the earlier you involve them the better.
Enabling effective change management
Business optimization and growth at scale are a constant process for all organizations. It is impossible for any business to implement organization-wide changes to strategy and process, like automation of order-to-cash, without a heavy focus on effective change management. Ensuring that the entirety of the business has buy-in to the pivots in strategy and the new workflows that are being implemented is paramount to success, and effective change management practices will get you there.
Effective change management requires leading with empathy. To succeed, you must understand your teams, their fears, wants, and needs. The best way to do this is to establish internal feedback loops, encourage collaboration and develop a baseline of accountability.
Change can be intimidating for teams, especially in terms of automation, but it doesn’t have to be. Creating stability through large business shifts like automation implementation is critical. The key to effective change management is involving your teams throughout the change process, creating clear roles and responsibilities, and establishing a baseline of accountability for individuals, teams, and the organization as a whole.
Enhancing data analysis and utilization
Data is at the core of all organizations. Data analysis is the thread that ties the art and science of business evolution together. To successfully manage the human element of your business and enable effective change management, you must lean into your data. It is vital to thoroughly understand your audiences to better serve your brand clients and make insightful decisions when it comes to creative and logistical elements of your business. Significant innovations like automation implementation cannot be successful without leveraging your data and enhancing your data utilization strategies across your business.
The ability to enhance data analysis and utilization is critical for publishing, media, and streaming brands as it correlates directly to keeping brand partners in the know, for both existing initiatives and future planning. More than ever before, brand partners look to their media partners to provide real-time data insights to inform campaign optimization and ensure success.
Leveraging robust data utilization and analysis within your internal decision-making initiatives enables internal teams to develop content that serves the interests of the modern consumer, creating an audience pool with higher engagement levels for brand partners to reach. Implementing robust data collection methodologies and enabling both internal teams and brand partners to tap into that data in real-time is a key element to optimizing and building future growth.
Regardless of your business model, developing a methodology to ensure your business can grow at scale for years to come is critical. Publishing, media, and streaming companies have encountered a host of different challenges over the past few years as they work to optimize and scale their businesses. Automation is central to future-proofing your advertising strategies. These three core implementation strategies will help you get there.
These elements are at the heart of the evolution of ad supported revenue models for streaming, media, and publishing brands. Understanding the necessity and building a strategy with these elements as the focal points will ensure successful innovation for scale in the modern competitive market.
Video shopping is being hyped as the next big thing in video and shopping. But it is kind of hard to believe that livestream commerce, which has its roots in the home shopping experience we know from cable TV, will be truly transformational. Now reconsider it as a new paradigm that combines information, entertainment, and retail. And, even if you count live callers to shopping shows, livestream shopping provides a whole new level of customer connection and conversion. So maybe activity and investments are booming for good reason.
This year will be remembered as the biggest year yet for video commerce revenue. Research firm eMarketer reckons the global market for livestream shopping will rake in a massive $500 billion this year.
Break this down by region, and China accounts for the lion’s share of earnings ($480 billion). But more astounding than China’s percentage of global revenues is the speed at which livestream commerce completely has transformed the country’s retail industry. Global management consulting firm McKinsey reports it took less than five years for livestream commerce to develop into an innovative sales channel and one that regularly attracts more than one-third of Chinese Internet users.
Western companies ramp up to revenues
The U.S. market may be nascent in comparison, but the pay-off for early adopters is impressive. Data from management consulting firm Activate’s Technology Media Outlook 2022 pegs revenues at $11 billion this year, up from $6 billion in 2020.
Big names need little convincing. From online retailers Amazon and Alibaba to big tech and social giants Facebook, Pinterest and TikTok and Twitter, companies are “jumping into livestream shopping hard.”
The pandemic provided a big push. At one level, strict lockdown measures have accelerated the trend of shopping online and in-app. At the other end of the spectrum, isolating at home has increased the desire of consumers, who crave connection and diversion, to interact with a new breed of creators and influencers lining up to make shopping informative and fun.
Media companies engage audiences primed to purchase
Right now, the most popular combination to power livestream shopping is social networking platforms and retailers. However, media companies offer ideal partnerships. They alone can position offers where they matter most: the point of inspiration where customers are consuming content and open to suggestions.
“It’s really about creating an experience where content meets commerce,” Bryan Moore, co-founder and CEO of talkshoplive, a live streaming, social sales network, told me in an email interview.
He believes that the ideal intersection occurs by “connecting the retail and media landscapes.” His company has worked with Conde Nast and Hearst, retailers like Walmart, and creators from Oprah Winfrey to Dude Perfect on live commerce. Which maximizes distribution and, he says, “converts the most sales by cutting out all friction.”
This month BuzzFeed was the latest media company to announce a partnership with talkshoplive. The live stream with creators Carolina Reynoso and Vivian Nweze celebrates BFF-entine’s Day, highlighting product recommendations, gifts and much more. It follows a string of more than 50 livestreams on destinations, including Amazon Live, the retailer’s shoppable livestream offering.
Another fast-mover in livestream commerce is NBCUniversal. The media company launched its commerce capabilities on its One platform in 2020. Since then, the company reports it has created over 250 different pieces of shoppable content and counts over 200 active retailers on its platform.
From experimentation to execution
The number of media companies doubling down on livestream commerce continues to grow. But so does the competition.
New data from Sensor Tower, a company providing market intelligence and analytics for the mobile app economy, shows that one-third of the top 15 apps (measured in downloads) in the U.S. have “either already experimented with livestream shopping events or have announced plans to test livestream shopping in the near future.”
To up their game, media companies will need to be brave and broaden their approach beyond just driving affiliate conversions. The real power of livestream commerce is not about pushing products or driving sales.
The deeper goal should be to build affinity for an interactive shopping experience – not just drive a purchase. Done right, whether the consumer purchases or not, the experience continually and consistently delivers something far more valuable: memorable and meaningful engagement.
How to do live shopping right
On the face of it, livestream commerce is a perfect match with campaigns to sell beauty, fashion, decor and other items where brands and merchants pay the highest commissions. But this opportunity goes far beyond lifestyle. There are opportunities in many other verticals, including B2B software and services. Whether you opt to target consumers, or cater to business professionals, your first task is to enable the conversations and interactions that power commerce.
Cultivate creators to add authenticity
Encourage niche creators who can enhance the experience (and the reach of your retail partners) and open the aperture of how you view opportunities in the Long Tail. Reams of research show the engagement rates for nano-influencers are up to ten times those for mega influencers and major celebrities.
Expand capabilities to create customer value
Position your company to present shoppable products to your audience in a way that maximizes convenience and minimizes friction. Choose platforms and partners that will allow consumers to enjoy the programming and the purchase experience. If possible, don’t just align with a livestream partner. Build the talent and tech in-house to run your own livestream platform. It can be a significant investment, but it also positions you to go after brands and opportunities that value access to your audience and are willing to pay a premium for it.
Draw from data and consumer behavior
Livestream commerce requires deep commitment and insights. Be prepared to set up a team to manage these activities and “own” the customer. More importantly, equip them to build personas of potential customers and segments to understand the audience. This will also help you understand which interactive perks (games, giveaways, quizzes) are likely to keep these consumers engaged and entertained.
Experience, engagement, and (yes) earnings
Content is king. But it takes more than compelling and trustworthy reviews and recommendations to enhance the livestream shopping experience. While incremental – or even significant – revenue is a compelling reason to move into live shopping, it offers other meaningful rewards.
Today’s consumer enjoys an end-to-end experience that media companies are uniquely poised to offer. From the moment of interest, to inspiration and even investment, the media ecosystem can truly engage consumers in a way few others can. Live shopping experiences offer a new way to leverage content-based customer experiences to increase engagement and, yes, feed the bottom line.
Held virtually January 31-February 3, the 20th annual members-only DCN Next: Summit was a gathering of digital content companies from all over the world.
CEO Jason Kint opened the event by offering his perspective on how the last few years have underscored the need for quality information. He also reinforced the need for trust, particularly as we move toward web3. “Where people have choice and a competitive market, where they spend their time, attention and relationships, trust will matter. Trust matters more than ever,” Kint explained.
Keynotes and discussion sessions touched on subscriptions, paywalls and reader revenue, video, film, audio strategy, and AI. The event also explored the political and technical forces shaping the media landscape today, with sessions focusing on cookies, identity, trust, privacy, and platforms.
The personal is political, and platforms
The opening keynote featured 2021 Nobel Peace Prize recipient Maria Ressa speaking with investigative journalist Carole Cadwalladr. They discussed platforms and the critical role a free press plays in healthy democracies. As Ressa put it, “Until technology gets guardrails around it, until we get to the point where the platforms that deliver the news are redesigned so that lies laced with anger and hate do not spread faster and further than facts, journalists will be under attack.”
Platform concerns and necessary regulation arose again throughout the event, notably in Thursday’s final keynote. Attendees heard from U.S. Senator Amy Klobuchar, mere hours after a Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Competition Policy, Antitrust, and Consumer Rights hearing.
Klobuchar, who has been working to hold big tech platform accountable, provided an update on the bipartisan antitrust app store bill that just went through committee, as well as other bills she’s leading. “We just had an incredible vote on a bill that Senator Blumenthal and Blackburn and I … put out a few months ago on app stores: 21 to 1,” she said.
The bipartisan legislation, called the Journalism Competition and Preservation Act would enable news organizations to collectively negotiate terms with platforms to provide fair compensation for news content. Klobuchar told attendees, “The big issue is advertising money and fair compensation. These companies are sucking up the ad dollars using the original content that you produce and they’re using the data they collect from your audiences to compete against you.”
First-party data and identity
Unsurprisingly, the upcoming deprecation of the third-party cookie was a topic of much discussion at this year’s summit. The change has destabilized the advertising ecosystem. Experts discussed how to prepare for the post-cookie reality and how publishers could invest in their first-party data.
To prepare for the post-cookie reality, Rachel Parkin, CafeMedia’s EVP, Sales and Strategy, suggested publishers strengthen relationships with advertisers and build up their arsenals and come up with the right framework for identity and authentication for users and content.
TRUSTX CEO David Kohl suggested that publishers, by acting as a group to create scale, can create competitive advantage. ” We are in transition and there’s tremendous chaos in identity and audience data. But here’s the thing: Chaos creates opportunity,” he said. “And the question is, how can publishers take the lead in organizing the chaos? How can we band together? It is time to create an ‘easy button’ for scale.”
Another session discussed how publishers are leveraging consent-based visitor relationship data sources to fuel monetization as the industry moves forward into a cookie-less future. David Rowley, senior director data and identity products at News Corp. said they feel first party data is going to be one of the most important assets to a publisher. News Corp is assessing what’s out there for external identity solutions, Rowley said, and building out a proprietary identity solution.
“Publishers use so many different types of technology, DMPs, CDPs, analytics platforms, you name it, all of them spit out and create their own identifiers. Being able to stitch all of those together to have a unified view of a user is critical, so you can have that one-on-one relationship with a user,” he said.
People and empathy
Another theme that echoed through the conference was that of managing during these difficult times. As Agnes Chu, president of Condé Nast Entertainment remarked, “I think it’s hard to drive change during a time where people are experiencing so much anxiety themselves.”
Lindsay Peoples Wagner, editor-in-chief of The Cut, outlined that it’s important for leadership to have and bring a sense of empathy. Leaders must “be able to step outside of yourself and understand that, yes, we’re all employees and work at a company, but we’re human beings,” Peoples Wagner said. “People, especially in the past couple years, have had a really hard time with mental health or their family issues or being sick. It’s important to understand, I think, that people may need time, and that push and pull as a manager, I think is more important than ever.”
The biggest shift for TripAdvisor’s Christine Maguire when the pandemic hit, was from building products to empathy. “I had to sort of take a step back and realize where everybody was in their journey,” she said. “Having empathy for what goes on in their day to day is so important, because oftentimes we come in to make a change when there is a problem, and that’s too late.”
The future of work
The newsroom of the future may look nothing like the pre-pandemic one. Indeed, as publishers move forward, they’re stepping into a future which doesn’t look much like the past. There’s upside, such as the ability to create more flexible working situations, which facilitates broader recruiting.
However, as author Anne Helen Petersen noted, when companies allow their employees to live anywhere and work any time, they may run into a lot of sticky situations.
“The larger question that a lot of companies are dealing with is if we say that people can have really flexible work schedules and can go in when it is most convenient for them, are we also going to put stipulations on the states or countries where they can live,” she said. “Are we going to say that they get into New York within the day, that they take the train in? Is that okay? Or are we going to say that it’s one flight away? What are our boundaries?”
The future of the industry
On the last day of the summit, Co-founder and CEO of Insider Henry Blodget and Atlantic CEO Nicholas Thompson engaged in a spitfire conversation about the digital media industry. They discussed the complicated relationship with platforms, new technologies like AI, NFTs and blockchain, and made predictions for web3.
Blodget was optimistic about the future of local news. However, he sees a different scenario play out for others going forward. As the industry evolves, he thinks there will be three to five big generalists, a bunch of targeted specialist publications that serve a particular niche, and everyone else is in the middle.
“I do think we’re all going to face pressure and there’s going to be a lot more consolidation because there are enormous returns to scale,” Thompson replied. “We see that every day with The New York Times, when they roll out some cool new tech feature that they can spread across their 10 million subscribers.”
“Let us just acknowledge that The New York Times is Netflix of journalism,” Blodget said. “My view is in five to 10 years, they will have 25 million subscribers and they will still be growing strong and they will become one of the most powerful English language journalism publications in the world. And the rest of us are gonna have to find places to carve out what is left.”
The metaverse doesn’t exist. The term is a framework for discussions around Web 3, NFTs, decentralized virtual spaces, and the gaming landscape. Despite the fact that it does not yet exist, there has been a huge amount of money invested into the metaverse, from people purchasing virtual real estate adjacent to celebrities to building out festivals within platforms like Roblox. Despite its hypothetical state, it’s already lucrative.
There’s an early mover advantage for news and magazine publishers to launch on new platforms. While only 8% of news publishers currently say they intend to invest in metaverse products, the need to discover younger audiences and to discover new revenue sources is a powerful lure. But as we saw with the overreliance on platforms in the era of Web 2.0 — and the terrible consequences that wrought — there is enormous danger for publishers when it comes to building strategies around platforms they don’t own.
So how can publishers take advantage of the potential of the metaverse without making the same mistakes around platform over-reliance? More importantly, to what extent can media companies help define the metaverse, and take a leading role in its development?
The lure of new platforms
The appeal for news publishers is obvious. We know from recent forays into NFTs that they are hungry for new sources of digital revenue, particularly those that do not just replicate non-digital revenue strategies online. Much of the early pitch to brands of the metaverse is around selling persistent virtual products, which are being marketed as a new form of social status for particularly younger consumers.
Andrew Kiguel is CEO and co-founder of Tokens.com, which builds and sells services and real estate within the metaverse. He says, “The metaverse is the next iteration not just of gaming, but of social media. Right now, the status symbol on Facebook or Instagram is posting a picture of the restaurant or whichever resort you’re at. What’s going to be the status symbol soon in the metaverse [is] you walk around with your NFT Gucci bag or your Nike running shoes.”
The bigger draw, however, is that of creating touchpoints for new audiences. We’ve seen newspapers experiment with virtual reality spaces before, from The Wall Street Journal’s 2016 foray into VR real estate to the virtual town halls run ahead of the 2016 elections. Persistent and long-lasting communities are being built in those unreal spaces, based in no small part on lessons learned from social media and gaming. Friends lists, followers and gaming clans have formed the basis of how we will keep track of and communicate with friends and co-workers in the metaverse space.
That’s an opportunity for the news publishers who are making access to a community a big part of their offering. Start-ups like Tortoise make its community “Think-Ins” part and parcel of its marketing. And legacy titles, including The Telegraph, organize exclusive events for subscribers. The ability to open those events up to audiences who wouldn’t otherwise be able to attend is a big opportunity. We’ve already seen them experiment with these in Twitter Spaces and other remote meeting tools during the pandemic.
In addition, we’ve already seen early examples of news outlets within metaverse platforms. The Second Life Enquirer, for example, maintains a newsroom on Second Life. And other titles and magazines create their own communities from audiences already on metaverse platforms.
Decentralizing the threat
So, if the benefits for entering the metaverse space early are obvious, how do we go about building those spaces without becoming over reliant on the platforms? One of the criticisms already being levied about platforms like Roblox is that its publisher, Roblox Corporation, controls both a portion of any sale and the data of its users. That’s not tenable for media companies in 2022, who are only just rediscovering the value of their first-party data.
Instead, the media industry could look to spaces like Decentraland, which aim to build upon the promise of Web 3 by taking the power away from any one platform or owner. That, in theory, would allow them to control not just the look and feel of their own virtual environment, but also the sale and revenue options of any virtual products (or subscriptions!) sold in those spaces. As Matthew Lines writes, news is inherently linked to crypto payments already:
“Real world cryptocurrency analytics companies like Messari and Coincheckup are starting to display ‘news’ sections. These amalgamate different articles which address a specific metaverse platform and its associated crypto token. In a similar vein, websites like NFT Plazas also display an individual ‘news’ page, showcasing all the latest stories occurring in specific metaverse platforms like Decentraland.”
Dream or reality?
It’s a utopian idea, one that potentially extends a newspaper or magazines’ community far beyond geographic bounds. It also allows them to monetize audiences directly through crypto payments.
However, there are huge questions around the extent to which these decentralized platforms actually are immune to the bottleneck of control that plagued Web 2 for publishers. Between the countless current rug-pulls, crypto scams, lack of interoperability and the funnelling of funds to a handful of big players, the promise of that decentralization is under threat already.
That utopian ideal also relies on companies like Meta – whose relationship with media companies is already fraught – not seizing control of the metaverse through the scale of its investment alone. By inserting itself into the conversation as forcefully as it has, it raises the possibility that it will also try to control payments and data on its metaverse platforms as well.
Years of uncertainty
While virtual real estate is relatively cheap (and potentially comparable to the purchase of Manhattan according to Time), it is still an outlay for publishers already stretched to cover existing platforms. The BBC was recently criticized for ignoring TikTok, despite the fact that it admitted to lacking resources to do so effectively. If even the BBC can’t spread itself across the biggest social networks, can we expect most publishers to invest in an untested space like the metaverse?
Building offices in the metaverse is a nice stunt for marketing companies. But without the surety of return on investment and a lack of time to maintain it, many newspapers and magazines are adopting a wait-and-see attitude to the metaverse.
There may be huge opportunities for community development and creating audience touchpoints, but the revenue model is currently unclear. And it is likely to remain so for years. As tech giants struggle to control it, the metaverse might never even live up to its initial promise.
It is incumbent on newspapers, broadcasters and magazine companies to ensure that any forays they make into the metaverse are shored up by solid revenue and data strategies. Otherwise, it’s just a gimmick, and one that risks the industry repeating its platform-dependency from web2.0.
The ecommerce boom was far and away the biggest trend to have come out of the pandemic – at least for digital media companies. Unsurprisingly, media organizations that had already invested in ecommerce infrastructure and affiliate revenue partnerships reaped big benefits. They made hay while the sun shone.
Good Housekeeping, for instance, saw an increase in ecommerce-powered sales of 567% in March 2020, compared to the same period in the previous year.
Some, like Dennis Publishing owner Exponent, even spun off parts of their businesses that were outperforming in terms of ecommerce. Its automotive-based properties were made into their own dedicated business – Autovia – in March of 2021. It was, as its chairman Peter Plumb noted, an opportunity “for those with the broadest and most engaged reach, the richest audience data and the most trusted brands and content.” They were poised to benefit from the rapid growth in ecommerce.
Meanwhile, Dennis’ future owner Future plc has absolutely dominated the ecommerce space. As countless analysts have pointed out, its long-held aim to own every part of the ecommerce journey from ideation to recommendation to purchase has proven to be a lucrative strategy.
But Future was not content to rest on its laurels. After announcing over $1bn in ecommerce and affiliate revenue in 2020, Future made a number of acquisitions to own even more verticals from top to bottom. As a result, it is set to push into the U.S. Overall, it sees a lot of headroom for its ecommerce ambitions.
And it is ecommerce-focused media companies that continue to grow ecommerce revenue even in the tail end of 2021. So, what do Future and the other huge media ecommerce successes have in common? The answer is down to that end-to-end ownership of a vertical. Though it remains to be seen how long that this strategy will suffice when platforms are also banking the benefits of ecommerce growth.
Putting the ease in ecommerce
One thing that needs to be pointed out is that it isn’t all that hard to simply launch an ecommerce strategy. Forbes has started selling branded items and called it its entrance into the ecommerce space, for instance. Meanwhile BuzzFeed has been loud and proud about its expansion into ecommerce partnerships as well. The company predicts that 18% of its total revenue will come from commerce over 2021. Even the companies whose print holdings are the main point of contact have doubled down on ecommerce technology, with fashion magazines like Grazia including scannable images in their pages.
And since the headroom for growth is so great it is also possible – or even likely – to report success in that area. That is itself cause for celebration. Diversification of revenue streams should be encouraged wherever possible. Even the recently announced tie-up of Vox Media and Group Nine was based in part on their shared investment in ecommerce, with the release stating that “both companies have proven success in bringing their brands to life through commercial licensing, affiliate partnerships, and collaborations with major retailers like West Elm, Target and Old Navy and producing premium capsule collections with, for example, Marc Jacob.”
But the corollary of that is that, in order to be one of those huge successes, you first need to be, well, huge. You need a big audience to sell to. You also need a stockpile of existing content to both demonstrate expertise and to repurpose as affiliate sales material. Hearst’s Kristine Brabson, executive director strategy and editorial insights, elaborated on this to Damian Radcliffe. Of its ecommerce growth, Brabson said “We didn’t suddenly create a bunch of new content…” Instead, the company ensured that the products being recommended on its best-performing pages were actually available for sale. It’s difficult if not impossible to do that from a standing start.
Top to bottom
Just as important as enormous scale and longevity, though, is ensuring that your ecommerce operation is layered throughout the entire operation. Meredith, for example, earned $27.7 million from its affiliate operations in Q2 this year, a 26% year- over-year increase from the same period the year before. And it did so without sacrificing any other revenue strands in service of providing the best possible ecommerce environment.
By contrast – though it has been a boon to the bottom line – the integration of Wirecutter into The New York Times’ wider business does not appear to have been quite as successful. Last month the staff of the affiliate publishing business (acquired by the newspaper in 2016) went on strike and actually urged readers not to make any purchases through the site itself. As NYMag explains: “Wirecutter was always treated as a second-class citizen, isolated in its own Slack, its own offices, and its own reporting structure under Perpich. It never joined the newsroom, and its work was openly sneered at by some long-time staffers. Many Times staffers don’t believe their work is journalism at all.”
A similar omission of an ecommerce-focused division occurred at Vice’s 2020 Newfronts. The company barely mentioned Refinery29, which pre-acquisition by Vice in 2019 had been lauded as a trailblazer for the burgeoning ecommerce space.
As with Forbes’ efforts, mentioned above, simply owning an ecommerce business does not mean that you can take the full advantage of the ecommerce boom. It has to be threaded through the entire business, treated as an integral offering, and allowed access to the entire breadth of the media company’s content. That’s what empowers Future’s success.
The reintegration of platforms
So where does that leave the media companies without the scale to own a vertical or the ability to build ecommerce through the entire business? One early clue comes from LadBible’s recent foray into the space in partnership with TikTok for a two-day “live shopping event”. Sam Oakley, director of social video at LadBible Group, said: “We are always looking for new ways to entertain and give our audience new things to discover and experience. We are proud to work together with TikTok and look forward to seeing our community enjoy a virtual shopping experience.”
While those of us with memories of over-reliance on platforms may balk, the reality is that ecommerce and affiliate revenue already rely in no small part on Amazon and other retailers. It is a growth industry not just for the newspapers and magazines, but for all players. You only have to look at the sheer amount of investment platforms as varied as Snap and Pinterest are putting into their ecommerce tech to spot their intentions are the same as media companies’. In many ways they are outpacing those publishers mentioned above: Pinterest now automatically updates products that are sold out with those that are available. But those publishers do have something platforms can’t replicate so easily – a history of curation and recommendation. Trust, basically. Provided we recognize the value of ecommerce and don’t shunt those teams to the side, we might not end up with the power imbalance between publishers and platforms that we did with advertising. Long may that growth con
Video is the hottest thing in audio right now. Don’t worry, this is not another “pivot to video.” However, an interesting fact emerged as Reuters Institute was formulating the 2021 Digital News Report: YouTube is currently the number one podcasting platform in the United States. According to the report, the video platform is responsible for 26% of podcast consumption in U.S. markets, compared to Apple Podcast’s 22% of listenership, and Spotify’s 17%.
So, why is a platform pretty much synonymous with video dominating the podcast market? We spoke with Damian Radcliffe, digital media analyst and Professor of Practice and Carolyn S. Chambers Professor in Journalism at the University of Oregon, to better understand how publishers can tap into “platform agnosticism” and capitalize on the momentum of this video podcasting trend.
At stake: the ability to deepen audience relationships and build subscriber numbers. Oh, and let’s not forget the $1 billion dollars in ad revenue predicted for the podcasting industry this year ($2 billion by 2023).
Ease of podcast discoverability
Discovery has always been a huge challenge for podcasters. As Radcliffe points out in the report, if you aren’t on the iTunes top 10 or not in the ‘top picks’ on a homepage, it can be really hard to reach audiences.
However, by diversifying away from audio-only products, and incorporating audio into supplemental forms of media, publishers can address that discoverability issue, simply by being in more places. Video platforms like YouTube not only make podcasts easier to discover, they also make them easier to share and to share on social feeds.
“Word of mouth has always been the most powerful marketing tool,” explained Radcliffe. “Being able to tap into the power of peer recommendations is potentially a really powerful and potent tool that podcasting could be doing more with.”
If a dedicated listener is learns from their favorite podcasting platform that they are in the top one percent of This American Life listeners, for example, they may want to let their social network know. When shareability and discoverability are predicated on distinctions or superlatives, as Spotify’s “Wrapped” feature has so deftly demonstrated December after December, the potential reach of the program within that individual’s network is exponentially expanded.
“People are sharing podcasting recommendations with their friends. But that kind of conversation is happening off-platform and podcasters don’t know where those referrals or audiences are coming from,” Radcliffe points out. He thinks that if podcasters can “find a way to close that loop and reward people for spreading the word around their podcasts, I think that could be a really interesting development.”
Widening your distribution strategy
Despite YouTube’s unexpected dominance of podcast distribution, most podcasters aren’t sharing their programs on video platforms exclusively. Rather, they use sites like YouTube as a secondary distribution channel. As a platform with an existing audience base of over two billion users and robust content discoverability, YouTube offers an attractive means for individual podcasters and established media players to reach new audiences.
“Think about this in terms of being a part of the wider distribution strategy for your podcasts and trying to find as many different ways for audiences to find you,” Radcliffe explained. For example he suggests that publishers use RSS feeds to distribute content to as wide a variety of places as possible. And that “video podcasting is just a part of that mix.”
When watching a video podcast that audiences would otherwise only consume through audio, audiences may also feel they are privy to certain “behind the scenes” elements, particularly when watching video versions of their favorite interview podcasts. As an example, Radcliffe cited a 2019 episode of Hotboxin’ with Mike Tyson, featuring Tyson Fury.
“It was a video podcast, and you could absolutely just listen to it. But there was something quite intimate about being able to watch it and see the interaction and pick up on some of the body language nuances that you can’t necessarily get just through audio alone.”
Leading interview podcasts like Crooked Media’s Pod Save America, the Black Girl Podcast, SmartLess, and others have leveraged video to make audiences feel almost as if they are in the room or ‘part of the gang’ as the interview transpires. Given the increased isolation of audiences at the start of the pandemic, that inclusion has become a value proposition for podcasters.
The advantages of micro-content
As print and online media continue to distill content into easily digestible micro-formats, the same appetite for bite-sized content abounds in video podcasting. (This may be credited, in part, to platforms like TikTok that amplify short video clips across the internet.) This shift in format is something many podcasters have learned to use to their advantage.
“There are opportunities to atomize content to produce clips. [Podcasters] can take an hour-long video podcast and break it up into a series of smaller clips. And those smaller clips may well yield larger audiences than the entire full piece,” Radcliffe explained. “That’s going to help in terms of SEO and search results.” It also helps “in terms of content potentially being shared or reaching different audiences.”
By “atomizing” content and creating shorter, standalone clip videos of key moments from full episodes podcasters are more likely to go viral and gain wider audiences who will then go through and relisten to their archive of episodes. (A great example is this clip from Glennon Doyle’s We Can Do Hard Things podcast.)
“Creators have figured out how to make podcasts work on a platform that wasn’t designed for them, leveraging YouTube’s search algorithm to meet new audiences, make more money, and expand into a medium that’s expected to grow rapidly in the coming years,” The Verge’s Julia Alexander wrote back in 2019. “Creating a separate channel for clips lets podcasters take advantage of YouTube’s recommendation algorithm, which surfaces content on specific subjects a viewer is already interested in.”
Bonus: It’s free!
Another big draw for audiences to consume podcasts on YouTube is a simple one… it’s free. According to Edison Research, the number of Americans paying for audio subscriptions has doubled since 2015. With more and more podcasts and platforms going behind paywalls, and more and more consumers encountering subscription fatigue, YouTube is a (seemingly) egalitarian platform where podcast audiences can consume as much content from shows as they desire, regardless of any paywalls the full-length podcasts may be behind.
Lights, camera, action!
If you don’t have video as a part of your podcast offering, don’t panic. “The thing I would advise against is thinking that you 100% need to do this right now,” cautioned Radcliffe. “You can still have a successful podcasting strategy that doesn’t include video. But increasingly, we will see video as a part of that mix because it enables [podcasters] to reach audiences in different places. It also opens up further opportunities for engagement and interaction.”
Podcasting in the digital age is more than simply audio content, just as written stories are much more than text-only these days. As our digital appetites shift towards brief, shareable video, other media products are certainly not destined for obsolescence. But multimedia is irrefutably the name of the digital game. So it’s only natural that, as podcasting matures, it is branching out of our headphones and onto our screens.
The contents of your TikTok “For You” page, a stream of videos curated by the near-omniscient algorithm, says a lot about what you stand for, who you are, and what you like. It’s part of what draws audiences to the platform. When you open the app, you know what to expect. And, better yet, you know you’ll like it.
This type of personal experience is what digitally native audiences have come to not just enjoy, but expect, from the content they consume. If it isn’t authentic, vulnerable, and personal, they don’t want it.
So, when it came time to reimagine what video content would look like for Ascend, Harvard Business Review’s brand for young professionals, we knew we’d have to make it real. We knew we’d have to take a host-driven approach. And we knew we’d have to meet our audience where they are. On TikTok, yes, but also on YouTube, Instagram, and whatever comes next.
Appearing as on-camera hosts, being authentic in front of an audience of millions, and making sure that audience feels engaged — this is all easier said than done. Here’s how we make it work at HBR, and some tips on how to make it work for you and your audiences.
Authenticity and vulnerability are necessities.
Obviously, neither video nor social media was new for HBR in 2020. But that was the year Christine vs. Work marked the first show that we designed specifically and primarily for YouTube. This meant leaning into a host’s personality (in addition to credibility), embracing mistakes that make us human (the word “flawesome” is often applied), and creating a dialogue with our audience.
In each episode, I (Christine) address a real work dilemma, seek advice from experts, and then put that advice into practice (with varying levels of awkwardness). Although I feel like I “should” know the answers to my biggest career questions by this point in my path as a manager, I often don’t — or I’m not confident about them. In Christine vs. Work, I’m honest about that. It’s that vulnerability, which many can relate to, that earns the trust of our audience.
The same goes for Career Crush, another host-driven, YouTube-first series we launched in 2021. In this show, I (Kelsey) interview people with my “dream” careers to get to the bottom of what their jobs are really like. I dive into how much money they make, misconceptions about their roles, and whether they actually enjoy what they do for a living. Most of the time, I have no idea what it takes to get a job like theirs, and I don’t pretend that I do. After all, I’m not an expert in software engineering, or Twitch streaming, or photography. I’m still in my early career, too. So, the questions I ask and the ideas I uncover are based on things I’m genuinely curious about. That curiosity is crucial to creating a connection with our viewers.
A key element to making this work is to remember that you can’t manufacture “realness” and “authenticity.” We film in our own homes as much as the office (a necessity during lockdown), process complex emotions on camera, and are transparent about ourselves in front of a virtual global audience. It’s not always easy for us as hosts, but the human connection that forms from sharing our vulnerability is a lasting one. That’s particularly important for bridging the HBR brand to Gen Z audiences and reassuring them that we’re here for them in a world where it’s harder than ever to determine what is real and who to trust.
More voices, more perspectives.
We’ve learned, as individual hosts bringing our authentic selves to the fore, we’re not going to be everyone’s cup of tea. That’s precisely the point: We want our audience to connect with whoever they vibe with most. And, when it comes to host-driven content, that means diversifying the personalities, voices, and perspectives on our channels.
We put great care in our guest selection to fulfill that mission. In Christine vs. Work, we feature practitioners in addition to academics and thought leaders from around the world. In Career Crush, there’s no substitute for hearing first-person accounts of what it’s like working in a specific role or industry.
We also think carefully about the “faces” of Ascend. By design, our TikTok channel isn’t led by any single content creator. Although there are recurring familiar faces that deliver a regular dose of work advice and office humor, we encourage each presenting editor to lean into their distinct and authentic storytelling style. Plus, anyone in the company who wants to pitch, write, shoot, or star in a TikTok is welcome to join the party (a.k.a our weekly brainstorm). Who knows whose video will go viral next?
Lastly, we recently launched a pilot called HBR Presents on our video platforms. In this initiative, we partner with and feature talented external creators to share their expertise on topics like personal finance, early career, and email etiquette. The vision is to thoughtfully grow this creator network, expanding our offerings for an audience hungry for helpful and engaging content delivered in a relatable way.
To put it simply: You can’t have authenticity without hosts who are willing to be vulnerable. Expand your pool of hosts, make it diverse in every sense of the word, and never pair a host with a video or topic that doesn’t resonate with them. Audiences can spot an uniterested host from a mile away.
We’re listening. You matter.
What’s most exciting about our roles as hosts and producers is that we’re able to forge a connection, through our own voices, with our audience. Whatever platform or channel, we commit to reading the comments, replying as ourselves, and responding to questions and stories that others have shared with empathy and insight. We take viewer requests and incorporate them into future episodes. In addition to performance analytics and audience data, we’re able to synthesize viewer feedback to inform Ascend editorial projects across the board. With host-driven video, audiences keep coming back not just for the content, but for the hosts themselves. So creating that engagement — that direct connection — matters.
Long story short, we’re listeners, not lecturers. This philosophy defines our commitment as editors. We also represent a piece of Harvard, for an audience that demands — and deserves — a brand they can trust.
And if you find us on TikTok, Instagram, YouTube, or Ascend, our goal is that you’ll feel like this content is delightfully “for you.”
About the authors
Kelsey Alpaio is an Associate Editor at Harvard Business Review.
Christine Liu is the innovation editor at Harvard Business Publishing’s product incubator.
Search is a topic media companies often overlook. Most of us associate the word search with search engines like Google/Bing/DuckDuckGo. These organic channels are often how visitors (and at times internal team members), will search a content catalog. But it’s time to give some serious thought to your internal, on-page search.
There are many reasons to optimize internal search such as:
The way in which it reveals clear ROI as it complements social media and external search.
The way that it helps clarify user intent, which informs you about navigational issues and content needs.
How it allows you to reveal the depth of your catalog by exposing visitors to more content
The fact that optimized search empowers visitors to find solutions to their problems, meaning they are happier overall.
It empowers journalists to discover content on your owned channels as opposed to external ones.
The good news is that creating optimized site search may be easier than you think.
7 tips to achieve a best-in-class search and discovery experience
Tip 1 : Know your user’s intent
Your goal may be for users to consume content. However, before building the ideal path to that content, you must clarify their intent:
Are they looking to find a specific piece of content e.g. “yesterday’s premier league score”?
Are they researching a specific topic or theme e.g “eco-friendly lifestyle”?
Or are they looking for inspiration? Catching up on news?
Each user’s intent(s) are solved with different discovery patterns: search, guided discovery, or recommendations. It’s critical that you identify what your specific user’s intent and motivations are. Make sure that you spend time mapping this out, to then serve each user individually.
Tip 2 : Audit your content catalog
How many long-lasting pieces of content do you have vs. short lived items?
Among your live pieces of content, what percentage of content is actually being consumed today?
Are there opportunities to expose more content, perhaps resurfacing historical archives or adding in new partner content?
These types of questions will help you to define priorities for your discovery strategy.
On top of that, the quality of your metadata (date of publication, theme, topic, etc.) is crucial to ensure a good user experience. Be clear on the attributes that will determine how your content ranks when queried. Think about what uniquely differentiates your content catalog such as freshness, particular niches, short or snappy content, exclusivity, etc.
Tip 3: Identify your priorities, KPIs, and North Star metric
In order to build a great search and discovery experience, you need to be clear on your priorities and key metrics. Perhaps that’s to increase time spent, increasing engagement to support an ads-based model. Or it might be to increase premium subscriptions.
It’s not uncommon for media companies to run on several business models: ad-based, subscription-based, and even ecommerce. Also, priorities, goals, and primary metrics may shift and change over time. Common video industry on-demand models include AVOD (advertising-based video on-demand), SVOD (subscription video-on-demand), and TVOD (transactional video on-demand). Identifying your primary model(s) and goal(s) is critical to building great user experiences to achieve those goals.
To achieve your goals, consider:
engagement and discovery patterns like related content recommendations, or topic refinement with suggested tags.
building content discovery widgets that provide a glimpse of your content catalog from third-parties and partner websites.
personalized recommendations and other ways to engage loyal subscribers. Help them discover new content and gain more value from your platform.
Tip 4 : Build your discovery map
After identifying your goals and core metrics, you should then build a discovery map that reflects your objectives and specific needs. Here is a template and example to use.
On the X axis: describe your different content types: Fresh news and short reads, Reports and long-form, archives, niche content, etc.
On the Y axis : your various user’s or persona’s intents
In each content type box of this matrix, you then describe a “Discovery scenario”. For example, what is the preferable touchpoint (e.g “Search box” or “Discovery tab” or “Home Page”), or what is the most important ranking criteria for your content (e.g. “date of publication” and “topic”), and/or what is the CTA that compliments your North Star metric (e.g “read another article” or “sign in”)
Tip 5 : Evaluate your existing search and discovery
Next, audit your existing setup. Starting by evaluating your various discovery scenarios and note their pros and cons.
Below are examples of other items to evaluate throughout your audit. How do you manage:
typos? Ex: “I want to watch lalalnd”
broad queries? Ex: “I want to watch romantic comedies”?
natural language queries? Ex: “I want to watch Rom Coms”?
There are many more. Remember: The better you analyze your existing search & discovery shortcomings and opportunities, the better you can move faster on optimizing them.
Tip 6 : Find the right balance between AI-led and human-led curation
Curation strategies vary a lot across the media industry. While publishers often rely heavily on editorial teams, video platforms are often algorithmically curated. There is no right or wrong way to do this; finding your balance is key.
AI, for example, can be a way to surface what you have outlined in your content discovery map. Among the discovery scenarios that you have considered, think about how AI can help augment your team’s work. It can bridge gaps or free up editorial time. Finding this balance allows for increased efficiency and a focus on quality.
There are many different ways to leverage AI, here are a few. It can:
entirely power content blocks or rows leveraging various recommendation models
be used on top of manually curated blocks to dynamically reorder content, depending on their popularity
shorten the path to content by leveraging intent detection, and displaying personalized suggestions of content or categories
Tip 7 : Select the right solution for you
After following the tips outlined throughout this, you will be in a better position to select the right solution for your business and team. Your implementation may consist of building your own search and recommendation engine. It might consist of building from external platforms that are made for developers. Or perhaps you’ll buy off-the-shelf solutions.
In making these decisions, here are a few more considerations that are important at that stage.
Think through your unique requirements in terms of short- and long-term scalability. Not all solutions are equal in terms of a geographical footprint, expansion, and the ability to manage audience peaks, for example.
Similarly, understand your team’s unique situation when looking at how architectures and services selected will be built and maintained. If building things out in-house looks to be your best decision, consider what it takes to maintain, scale, and handle regular change requests and develop features and iterations.
Think about the future of discovery: What you have defined today in regards to your discovery map will likely evolve and change as quickly as consumer’s behaviors do. Consider a solution that will be future-proof, enabling you to consistently offer the most enjoyable and rewarding experience for your customers (and teams).
Our hope is that these tips will help you create the most optimized experiences for both your customers and your teams. Best of luck in planning, auditing, and creating your unique search and discovery experience. It’s worth it because effective search and discovery will help engage your site visitors and convert them into fans for the long-term.
The subscription economy is booming. From music and movies to meals and clothing, consumers want what they want to be available when and how they want it, and without onerous upfront costs. For publishers facing the uncertainties of digital advertising — dominated by the duopoly — subscriptions offer predictable and powerful revenue streams. They also bring with them an even more intimate understanding of the audiences they serve.
One of the biggest media success stories in capturing reader revenue, The Washington Post has introduced a new mobile-first product that encourages audiences to multitask. The 7, launched in September, distills the top seven headlines into digestible snippets and delivers them daily to time-crunched audiences at the same time (at 7 am Eastern) on the channel of their choice.
Website, app, and email newsletter are just a few of the channels consumers can use to skim through the headlines (roughly 300 words in total). And, if readers don’t have time to scroll or swipe through the stories, they can opt to listen to the news instead.
But the real power of the product isn’t the multi-channel delivery. It’s the way it fits into multiple stages of the funnel, allowing The Post to attract new audiences and convert existing ones with the same content. Even if readers don’t subscribe on the spot, their continued interaction provides valuable data points (email address if readers signed up for the newsletter) that equip The Post to market and move audiences ever deeper into the funnel.
Continuing with our series of DCN video interviews, I talk to Coleen O’Lear, Head of Mobile Strategy at The Washington Post. Drawing from experience growing The Post’s digital audience and cultivating stronger reader habits, O’Lear shares how The 7 has evolved from being “an accessible, digestible on-ramp for the news” to a product that “drives exceptionally high engagement.” She also discusses the “experimental mindset” publishers must adopt to make content readily accessible and digestible, not to mention enable their success to be scalable.
Peggy Anne Salz: It’s a morning routine for many – wake up, reach for the phone, check the headlines. Now more than ever, we rely on trusted sources to inform our perspective on what’s happening globally, as well as close to home and the stakes have never been higher. What a responsibility then to be the steward of one of the most trusted names in news charged with making sure those headlines are what we want when we wake up and that they are there, they are there for us. And in the middle of all this, how do you infuse a nearly 150-year-old legacy brand with a sense of ‘always on’ experimentation to produce this? How can you then scale both, maybe the cool new products that I’m talking about here and the number of subscribers who pay to access them? A lot of tough questions, and we get the inside track here today on Digital Content Next, the series from DCN, which is a trade association serving the diverse needs of high-quality digital content companies globally.
I’m your host Peggy Anne Salz and my guest today is Coleen O’Lear, she is Head of Mobile Strategy at the Washington Post, which I’ve been talking about. Coleen focuses on editorial and product development aimed at growing the Post’s digital audience and cultivating stronger reader habits. She was a founding member of the emerging news products team where she shepherded complex projects and initiatives from inception to implementation, including the Washington Post’s select app By The Way, its channels on Snapchat, Apple News, and Facebook news. And most recently, The 7, which is the big part of our focus on the show today. Welcome Coleen, great to have you here.
Coleen O’Lear: Thanks so much for having me, Peggy.
Salz: So you’ve said it yourself, and I quote you it’s all about creating new and exciting ways to surface news for time-crunched readers to consume. I’m just wondering, how many ways can readers currently access the news we’re talking about on how many platforms speaking here, of course, about The 7.
O’Lear: The 7 is something that we offer in a lot of different ways for you to be able to consume it, how you want it, when you want it and where you want it. So, we offer it on the app, we offer it on the website, we offer it on social off of our owned and operated platforms, we distribute it on Apple news, we have a newsletter and an SMS experiment. People are really busy, and they have a lot of options and preferences.
So, we created The 7 to really be an accessible, digestible on-ramp for the news for busy readers who really just want a rundown of the morning’s news quickly. So, it’s something that they can really fit into their morning routine as it exists. And it’s something that they can consume, how they want it, where they want it. So maybe some days you don’t have time to read it, and some days, you would rather listen, we offer people that opportunity with The 7.
Salz: So, you launched in September, not a lot of time to make a lot of observations. But you have seen how audiences are interacting with The 7, maybe you can tell me a little bit more about what you’ve seen, you know, it’s on the app, on the email, maybe just have the headlines read to you while you’re brushing your teeth getting ready for work, what is working?
O’Lear: Yeah, I mean, there’s a lot working so far, which we’re really excited about. So, we created The 7 to really be a mobile-first platform, or mobile-first product, we really wanted you to be able to multitask with it. Like I said before, we wanted it to fit into your routine. And as we hoped, we’ve seen really high engagement across platforms, including the site and newsletter, but the majority of our users have been on the apps. And that’s a place where we can drive deeper engagement. And that’s a place where we have seen really high engagement with The 7, with the briefing itself but also, with the audio component specifically, readers have really been listening to it there and they have been completing it. So they’ve been listening to the whole thing. They’ve been reading the whole thing, and they’ve been coming back to it again.
That’s something that was really built into how we wanted to think about The 7, we wanted it to be something that added value to your day, something that told you the seven things that you needed to know and the things that you wanted to know. So we really think that that’s come across and what we’re seeing from readers so far, and we’ve even extended our experiment with The 7 by launching an SMS project. So that’s been interesting, too. And we’ve had exceptionally high engagement with that early on, that’s even newer than The 7 itself, it’s only been out for less than two weeks now. But we’ll text you every morning and send you that link. And people have really been engaged which has been exciting.
Salz: A little bit of a comeback, a little bit of a Renaissance. I haven’t been hearing much about SMS, it’s all been about messaging. And of course, you have products on messaging, as well. SMS is intriguing. Where did that come from? Just experiment, try another platform?
O’Lear: Yeah, we like to experiment with platforms like we’ve talked about before. The Washington Post is about experimenting at scale. And SMS was something that we saw an opportunity to do that with. We thought that this was a real value-added proposition with The 7, right? That it is going to cover the things that are breaking, the hardest news, the most important news of the day. But it’s also the stories that you want to know, because you want to talk about them with your friends, right? It’s that balanced diet and we thought that SMS really lends itself well to that. We started experimenting with SMS primarily around the Olympics. But we saw a lot of success with that experiment and thought that The 7 was a good vehicle to have another opportunity with SMS.
Salz: I’m going to stay with The 7 as content for a moment, because it’s fascinating. First of all, it averages around 400 words.
It’s also probably a huge responsibility to pick the seven, then to write it and wow, it’s written by human Tess Homan who has an actual byline. You know, there’s someone responsible for this, how important is that? You know, why not AI because AI is certainly up to – we’ve seen those experiments, but you chose a human and this format, what’s behind that?
O’Lear: For us, there’s really no replacement for human touch when it comes to something like The 7. It’s a very focused briefing, it’s really critical that an editor’s honed news judgement and sharp editing skills can be taken to the day of the news, right? The Washington Post publishes hundreds of stories every single day and readers rely on us to tell them what of those stories they really need to know. And with The 7, just the seven that they need to know, at any given moment, too.
So, while it does publish at 7 am Eastern, that doesn’t mean that news is going to stop just because The 7 has published right? There may be something that breaks after it has published, that is going to be the news of the day, that’s going to be one of the seven most important things. And so that’s something that we really feel a human touch an editor’s judgement needs to be on. Our readers rely on The 7 being something that they can turn to when they want to turn to it in the morning. And so Tess is able to give that a real human touch by making appropriate updates, by really keeping it tight, by making sure that the essence and the heart of what you really need to know, the background and context to why a story matters for you, is truly in The 7 every day. And I think that that’s something that, you know, AI is great, but a human is better.
Salz: So human judgement, definitely a plus here. And as you said also the appropriateness of the content and the update, the purpose of your overall strategy is to build a habit, to turn readers into subscribers. Tell me a little bit about where and how The 7 fits in, it feels like a top of the funnel play. But I’m sure there’s an impact on deeper funnel engagement. And also, I’ve read that people who engage with your app stay longer. I don’t know if the case is with The 7 and how that impacts it. But tell me a little bit about where it fits into the scheme of things?
O’Lear: So we offer different opportunities for different kinds of readers to come into the funnel at different points. So for subscribers, there’s a value-add to The 7, it makes your subscription even more worthwhile for you. And we hope that over time that leads to retention. The 7 is also something that could potentially attract or bring a new audience to The Washington Post, potentially more accessible. Maybe somebody is very driven by audio experiences or doesn’t have a lot of time, right? It’s for time-crunched readers. Well, any story from the Washington Post is typically going to take you at least five minutes to read, right? We’re covering seven stories, you’re going to be able to consume it in less than three minutes and I think that that’s important.
We really hope that that can sort of create a pathway to the post that might not have existed before. And so there are different opportunities there, you could get a newsletter, if that works best for you, you could consume it on our site or on our apps that might lead to an app download where somebody hadn’t downloaded the app before, or a subscription sign up, or a newsletter signup, or even giving us your phone number for SMS.
Salz: That’s really interesting that it can be a little bit of everything. Because at one level, it’s bundling it in as a value add for the whole package, in a sense, and the other, it’s maybe acquiring a different type of audience, maybe one that you haven’t necessarily been able to win over. But now hey, time-crunched is maybe a sort of persona with you. And this allows you to approach that segment as well. So it’s top of funnel, and it’s deeper in the funnel. What can you tell me about the audience overall?
O’Lear: Well we don’t really get into metrics specifically. So I can’t tell you in specifics about the audience, but I can say that we have heard from a lot of readers, a lot of consumers all say because they’re not all reading it they’re listening to it too and some are getting the newsletter and some are coming to us on our ONO, and they’re reading the briefing live on their site.
A common theme that is coming back is that they appreciate the thoughtfulness of The 7, they appreciate that they have an expectation, and that it’s meeting that need, that it isn’t just the seven hardest news stories of the day, it’s also the things that you want to talk to your friends about. It’s the things you want to turn to your colleague and discuss. It’s the things that you drop into the group chat and say, can you believe this happened? Or did you know the ways that Google is trapping you or the defaults on Venmo.
We’re giving you utility content that can help make your life better, and also the news of the day that’s going to affect your life. And so I think that that has truly been something that’s distinct and unique about The 7 is really showcasing the breadth of the journalism that the Washington Post has to offer.
Salz: So I’m going to look at what drives The 7 and I would call it an always-on experimental mindset at the Washington Post. I’ve been following you for quite a while looking at all the different experiments, you’re one of the very first to really take audio very seriously, right? And now we’re talking about super short-form content – three minutes. And it’s great to experiment in a sandbox, you have a great job, because that’s what you’re doing. But then there’s the question of like, okay, now we’ve nailed it, this is really exciting. Now we need to experiment at scale. So what allows you to experiment at scale?
O’Lear: Experimentation is just built into the ethos of The Washington Post, we always try to approach things in an iterative way too, what launches may not be the thing that it is, eventually, if that wasn’t working for an audience. We are constantly doing health checks on our products, and on our audience and making sure that we are really meeting them where they need us to be, that we are delivering on the value and what they need from the Washington Post.
I think that when we see that something works, we don’t hesitate to double down on it, and to apply those learnings to the other places where they may be applicable. And so if something doesn’t work, we also identify what’s causing it not to work, and we try to make modifications to be able to, like I said, just be more responsive and to be more agile. And I think that that’s part of what has helped us experiment at scale, sometimes it’s about starting something in a small way and seeing where it may apply. I mean, AR is something we’ve been doing for many years now. And really started in small but meaningful ways. And now you can find AR in our app, it is built into our native core products, because it is something that we invest in.
The takeaway, essentially, from being able to experiment at scale is to really identify the opportunities, be realistic about your resources, be realistic about the impact that you have the potential to make, and what is most valuable, both for your audience and for your company. And then look for those opportunities and pursue those.
We never launch a product without goals associated, right? Both company goals, strategic goals, but also goals for the reader, what value is it supposed to bring. And so I think that what we really try to do is be strategic and deliberate about what we choose to invest in. And if something isn’t working, we’re not afraid, like I said, to sort of react to that and to try to change things. And so I think that essentially gives us the flexibility of nothing being too precious.
Everything is always being an evolution, just because something has launched doesn’t mean that it’s final and it’s done. I think that you always have to maintain a mindset of experimenting, improving, reacting and making things better. And iteration isn’t just something that you do in the experimental phase, it is something that you continue to do after a product is fully baked for lack of a better way of putting it.
Salz: At the end of the day you are Head of Mobile Strategy. What are you bringing here? What is it that you see as your role or someone in your position? Is this about orchestration? Is this about innovation? Inspiration? What is it that keeps this going?
O’Lear: It’s all of the above? I mean, I really…
Salz: Then I love your job, Coleen.
O’Lear: I mean, it’s all of the above, it’s hard to say that you always have to be of different minds. But you do. Anybody who is a strategic thinker, also has to work in practicalities, and realities, right? And so I think that we really tried to be measured in our approach.
So, I think that you really have to take a strategic lens toward everything but then you have to think about people and the people building the products, the people consuming the products. And that’s everything from how we curate something to the UX of something. And I think that that often comes across in very clear goals, but also even in simplest terms in documentation, if you don’t lay out to your team, the workflow that they should follow and why, I think it’s much harder to get people to understand what you’re trying to do, especially when you’re trying to do things that are big or different, or potentially challenging.
Salz: I’d like to go from The 7 that we’ve been talking about to the future, right? You’re evolving your product, you’re iterating your product, you’re always doing something there. But you’re also uniting your product. What’s next at the Washington Post? What’s your next focus?
O’Lear: Yeah, one of the big things that I’m working on right now is the unification. So we have two core apps that are news apps. They were originally for different audiences but journalism has changed, audiences have changed, technology has changed. And essentially what we’re doing is we’re taking what works well and we’re using the unification process to really build what is the classic app into a core flagship product that is truly representative of the Washington Post of today. And it is a first in class experience for users. And so that user-first mentality, really making decisions with the reader front of mind, thinking about what an app of today and tomorrow should be, is really exciting.
I think that we’ve learned a lot of lessons from having two different apps with sort of a different reading experience. And from those we’ll be able to make something that really feels like it meets the needs of different kinds of consumers.
Salz: I’d like to just go into a little bit of depth there, because not everyone, for example, will know about the two apps, the two experiences, the two audiences. Give me an idea about why you’re approaching app unification the way you are and how you’re going to keep those two audiences because combining them can be very tricky. And if you have any tips to offer, I’m sure we’re all ears.
O’Lear: Ask me about tips after we’ve done the unification and I may have some more tips I can offer at that time. Right now, like I said, we’re approaching it very deliberately, and we’re listening to our readers.
One thing in that was that we were listening to our readers and we were finding out that the audiences aren’t that different, potentially you stumbled upon one app for one reason and not the other, or you liked the design effect of what was essentially started to be a more national app, the Select app. That was its original purpose, its original intention, we think that there’s a way to marry all of those things together, that we’ve evolved our thinking as the Washington Post, our journalism has evolved, readers habits have evolved. We want to take the lessons and the things that work really well in both of the apps to build one core product that is truly first in class.
So I think that we’ll be able to take a lot of the sort of curation philosophy and the design philosophy and showing you both the breadth and the depth of the Washington Post into our core app. And you can see that in the classic app, which is the longest-running of the apps, that we’ve already started to make those changes. So what you’re experiencing today and what will be our flagship app is actually closer to what you had experienced in Rainbow or the Select app, as it’s formerly known.
At the end of the day, our audience doesn’t need two apps. They need one app that is best in class, there isn’t really a reason to split audiences. I’m not saying that there isn’t a reason to have multiple apps for some publishers. But for us, we really want to invest in making our flagship app the destination for you to come on your mobile phone, on your mobile product, on your mobile device. And we think that we can take lessons from experimenting at scale on both of the apps for many years now. And do that better in one place?
Salz: Coleen, I’ve lost track, how many products does the Washington Post have?
O’Lear: So many I’ve lost track. We have dozens of newsletters, we have two apps, within the classic app, you can also consume the print product. So if you really love the print paper, you can read it as print inside the classic app, that’s a good example. The print app was something that was a distinct app that you could also download. And maybe you had the print app, and you had the classic app. Well, from the classic app, you can also get to the print app, so we’re just really making that connective tissue between our products stronger, I think.
Salz: Excellent. And I will, of course, take you up on your offer, maybe as you’re further on into the unification process, what stays, what goes, what flies, what fails, to share some of that decision-making process. Let us walk inside your mind, your thinking. In the meantime, Coleen, thanks so much for sharing and for being on Digital Content Next today.
O’Lear: Thanks so much for having me.
Salz: And of course, thank you for tuning in, taking the time, more in this series about how media companies are taking charge of change in their business. In the meantime, be sure to check out DigitalContentNext.org for great content, including a companion post to this interview with Coleen or join the conversation on Twitter @DCNorg. Until next time, I’m Peggy Anne Salz for Digital Content Next.
When it comes to building direct relationships with readers, newsletters boast a superpower: intimacy. In addition to being a direct avenue for relationship-building with readers, newsletters are also major drivers of revenue diversification and provide insights from first-party data. As such, they have become an all-purpose survival tool for publishers.
“There are so many ways technology has helped email newsletters become a replacement for the newspaper and magazine as people’s view into the world and how they get news and information,” says Kerel Cooper, CMO of email service provider LiveIntent. “It’s in your inbox. It’s there almost on-demand when you’re ready to consume it.”
LiveIntent’s Industry Pulse Survey, published in July, found that 87% of publishers and marketers were actively investing in email and 94% were prioritizing scaling their email programs this year.
“Prior to the Covid pandemic, we were seeing newsletters trending in a very positive direction. People were spending more than five hours a day between their personal and work emails,” Cooper explained. “With the pandemic and everyone being home, that growth accelerated.”
The FT’s newsletter machine
Sarah Ebner, Head of Newsletters at the Financial Times, agrees with Cooper that newsletters were already “having a moment” before Covid struck.
“Newsletters have been ‘the big thing’ and then ‘not the big thing’ for probably a decade,” says Ebner. “[In] the last year, with the pandemic, because many people found themselves in a situation where they were stuck at home and hungry for information, newsletters became a very big tool. People wanted information and news sources they could trust.”
Currently offering 32 curated newsletters and counting, FT was early to embrace the newsletter distribution channel. Way back in 2019, shortly after crossing the 1 million subscriber threshold, they began using newsletter polls to increase subscriber retention.
“We know that the engagement rate is very high for FT subscribers,” Ebner explained. “It’s even higher if they’re newsletter readers, which is a really good thing.”
According to Ebner, readers on a trial are 134% more likely to be retained if they subscribe to a newsletter. “[Newsletters] drive traffic and engagement. They also definitely enhance loyalty and create habits and they really can push people to subscribe and donate,” Ebner told me. “You can also promote events or other newsletters through them. So, they do a lot of things in a really simple way.”
The personality-driven future of newsletters
Again, given the intimacy of the inbox, it isn’t a surprise that readers develop a relationship with newsletter authors, not just the publishing brands behind them.
Last April when David Leonhardt was appointed to lead The New York Times’ flagship morning newsletter, he was given the title of “writer, host, and anchor.” For a newsletter that reaches the inbox of over 17 million subscribers, Leonhardt has the equivalent audience of some primetime news programs. “Host and anchor are the language of TV, which I’m sure isn’t accidental,” wrote Nieman Lab’s Joshua Benton. “Morning shows have used the personal connection between anchor and viewer, reinforced daily, to build extraordinarily profitable businesses.”
Independent publishing platforms like Substack are leveraging this connection and luring top writers from newsrooms like salaried moths to a self-employed flame. In response, publishers have begun to embrace the personality-driven content structure more boldly in their newsletter offerings.
“One of the amazing things about newsletters is that you build up that direct relationship with the writer and you trust them,” FT’s Ebner said. “When we relaunched Brussels Briefing as Europe Express, I spoke to [Britain After Brexit newsletter author] Peter Foster and asked him, ‘Can you mention it?’ Because he wrote it in his own words, saying ‘This is really good and you should sign up for it,’ it didn’t look like it was from an advert. That was the most clicked-on link in his newsletter that week.”
Publishers are not blind to the power of personality-driven newsletters. In fact, many are embracing it. Just last week, The Atlantic announced it would be hiring independent newsletter authors to write under their brand (and behind The Atlantic’s paywall). Still remaining semi-autonomous, newsletter writers will not be full-time employees and “will have some light oversight from Atlantic editors.” They will earn base pay and additional incentive payments if their readers convert to Atlantic subscribers.
“When you think about how brands and publishers want consumers to spend more time with them, the more of a direct relationship you have, the more you can understand who the users are and their likes and their intent, the better you are in a position to provide them services to continue to stay engaged with your brand,” said LiveIntent’s Cooper.
“It’s definitely part of the strategy to have a strong anchor to many of these newsletters,” said incoming VP of Audience at Axios, Ryan Kellett. “You’ll notice that some of them come from teams. And some of that is the sustainability of the newsletter. It is very very hard to write a daily newsletter.” Kellet joined Axios last month after over a decade at The Washington Post. He most recently worked as Senior Director of Audience where he oversaw digital strategy and subscriber growth.
Axios Local’s rapid expansion
While some publishers like The Telegraph have recently chosen to embrace the “less is more” newsletter strategy by offering “fewer, more focused newsletters,” other leading media organizations are maximizing their newsletter model by replicating it in local markets.
Late last year, Axios launched a free-to-readers newsletter model for local news markets called Axios Local. According to Axios, “The daily morning newsletters cover the most consequential news and developments unfolding in each of the cities.” Their editorial model embraces personality-driven content by recruiting the most prominent writers from each of those local markets to “anchor” Axios Local’s newsletters.
Kellett cites Axios Chicago’s Monica Eng and Justin Kaufmann, two veteran reporters and “former pillars of public radio in Chicago,” who began co-anchoring Axios Chicago’s morning newsletter in August, as examples of how personality-driven content is integral to the success of certain newsletters. However, speaking on broader terms than just one company, Kellett emphasizes the challenges of newsletter writing that often go overlooked.
“It is often underappreciated how hard it is to put out [newsletters] on a day-to-day basis and do a number of other things like attending community events, actually reporting stories, engaging on social media…” said Kellett. “Obviously, we want to have the strongest writers and the strongest personalities to be the anchors. But part of it is thinking about sustainability and the teams that are required to feed some of those newsletters as well.”
Leveraging first-party data in a cookie-less world
Apart from the outward benefits of fostering engagement and revenue, the email address itself has become all the more valuable with regard to first-party data collection, especially considering the impending death of the third-party cookie. According to LiveIntent’s July survey, “99% of survey respondents believe that the email address is vital to the future of identity resolution after the third-party cookie’s demise.”
LiveIntent’s Kerel Cooper supports this position strongly by saying, “Third-party cookies have been a staple of targeting and monetization for a very long time in our space. As a publisher or brand, you have to think, ‘Okay, if this data set, this foundational element that I’ve used to build my business is going away, I need to replace it with another data set.’ First-party data and first-party audiences are going to be super key to that transition.”
“The email channel has already operated in the same manner in which the browsers have been wanting to get to forever,” Cooper continued. “There’s no third-party cookies. You have to opt-in or in some cases double opt-in to receive content from publishers or brands. And there are heavy privacy rules and regulations. Think CAN SPAM. It’s an environment where browsers already want to go.”
However, the value of email addresses may prove to become even more coveted, given Apple’s recent rollout of the iOS 15 update, which introduces Mail Privacy Protection to Apple Mail users.
As AdWeek’s Ronan Shields explained, “Mail Privacy Protection will prevent brands from knowing whether a user opens one of their emails and hide IP addresses so that senders can’t link that action to other online activity or determine a user’s location.” The jury is still out on just how detrimental this change will be to publishers existing strategies for leveraging first-party subscriber data.
As our digital sphere barrels forward to 2022, newsletters rightly serve as a powerful multi-purpose survival tool for publishers. Now that the churning momentum of independent newsletter platforms has gained the attention of tech giants like Google, Twitter, and Facebook, each of whom has announced plans to “get in the newsletter game,” publishers must plan to keep this particular survival tool very sharp. At the same time, while exploring all of a newsletter’s advantages, they must never forget the simplicity of the medium and its eternal superpower: intimate, welcomed, and frequent access to readers’ attentions.
TREE KEY ‘C’S FOR NEWSLETTER SUCCESSES
Newsletter expert Ryan Kellett outlines three basic tenets to foster reader loyalty in newsletters:
1. Create high-quality content on a frequent and regular basis
“As we all know, that email address is very valuable. You want to really try to deliver as consistently and as best as you can and at as high a quality as possible on a day-to-day basis.”
“Consistency is really important in developing that relationship so the reader trusts that you’re there on a certain cadence, be it daily or weekly or bi-weekly…I think one of the reasons why daily works so well is because it says ‘Every day at 7am, that [newsletter] is going to be there for you consistently.’ You could have anything happen in your life and it will be there.”
3. Community-building capabilities
“I think with newsletters being so intimate, oftentimes it can be a little bit tough to say ‘newsletter community.’ It may or may not actually exist. But I think with really great newsletters, you are building a community there, despite it sort of being a one-to-one experience…It just depends on the medium… Podcasts, websites/comments sections/forums, and newsletters all have their own type of community.”
Make it short. Show real stuff. This may seem obvious, but these are best practices in video length and content authenticity for Gen Z audiences.
Gen Z, born between 1998 and 2016, spends a lot of time watching videos on social media. And last year, Gen Z’s video consumption increased: Snapchat reported that Gen Z watched over an hour each day of video content on social media apps alone. They value video more than any other media platform, by a margin of roughly 2-to-1 over social, gaming, music or Google search, according to a recent study by DCN. They prefer video, specifically user-generated content, due to its relatability and personability.
Understanding that Gen Z viewers and consumers have different behaviors, values, and attitudes when it comes to video is important because it can impact your audience of the future, your strategy, and your revenue. It will also help you withstand shifts in viewer tastes and larger shifts in the media landscape. Building relationships with this generation of viewers, readers, consumers, starts now.
Video length on TikTok
Video length varies by platform, and there are a lot of platforms to choose from. Gen Z favors Instagram, Snapchat and TikTok, according to a Pew survey in 2021.
Video content on TikTok must be extremely short. In fact, 50 seconds is long, according to Erin Weaver, Group Nine Media’s Senior Director of Audience Development. For Gen Z-favored platforms Snapchat and TikTok, video length needs to be short and videos need to be fast-paced, according to Weaver. “On TikTok, I consider anything between 30 and 60 seconds to be almost the default. And then slightly longer is over one minute up to three minutes. We’ve seen some success with longer videos, as long as they’re really engaging and interesting.”
Brittiany Cierra Taylor, director of audience development at BET, says she sees similar results. “Our audience development team has been trying out shorts and they’ve seen that they were amazing in getting new views, new viewers and from an ad perspective, we see more ads, more earned views. That shortness really is the key because we noticed that the sweet spot on TikTok is seven seconds where you see that jump that engagement,” she said.
“Our TikTok partners always encourage us to create shorter and more succinct videos, as they do tend to perform well on the platform,” says Kelsey Alpaio, an editor and producer with Harvard Business Review’s Ascend brand for young professionals, “But, that doesn’t mean long videos are off limits. The majority of our top-viewed videos are more than 50 seconds long. If people are interested in the content, they will stick around.”
Video length on YouTube
On YouTube, videos that are 2-4 minutes long work well for Harvard Business Review, but they also see success with videos that are longer, about 10-14 minutes each.
Scott LaPierre, Harvard Business Review’s senior editor for multimedia, says that for YouTube, trends around length are similar. Length is less important than topic and storytelling. LaPierre says HBR’s more authentic and honest videos on YouTube, which are casual, host- and personality-driven, perform about as well in the long run as their more traditional content. “Both have about an even number of breakout successes, and comparable average performers,” he says. “The video’s topic, and how compellingly it delivers on that topic are still the primary factors in the number of views and how long people watch, whether traditional or authentic in style.”
Short and medium-length videos at about two to nine minutes each work best on YouTube, for a broad reach. And longer (10-15 minutes) seems to work to deepen engagement with established fans, LaPierre said. “Shorter videos seem to have broader reach while longer videos seem to have deeper engagement. Long for us is around 10-15 minutes. Short is two to four. Most of our current video lineup is in the middle: six-to-nine-minute range. Anything over about 15 minutes does not perform great on our channel.” (Live video is a different conversation where lengths over 15 are more the norm.)
Optimize for story
“It really depends on the goal of the story and whatever length makes the storytelling complete,” says Zainab Khan, associate director of audience, video at The New York Times. “We might do a months-long investigation that merits a 12-minute video. What we see, because we edit our videos for pacing and storytelling, if a video is longer, we get more overall watch time. But we’re really rigorous about thinking about length so it fits the needs of the story. And in some cases, that means the best way to share a story means to do a quick 30-second snippet, showing viewers what’s happening on the ground.”
All of the digital content companies we spoke to said that storytelling trumps minutes and seconds. Video content should be as long as it needs to be, to tell an engaging story. LaPierre says, “Topic and storytelling generally trump length or style. So, my rule of thumb is: make it as short as possible, but no shorter.”
Best practices for user-generated content are that video content must be low lit, not super polished, and not have a high production quality.Often, it is a selfie-style cell phone footage. It’s casual, host- and personality-driven. It is concise, engaging, and easy to produce. It shows people talking about what they care passionately about.
Harvard Business Review aims to make some of their videos in that user-generated style, LaPierre says. “For me, the best way to get authentic-feeling video is to have people talk about what they care passionately about,” he says.
Ascend Multimedia Producer Andy Robinson explains they try to find a sweet spot between having a polished feel and showing the real world. “My rule is, show the real stuff whenever possible. We’ve been leaning heavily on less-overly produced elements in our video content. Audiences can smell something that is highly produced, over scripted, over thought.”
Group Nine makes a point of putting people as the focal point of their UGC content, explains Weaver. “For PopSugar, a tutorial on applying makeup does a lot better than a product review or something that’s mostly focused on beauty products or a workout. You should see people doing the workouts, not so much like a description of the movements.”
At The New York Times, best practice for finding authenticity in a creator’s work is to have a deep understanding of the company’s values and to find common ground with their audience, Khan says. “It’s really important for us, when we want to build trust with our audience, we show our authentic selves. We literally put our reporters on screen in a way that helps the audience understand who is doing the reporting,” Khan says.
Gen Z has a bullshit detector
Gen Z’s desire for authenticity has been well documented. They want brands to be transparent, authentic and trustworthy. Gen Z audiences have spent their lives surrounded by digital technology. They’re incredibly discerning and know how to filter content that lacks the right tone, language, relevance or value. “What I love about Gen Z is that they hold companies more accountable,” Taylor says. “They’re doing the fact-checking, they’re doing the homework, they’re seeing if your staff resembles the world, if your content resembles the world year round. Is your message consistent and congruent in the content that you showed me? That’s actually one thing I love about them because it forces brands to be authentic.”
Authenticity is the way to grow audiences, Taylor explains. “I think that if you want to stay around, that is the basic component that audiences are resonating with. So, if you’re not going to be authentic, you’re not going to meet the KPIs you want, you’re not going to grow your audience, you’re not going to hit your revenue… So, from an audience perspective, a revenue perspective, authenticity is just the way to move forward.”
Be real, not trendy
“In the long term, if your identity and authenticity are dependent on a trend, you only last as long as that trend,” Khan says. “On the other hand, if your company has a handle on its core values, and what sets you apart from your peers and competitors, you can choose which trends to follow. And it means you can withstand shifts in the media and shifts in viewer taste.”
LaPierre says content authenticity connotes honesty, vulnerability, transparency, and relatability, which may not always have been top priorities for publishers. “And, we’ve seen some of the distrust in media that can result,” he says. “Show your flaws, show that your content is made by real people with real concerns that overlap with your audience’s, and show your work–it’s about building a trusting relationship over time.”
For their audience of the future, digital content companies need to put real intention behind the content they create and innovate constantly. As one expert put it, you need to think about who you’re talking to, and create content that is meaningful to them. It’s a lot of effort trying to please Gen Z, but if you’re not putting in the effort, you’re not going to get the results. This is your future audience, after all.