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.
Ever opened an article and started reading, only to lose your spot because you were bumped down the page? This annoying occurrence is the result of layout shift, one of many performance issues that can crop up without consistent care and attention.
Improving the experience of our users is always a top priority at The Washington Post. With Google’s focus on user-centric performance metrics via new page experience signals called Core Web Vitals (CWV), we can better monitor and iterate on those experiences.
CWV signals are currently being rolled out globally. They consist of three new performance metrics: Largest Contentful Paint (LCP), Cumulative Layout Shift (CLS) and First Input Delay (FID). We set a target to reach the highest threshold across all three metrics by August 2021, as Google’s rollout of the new signals is set to be completed by the end of the month.
For publications like The Post, which need to balance rich advertising, rich content and page speed, CWV poses an interesting challenge: How do we ensure a performant experience on all pages across our domain in the short term? And, looking ahead, how can we bake good performance and attention to UX into our long-term processes and culture?
Last summer, the engineering team at The Washington Post began exploring just that. Since then, we’ve seen significant lifts across all three scores.
To accomplish this positive shift, we put our users at the forefront of our engineering and design practices. Here are some key takeaways.
Understand the baseline
We began by determining a baseline for our CWV scores across our site using several different monitors to understand the complete picture. Luckily, there are a lot of awesome tools to help.
Step 1: Identify Patterns with GSC
The Google Search Console dashboard for CWV provided a good first pulse. This allows us to drill down into our less-performant urls and begin to identify patterns in templates or features.
Step 2: Get more granular segments with real-user data
Next, we collaborated with our Analytics team to set up dashboards that would show us an approximate distribution of scores for real users. This gives us more granular insight to triage issues on lower connection speeds, varying devices, etc.
Step 3: Automate and monitor release impact
We highly value continuous deployments and set up synthetic monitoring using Calibre App against our common page templates, with automated alerts going to Slack when we fell below our threshold. This allows us to gauge impact of each release so we can #alwaysbeshipping.
Make it a priority and assemble the team
Communication and a shared commitment to deliver high-quality user experiences are the cornerstones of our success. From engineering to design to advertising and our newsroom, web vitals became a common language and a common goal through a series of communication and alignment methods:
Recurring (and actionable) checkpoints across departments and teams to check in on progress, flag concerns and share tips
Slack channel for sharing web vitals wins, resources and questions
Company-wide presentations on web vitals in town halls
Getting company buy-in for performance work is possible by illustrating to stakeholders how CWV will benefit customers, increase the bottom line and speed up engineering productivity to ship more features, faster! It’s a win-win-win.
Fix the things!
We took several strategic steps to improve CWV scores at The Post.
Optimize Rendering of Main Images for LCP
We reworked the way we rendered the main image in our standard article layout, and as a result, it was the biggest improvement we saw in LCP.
How it worked:
Preloaded the img element’s srcset
Used an LQIP (low-quality image placeholder) in the form of a blurred svg as the background-image of the image element until the high-res request loaded
Assigned the attribute decoding=”async” to the img element
These changes resulted in an improvement to our LCP score that was immediately noticeable.
Reserved Space for Components to Minimize CLS
Anywhere we used lazy loading, we used a placeholder element with a min-height — and potentially min-width — to reserve the space so the element would not jump in and push content elsewhere on the page. We invested in skeleton states to improve the user experience for our readers. This is one of those techniques that became a pattern for us in our quest to improve our CLS scores.
One example of this execution is with our advertisement placeholder. Previously, ads would jump into the slot and push content down the page, which could be frustrating for users, particularly on mobile devices or on smaller displays.
Improving our CLS score required close collaboration with the advertising team. To evaluate impact, we developed and ran extensive A/B tests that served different creative with predictable sizes into the slot for a split segment of users. By analyzing the CWV and broader impact, we were able to make data-driven business decisions. In most cases — and to our surprise — serving predictable creative sizes increased revenue and we were able to commit several units to a set size and eliminate CLS. By opting to serve larger ad sizes (300×600 units only instead of a combination of multiple sizes, which caused a layout jump), we saw higher CPMs. We also eliminated several ad format types that were jumpy. These were traditionally poor performers with our users. We replaced those formats with units that loaded fully in view, resulting in higher ad viewability metrics and, ultimately, higher engagement and improved ad performance.
As the page loads, min-height is reserved with a skeleton state for inline ads:
Because of this, the ad can be fully loaded in without impacting CLS:
Code-splitting for Faster FID
Maintain, maintain, maintain
As with many things, improving CWV scores is not something you do once and then move on. We’re working at The Post to integrate CWV into our ongoing product, design and development processes, in addition to regular review of changes in our scores. It’s an ongoing effort.
We were able to introduce CWV as a new set of standards in cross-team collaboration — and dedicate resources to maintaining these standards. This will serve as a point of reference for other cross-team initiatives in the future. Now, we’re looking at structuring other projects the same way, for example, on web accessibility.
This article originally appeared on The Washington Post Engineering blog and is republished with permission.
Want to share CWV tips, interested in working with us, or just feel like saying hi? 👋
Contact us at email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org.
This project wouldn’t be made possible without the hard work of this outstanding team: Holden Foreman, Robyn Bortz, Anna Scalamogna, Taylor Scott, Christopher Kankel, Erika Johnson, Hannah Mahon, Amanda Bozzi, Arturo Silva, Dan Weaver, Joey Weed, Sarah House, Amanda Hicks, Ted Cook, Thomas Chan, Tommy Lisiak, Eric Lin, Hope Tambala, Ryan Luu, Leo Dominguez, Nathan Walker, Gregory Auld, Ryan Coughlin, Matt Callahan, Dave Merrell, Jeff Turner, Julie Bacon and Kat Styons.
Mobile is a massive opportunity only heightened during the pandemic as audiences turned to their smartphones for the comfort food of apps and entertainment. Significantly, though, throughout this period consumer tastes and appetites changed. Users had both the time and the desire to discover new apps and content, a dynamic that allowed many niche apps and content creators to gain mainstream appeal and profits. In some markets, it created a perfect storm of opportunity for hyperlocal news and entertainment that meets consumers where they are.
Continuing with our series of industry interviews [video below], I talk to Jani Pasha, Founder and CEO of Lokal, who is harnessing hyperlocal content in a play that has the potential to make it the NextDoor of India. With a model built on monetizing connections and transactions at the intersection of community, content, and commerce, Lokal is making the most of a booming opportunity.
The model is smart and replicable in other markets. However, Lokal also benefits from a seismic shift in the fabric of its addressable audience. For the first time, India now counts more Internet users in rural areas than cities. And rural users typically aren’t as interested in national and international news developments. Instead, they crave information about civic, political and social issues that impact their towns and villages.
But India isn’t the only country experiencing these shifts. The explosion in the number of Internet users, accelerated by the pandemic, reveals opportunities in regions such as Central and South America. While we might think that growth has slowed, in the last 12 months alone, the total number of Internet users globally has grown nearly 8% to reach 4.72 billion. That’s more than 60% of the world’s total population.
From silver surfers to app initiates, new users in these regions rely on mobile and apps as their personal lifeline for news and information (even education). They turn to them to make daily decisions about how they live and what they buy. Tapping that potential requires companies to micro-segment audiences and tailor content to the needs of towns and communities, not cities. It also helps to focus on fundamentals.
Understanding that new users are likely to be low on the learning curve, Pasha made a bet on voice that paid off. Bypassing bell-and-whistle tech features for a dead-simple interface like voice fast-tracked new users to frequent app use and interaction. Ease of use also increased trust in the app. And that trust allowed Lokal to acquire new users easily through the most effective advertising on the planet: word-of-mouth.
Voice also empowers every user to make a contribution. This enabled Lokal to grow its ecosystem at minimal cost. Users call in stories about developments in their local towns, creating the content that keeps other users engaged and loyal. They rely on the app to learn about offers and events nearby, sparking conversations that end in commerce conversions.
And this is where Lokal’s strategy to be a local content platform, not a content provider, makes business sense. By positioning itself as a super app — one that allows a user to access several services in one place — Lokal establishes itself as the trusted middleman in interactions and transactions. What’s more, Lokal drives in-app activities it can monetize. And let’s not forget that first-party data is gold.
In our interview, Pasha shares how Lokal is training creators to ensure its content is fresh, relevant and relatable for audiences who crave hyperlocal content on their terms. He also weighs in on the future technologies and opportunities local news apps and outlets everywhere should embrace to grow their revenue streams.
Peggy Anne Salz: The pandemic had a massive impact on local media. In the U.S. alone, more than 300 national newspapers closed their doors. Local newsrooms also shut down contributing to the growth in news deserts, that is, cities where people depend on one local news source, if any at all.
But one company is bucking the trend big time, Lokal, a hyperlocal news app in India is not just growing its user base, it’s also making money. It’s a new twist on monetization. And we get the inside track here on Digital Content Next. I’m your host, as always, Peggy Anne Salz, mobile analyst, content marketing consultant, and frequent contributor to DCN, which is a trade association serving the diverse needs of high-quality digital content companies globally. And in this series, we shine a light on the people pushing the envelope. That’s why I’m so excited to have Jani Pasha, Founder and CEO of Lokal. Welcome, first of all, to Digital Content Next, Jani.
Jani Pasha: Hi, Peggy. Nice to be here.
Salz: Absolutely. And coming to us from a very hot Bangalore today, I understand.
Pasha: Yeah, right. It’s very hot, actually.
Salz: So let’s start with Lokal. You have described it as a hyperlocal Tinder because it cuts out the middleman in finding a date or partner. But it’s also a news service. It’s much more than that. So tell me about Lokal and, above all, the user experience.
Pasha: Yeah, Peggy. So we are not just only the Tinder of that place. We do quite a lot. But I’ll tell you the backstory of how we started. So essentially, if you take India, it’s a very diverse country with 90% of its population living in tier-2, tier-3 cities, and towns of India. And these people, most of them, have not traveled further than their adjacent district, because it’s so diverse that with every 50 to 100-kilometre radius, your food habits change, cultures change, language change quite frequently.
So they are staying in those locations of their towns and cities generationally with their parents, grandparents, their homes, and businesses. So naturally, they’re so curious to know about what is happening around them. And there is one more factor that kicked in, in 2016, Jio, a mobile operator who has reduced the prices of internet drastically to make India the cheapest place for 1 GB data for you to use mobile internet.
So then we have this, all these 90% Indians who didn’t have access to internet previously suddenly had access to internet. But essentially, these users are new internet users who are not comfortable in English language. And so then what will they do with the internet, right? So Lokal is the platform which we started it as a platform to deliver hyperlocal content, which is extremely useful for them. And that is the gateway of how they’re adapting to the internet to use internet more usefully in their life. So today, if you take this 90% Indian audience who are new to internet, they are using internet prominently for entertainment, either to… You know, we used to have TikTok. We don’t have it anymore. It is banned by the government. So there are many TikTok parallels and YouTube and Facebook. And then they use WhatsApp for communication.
Apart from that, they can’t use internet meaningfully. And Lokal is actually being that platform giving them the content that they can use and that is of importance for them. Then naturally, making them use internet for multiple use cases. And as at a location, our density of usage increased. We evolved as a platform. So you rightly said we evolved as a Tinder, a place where people find other people to get married. It’s a place for businesses to advertise about their businesses to local community. It’s a place for businesses or people to actually sell their properties. And all this is happening in their native languages of Telugu, Tamil, and Kannada. We are expanding across the country. And we have seen because we have a lot of density in that location, users are adopting platform like crazy with more use cases coming up almost every day.
Salz: But, of course, internet penetration alone doesn’t spell the profits that you’re getting. Part of it is also the experience. You talked about ease of use. You talked about local languages. What are some of the innovations in the UX and UI design that contribute to your success? What does an app with local news need to look like and offer?
Pasha: Very interesting and relevant question, Peggy. So when you talk about these new users right, so all the smartphones have the keyboards in English language. So one challenge when we’re trying to build Lokal was how can you make the content creation easy on Lokal, especially that of text format.
Like, a lot of information about what are the vegetable prices in that location to what are the updates happening in that town, not everything can be captured on video. So they have to be typed. How can you make that easy? So, the first thing that we did, or we built was, making this creation easy, where the user will input the content by voice instead of typing. So they are using voice to actually create the content. And once we started doing that, we realized that creation with our voice is much more convenient than typing on a keyboard because you have to… It’s not natural, right?
Like humans, we speak to each other. So that’s a major shift, right? So if you go on a website today like on Amazon, you have multiple navigation. There are filters, there is sorting, there are multiple pages, multiple categories, but for an interaction, like the natural interaction for a shopkeeper in our location is to go and ask to a small retail shop owner that, “You know, what is the cost of this item? And how can I get it?” It’s natural voice-based input. In India, a lot of businesses are SMEs, sort of small and medium businesses unlike in U.S. where you have a Walmart. You go and then you select. It’s a voice-based communication. You ask, the shopkeeper goes and gets the information, and we’re replicating the same because the technology has caught up.
Salz:Interestingly enough, you were talking about how your audience is very focused on local content. I mean, hyperlocal is really hot in India right now. It’s fascinating that local newspapers, right, newspapers are growing at a double-digit rate. Now, you also have impressive growth results. Now, I’ve seen numbers growing 25% roughly month on month, that’s the last I’ve read, and that’s because of your monetization model. So one is the content, but it’s also a very smart approach to how you generate revenues. Tell me about that.
Pasha: We have built a playbook, via which we launch a location, and we get local content creators in that location to create content, which is very relevant to that community, very, very hyperlocal in nature. And then you get a density of users using the application. And once you have that critical mass of density at a location level, then it becomes a platform where everyone…like, everyone relevant started coming onto the platform, and then they start doing a lot of things, which are monetizable.
Even this is true for people in the West also. Newspapers used to be the place for everything, right, at a location level. You want to do real estate, you want to do jobs, classifieds. Everything used to happen on newspaper. Internet came in. All the small, small parts became large businesses, right? Craigslist, Airbnb, they’re all part of this local newspaper, right? Had these newspapers, you know, are technology-friendly or had they been…had they had that vision or foresight, they would have been the super applications that everything is happening on them.
It’s just that the news publishers migrated their digital publishing online, but they left the rest of the parts for others to pick. In India, we have that opportunity right now, where it’s a very new audience. Internet is being built for them in their native languages. And Lokal is trying to do that with our approach of delivering hyperlocal content. So we don’t consider ourselves as a local news platform. We consider ourselves as a local content platform. So that is the different approach that we are taking compared to newspapers, Peggy.
Salz:That is fascinating because you’re showing that there is a great deal of benefit to being a fast follower here. I mean, you have purposely… It sounds like you have thought this through, Jani. How to be a content platform, keep the social media, keep the connection for yourself and not give it over to the big tech giants or the big social media platforms. That’s the focus. That’s the essence of your strategy. How do you keep the momentum? Because, of course, you’re on a growth trajectory, all of India is on a growth trajectory. And high growth usually means high competition. And how are you keeping these large companies literally from eating your lunch?
Pasha: Our competitive advantage that comes in is based on how hyperlocal we are and how much our team understands the nuances of India, which is very difficult for a tech platform sitting in the U.S. or sitting in some other place to understand and build for it. And these are very new behaviors Peggy. So, as I told you, right, how does a business establish trust digitally? What happens on Amazon is that you go and list on Amazon their ratings, and those are the places how you do it. But how will it happen for a new internet use case, right?
For these very new people where the trust on internet is low, right? How will you do that? It’s a new challenge that we will solve probably for a small business to establish trust very quickly on our platform, and how they can do it. So it’s just that, the nuance, I would say. I would like to summarize that the nuance is very difficult for someone to understand. And hyperlocal in general, is a network effects business, right? You have large density using your platform for multiple use cases, someone coming and replacing it would be difficult.
Salz:It’s interesting that you started monetizing wishes. Tell me about that.
Pasha: It’s just crazy. We never expected all this to happen. We just thought we’re solving a problem of local content not available digitally. When we started creating content, people started coming. So that is the nuance. Like, in India, you have this behavior.
In the small town of India, especially in the southern part, this is very prominent, so that south Indian part, that if Peggy you were a friend of mine and I want to wish you a happy birthday, and I want to do this in a way that everyone in the community would know that I care for you, and we are actually close friends. And how will I do that? I used to either buy advertisement on newspaper with your photo, my photo coming and I’m wishing you happy birthday. Or I am sticking a big banner in the city or town center wishing you a happy birthday.
So the same behavior has been adopted on Lokal now, where the same people who used to do that are posting their wish, like I’m wishing Peggy happy birthday. So there is a standard template where your photo, my photo, will come and I’m broadcasting it to 10,000, 15,000 people in the town, the same purpose they wanted to accomplish previously, now, they’re accomplishing on Lokal. And they have that data to see also that how many people are actually looking at it. So this is being monetized on Lokal. And this is a very, very interesting, unique use case, Indian use case that we are monetizing. And we are seeing a lot more use cases coming like this, and we’re super excited for that.
Salz: You’re also speaking very much as the maker of a content platform. And, of course, a content platform needs creators, needs citizen journalists. It’s all local. So it’s probably very much just about empowering individuals at the local level to grow your business, how do you do that? How do you find them? Train them? How do you make it possible for them to contribute to your platform?
Pasha: The prominent content distribution platforms used to be newspapers like how it happened in the West also. And over the last three, four-, or five-decades time In India, large news publications, this content distribution platforms, have created a lot more content creators in these locations by training them, by informing them, by letting them know what is happening.
And most of these creators in this town used to work for this large distribution platforms like newspaper or television for free, most of them. Why? Because I told you, right, how important these small locations and communities are for these people.
So if I am a creator who can get the word out in a big distribution place like a largest newspaper, I get invites to events happening in the town. Anything big happening in the town, I get to know about it first. So I’m an influencer in that location. So then we have these influencers across India, hundreds of thousands of them. What we simply do is that we have this network of people. We have this digital crunch of hyperlocal content; we just connect them. And that is how we are getting this content.
Salz: You are more than a Nextdoor in India, you’re a content platform, news platform connecting, making business possible, helping merchants. And the reason I have you here today on Digital Content Next is because there are lessons here for publishers everywhere. What do they need to pay attention to if they want to succeed in hyperlocal news?
Pasha: My take is that technology is evolving very rapidly. Publishers should be open to work with new technology coming in. Like, Substack is a great platform where publishers are able to monetize their content. So there are a lot more innovation that is coming. So publishers should be thoughtful and be open to experimenting with these technology players because these new platforms are coming in. And with the creator economy coming in, I’m also very hopeful of how publishers becoming much more important than what they used to be before.
Salz:We started off by talking about the situation particularly in the U.S. where local news, local newsrooms, they are declining, there’s no question. What would be some advice to those that are there to say, “Here’s what you can do to up your game. Here’s what you can do to be sustainable and successful?”
Pasha: I think for small-level publishers, I think what is working for us is being hyperlocal and having a plan. And for us, it’s about figuring out that playbook of how you can get or make the things work at a location. So I think for publishers, especially individual publishers, I think hyperlocal play is going to work, with them also having…who are open to work with, new technology players, which essentially are tools and not platforms possibly.
So Substack is a tool for you to distribute your content. It’s a tool, right? And essentially, for payments, you can use a tool. So someone who is more open to work with these technology platforms and having hyperlocal focus would be able to build sustainable businesses. That is what our belief is. And I can’t compare clearly India to U.S., but in India, specifically, because of how the market is, the maturity of the user towards internet interest, it’s going to be very, very large play in India, especially the focus of hyperlocal.
Salz: So very, very much about being a platform, which is what you’re doing connecting people, connecting businesses, that’s what local content can do really well. The monetization model currently is about classifieds. What’s it going to be going forward as you try to be more and more a super app?
Pasha: So, yeah, Peggy, we are today connecting people, and monetizing on that for the sake of making money, for the sake of selling property, for the sake of improving…giving deals to people, small businesses advertising about their offerings. As the trust increases among these people, we would eventually go into a place where we will enable commerce as well. So that is what the plan is.
We will enable commerce. We will enable these local economies much more digitally. And we are a user-focused company, Peggy. So we have a creator who creates content, and we always think about how we can empower him or her, how can we make their lives easy. Similarly, we have businesses and how can we better help them to get more business. In that, the natural next step is to enable commerce on the platform to have additional revenue streams for them. So we will figure out how we will monetize. But we want to build that use case on our platform. It can be search, it can be something else, we’ll figure out. It’s too early right now. Probably in a year or two, I can tell you a lot more about it.
Salz: Great, Jani. And I think I’ll be back to hear it as well. Thanks so much for sharing your story at Lokal with me today.
Pasha: Thank you, Peggy. And nice talking to you too.
Salz:And thank you, of course, for tuning in and taking the time. More in this series about how media companies like Lokal are taking charge of change in their business. And in the meantime, be sure to check out digitalcontentnext.org for great content, including a companion post to this interview, and join the conversation on Twitter @DCNorg. Until next time for Digital Content Next, I’m Peggy Anne Salz.
The business case for diversity has been made time and again. In fact, according to McKinsey, the relationship between ethnic, gender, and cultural diversity and financial outperformance has only grown in the years since the company first outlined its importance. And when it comes to newsrooms, the philosophical, moral, and business rational for improving diversity are also evident.
It is certainly heartening to see the impressive — even historic — rise of female and diverse newsroom leadership in the past year or two. For the first time ever, Black executives lead every major broadcast news network in the U.S. Women and people of color have also assumed leadership roles at dozens of major media brands. However, as HuffPost Editor-in-Chief Danielle Belton, who is Black, suggested to CNN, truly diverse representation in media won’t be achieved simply by hiring women and people of color to fill top roles.
In order to better serve the diverse population it reaches, the media industry must reflect that population from the boardroom to product development and from the newsroom to the sales team. It must also reflect these audiences in its sourcing and reporting. Hiring is one of the most visible ways media organizations are changing right now. However, there are also a number of taking tactical approaches that are meaningfully moving the needle.
50/50 and beyond
In 2017, the BBC launched the 50:50 Project, challenging its teams to achieve 50% female representation in BBC content. Today, the company says that 70% of its content features 50% women contributors. And this initiative is not limited to the BBC. The project partners with more than 100 organizations in 26 countries. The network includes public and private media, academia, conference businesses, law, public relations, and corporations. The 50:50 Project recently announced it will also strive for better inclusion of ethnic minorities and disabled people and those. The aim to achieve a 50:20:12 balance.
The BBC approach is fairly straightforward. Participants monitor the numbers of contributors in their content to set benchmarks for their chosen diversity measures. They then track their progress against those benchmarks as content is produced. Teams continually share and discuss the data which informs editorial decisions.
The BBC has found that the longer teams monitor and share data regularly, the more likely they are to create cultural change. 50:50 has enabled teams to identify topic areas where women or other diversities are under-represented, such as science or sports. It has also encouraged content makers to think differently about the stories they choose to tell. Reporters continually seek new voices and different perspectives to enrich their output.
Working on workflow
NPR recently announced a new initiative to track the demographics of its sources in real time. The tool, called “Dex”, is integrated with the company’s content management system. Dex allows NPR reporters to easily monitor the diversity of sources’ race and ethnicity, gender identity, geographic location, and age range. Over time it will also become a robust database to identify more diverse sources as well.
Deputy director of news operations Rolando Arrieta told Poynter that incorporating the tool into the company’s CMS makes diversity an integral part of the newsgathering and reporting process. Dex also allows for continuous monitoring, unlike the annual diversity reports many organizations produce. And, as Arrieta points out, simply counting sources is not enough. Creating a continuously updated resource for diverse sourcing and integrating diversity into content creators’ processes facilitates continuous awareness and improvement.
Tactics and tools beyond hiring and sourcing are increasingly emerging. They are intended to assist in diversity objectives, but sometimes create a business opportunity in themselves.
Nielson introduced a tool earlier this year designed to better allow content creators, distributors, and advertisers to quantify their progress in diversifying representation on the small screen. Gracenote Inclusion Analytics measures how the screen time of various identity groups (such as people from a specific gender identity, sexual orientation, race, or ethnicity) stack up against certain benchmarks.
Bloomberg’s Gender-Equality Index (GEI) tracks the performance of public companies committed to disclosing their efforts to support gender equality through policy development, representation, and transparency. The organization’s New Voices initiative works to increase the representation of women and minority executives as sources in both online and on-air content. Recently, the company expanded its objectives to be more inclusive of a range of gender identities as well.
Certainly, it is heartening to witness the recent spate of DEI executive appointments. It is encouraging to see the newsroom leadership begin to lose its pallor. However, it is also significant to see media companies not only recognize the value of diverse leadership, but also the critical role of incorporating diversity into the culture and workflow of their organizations. If diversity is the goal, there is no one simple answer. But with a combination of leadership, trust, transparency, and tools the media business can begin to build solutions.
National Geographic is an Instagram powerhouse. The publisher has just topped 175 million followers, which makes it the 12th most followed account on the platform and the only media brand to crack the top 50. Their photographs and stories reach tens of millions of people around the world each day.
With such a vast following comes great responsibility. The world as we know it is changing. But explanations about how, why, and what to do can be divisive. National Geographic’s mission is to use science, education and storytelling to illuminate and protect the wonder of our world. But how is it being translated into its social media strategy?
National Geographic’s Director of Instagram Josh Raab knows that many younger people aren’t subscribers to the publication. For many of them, their primary interaction with the brand will be through social media, rather than longform journalism.
Instagram’s audience skews much younger than many other social platforms, with two-thirds of users aged 34 or under. So ,for a publisher like National Geographic, there is a huge opportunity to reach younger people with key messages about climate, conservation, and our changing world. But it requires tactful handling.
Finding the nuance in conservation conversations
Raab’s aim with NatGeo’s Instagram accounts is to educate, rather than overwhelm followers with problems. “Anything that we do is impact driven,” he emphasised. “We know the change that we want to see is going to have to come from future generations. So our hope is that [Instagram] is the way that we can cover a lot of what we see in the world, and further[people’s] knowledge and understanding of it.
But it’s a delicate balance. As social media grows increasingly divisive, Raab is keen that NatGeo remains a place to go for information, rather than explicit activism.
“What we don’t see enough is the nuance in some of these conversations,” he said. “I think that the biggest way that we can help is to really educate people on the complexities of some of those problems or some of those subject areas that we’re covering, and let them make up their mind for themselves.
“At the end of the day, you won’t see us yelling and screaming in ways you’ll see in other places. Social media for us is more about telling people about the world and highlighting some of the changes that we’re seeing over time.”
He sees Instagram as a way of learning by stealth, even if that means competing for audience’s attention spans. “We try to trick people into learning,” he said. “How do we get people who might be on a platform for instant gratification to walk away with an unexpected understanding of something they didn’t necessarily go looking for?”
A unique curation process
In order to encourage a range of voices and perspectives, NatGeo has come up with a unique model for curating their feed. Posts are actually submitted directly by the photographers themselves. This includes the captions. Although they are reviewed by the publisher, each one is in the photographer’s voice, which avoids the text sounding too corporate.
“It’s a great way to connect the audiences directly with the photographers, who are really the storytellers, the explorers, the people behind the stories,” Raab explained.
This approach also helps NatGeo avoid the trap of posting content just for the sake of high engagement. Raab noted that the team have a good sense of how a post will perform before it’s put live, but that doesn’t influence whether or not it’s posted. “For us, it’s about whether or not the story feels relevant,” he emphasized. “We’re pretty focused on having a broad coverage… rather than only the ones that would perform. If that were the case, you would see a lot of polar bears and cute animal content!”
Raab believes there is a distinct advantage to having an account the size of NatGeos when it comes to posting about issues like climate and conservation. “You can guarantee that you’re reaching people across the globe, of every interest and political standing,” he explained. “So we do the storytelling we think is important, and that the world needs to see.”
“We’re lucky enough – or simultaneously unlucky enough – that regardless of what that is, we will have people who love it and those who like it less!”
Comprehensive storytelling through Stories, Reels, and AR
When it comes to getting the most out of Instagram, Raab has noted that although the algorithm changes, it consistently favors new functionalities like IGTV, Lives, or more recently, Reels. “We try to play into those, because we know that’s where we can reach the most people,” he explained.
This approach led the publisher to be an early experimenter with Instagram’s Spark AR tool. Although producing AR experiences aren’t yet on the regular schedule, the team have released over a dozen filters over the past year. These range from an AR tour of Mars to a Yosemite National Park filter, complete with a bear selfie experience.
“We saw an opportunity to do more comprehensive storytelling within a platform that is intended to be used more for social purposes,” said Raab. “We’ve tried to find a way to integrate both storytelling and social experience into singular creations. And, for the most part, I think we’ve been successful.”
The more informal nature of Stories complements what NatGeo is aiming to do with inspiring the next generation. The off-the-cuff feel, where scientists and photographers are telling their stories from the field, help show NatGeo’s followers that although they are incredibly talented, they are people. “I want them to watch it and think, “That could be me one day,”” said Raab. “That’s just integral to what we do.”
Inspiration through education
Climate change and conservation are polarizing political issues, especially in the social space. But NatGeo’s commitment to bringing in the voices of leading scientists, educators, storytellers, conservationists, and more into its photos, captions and stories makes it a place that people can come to learn, rather than be preached at.
“Getting the message out to younger audiences is important. But we also want to inspire them to do some of what they’re seeing,” Raab emphasized. “We want to educate them about the world, rather than yelling at them about the exact changes they need to make, or making them feel like change is hopeless.”
“Ultimately, it will be up to these younger generations that we’re able to reach there to make the change that the world will need.”
As the most-followed publisher on Instagram by a country mile, NatGeo is doing something right. Education by stealth – and the occasional cute polar bear picture – seems to be a winning formula for inspiring the next generation to care about our world.
Allow me to pose a few questions: Why doesn’t the U.S. have a modern high-speed rail system or solve the issue of droughts? Why doesn’t the U.S. have a national electronic grid to leverage solar and wind power? At least part of the answer is a reluctance to accept and adapt to new technologies.
Blockchain can and will play a significant role in each of these applications and services. However, blockchain is plagued by the negative stain of cryptocurrencies and a lack of understanding of the technology and its capabilities. That does not mean that we can afford to ignore it.
So, my question for you is, “Are you preparing your company to take advantage and leverage blockchain technology to grow your business and remain competitive?”
Without a doubt, blockchain is poised to impact the media business. That future will demonstrate the full force of Tim Berner Lee’s paper about the semantic web and blockchain will play a critical role. The blockchain train is about to leave the station, and you’d better make sure you have a ticket and get on board.
Blockchain technology will create new business opportunities in all sectors. Media companies have been slow to adapt to some critical technology evolutions in the past, which cost them dearly. We can’t afford to let blockchain to be another missed opportunity.
Are you blockchain-ready?
As an executive, understanding new technologies is essential. That’s because it could mean the difference between growing your business or going out of business.
So, how ready are you and your company for blockchain? Take this simple quiz to find out:
My company and I have a complete understanding of blockchain technology.
Blockchain will become an intricate part of business processes and applications.
We have or are currently working on an application of blockchain technology.
We have a working blockchain application that we are commercializing.
My company sees blockchain as the strategic next technology for the next 10 years.
For every question that you answered, yes, give yourself 20 points. I have applied a score across each section of Roger’s Diffusion Curve in my rather unscientific study.
If you scored under 60 points, I would like you to consider the “what ifs” of not first understanding blockchain technology and how it could play a significant role in your business.
History has taught us that even brilliant minds can miss out on significant shifts. To put this in perspective, here are three examples of how a leading company ignored emerging technological and business model changes and eventually lost their business as a result.
Telerate vs. Bloomberg
Before Bloomberg, there was Telerate. Founded in 1969, the Telerate system was the dominant terminal for Fixed Income Securities in the world. Dow Jones & Company, Inc. initially purchased a 32% stake in 1985. Eventually, Dow Jones purchased the remaining shares, bringing their total investment to $2 billion.
Founded in 1981, Bloomberg’s terminals first started to appear in Merrill Lynch offices in 1985.
By 1998 Bloomberg had displaced Telerate. Dow Jones had to sell Telerate to Bridge Information Systems for $510 million, a loss of $1.4 billion!
What happened? How did Telerate lose their luster, their dominance, and market share to Bloomberg? Data analytics, back-office systems, and customer service were the differentiators.
Blockbuster vs. Netflix
Founded in 1985, Blockbuster, became the dominant player in the consumer movie rental business, only to be upended by Netflix just over a decade later. Netflix created a new business model by mailing discs versus Blockbuster brick-and-mortar stores. The Netflix business model provided selection, convenience, low price, and satisfaction.
But Netflix did not stop there. Instead of just shipping DVDs, Netflix created a streaming service that competed with linear television and every premium film channel. Netflix beat HBO in a business that HBO created. Now media brands are trying to claw their way back with branded streaming offerings, but this isn’t going to be easy to do.
Sears vs. Amazon
Last but not least is Sears, which published the Christmas wish book catalog, and iconic brands like Craftsman and Kenmore, only to be squashed by the e-commerce king, Amazon. While Amazon was building a seamless ecommerce platform, Sears remained anchored to brick and mortar. Consumers loved the convenience of shopping from home. So, Sears — along with any number of retail businesses that failed to evolve — fell by the wayside.
Time and again, newcomers leverage new technology and business models to overtake the industry leaders. Blockchain is no different. If you aren’t already figuring out how it will transform your business, you are ripe for disruption by someone who is.
These days, blockchain is being used for Asset Management, Insurance Claims processing, Cross Border Payments, Smart Property, and the Internet of Things. This article from Sam Daley highlights 30 Blockchain applications across many industries. The developments he outlines are just the beginning.
Blockchain and the future of media
Clearly, media companies have fully embraced digital. However, they are overlooking the possibilities blockchain has to offer to improve many aspects of their businesses. Blockchain technology can be integrated into multiple areas but here are a few examples that should appeal directly to media executives:
Launched in 2019, Eluvio Content Fabric uses blockchain technology to enable content producers to manage and distribute premium video to consumers and business partners without content delivery networks. It provides low latency, high quality (4K) content distribution, content monetization, and just-in-time streaming. It’s already being used by MGM Studios and FOX Networks, so it’s time to consider new ways to deliver streaming content.
Blockchain-based smart contracts are contracts can be partially or fully executed or enforced without human interaction. Smart contracts are digital and embedded with an if-this-then-that (IFTTT) code, which gives them self-execution. In real life, an intermediary ensures that all parties follow through on terms.
Mediachain uses smart contracts to get musicians the money they deserve. By entering into a decentralized, transparent contract, artists can agree to higher royalties and get paid fully and on time. Streaming giant Spotify acquired Mediachain in April 2017. Given the increasing complexity of multiplatform content distribution, media executives will want to take a closer look at this business opportunity.
MadHive is a blockchain-based advertising and data solution for digital marketers. The platform tracks, stores, and generates reports on customer activity, saving all the data to a private blockchain. MadHive’s targeted audience reports and real-time data monitoring give advertisers’ insights into their customers without compromising data privacy.
Clearly, digital advertising remains one of the largest revenue streams for many media businesses. However, increased consumer concern (and regulations) around privacy point to a need for new strategies. Blockchain provides detailed and precise information and data points that media executives would be wise to explore.
Steem is a social media platform backed by blockchain. Its “Proof-of-Brain” community uses tokens as incentives, encouraging people to create original content. The amount of tokens distributed is based on the number of upvotes each article receives. Steem has paid over $40 million in tokens to creators. Blockchain is providing new business models and content creation models like this and media executives cannot afford to ignore the possibilities.
Blockchain for better business
My recent book, “Transforming Scholarly Research with Blockchain Technologies and A.I.”, provides a slew of examples of how Blockchain is transforming a wide range of industries. Don’t be lulled into under-rating its potential to impact the media business because of the shadow of cryptocurrencies. Blockchain will open new networks, improve efficiencies that will reduce cost, increase accessibility, transparency, and effectiveness.
Media companies that adopt this technology will position their company and team members for extraordinary success.
About the author
Darrell, an experienced digital publishing executive, has been at the forefront of significant information industry initiatives, i.e., Factiva, ScienceDirect, Scopus, BiomedExperts.com, ReviewerFinder, Underline, and Ripeta. Gunter Media Group, Inc. has advised many CEOs from startups to the most prominent publishers.
He is the author of the edited volume, “Transforming Scholarly Research with Blockchain Technologies and A.I.” His other publications can be accessed via his ORCID profile.
He is a graduate of Seton Hall University’s W. Paul Stillman School of Business (B.S. Business Administration- Marketing) and Lake Forest Graduate School of Management (MBA).
Covering any Olympics is a monumental challenge. But broadcasters of the Toyko Games face challenges like no other in history. Few are feeling it more than NBCUniversal (NBCU) and its parent company Comcast, which hold rights to the Games. The announcement that Tokyo 2020 would be delayed until 2021 due to Covid-19, hit the media across the business – from advertising revenue to the launch of Peacock, its new streaming service.
However, just as the athletes are coming back stronger from a season off, NBC says this extra year has left them fully prepared for the challenge ahead. It recently announced plans to present 7,000 hours of Olympic coverage, making the 17-day affair the “biggest media event ever.”
“We have spent the better part of the last 14 months learning how to do things differently,” Pete Bevacqua, Chairman, NBC Sports Group, said in a recent press event on the network’s coverage plans. “Those skills … will absolutely apply themselves as we tackle what should be, I think, one of the most interesting and special Olympic Games ever.”
Part of this new, improved package involved working up with other platforms to ensure that people can watch what they want, when they want. In addition to Comcast’s X1 pay-TV platform, partners like Roku and Apple TV will feature Olympic dashboards, which will guide viewers to the Games. NBCU has been working directly with a range of platforms to develop content that fits with the needs of their audience, given the specific delivery channel.
The network has also created strong partnerships with Google Search and Google OneBox. Many people will decide what to watch by going to Google, and NBCU is prominent in the Google OneBox with viewing information and highlights. And, significantly, NBCU will do a major programming push on Peacock, to help build audiences for the streamer. The company also recently announced that Peacock will launch on Amazon Fire TV and Fire tablets.
Peacock will feature new daily live shows and dedicated Olympics channels, as part of its Tokyo Olympics destination, which goes live on July 15. The streaming service currently has around 42 million subscribers. Matt Strauss, Comcast Chairman, Direct-to-Consumer and International, is “very optimistic” that the Olympic coverage will bring a new, larger audience. However, Strauss says the company is not prioritizing premium subscriptions as part of the Olympic push. Instead, the focus on ensuring that consumers check out the free, ad-supported, basic tier of Peacock.
The rights stuff
In addition to the 7,000 hours of content, across a plethora of platforms, NBCU will also flex the fact that it negotiated exclusive rights to the Olympics until 2032, which cuts out rival networks. The deal, which covers all media platforms, including free television, subscription TV, Internet and mobile rights, is valued at $7.65 billion.
What this means is, NBCU has rights across every platform – even those that have not yet been developed yet.
“We have the most complete set of rights of any sport that we have on any of our networks and that any network really has,” says Mark Lazarus, NBCU’s chairman of television and streaming. “Essentially, every technology known today or to be invented between now and 2032. That gives us the ability to try new things and to experiment. That’s what we’ll be doing across the platforms.”
“Our job is to pick the best platform for each piece of content, while trying to take the incredible reach that the Olympics have, the incredible reach that the NBC broadcast network has, and put it on the biggest stage.”
One new partnership they are particularly excited about is Twitch. The collaboration will feature programming tailored to the Twitch community. This includes highlight studio shows, game-ified pre-Olympic activations, Olympic athlete interviews, and Olympic-themed gaming competitions.
“The way that people consume traditional sporting events is changing,” says Michael Aragon, Chief Content Officer at Twitch. “They no longer want to simply spectate. They want to be as close to the action and athletes as possible. We’ve seen this first-hand with the growth of our sports community on Twitch, as viewers tune in not only to watch their favorite athletes but to also take part in pre- and post-game interviews and virtually connect with other fans from around the world.”
Friends and family
Covid not only saw the Games postponed, 12 months, it has also put a stop to any international travel to Tokyo. This means friends and families of the athletes won’t be able to support in person. Plus, the audiences at big events will be capped at 10,000 people, or 50% capacity, whichever is smaller. This means there is even more pressure on the network to provide a ‘real’ experience for those that can’t be there.
This new challenge led to the creation of a new “Friends and Family” production unit, that will capture the reactions of loved ones back home.
According to Molly Solomon, Executive Producer, NBC Olympics and GOLF, the work and thought put into the Tokyo Games, during the pandemic, means they are going to be the “most meaningful Olympics of our lifetime.”
“After everything the world has gone through, as we begin to emerge from this pandemic, the world coming together is an incredibly impactful experience,” she says.
“We really have put together the most ambitious coverage plan ever. We’ve also adapted to the changing consumption habits. Our goal was to be everything for everyone. It’s our most coverage we’ve ever had.”
Over the last decade, digital publishing has seen tremendous development and technological advances. However, one thing remains constant: content is king. The rapid and always shifting market has forced many publishers to change their marketing and publishing models. This has impacted both readership and retention and also forced technical innovation to capture minds tuned for instant gratification.
Stagnating platforms and user experiences can be the difference between a reader looking for more content and returning, or never coming back. Fast, immersive, responsive, and non-intrusive experiences drive adoption and minimize churn. And they are best executed closest to the reader – at the network edge where the ever-important response time can be minimized.
The edge explained in 30 seconds
As mentioned above the edge means bringing your articles as close as possible to your reader as you can. It means deploying your applications no longer on your own servers. Instead, they are distributed across the U.S. or even internationally. Using an edge cloud caching product (such as ours at Fastly) means caching copies of your content not at the origin, but close to your readers. This provides scale and speed that would otherwise be extremely difficult and costly to achieve using your origin servers alone.
As an additional benefit, this approach opens the door to serverless computing. This brings your application closer to the customer and frees it from conventional cost and rules associated with server space and infrastructure maintenance
Power of the edge
If you’re still wondering how the edge can change your publishing platform, let’s talk specifics:
1. Increase response times
How quickly does your website respond to new users across the country or on the other side of the world? An optimized platform at the edge will be able to store copies of your web page in servers globally, reducing the time to first load of your web page and every subsequent content load after. This will increase user satisfaction. It can also improve typical SEO ranking pushing your news to the top of search results.
2. Publish – and update – instantly
Ever since the advent of cache, clearing it has been a problem. Stale or outdated goes against what any digital publisher is all about. With an optimized edge publishing platform, copies of your content are instantly stored around the globe. So, when needed, you and your readers will benefit from its ability to purge or update in an instant.
3. Effective and rapid A/B testing
A/B testing is detrimental to rolling out new (web) features. While there are many ways to do this, certainly the easiest and most effective way is to execute rapid A/B tests right at the edge. Using a programmable caching layer, developers can easily route a small percentage of traffic to a test site or add a test header to expose a fraction of the readers to a new feature or headline before going live.
4. Unintrusive paywall
We live in a world of paywall, but is it slowing your visitors down? Is it dragging out load times, slowing down the overall user experience, and therefore discouraging returning readers? By migrating your paywall to the edge, you can significantly increase the speed of reader validation to confirm variables such as identity, location, and subscription status.
5. Ad blocker detection done right
Ads continue to be the primary source of income for many Digital Publishers and the proliferation of ad blockers is a serious challenge to the industry. Do you have appropriate ad blocker protection in place? A powerful publishing platform at the edge will be able to quickly detect and deny traffic to any and all readers using ad blockers.
6. Content targeting for increased engagement
One of the benefits of the digital workflow and process is the immense flexibility it gives you as a content delivery service. With the amount of programmatic power available at the edge today, why deliver the same content to everyone? By using powerful customer insights paired with a strong edge preflight system (to figure out who a user is when they request your website), you can tailor content to the reader and deliver it at high speeds.
7. Reap the benefit of targeted ads
It can seem like nobody wants ads. However, readers often pick “irrelevance” as the reason why they ignore and dislike ads within content or on news outlets. As is the case with above, ad revenue and engagement also benefit greatly from personalization. Making intelligent and localized at the edge brings benefits to the publisher and reader.
8. Image optimization on-the-fly
A modern edge platform should be able to enhance your publishing workflow by letting you customize and optimize images. This may be cropping or fine-tuning resolution, as well as other transformations, but it should be done close to your reader and on the fly when the requests come in for ultimate performance and cost savings.
9. Deliver right-sized content with device detection
With the sheer number of devices existing today, building responsive websites to serve your digital content is no easy task. However, when using a powerful edge platform, you will be able to automatically detect devices and help you steer your users to the correct application (mobile or web).
Success on the edge
An industry-leading edge cloud platform should let you securely edit and publish at the edge of your network—right where your readers are and do so at speed and scale. In light of the challenges digital publishing is facing, the key to customer retention and satisfaction is serving the most up-to-date personalized content instantly. You must also ensue that online experiences are fast, safe, and secure.
Overall technology continues to shift away from centralized infrastructures. We hope to have demonstrated the significant amount of power available at the network edge. Whether you have an established content platform already or you are planning to start from the ground up, you must take advantage of every bit of speed and power you can get to bring your publication into the next phase of digital delivery to delight and retain.