Industry-watcher Simon Owens notes how bootstrapped content entrepreneurs are harnessing platforms like YouTube, Instagram, and Substack to engage new audiences, often through verticals overlooked by mainstream outlets. Some are also very successfully monetizing these efforts. Globally, more than two million creators have six-figure incomes, as they tap into opportunities for sponsorship, subscriptions, and other revenue.
Excitement about this potential has unlocked more than $800 million from venture capitalists in recent years. This is “sending strong signals confirming the creator economy is not only legit, but a force to be reckoned with,” Influencer Marketing Hub suggests.
“This is really a new form of work and a new form of entrepreneurship,” according to Kaya Yurieff, a former CNN journalist who covers the creator economy for The Information.
The rapid rise of this sector is evident in the flurry of deals, creative campaigns, and platform developments featured in a four-times-a-week newsletter Yurieff and her colleagues have produced since April 2021.
Five actionable lessons for publishers
Collectively, the size of this market, its characteristics, and projected growth makes this a sector that media companies should not just report on. They should be learning from it too.
Below are five ways that publishers can learn from the creator economy.
1. Harness the value of niche
“As solo operators, creators handle everything from content creation to marketing to monetization,” Owens explains. “This forces them to be incredibly innovative if they want to compete with much larger media organizations for subscription and advertising dollars,” he adds.
One of the ways that they have addressed this is through niche content verticals. Yurieff points to Substack newsletters focused on indigenous news as an example of one “area that traditional publishers historically haven’t dedicated a ton of resources to.”
“Creators have proved that there are audiences for maybe more varied topics than we’ve seen traditionally in the media,” she says.
For publishers, this demonstrates the potential to superserve smaller, targetted, audiences. It isn’t always about scale. Rather, the focus should be on tapping into passions and subjects that audiences will engage with – and potentially pay for.
2. Learn how creators are growing their businesses
Niche verticals don’t necessarily have to remain small. “The most successful of these solo operators eventually end up hiring staff and acting more like traditional media companies,” Owens points out.
The transferable lessons from these types of success stories are highly relevant to the digital strategies being developed and deployed by publishers. As such, they should be required reading in the C-Suite.
3. Understand it isn’t just about flashy new social networks
Many of the methods used by independent creators to share content and generate engagement – such as newsletters, podcasts, groups and messaging apps, paid memberships, subscriptions and other tactics – will be very familiar to traditional publishers.
That said, in doing this, they are more likely to use newer platforms like Patreon, Discord and Geneva, than traditional publishers. But in terms of their approach, it shows you don’t necessarily have to reinvent the wheel. However, you do need to offer something valuable and distinctive. Content is King. Yet, in many cases, community is nearly as powerful. Distinctiveness can arguably be rooted in content, tone of voice, distribution channels and/or a combination of all three.
The Mamamia podcast network features around 50 different shows and 90 female hosts. According to their website, “it’s the largest women’s podcast network in the world.” Their podcast journey will be of interest to traditional publishers with similar audio ambitions.
Areas such as events, courses and research are among the tactics a number of publishers are also exploring as part of their efforts to diversify their revenues. The lessons Front Office Sports learned from these efforts is therefore relevant beyond the creator economy.
4. Reach new audiences where they are
Publishers are increasingly moving into spaces like TikTok and Twitch in an effort to engage new (often younger) audiences. To make these efforts more successful, it can pay to hire staffers conversant with the style and tone of the creator economy.
NPR’s Planet Money might seem like a venerable show, but its TikTok account counters that perception. Run by 25-year-old Jack Corbett, it has nearly 750,000 followers. Teen Vogue describes Corbett as “a wacky-professor figure, a talented TikTok comedian, and most importantly, a guide through the largely inaccessible world of economics.”
For NPR, Corbett’s skills potentially brings audiences to Planet Money’s content who would otherwise find it inaccessible, or assume it wasn’t for them. It’s a tactic others should study, if not try to duplicate.
5. Unlock the potential for partnerships
Publishers might, rightly, see the creator economy as a source for talent. But, those hires don’t necessarily need to be full time. Partnerships offer another approach that can potentially work for both parties.
Moves such as this enable publishers to benefit from a creator’s established audience and recognized expertise. (And in turn, creators may also benefit from an association with, and the resources of, a trusted mainstream media brand.)
Creators have a built-in following and have demonstrated that audiences value their voice and viewpoint. Partnering with them can help publishers diversify their own voice and content offering. This provides a gateway to new audiences for other content and products.
What’s next? Two trends to follow.
The creator economy is home to valuable case studies, talent and skills that the wider media industry can benefit from.
This may become especially acute given the latest set of changes to Facebook’s mobile product. The move is part of what New York Magazine’s John Herrman refers to as social media’s “race to see who can copy TikTok the fastest and with the least dignity.” As a result, It may put a premium on the style and types of content that are the bread and butter of what many top creators produce.
“The algorithm changes will probably push publishers to create more short-form video content,” predicts Owens. “I wouldn’t be surprised if publishers start looking more and more for prior TikTok/Instagram Reels experience when hiring out their social media teams.”
For Yurieff, one potential trend to note is the migration of online conversations into “more private spaces… I think that’s something really to watch,” she says.
She cites Discord as an example of a platform which now has “lots of different niches and groups and audiences using it.” It’s part of a wider move among online users to connect in smaller groups, communicating privately and potentially going deeper on certain topics, Yurieff says. These are principles more publishers might want to get on board with.
In that vein, The Information’s move to create opportunities for its subscribers to network directly with each other demonstrates how some of the community principles evident in the creator economy can be applied by media outlets.
The growth of the industry, and the success of some of its proponents, means that if the creator economy is not on your radar yet, then it should be.
For publishers, the maturing of the creator economy, and the growing numbers engaged in (and with) it, present a number of learning opportunities. We need to be looking at the creator economy, as well as the more traditional media industry, for case studies, talent and insights into how to respond to the next wave of digital disruption.
Yet, despite its growth, “this new breed of creators may be looked upon as charlatans and opportunists by some purists in traditional publishing,” suggests Josep Nolla, VP, Business Development & Partnerships at the e-commerce provider Bolt. “But the reality is there are more similarities than differences between this exciting new economy and traditional publishing,” Nolla advises.
Creators, like traditional publishers, are looking to drive subscriptions, diversify their revenues, and generate engagement and loyalty. They may use different platforms, content styles, or verticals to do this. But arguably, a lot of their core business goals are the same. And there’s a lot to be learned in these similarities – and maybe even more from the differences.
Care to disagree? Then let’s debate it on Discord!
A mid-sized digital media outlet dropping its paywall is not usually the stuff of national news. But when Quartz, the digital business outlet, scrapped its paywall earlier this month, the move was promptly written up in the New York Times. What gives?
The degree of attention paid to Quartz’s decision has something to do with the media environment of the moment. As we’ve written aboutmore than once, digital subscriptions are on the rise across the industry, boosting profits for everyone from the New York Times to local papers in Buffalo and St. Louis.
Still, while subscriptions are generally trending upwards, nothing in the media industry stays static. In fact, just a few weeks later, Quartz announced it had been acquired by G/O Media, whose suite of sites is unpaywalled. It’s possible Quartz was just getting in line with its soon-to-be owner. It’s also possible that it is suggestive of a trend. Either way, it might be worth it to take a step back, assess your current paywall policy, and explore other methods of expanding your revenue strategy.
The power of community
In recent years, the rise in paywalls has grown in tandem with another trend: a renewed interest in community on the part of publishers.
The focus makes sense. Even the biggest publishers—outlets that receive tens of millions of visits per day—see only a fraction of the traffic of the big social platforms. On the internet, it seems, there’s no bigger draw than conversation. Give people a place to be heard, to connect with like-minded individuals, and they will repay you with regular visits: this is one of the main lessons of Web 2.0. It’s no surprise that publishers would want to siphon some of that energy for themselves.
For publishers looking to beef up their owned communities, a fully-paywalled site can be a complex proposition.
On the one hand, people who actually pay for a subscription are some of the likeliest to comment anyway. A thriving community can absolutely be built exclusively with paid subscribers. Substack’s a great example of this. Many Substackers only let you comment if you subscribe, and nonetheless host sprawling, engaged comments sections. There is also the fact that only letting paid-up members comment almost guarantees a more civil discourse, as it’s unlikely that a troll would actually pay money to annoy people.
On the other hand, comments are an incredible tool for growth—and paywalling all your articles can negate that function.
There is no question that it’s your content that matters most when cultivating readers. But as mentioned: online, community that creates stickiness. Community keeps readers reliably coming back, day after day. Un-paywalled articles allow first-time or occasional visitors to shake up the conversation, keeping things fresh and luring in still more readers (and participants). This can still be possible with a paywall—some percentage of readers, after all, will opt for a free trial and find the conversation that way—but the process might be slower, the growth less explosive.
To paywall or not to paywall?
Obviously, few sites deploy a paywall for every article (though some do—such as The Washington Post). Most, instead, paywall some content and open other content to anyone who wants to read it. Countless strategic concerns go into the decision of what to paywall. What we’d argue—given the importance of community for growth—is that one of those concerns should be: How likely is this article to generate conversation?
This consideration doesn’t have to be incompatible with a normal paywall strategy. In a normal paywall strategy, the articles that are paywalled are those most likely to drive clicks—juicy scoops or exposes, say, or epic longform features. But the articles most likely to generate clicks are not necessarily the ones that will generate the most conversation. They can be, absolutely. However, the truth is that evergreen, lower-stakes content is just as if not more likely to generate vibrant discussion.
Think, say, a list of the best albums of 1999. Or a quick primer on the best way to cook a steak. Or a write-up of last night’s big prestige-TV finale. Content like that can generate discussion at a surprisingly high volume. It draws in new readers and, in the slightly longer run, subscribers.
All of that said—and despite the Quartz move—there is no real indication that paywalls are on the way out. The beauty of this moment in media is that publishers don’t have to choose. They can grow their audience with paywalls while they can grow their audience with community (and with social media, live events, ecommerce, etc. The options right now are endless, as discussed in our recent guide).
What an engaged community can offer, more immediately than many other revenue concepts, is engagement. Higher engagement means more pageviews and––when leveraged to sell subscriptions or place ads––stronger, more diversified revenue for publishers.
You know this already, but it’s worth repeating: The third-party cookie is on its deathbed.
Luckily for publishers, first-party data––data collected directly from users––is waiting in the wings. Far from a consolation prize, first-party data presents a tremendous opportunity. Beyond the obvious advertising implications, it offers a chance for publishers to learn more about, and grow closer with, their audiences.
Right now, Google is pushing Topics as an alternative to the cookie, which it’s phasing out of its Chrome browser in 2023. (This is after scrapping their previous cookie alternative, the Federated Learning of Cohorts API.) But Topics, as presently configured, can’t offer the kinds of granular data that publishers can acquire with a robust first-party strategy. All Topics offers publishers is a list of three recent interests possessed by each user. That can tell you something, certainly––but nowhere near as much as a user’s on-site behavior.
By working proactively to meet the demands of the first-party era, publishers can take back power from Big Tech. Along the way, they can also forge a new bond with readers tired of the noise on social media. If you’ve neglected first-party data strategies to this point, don’t fret: There are simple steps you can take to unleash its full power.
First things first: get the conversation flowing
Since the dawn of Web 2.0, social media companies have been siphoning off the discourse surrounding publisher content. A juicy expose gets published, or an ultra-quotable takedown occurs, and people turn to Facebook or Twitter to talk about it. But there’s absolutely no reason why that content can’t be discussed on the publisher’s site itself.
The publishers who get ahead in the first-party era will be the ones who create the conditions for that to happen. They’ll foster vibrant, owned communities around the content they publish. When the conversation stays in-house, you inevitably come to know your readers better. And your readers, in turn, come to value lingering on (and returning to) your site––for the content, and for the community that content generates.
Conversation is, in fact, the richest source of first-party data available to publishers. The right moderation tools can help publishers ensure the conversation flows freely, unimpeded by hate speech, personal attacks, and other forms of disruption. They help to create the kind of environment that people want to linger in, and return to. And the more time readers spend on-site, the more valuable first-party data you’ll acquire.
Deep, actionable insights via first-party data
So how can first-party data bring you closer to your audience?
Let’s start at the level of content. Moderated conversation, and other tools like polls, quizzes, and reporter-reader AMAs, generate all kinds of signals about what your readers are responding to. Equipped with that knowledge, publishers can produce more of what their readership wants. This, in turn, boosts engagement and time spent on-site.
What we’re describing here is a paradigm shift. For much of the social media era, readers were viewed as, effectively, interchangeable. The point was to attract as many of them as possible, while paying little to no attention to who they actually were. In the new media environment taking shape––in which, for many outlets, paid subscriptions play an ever-growing role––things have to be done differently.
Today’s ideal is an engaged reader who returns frequently and trusts a brand enough to share meaningful information about themselves in the comments. This kind of information takes first-party data to a whole new level. Suddenly, you know not only what a reader clicks on but why they find that particular kind of content appealing. You gain a clearer sense of who they are. The best part is that no one has to feel icky about it, because they’ve voluntarily entrusted you with that information. In this environment, you can tailor content and target subscriptions with a precision that was previously unimaginable.
To illustrate this, let’s compare first-party data with the kind of data you can (for the time being, at least) get from a third-party brokerage. Third-party data is often frustratingly imprecise; users are lumped into broad ranges (of age, income, education level, etc.) whose accuracy is often questionable.
With first-party data, by contrast, there’s no questioning the accuracy of the information. You are, after all, acquiring it firsthand, directly from the reader. This allows publishers to target readers with a depth and reliability that third-party data could never offer.
The bright, cookie-free future
All of this is to say that, as we wait patiently for the third-party cookie to finally pass, we shouldn’t worry ourselves too much. Publishers have everything they need to get along––to thrive––without it. And what they just might learn, as they take their first tentative steps into the first-party future, is that cookies were actually getting in the way––preventing them from really getting to know their audience.
In the first party era, it’s that relationship––between reader and publisher––that matters most. Cultivate it, and the rewards will be great.
The Internet is renowned for bringing out our worst instincts. When anonymous strangers with differing views converge in online community forums, the result is often heated arguments that can quickly descend into insults, threats, and abuse.
Once upon a time, that tendency to “pile on” seemed like a good thing for publishers. If strong emotions drive engagement, and engagement means more page views and ultimately more revenue, then stirring up angry debate must be good for business, right?
The risks of allowing online toxicity to flourish
Is it actually effective to sow controversy in an article, then sit back and let commenters fight it out below the fold? Based upon what we’ve seen over the past few years, not very.
For one thing, social platforms and publishers have had to contend with advertiser boycotts, as brands rush to distance themselves from hate speech and misinformation. Publishers like The Atlantic and Vice, meanwhile, have felt they had no choice but to shutter comments sections completely, cutting themselves off from their readership in the process.
There’s another, much more appealing option: building a safe and healthy online community of engaged commenters. Our research shows that quality conversations and respectful debate actively attract engaged users–and engaged users typically view 4.6x more pages, spend 3.6x longer on-site, and drive 3.2x more revenue than non-engaged users.
What drives incivility in online community forums?
So how can publishers turn heated arguments into quality discussions? First, it’s useful to understand what drives online incivility. Then these underlying drivers can be taken into account in audience engagement strategies. Here are three for starters:
People behave in a less inhibited way when they interact online with people they don’t know and are never likely to meet, in an environment where they can be anonymous and where there are few or no repercussions for behaving aggressively.
People get addicted to being right. Winning an argument can produce a flood of feel-good hormones, similar to winning a bet. As with gambling, that feeling can become all-consuming, leading to a greater focus on “winning” than on debating respectfully.
Comments without context get misinterpreted. While it may not be 100% true that 93% of communication is non-verbal, a comment can seem hostile when elements like body language and tone of voice are missing. And that, in turn, can promote an aggressive response.
How to shift heated arguments to meaningful discussions
There are several options open to publishers who want to elevate the quality of debate in the communities they host. Here are four approaches that we believe in at OpenWeb:
Encourage visitors to become registered users
When people feel they belong to a community, and get to know their fellow community members, the online disinhibition effect starts to fade. Interactions between community members become more civil as a result. But that’s not the only benefit. Registered users are also more likely to return more often, spend more time on-site, and deliver more revenue than non-registered users.
Have editorial teams join the conversation
Editorial engagement is a powerful way to increase the quality of online debate. Editorial teams set the conversational tone and guide discussion by responding to the highest-quality contributions. We’ve found that editorial involvement of this kind typically leads to a 17% decrease in toxic comments.
Define and reward civility
Most people don’t come to an online community forum looking for a fight: often, it’s the atmosphere they find on the site that tips them into incivility. Sophisticated moderation technology can help publishers cultivate a civil atmosphere. For example, you can:
Make it clear what kinds of language and behavior are encouraged, and what won’t be tolerated. For example, our OpenWeb Clarity Mode puts community guidelines front and center, ensuring everyone knows what’s expected of them.
Invite users to rethink their comment before posting, if it looks like it may breach the community guidelines. This draws on the “nudge” theory of behavioral economics, which holds that positive reinforcement at the right moment can spur more considered decisions. When we experimented with such prompts across some of our top publishers, we saw a 12.5% lift in civil and thoughtful comments being posted.
Use multi-layered AI and ML-based moderation to analyze, sort and highlight comments based on their quality rather than their propensity to incite hostility. That way, community members who post high-quality, thoughtful and expert content will be rewarded by seeing their comments highlighted and featured on the site.
Analyze and filter incivility
If rewarding quality conversations is the carrot, then filtering out incivility is the stick. For the most efficient moderation results, a hybrid approach using category-leading AI and ML moderation (combined with a healthy dose of intuitive, manual moderation) can reliably filter out a large proportion of toxic language–and analyze users to understand who are most likely to post toxic comments in the future.
Today, publishers no longer have to make a Hobson’s choice between enabling comments (and seeing them degenerate into petty arguments) and turning them off completely. With positive reinforcement, editorial engagement and multi-layered moderation, overheated arguments can become meaningful discussions–bringing healthier online communities, and higher reader loyalty, to publishers.
About the author
Andrew Sullivan is the Chief Product Officer at OpenWeb.
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 Covid-19 pandemic and the work-from-home lifestyle are affecting consumers’ media consumption behavior, including engagement with local news. From streaming music to OTT viewing, multitasking with media during the work day is a definite. An analysis from Nielsen’s Remote Workers Consumer Survey shows a larger share of media time is now spent on digital and connected TV devices. The Nielsen survey included 1,000 adults who worked from home prior to and during the coronavirus.
Consumers report their top three workday activities include listening to music (AM/FM and streaming), viewing OTT content and increased social media activity.
Local news consumption
While drive time to work decreased, consumption of local news did not. In fact, news (47%) as a content category leads in viewership compared to comedy (40%) and movies (36%).
Not only did the consumption of local news via digital media increase, it also increased across traditional channels. As concerns and restrictions grew, news briefs were a daily reality in the early days of the coronavirus. Consumers tuned to local news outlets to stay informed. A separate Nielsen viewership analysis between early February and early March registered notable spikes in local news viewing.
Viewing data from Nielsen’s Local People Meter (LPM) in 25 of the largest markets showed viewership in local news increased. Most notably, viewership increased among Persons 2+(7%), among Persons 2-17 (20%) and among Persons 25-54 (10%). Clearly, local news is present in peoples’ daily routines. Increases in local viewership respectively tracked increase Covid-19 positive case levels.
In addition, a study from NewsWhip shows local news sites such as dallasnews.com, wsmv.com, wcvb.com and wndu.com rank highest in user engagement among top news and entertainment media brands. And local sites such as oregonlive.com and wfla.com rank alongside national and international news sites in top related coronavirus articles.
Quality and quantity
Consumers are also seeking out established media brands for information on the public health crisis and the economic consequences. Interestingly, the desire for virus related news and the latest facts are curbing interest in opinionated and partisan sites.
Further, supporting the Nielsen survey and viewership data is a study from Horowitz Research. The findings here show that more than half of US consumers (58%) report accessing more local news during the pandemic than before (38%). Nearly a third of consumers (29%) also report they now consume more local public radio and local/regional newspapers. The increase in local news consumptions is most noticeable among persons 18-34. More than half of this demographic (53%) report they are watching more local news since the Covid-19 crisis.
Working from home offers choice in content consumption. The change in business workplace to the work at home environment offers a new connection point in digital media. Access to local digital news sites provides a strong community focus and serves hyperlocal needs. It also offers marketers an active environment to engage with consumers and integrate at a local level.
Global interactive platforms such as TikTok may strike a chord with younger audiences. Still, they miss the opportunity to drive hyper-local content and shape tight-knit transnational communities. It’s a significant and growing gap that Kumu, a Filipino-centric social app and livestreaming platform, seeks to fill with customized content channels. The combination of communication, commerce, and community allows fans to interact and purchase products while watching their favorite livestreamers.
It’s a smart move when platforms everywhere on the planet are forging relationships to become Super Apps. But content will be the factor that sets some of these Super Apps apart. By cultivating relationships with media companies and content creators, they can reach audiences with entertaining content that inspires lasting passion, not just one-off purchases.
It’s a blueprint that makes business sense for companies lining up to engage Internet-addicted populations in emerging markets. Boston Consulting Group’s Center for Customer Insight forecasts that Internet users in emerging markets, which include India, Indonesia, Kenya, Morocco Nigeria and the Philippines, will contribute 3x the number of new Internet users compared to developed markets. It’s a young community that will engage in “digitally influenced” content. They’ll also make purchases worth a whopping $4 trillion by 2022.
Continuing our series of DCN video interviews, I talk to Roland Ros. Ros founded Kumu, a livestreaming app that counts a community of more than 5 million GenZ and Millennial Filipinos spread across more than 50 countries. Kumu recently raised $5 million in a Series A funding round led by an impressive mix of investors including OpenSpace Ventures, Summit Media, and Philippines-based media conglomerate ABS-CBN. We discuss the importance of trusted conversations and the efforts of media companies, including Cosmopolitan and Esquire, to unlock the creative and commercial potential of its growing and global audience.
Here are three key takeaways from our talk:
Power community-driven commerce with authenticity and positivity
Younger audiences are eager to participate (and purchase) on platforms that make them feel involved and accepted. “GenZ and Millenials are tired of the social anxiety that comes with pretending life is perfect,” Ros explains. Authenticity has replaced attention as members no longer value millions of likes or hundreds of thousands of followers. The payoff is positivity, he says. Kumu’s “Kumunity” appreciates “microtransactions and virtual gifts that simply say ‘thank you’ for the content you create.”
Segment according to journeys, not customers
Ros encourages companies to rewrite the marketing playbook to emphasize the “aha” moments that keep audiences everywhere hooked. To pinpoint these events, he relies on CleverTap to track behaviors, patterns and architect a customer journey to make each member feel like an individual. “The logic has to be clean: if this, then that.” Building these capabilities has allowed Kumu to reach “month four retention rates in the 40% range,” he says.
Micro-influencers have a massive impact
Ros reveals the fastest-growing business on the Kumu platform is driven by influencers and creators on the platform talking about their passions and interests. This realization has prompted him to partner with media companies to launch “the concept of an interactive social television network,” amplifying the content and content creators the community loves.
Ros also talks about blending content and commerce to pave the way for “Super Social Apps” fueled by connection and microtransactions. He also lifts a lid on the best practices that allow Kumu and its partners to reach “up to 10%” conversion rates for livestreaming commerce on the platform.
Facebook is addictive — for both consumers and advertisers. With over 1.5 billion users accessing Facebook on a daily basis, the social media giant has become a major source of advertising for brands worldwide. However, little by little, the community standards of Facebook have been dropping — and people are noticing.
The Cambridge Analytica scandal, where Facebook leaked data from millions of people to a company that used it to promote political ads, was only the beginning of the platform’s trust fall. Netflix’s documentary, The Great Hack, offers an in-depth view into the scandal.
The social media giant’s sudden and strict algorithm changes have also affected businesses in a negative way. These changes drastically reduced the reach of Facebook posts from publishers, which dropped to as little as two percent of followers.
To help your brand use this mistrust between Facebook and its users as an opportunity to gain loyal community members, we put together a few of our top tips.
Invest in your own platform
With trust in Facebook at such a marked low, there’s never been a better time to start building your brand’s reputation as a trusted media source… on your own domains.
Sure, Facebook can be used to promote content and events — but only to an extent. You don’t want to be stuck relying entirely on a platform that decides how to promote your content without your input. Thankfully, you have other options. Better options.
Instead of struggling to build your brand on Facebook, invest in tools and strategies that bring engagement back to your domains. You don’t need to stop using Facebook completely. But you also don’t need to give a portion of your revenue away to a platform that doesn’t give you enough exposure for your content. After all, Facebook prioritizes posts from family and friends over posts from advertisers.
If you can invest in building a safe and engaging environment on your own domains, individuals will no longer associate your content or brand with the abundance of misinformation on Facebook.
Have you ever wondered what it is about Facebook that seems so attractive to users?
People are social creatures. Consumers continue to use Facebook despite our trust issues with the platform simply because we crave socialization and engagement. In fact, an analysis of the media industry shows that engagement is key to building loyal brand followers.
A Salesforce report also found that “84% of customers say the experience a company provides is as important as its products and services.”
Facebook, along with other social media platforms, offers many opportunities for users to engage with one another as well as with publishers and their content. However, attaching this immersive social experience to a brand is no longer exclusive to social media platforms.
Consider integrating tools directly on your platform that allow your users to discuss your content, chat with one another, follow their favorite authors and receive content-related notifications based on their preferences.
By generating engagement on your domains, your visitors will want to stick around and subscribe.
Nurture safe conversations, not toxic comments
Many media professionals find commenting counterproductive to a brand’s development — especially with the rise of trolls, harassment, bullying, misinformation and spam in the digital world. At the end of the day, it’s probably more effective to avoid commenting altogether, right?
To foster a good relationship with your digital community away from social media, you need to craft a solid set of community guidelines and enforce them. According to a new study by the Center for Media Engagement, individuals are more likely to have a negative impression of a domain when 75% of its comments are uncivil.
While it is important to engage your visitors in a social experience, they will only enjoy the experience in a non-toxic environment. This means that on top of providing a social layer for your community, it is essential to thoroughly moderate comments and keep user data secure.
Enforcing a safe environment will help your community members feel comfortable engaging in, and returning to, your domains.
Produce targeted, reliable content
In the digital age, knowledge is always power. Capturing data on your own domain is, therefore, crucial to your success. More specifically, you can leverage data insights from your community to inform your content strategy. By understanding your community members’ interests as you learn about and track their behavior, you can predict what types of content will perform best.
If you create valuable content that maintains a consistent tone and is highly relevant to your readers, they will view your brand as a reputable source for trusted media.
While Facebook can target content based on people’s interests on its platform, your posts are hidden behind the noise of fake news and algorithms in a potentially unpleasant environment.
Publishers are also beginning to realize that success in the media is no longer just about directing visitors to your domains — it’s also about keeping them. For too long, publishers and consumers have flocked to Facebook in search of content and community. Unfortunately, both have become problematic on the platform. So, the time is right to create a protected social space around quality content and reclaim your community.
Facebook’s recent newsfeed algorithm changes have left publishers with a lot of questions. Many who relied heavily on Facebook and other third-party distribution sites find themselves needing to look elsewhere. Now these publishers are focusing on building stronger on-site communities and finding other distribution platforms that are more publisher-friendly. They’re wondering about Facebook’s decision, how they will be affected, and what they should do next.
Since the algorithm change, here are some of the most common questions I’ve encountered in talks with publishers:
Why did Facebook make the decision to de-prioritize publisher content in its Feed?
As many entrepreneurs are, I see Mark Zuckerberg as someone who takes his business personally. While I don’t think he’d act against his own best interests, I do think his decision in some ways was a reaction to the polarization that the news can create. This way, Facebook is not choosing a side, or subjectively deciding which news is ‘appropriate’ and ‘real.’ It looks like they’re disengaging.
Are there specific ad formats/publisher inventory you believe will be hurt the most by Facebook’s decision?
It’s not so much about ad format, in my opinion. Facebook’s big appeal to publishers was the benefit of strong audience development and the convenience of content distribution. These will be the main things that disrupt publishers the most. Facebook actively courted publishers for years on end, promising them audience and shared revenue. This shift could be quite the loss for the publishers who relied heavily on the platform for audience development.
What 2-3 platforms could rise up to support publishers in the absence of Facebook?
I believe that Snapchat and Twitter both have the potential to benefit from Facebook’s shift. That being said, Snapchat is certainly the platform that will benefit the most. Their publisher-focused Discover Channels are central to the platform. Especially with the most recent interface update, Discover Channels are positioned in a way that is meant to drive as much user traffic as possible. Snapchat has certainly jumped into the lead role in providing a solution to publishers who were thrown off by Facebook’s changes. They are a publisher-friendly platform on the market right now.
Should publishers forget about third-party distribution and refocus on building engagement/audience on-site?
Publishers are always working to build on-site audiences. But of course, that’s much easier said than done. These third-party distribution platforms—like Facebook, Twitter, and Snapchat—help identify and grab that audience, making it easier to build those communities back on-site. The issue for some publishers is that they become too comfortable with third-party platforms and, in turn, rely too heavily on them. There will always be a happy medium for both, though, as third parties remain a great tool for audience engagement and content distribution.
Facebook’s shift has certainly stirred up some uncertainty among publishers, regarding whether or not third-party distribution platforms are a reliable tool, and if the risk outweighs the rewards. These publishers will ultimately find comfort in the publisher-friendly models of other third parties, specifically Snapchat—but they will also invest more time and resources into building core communities on-site.
While it is appealing to start off a New Year with rosy predictions, it is also important to take a clear-eyed look at the road (and roadblocks) ahead. We asked a few of our members what they see as the biggest challenges the digital media industry faces today.
Here’s what leaders at ten diverse media companies see as the biggest challenge in the year to come:
Monetizing scaled social audiences and the content made for these channels is a challenge. We see the benefit of being a first mover and building a large social audience. That said, the benefit today lies heavily in the marketing value it provides in driving traffic to our sites and leveraging it to convert fans into paying customers through subscription offerings like Motor Trend OnDemand. We are able to monetize through advertising, but the nature of the monetization on social is more challenging to do at scale, as it requires a more custom approach compared to more traditional, turnkey placements/buys.
Our industry must build a parallel world adjacent to the current one dominated by Google and Facebook. This new world must be scaled, intelligent and open. Currently, 85 cents of every new dollar are going to the two biggest players because they have been solving for scaled and intelligent – and have done a great job doing so. But, an open garden is increasingly becoming a requirement for sophisticated advertisers who want partners who are flexible on data and transparent on pricing and performance.
It’s hard to pick a “biggest” challenge, as there as so many. But, to me, refining user experience remains a crucial one. There are still way too many sites alienating readers for a quick buck by hammering them with pop-ups, unnecessary slideshows, pagination, interstitials and more. Yes, we need to make money. But gouging readers to the point where we drive them away is an abysmal long-term audience strategy. Treat your audience like you don’t care about them, and they will surely return the favor.”
Steven Smith, President of Digital Media, AccuWeather @accuweather
In 2017, we continue to hurtle toward a ubiquitous global user audience, accessing data from every imaginable kind of device with a greater focus on personalization, localization, service and mobility. Content providers are going to have to step up to meet the needs of an audience that wants fast, relevant, and localized—and provided consistently regardless of device, from smartphones to connected refrigerators. That makes strong partnerships with vendors a necessity, from Cloud storage providers for scaling data to meet demand demands to robust content management solutions to help port news from format to format and device to device. And of course, the audience will continue to demand content that is more timely and relevant than ever.
The biggest challenge we face is building diverse streams of revenue that support innovative storytelling. In 2017, digital media companies must bridge the current divide between creating compelling stories that attract interest and attention, and the opportunities for monetization that are increasingly concentrated on just a few of the largest platforms. The industry is not going to be successful if there’s too much focus on trendy stories that spin up on a one-off basis or so-called native ad content that lacks authenticity. We need immersive and captivating high-quality content that engages diverse audiences and creates a wide fan base across emerging media platforms. That diversification of revenue will be critical to building and maintaining a sustainable engine for digital media innovation.
Establishing timely and trusted cross-media measurement is an enormous challenge — but a critically important one. People consume media on an ever-growing number of platforms and devices and we must establish accurate ways to measure the total audience we reach and their engagement with content. That means having clear, trusted standards and metrics — which measure across TV, apps, web, OTT and more — and do so both in- and out-of-home. The connection people have with digitally-delivered content and advertising continues to grow enormously. But so does fake content and ad fraud. Trusted and transparently-measured environments will become ever-more valuable.
Beth Lawrence, EVP of Digital Ad Sales, Scripps Networks Interactive @ScrippsNet
A big challenge in digital in 2017 will be the ability for clients and consumers to separate the wheat from the chaff. We all know digital is here to stay and continues to be a more important revenue driver every year. But the quality of digital content has been under the radar, and in the final analysis, marketers care what brands they associate with. Period. Content matters; quality content rules. It will be a year of cleaning up, properly measuring and delivering great results in digital.
The biggest challenge will continue to be capturing consumer attention as existing platforms grow and new platforms emerge.
Vikki Neil, SVP/GM of Scripps Lifestyle Studios @ScrippsNet
In digital, you must stay open to all ideas that come your way, but disciplined enough to say no to many. You must move quickly and not wait for perfection, but perfect what you do daily. There’s not time to develop a long-range plan like a traditional media business offers. From my seat, the biggest challenge is a combination of making the right bets, and moving as fast as humanly possible to understand the space before your competitors, so that you can build the best offering for consumers and advertisers. It’s impossible to be everywhere across all opportunities, so choose wisely, go quickly and iterate daily.
The biggest challenge for media is building community. The strategies that have propelled many digital media companies into large audiences are largely commoditized, so you need to figure out how to connect your content and communities together in a deeper and unique way.
The biggest challenge for digital media in 2017 will be for quality publishers to cut through the noise – of ad fraud, fake news, and non-human traffic – to command fair market pricing for their trusted brands and influential audiences. Evaluating and leveraging these trusted environments will continue to be both important and difficult as the market weighs chasing scale and audience against quality and transparency.
As we look at the 2017 media landscape, there is potential for a massive upheaval on multiple fronts with the forecasted political uncertainty. The industry is resilient and adaptable, and we must remain focused on building great products for fans. And perhaps anxiety is unwarranted.
Crowdsourcing is an important way to personalize and engage your audience. The use of crowdsourcing can result in the creation of unique user-generated content or collaborative and social journalism. To provide a deeper understanding of crowdsourcing practices, the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University conducted detailed interviews, survey-work and case studies to produce its Guide to Crowdsourcing.
The two most recognized practices of crowdsourcing are news organizations asking for audience input and social media users offering non-solicited feedback. The Tow Center identified crowdsourcing in journalism as the act of inviting a group of people to participate in a reporting assignment. In other words, it’s an open call for your audience to personally contribute.
Thinking of the Center’s definition, crowdsourcing usually comes in two forms, as an unstructured open-invitation to provide feedback by way of a vote, email or call or as a targeted request to a particular segment of people. Crowdsourcing is especially popular among digital startups who are developing a unique style of journalism with a new audience.
Many news organizations include crowdsourcing in the entire process from story assigning, to pre-data collection, research and analytics to reporting and post-story discussions. Some important practices to incorporate when crowdsourcing:
Clearly define your journalistic goals.
Communicate what will be done with participant’s contribution.
Be specific about the type of response you want.
Announce your call-out more than once.
Use the proper terms like “share” versus “submit.”
Leave a short time gap between call-out and publication.
Communicate with community often.
Respond to and reward your contributors.
Make it easy for people to participate.
Effective crowdsourcing provides robust content and a valuable path for connecting and giving back to your audience.
Consumers today have an unprecedented amount of choice — where they get information, where they shop, what device they use. This gives marketers infinite options on the places they can go to target eyeballs, demographics and customers and, paired with advertising technology. And it’s rendering certain publisher brands almost irrelevant.
Never before has it been so important to truly differentiate yourself as a publisher. It’s no secret that many companies’ whose main offering is journalism are struggling to avoid becoming the next Internet failure. Old school publishers’ sustenance was connecting eyeballs to marketers. This is what paid for content. Many “new media” companies are, more or less, still leaning on this value proposition. And despite funding and adoration, just producing traffic isn’t sustainable.
The New Digital Order To succeed in the new digital world, you need content that’s unique, provides value to consumers, and you need a unique business model. If you’re creating marginally valuable content for readers, you can’t get marketers to pay you because you’re not attracting valuable eyeballs that are meaningfully differentiated, or the audience is easily found in many other places. And if the marketer spend doesn’t cover content costs and at least a portion of general overhead, you cannot be a profitable business.
As the Internet has brought attention to the performance of marketing, both online and offline, marketers look for scale. But they’re increasingly looking for down-funnel reach — targeted audiences to serve ads and promotions to — and they expect results.
There are a few different camps of publisher monetizing strategies arising. One is with the BuzzFeeds of the world : general news and entertainment entities taking the public by storm. They have unique models and content styles that incorporate multiple formats and delivery mechanisms, user generated content, mobile and more to drive down the traditionally heavyweight costs of good content generation—and they attract huge audiences. They monetize those audiences mostly with native ads and with ad inventory that programmatic ad tech vendors use to target users based on their online behavior.
Another camp is with a certain set of publishers, who, rather than continuing the publishing tradition centered on building an audience first and foremost, create direct revenue streams by building platforms that attract and support contextual purchase intent. This group includes Forbes.com, which works with a third party Sharethrough to create Content Cards, a tool that allows publishers to create and sell ads directly to advertisers.
Still, the overwhelming mentality in this industry is “I’m a publisher and I build audience,” and then I’ll sell access to that audience to marketers. But we, as publishers, aren’t limited to that. We can figure out ways of doing things differently and diversifying. If we don’t, we won’t be able to build sustainable and thriving businesses — or, worse, we’ll cease to exist.
A Service-Oriented Approach to Publishing & Brand Development All the most important web companies are solving a problem. Google’s mission is to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful. At its core, it’s incredibly utilitarian. It does this with its search engine, but also across other mediums — video on YouTube, hot air balloons that provide Internet access to remote areas in Project Loon and via health-tracking contact lenses. At their core, these are all about connecting people to information.
As Jerry Dischler, vice president of product management for AdWords at Google has said, “Our mission has always been to connect people with what they are looking for in the exact moment they are looking. These are moments that matter to consumers, to marketers and to us at Google because they are when decisions are being made and preferences shaped.”
So why don’t more publishers take this approach and focus on the problem they can solve for readers and, then, how they solve it? Rather than being constricted to the old model—“I’m a publisher and I build audience”—modern digital publishing companies have the capability, like Google, to bring content, services and different tools together to solve a single problem. If you’re not doing this to some degree, you’re just old media reformatted.
There is yet another crop of digital publishers emerging who actually are doing this — combining the traditional publishing model with a service-oriented approach. Houzz blends photos, content and connections to actual home professionals to help people redesign homes. Yelp combines user reviews and local advertising to help people find businesses and restaurants. TripAdvisor merges reviews, forums and on-site booking to help people plan travel. At Purch, we do something similar to help people make complex buying decisions, especially technology-related, by connecting product reviews, user recommendations, e-commerce, and mobile-based in-store shopping.
We — and others that focus on solving a specific problem — are in a new category of “publishing,” marrying content, commerce and community, in respective industries, to genuinely hit consumers’ expectations and serve their needs.
The model is no longer primarily about content, but about supporting the entire experience and the job that needs to get done — bringing all of the assets you possibly can to the user’s problem. We, like Google, are utilitarian at our core. We, as a category, are disrupting specific verticals where consumers seek out information to make a decision — whether to buy a new smartphone or to rewire their home to make it ‘smart.’ We’re oriented around a task and recognize that consumers’ expectations have evolved.
Expert editorial content, promotions, user-generated content and reviews, mobile apps, online storefronts, and even ads, all comprise the service-orientated approach to publishing. The big difference is that the service-oriented approach doesn’t just throw ads onto the pages, but instead considers how to bring them into a full-circle environment to service the consumer.
This enables a vibrant publishing model with a diversified revenue stream where advertising is a minority piece of the pie. By extending to offerings beyond content, you’re not just competing for digital advertising dollars, but also lead generation, brand marketing, affiliate and CPA budgets. What’s so compelling about this business model is the notion that we’re reaching consumers when they are making their final decision — it’s a very clear value proposition for a marketer.
And when this model, or better yet consumer environment, is well-designed and constructed around solving a problem — like Houzz, TripAdvisor, and others including Purch, are — all of the activities under the umbrella, including advertising, become helpful, rather than burdensome to consumers. When you get this dynamic working, you’ll see performance that’s off the charts. Service-oriented publishers are able to bring exponential value to marketers and build a healthy business while still serving, and holding above all else, the user.
It’s also worth saying that a service-oriented approach doesn’t necessarily mean that a publisher should abandon all content that doesn’t help someone make a decision. There’s still value in content that generally informs, entertains, and enlightens its audience, but it simply can’t be the cornerstone of this type of business model.
Not Just “New Media” In Name, But in Practice Publishers used to deliver information consumers were seeking out in a very one-dimensional way, restricting their ability to build great, lasting businesses in today’s multi-channel digital age. But today, look at all of the tools we have to do this. In fact, Google’s ability to meet its mission is largely fueled by the publisher community. It is simply a very convenient mechanism to direct a consumer to what they are looking for when they need it most.
The byproduct of this problem-solving and service-oriented model may still look like digital publishing, but in actuality it uses content, data, advertising technology, tools, services and apps to help consumers make decisions — at scale, in whatever way works for them at a personal level. Like Google, service-oriented publishers can and have found a connective tissue between all these mechanisms. The problem lies at the center and each of these tools and services are attached to it horizontally, allowing us to meet the today’s consumer expectations.
It’s a tumultuous time for publishers, but an exciting one, too, and it’s only the first inning of the game for Purch and our peers. Every additional step toward this model, and expanding it to keep up with what’s to come, creates new, unprecedented ways to create lasting value to consumers, marketers and the industry.
Greg Mason (@gmason @PurchGroup) joined Purch, formerly TechMedia Network, as Chief Executive Officer in 2012, bringing over twenty years of product development and innovation in technology media and digital publishing. Prior to joining Purch, Greg served as Executive Vice President of Consumer Services at WebMD. Prior to WebMD, he spent eleven years with CBS Interactive and CNET Networks where he held a variety of global operational roles, culminating in the leadership of the entire technology and news portfolio. Before his time at CNET, Greg spent a combined eleven years with Ziff Davis and International Data Group (IDG) in various publisher, sales, and sales management roles.