From audience analytics to programmatic advertising and automated story creation, media companies have used Artificial Intelligence (AI) for some time. However, this technology is rapidly maturing and opening up new creative and business possibilities that media executives need to be aware of.
ChatGPT, an AI chatbot, is the current poster child for this robotic reckoning. Garnering a huge amount of column inches in recent weeks, the application can provide detailed answers to questions and prompts. Along with other AI-generated innovations like the portrait app Lensa and OpenArt – a gallery of works created by AI – these tools have inspired the latest wave of discussion about the implications of this technology.
Amidst copious innovation and optimism, concerns have also surfaced around AI-generated content, consent, bias, labeling and regulation, as well as the impact on labor markets. None of these issues are going to go away any time soon. Nevertheless, while media companies and policymakers navigate this unfolding landscape, the roll-out and adoption of AI continues to gather pace.
Artificial intelligence at work in the media
With AI having a real moment right now, this is the perfect time to explore the ramifications for media companies. Here are six uses of AI technologies that need to be on your radar:
1. Driving engagement
One of the most common ways publishers are using AI and machine learning is through AI-powered algorithms which personalize content recommendations.
This can help increase engagement and keep readers on your site for longer. That’s particularly useful if time on site is a key performance metric. Of course, it can also enable you to serve more adds to your audience too.
Personalized recommendation technology has long been the mainstay of platforms like Amazon, Spotify, and Netflix. Now it’s becoming increasingly common for other forms of content too.
One early proponent, The Washington Post, uses AI to personalize the news that they deliver based on readers interests and preferences. It’s an approach they’ve been using for some time across their app, newsletters and now the homepage.
As Digiday explains, the Post offers a personalized “For You” section on the homepage that taps into information provided during onboarding. At sign-up, subscribers or registered users can select their topic preferences. Recommendations are further augmented by your reading history and other performance data.
It’s an area the Post looks set to double down on, as they and other outlets seek to move to a more tailored content offering and away from the “one size fits all” approach of yesteryear.
One of these models, dynamic paywalls, deploys AI to change free article limits. As a result, users hit the paywall at different times, based on their behaviors and other indicators that help to determine a consumer’s propensity to pay.
“Piano has seen visitors subscribe after a single pageview. Others take much longer to make the decision to convert, while some aren’t likely to ever subscribe at all,” Kaufman observes. In response to this variance, he argues, we need “smarter, more satisfying automation.”
AI can help. New York Media and Neue Zürcher Zeitung (NZZ, Switzerland) are just some of the publishers to adopt this model. They have used AI to determine individual paywalls, based on variables including geography, consumption habits and visit behavior, as well as subject matter and the device being used. Expect more publishers to follow suit.
3. Creating content
Many early newsroom experiments with AI focused on the potential to craft stories that typically follow a predictable formula.
One of the earliest to leverage AI for content creation, The Associated Press (AP) has been using AI since 2014 to generate summaries of earnings reports from publicly traded companies. This allows them to quickly and accurately provide readers with key information, freeing up reporters to do other work. “Prior to using AI, our editors and reporters spent countless resources on coverage that was important but repetitive,” their website notes, adding that this “distracted from higher-impact journalism.”
Alongside freeing up reporters, the technology has allowed AP to create more of this content. Automated story generation has enabled AP to increase the volume of these corporate stories by a factor of 10.
At a simpler level, AI is also being used to liberate resources otherwise hoovered up by resource-heavy work such as interview transcriptions.
AP is currently working with local newsrooms to help them increase their use of AI tools. In a survey asking what would be the most useful use of this technology, automating transcription came top.
4. Distributing content
A further potential benefit of AI can be seen in its ability to support publishers in their desire to get material in front of audiences – wherever they may be.
This type of technological solution can help publishers manage their resources more efficiently, as well as distribute content to different platforms in a timely and cost-effective manner.
A further mainstream iteration of this idea is also being developed by Google. Dyani Najdi, Managing Director of Video and Display EMEA, has highlighted how the tech giant is experimenting with a tool to reformat landscape videos for YouTube. Viewers will see videos in square or vertical formats, with the shape automatically determined by how you are accessing the platform.
Although currently only available for certain video-ad products, it’s not a big leap to imagine this being used for other content in the near future. If it is, that would be a huge time-saver for many publishers. A further boon is the possibility of this technology opening up new distribution avenues, without the time and expense of repurposing everything.
Where we go from here: two trends to keep an eye on
Within that, here are two key AI-trends for publishers to closely follow and potentially adopt.
1. Leveling-up content, and ad, personalization
Based on their interests and preferences, AI can personalize the news that publishers deliver to readers. Its usage is only likely to increase and become more ubiquitous.
More than 9,000 publishers use Taboola’s recommendation platform. Earlier in the year, they announced that AI functionality had been added to their homepage techstack. The company said that in beta testing companies such as McClatchy, The Independent and Estado de Minas in Brazil, had seen a 30% – 50% increase in clickthrough rates for homepage sections personalized by Taboola.
Alongside content, AI can also be used to deliver a better ad experience. Publishers like Condé Nast are using machine learning to find patterns that can lead to more personalized and contextual ads. In a cookie-less future this type of approach will be essential if ads are to be targeted and relevant.
2. Improving and streamlining workflows
With cuts being seen across the media landscape, a key challenge for publishers in 2023 will involve maintaining output levels (never mind launching new products and verticals) with fewer staff.
AI may help here, given its ability to be used for A/B headline testing and other forms of predictive analysis. It can also tag and generate content such as business, sports and real estate stories. Or, as seen at Forbes, provide detailed prompts for writers.
It can further support social media and off-platform strategies too. The South China Morning Postsaved resources akin to work done by 3.9 full-time employees by using AI to streamline its social media management.
Meanwhile, in Germany, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung has used AI to help editors understand which stories to put behind the paywall. This matters given their freemium model, and the need to balance free content that drives subscriptions with premium subscriber-only content that readers value.
The big picture
This list of uses is far from exhaustive. To it we can also add important developments such as the ability of AI to help address inequalities (through the automatic creation of audio articles, and work to measure gender disparity in news coverage), as well as the rise of automated fact checking and many others.
Although no one knows how this technology will play out, it’s clear that AI can play a valuable role in helping publishers with their operations. As a result, it is no surprise that key activities unlocked by this technology – such as data analytics and automation – are among the top investment areas for publishers in the coming year.
Previously, as the Knight Foundation has found, “when we talk[ed] about AI in newsrooms, we seem to lean heavily on the newsgathering part of the process and maybe do not pay as much attention to the product or the business side of the ecosystem.”
In 2023, that may begin to change, as we see an overdue shift in the thinking about the role that AI plays in supporting the strategic needs of publishers.
From shaping the content you see (Pink News’ positive news filter), to aiding with translations of new international editions (Le Monde’s digital English language product) and improving your SEO (Summari and other tools), AI is here to stay and increasingly integral to publisher strategies.
Against a challenging business backdrop, as outlets begin to focus more on areas like product, subscriptions and retention, AI’s contribution to a publisher’s success will become more prominent and important than ever.
Most digital publishers use a Content Delivery Network (CDN) as part of a delivery strategy, and for good reason. Traditional benefits range from faster and secure delivery to tight integration with modern publishing systems to subscriber authentication. However, CDNs offer a number of lesser-known benefits that can help digital publishers scale and improve their businesses in surprising ways. Let’s explore five of the ways digital publishers can get more out of their CDNs.
1. Next-level caching
A good rule of thumb is that you can probably cash it if it’s querying a database or some sort of abstraction layer, like an API. Most modern CDNs allow you to purge content off the network fairly quickly. In other words, instead of assigning a time-to-live (TTL) of 30 minutes and then going back and repeatedly re-validating, which will tie up resources at your origin, you can cache it “forever” or until you let it expire.
Caching more will help drive down costs, particularly for compute-heavy workloads, such as database queries. This is because you’re caching data at the edge rather than at the origin.
This strategy will give consistent and global performance improvements. Modern CDNs can even help with truly dynamic or completely uncachable stuff. Using a CDN can move TLS connections closer to the end-user so that connections start much quicker. It can keep TCP connections to your origin open and hot, eliminating resources spent on setting them up and tearing them down.
2. Optimization of content
Much of what you’re optimizing at your origin or the application layer can probably be optimized at the network edge. For instance, optimized images will reduce your storage and compute cost. The benefits are many, however, one of the most obvious is updating and refreshing the UI without having to re-process every image. Also, you can instantly take advantage of new file formats, such as WebP or AVI, without large engineering efforts of having to retool your application.
3. Comprehensive security
CDNs are a great place to implement and enforce security. They are massive in size and designed to take incredible traffic spikes, both legitimate – e.g., large crowds of viewers at live sports events – and malicious DDoS attacks. CDNs are great at hiding where your true origin or application actually lives, helping reduce the attack area for hackers. You can set up IP restrictions, and private network interconnects to restrict access.
Protecting against user behavior and emerging threats requires a nuanced approach – and the WAF offering of most CDNs can help with this. In fact, CDNs are a great place to do all things security. For example, dropping everything that’s not layer seven non-HTTP or non-HTTPS traffic at the edge gives you substantial protection right out of the box.
Your CDN can inspect, detect, and block attacks before they reach your application. Features such as rate-limiting allow legitimate users to enjoy your app while attackers are getting cut off at the edge. Enforcing security policies at the edge saves time, increases performance, and reduces the load on your core applications.
4. Edge computing
Although they vary and run differently, many CDNs have edge compute capabilities today. Some are WebAssembly, some are Docker, and yet some are other forms of virtual sandboxes. They’ve got different feature sets, cost models, and languages they support. Because of its flexibility to execute a multitude of functions, edge computing becomes a great place to build and scale your microservices.
Lastly, let’s talk about visibility. Your CDN inherently handles tons of data. Logs and statistics can help improve day-to-day operations, particularly if they’re available in real-time. (You should expect real-time, as it’s the only way you can see and react to global incidents or localized issues.) You can analyze historical data to make better architectural decisions for future build-outs and improvements. When running experiments, you can use the log data to see if your outcomes were correct or if you should take a different path.
CDN logs can also help reduce costs by identifying areas where your caching or optimization strategies are subpar. They can help you detect new and effective ways that people are trying to misuse and abuse your applications so that you can make informed decisions. And real-time logs help remediate outages, saving you money and reputation from costly downtime.
As we wrap up, we find it a prudent reminder that CDNs have dedicated teams of network engineers, automated tools, and redundant networks. Savvy digital publishers will look beyond the basic functions of these often overlooked tools, and make them work harder to provide better (and safer) user experience, prevent costly outages and downtime, and ultimately improve the bottom-line.
It’s been 30 years since Tim Berners-Lee launched the world’s first website. Throughout human history, new methods of communicating, recording, and sharing knowledge have spurred major technological revolutions. Just as the Gutenberg Bible transformed the way we reproduced and distributed information through movable type and printed words, the internet and Hypertext Transfer Protocol – HTTP – kicked off another revolution that changed the way in which we disseminate and consume information.
As an industry, digital media continues to innovate and find new ways to use the web. When you stop and think about it for a second, it’s truly remarkable that a platform originally built for hyperlinking text documents has proven flexible and open enough to become the backbone of content distribution and consumption for the majority of the world.
The evolution continues today as visitors demand more personalized, engaging, and secure online experiences. This is as true for digital media as any other segment. Audience expectations are constantly changing, and we must evolve at an ever-increasing speed to keep up.
A future focused perspective
Just as we couldn’t anticipate the web’s progression in 1991, it’s hard to imagine what the web will look like 30 years from now. One thing’s for certain though: reader expectations will continue to grow, probably at a faster pace than we’ve seen so far. Getting ahead by having the foresight to envision what’s coming so you can steer your business in that direction is what will propel some media companies to the head of the line.
CDNs and other technologies core to delivery must build the future of the web in a way that’s flexible enough to address the unknown while still ensuring secure, performant, and resilient user experiences. While the infrastructure and protocols are crucial building blocks, there’s much you can do to keep your options open and make sure that your web outlet is ready for changes that will undoubtedly come.
Let’s look closer at five things you can do to be future ready:
1. Prioritize scale from the beginning
Building with an eye toward the future means you’re building at scale from the start. If you contemplate a world where everyone has access to the web, that means that any single app with any kind of success has the potential for millions or billions of downloads and visitors — all at once. If you don’t architect for that in the languages you choose, the systems you use, and the vendors you partner with, the experience won’t live up to expectations.
2. Build with flexibility in mind
If the last 30 years have taught web developers and architects anything, it’s that we can’t imagine all of the web’s major future uses. You must build with that in mind and create frameworks that are flexible enough to adapt to the evolution of the web. HTTP is a great example. The protocol has been updated three major times, and we’ll probably need to do it many, many more. By the time we get to the fifth version, we might not even recognize it. Knowing that it will need to be updated in the future helps us understand how to build flexibility into it in the present.
3. Learn from mistakes — then build from them
Every time a breach happens or new tech takes a turn and is used in a malicious way, we learn something. We learn how to secure better, we learn to ask better questions about the information applications collect (e.g., what will this app do with this image of my face once it shows me what I’ll look like when I’m old?) — and we learn how to build in a way that prevents those things from occurring in the future.
4. Stop inventing everything yourself
Don’t try to solve authentication, cryptography, or security yourself. Employ reusable frameworks because they can be swapped out for better components as they become available in the future. Thinking modularly will pay off thousandfold and your solution is likely to be better from using existing technology. Otherwise, you’ll be locked into an outdated aspect of your app or experience.
5. Don’t wait for regulation to lead
Typically, regulation tends to follow security concerns by about 10 years. First the innovators protect themselves and their customers, all the way down the line to the late adopters. And then regulation comes in, which means the issues we face today won’t be fully regulated for at least another decade. We can’t wait until security is mandated to properly secure the web and our apps. It’ll be too late.
Ready for the next 30 years?
For the web to thrive another 30 years, web builders the world over must take action. They must unite to engineer a more secure and resilient web on a more trustworthy network, and more predictable and performant applications. Scalable, secure innovation is vital to the web’s ability to progress and succeed in the future — but we need to embrace new approaches to get there. It’s entirely possible, and it’s up to us
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.
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).
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.
Audiences are spending more time than ever consuming content. Still, even an explosion in digital subscriptions couldn’t prevent massive job cuts across the nation’s newsrooms. Any argument that closures hit companies that churned out poor quality journalism or fake news falls flat when looking at the data. Of the 10 newspapers that have earned Pulitzer Prizes for local reporting in the past decade, all but one were impacted by cuts in the last year.
Why is online news in a crisis? There are lots of theories. Many point to the impact of the Google/Facebook duopoly. The two behemoth companies gobble the bulk of ad revenue, leaving scraps for news organizations. Others suggest that the digital media industry itself is to blame. Ethan Zuckerman points to the “original sin” of building the entire Internet around advertising, putting algorithms, not audiences, in control.
New research confirms that media organizations need to do a critical rethink, but not just of the business model. It appears that media organizations are relying on a faulty content-creation and evaluation formula. The good news is that there’s plenty they can do to rethink storytelling to better engage and monetize audiences.
The findings, part of the Clwstwr Policy Brief project, reveal that audiences prefer “inclusive and reflective” storytelling models that help them understand and navigate their world. This, the research says, “challenges the perceived – and long-established journalistic principle – that the inverted pyramid model of news storytelling is the most efficient way to deliver news.”
The traditional approach for news — arranging facts in descending order of importance — lacks creativity and flexibility. What’s more, the research says this style alienates younger audiences that crave a “more thoughtful, considered and purposeful approach” to online news. They want it to reflect the reality of their lives, rather than industry norms.
Media organizations have an opportunity to rethink the way that they report the news. And, with new formats, they can encourage consumers to engage more actively with content.
Continuing with our series of video interviews, I talk to the lead author of the report, Shirish Kulkarni, an award-winning journalist and researcher. He makes a case for a complete rethink of news storytelling models. He shares the “seven building blocks” that successful news stories have in common. These include a linear narrative, personal context, and transparency about where the information comes from in the first place.
Kulkarni also walks us through the “narrative accordion,” a prototype model that gets high ranks from readers because it allows them to sort and skim through the key elements of a story on their terms. Finally, he discusses how news organizations can drive meaningful engagement and revenues by harnessing AI to “individualize” content at scale.
WATCH OR LISTEN TO THE FULL INTERVIEW
Peggy Anne Salz, Founder and Lead Analyst of Mobile Groove interviews Shirish Kulkarni, a researcher focused on identifying and prototyping innovative forms of news storytelling.
Peggy Anne Salz: Mainstream journalism is in crisis. Now we may think it’s due to a lack of trust or a lack of interest, but new research suggests people aren’t consuming news because the wrong stories are being told in the wrong way, by the wrong people. Now, new storytelling models, provocative prototypes, new building blocks.
They may offer the answer and we get the inside track on this and more today on Digital Content Next. I’m your host as always Peggy Anne Salz, mobile analyst, content marketing consultant, and frequent contributor to DCN. My guest today is an award-winning journalist and researcher, who’s going to share eye-opening results of his latest research project that goes to the core of what is broken in online journalism and how to fix it. Shirish Kulkarni welcome to Digital Content Next. It’s great to have you.
Shirish Kulkarni: Thank you very much. It’s great to be here.
Salz: Now you’ve got our attention with these results, the wrong people, doing the wrong thing, in the wrong way. That is something pretty provocative. You spent the last two years asking these fundamental questions about journalism, and now you’ve come up with a construct for a model of what you call reflective journalism. Now it’s not just, you. It’s had global impact. You’ve presented it at Reuters Institute, World Association of News Publishers, and many more. Tell us what is reflective journalism.
Kulkarni: Yeah. So I think we have…well, I have two reasons really, for calling it reflective journalism. Firstly, I think it’s important that we, as journalists, reflect on what journalism is for, right? What the needs of audience is rather than our organizations. Because that’s something that’s really been missing a lot in journalism. And we need to take the time. We’re in a crisis, as you said, and we need to take the time to stop and think, what are we doing wrong? What could we do better?
The second reason is that it also is super important that our industry is much more genuinely reflective of society. So, largely, if we’re talking about Western Europe or the U.S., this is a very homogeneous industry. And frankly, it’s driven largely by white, middle class, Metropolitan men, for the most part. And actually, when you think about it, that is a really small proportion of the population. And they don’t reflect, or frankly, understand the experiences, the day to day lives of most people in society. And as journalists, I think it’s our job to reflect what’s going on in society. And I don’t think as an industry, we’re actually structurally prepared to do that. So, two reasons for calling it reflective journalism, because we need to reflect both on the industry and also reflect society.
Salz: And it’s interesting Shirish because you’re making this point that. We need to reflect, and we’ve done that in a way you could even say we’ve been forced to reflect. Let’s put it that way. So we do know what is broken in principle at the core you’re stating it’s all about new forms of narrative. We need new forms of narrative. This is actually very good news because we know what is broken. We know how to fix it. And this is where your policy brief, your news storytelling, storytelling research hits upon the answer. You propose linear narratives. Now, how does this differ from what we’ve been doing? Because what we’ve been doing is the inverted pyramid style. So what makes linear better?
Kulkarni: It helps to start by thinking, why do we do the inverted pyramid, right? And actually, the kind of prosaic reason for that is because of the telegraph, the original news wire. But actually, the telegraph, when it was used widely, was expensive and unreliable. So people thought, let’s put all the important stuff right at the top, because then it’s cheaper. And if it drops out, then we haven’t lost too much of the important stuff, we’ve lost some of the boring stuff, right? So, technology has clearly moved on by about six generations since the telegraph. But largely, we are using those same habits and formulas, which come from the telegraph era. So that is strange in and of itself. So that’s why we use the inverted pyramid now. And actually, there’s not really a reason for it anymore.
When I talk about why writing linear stories is better, or producing stories of whatever kind, whether that’s text or whatever, in a linear format is better, we just go back to what are stories for? And stories are there for a kind of evolutionary, anthropological, there’s a neuroscientific basis for storytelling. They help us navigate the world. If you wanted to bring in kind of modern day techniques, they’re like a virtual reality simulator for the world. That’s what stories teach us. And I’d really recommend a book by Jonathan Gottschall, called “The Storytelling Animal.” And in that, there’s a really beautiful quote, where he says, “We are, as a species, addicted to story. Even when the body goes to sleep, the mind stays up all night, telling itself stories.”
And so, we know that to be true, right? But those stories aren’t told in inverted pyramid style. They’re told as a linear narrative. Starting at the beginning and ending at the end. And that is what we’re hardwired for as human beings. But as journalists, if we’re writing in an inverted pyramid style, we’re essentially going against what we’re hardwired for. We’re putting up a barrier between the storytelling and the engagement with a story, from the get go. And that, again, is not logical. It’s not rational. It doesn’t make any sense.
So actually, just on that kind of linear storytelling, we built a bunch of prototypes. But actually, what I was really interested in testing, for exactly the reasons you’re interested is, what if it was just linear storytelling, there’s no other formatting, would people find that interesting? So we did a prototype, which we just called kind of a plain text, dramatic prototype. And that was literally plain text, writing a story, sort of casting it quite badly, in my own opinion, because I wrote it, in a kind of three act dramatic structure, like we were just talking about. And the results from that were absolutely startling.
We tested it with more than 1300 people, against options of news which were currently available to them. And what we got the people to do was essentially, say whether they thought that it was more engaging, more informative, and more useful. And we created, I guess, a net approval rating. So on the kind of engaging axis, people have found just a plain text narrative more engaging than a BBC story, or an ITV story, or Sky News story here in the UK. The rating for that was plus 57, not 57%, plus 57, of the positives against the negatives. On informative, it was plus 41. And on useful, plus 37. So those are big, big numbers. And in some ways, you’d say for news organizations, they’re a no brainer, right? If you can, tomorrow, do something which is more engaging, more informative, and useful by big margins, just by essentially changing the structure of your story, why wouldn’t you do that?
Salz: Now we’ve had some companies here on Digital Content Next, they have been sharing what they’re doing and they are already taking a more modular approach to news and to storytelling. So there are companies moving in this direction. They understand that just by encouraging readers to skim, they’re not really driving engagement. And they have to do it in a different way. They need to break down the stories. How can news organizations further improve what they do to draw their audiences in? What is it that you’re telling them?
Kulkarni: So the very first thing is clearly thinking about what the audience, what citizens want, right? So when I was writing my prototypes, really, the first thing was to blank my brain. I’d tried to forget all the conventions of journalism, and ask myself the question, what do I actually need to know about this story to help me understand this? Rather than, what would a journalist normally write here? Because those two things are actually surprisingly different. And I think it’s where I think the kind of practice of journalism has become quite disengaged from the purpose of journalism. And as you say, there’s lots of hand wringing over, you know, people in newsrooms looking at analytics, when they are looking at analytics, and probably not enough people are sort of hand wringing over, well, people only spend 10 seconds on our page. Well, kind of, of course, they only spend 10 seconds on your page if you write an inverted pyramid style, where you’ve put in the headline, and in the first paragraph, something that looks like everything you need to know about that story. And then people think, well, actually, it gets more boring, and less interesting as I go down.
Now, actually, the truth is, it’s not everything you need to know about the story, because we all know, headlines don’t represent a story. They’re largely used as a sales technique. And the first paragraph often is a kind of one side of the story or just a really quick summary. But actually what people are telling us they want routinely, and not just me, in lots of research, they want more context around a story. What we tend to do is drop people into an on the day story, just on the day. And not everyone consumes news in the same way as journalists, right? They don’t read the news necessarily every day or every hour. We need to explain to them what’s led up to this point, and actually to some extent, what’s going to follow from this point. And so, actually providing all those things as a service, because yeah, journalism is a service, again, something which we forget. Then all those things are going to help people engage.
Salz: News as a service, you’re absolutely right here. And you’re also talking about what news organizations need to do to embrace the linear approach. Fortunately, it’s something they don’t have to do on their own because your research also shows that it’s really about collaborating, co-creating whatever you want to call it with AI to keep reader attention, as the story unfolds. Even determine the best starting points in the news. Ways to draw the audience in. So how does this collaboration working with AI? Look, what is the role of AI to get people to come into the story and stay?
Kulkarni: Lots of journalism organizations are using AI very well now, already. And so this is going to be the future of journalism. The next stage of journalism will be driven by automation and AI. So we have to be in that space. And I think the starting point is, look, right now online news is largely just newspaper articles put online, right? We’re not using, we’re not taking advantage of all the digital and technical storytelling tools that are available to us.
And I think what we’re seeing is that we should be in a post-article world, right? We can’t provide, or we shouldn’t be providing exactly the same article to everyone, right? We can’t be all things to all people. And where that leads to is personalization, essentially. That actually, we can provide news, information, in a way that is personalized to meet individual user’s needs in a really efficient way. So that might be, for example, I’m based in Wales, where we have quite a big immigrant community as well. If I’m a Chinese person living in West Wales, accessing BBC Wales’s news, wouldn’t it be interesting if I could access that in my first language, even though it’s news about Wales? That’s going to be more accessible to me. Working in that modular way, where we’re taking out a lot of interstitial language, we’re building short modules of information, which we’re putting together in different ways for different people. That, for example, takes out a lot of translation problems. It actually takes out a lot of inherent bias that exists within us as journalists. So it’s more accessible and more inclusive in that way.
So providing fact-based modules of journalism, that can be put together in different ways, by AI, to match the personalization preferences of users, citizens, audiences, has to be one big part of the future of journalism, I think.
Salz: That’s fascinating Shirish because we did start with personalization in news. It was about the categories asking audiences to choose the categories they wanted. Now it’s about personalization taking that personalization to a next level, a new level. And we agree it’s about the audience. It’s also about context, transparency, diverse perspectives.
Now these are the guiding principals, but it also comes down to the experience and that’s where your research also offers some answers. You’ve come up with ways to allow a different experience for different readers. The linear story is the concept, but you have accordions, timelines, videos. What can you tell us about the best on-ramp right now for organizations listening in, they want to know what is the best way to make the biggest difference in their stories and their metrics?
Kulkarni: The narrative accordion is really my favorite prototype. And actually, the favorite generally, with users. And what we’ve done here, essentially I’ve gone back to the basics and asked myself the question, what do I need to know about the story? What’s going to help me understand it? And I put these kind of expandable and collapsible questions, which means that people can either read them from top to bottom, so they make a linear story from top to bottom. Or if you’re interested in a particular question, such as, is this a green solution? I can go straight to that and check out the answer to that first, and navigate around exactly how I want it. Because what audiences really told us they wanted was some agency in storytelling. They wanted to be able to decide how they navigated the story. And we all understand that, don’t we? Like, when we go to find something out ourselves, we remember it better. We understand it better, because we feel like we’ve been part of that investigation process.
And as I say, the narrative accordion overall, in our testing, did really well. So basically, 75% and upwards, comparing the narrative accordion to options which are available to them in the general market, said it helped them understand the story better, and was more engaging.
Now, again, going back to the commercial needs or publishers, if you can do tomorrow, this doesn’t take a lot of kind of tooling or engineering, you could do tomorrow, something which more than 75% of people say helps them understand the story better, and is more engaging. Now, that, in a commercial sense, to me, is a no brainer, right? If you can do that tomorrow, why wouldn’t you?
Salz: That makes perfect sense. Absolutely. It’s a no-brainer and there’s no reason not to pursue that, but you’ve also found something else interesting in your research. You’ve found out that we are hard-wired, literally for the hero story or the heroine story. We want to have that arc of the story. Now, how can organizations apply that to journalism and still keep a credible balance? Because of course, drama can quickly become melodrama. It can become exaggeration very easily. So how do they approach this to give us the story? But again, also the engagement, because that’s the way of generating revenues.
Kulkarni: So, I see the tension, I’m all for kind of fact-based journalism, which sometimes, we get into kind of click bait stuff, which is about creating a particular kind of drama, right? When I’m talking about, this kind of hero, heroine story, it’s that fundamental evolutionary need for a particular kind of story, which you might describe as essentially, a fairy tale, is a great example of that. It’s why they’re so popular and successful. And that could be by just thinking about who are the characters in this. We don’t have to go off into kind of writing “non-objective,” but I’m going to put objective in quotation marks there, “non-objective” stories. What’s the sense of character, a resolution as well, because fairy stories always have a resolution. And new stories very rarely have a resolution. And actually, at that evolutionary level stories which don’t have a resolution leave us feeling uncomfortable.
So actually, that’s where we get into kind of news avoidance, because so much of our storytelling is inverted pyramid storytelling. Leaves us feeling uncomfortable and unresolved. So that’s a really important point as well.
Salz: So the answers here are context, narrative, linear narrative, AI, imagination, innovation, engagement, but achieving this, internalizing, this can take time, maybe even other talents. So what would you leave us with here? Give me a few steps news organizations can take right now to change the old habit.
Adopt the new model, adapt the new prototypes that you’re proposing such as the accordion, and also integrate AI more into this process. What can they do that they’re not already doing?
Kulkarni: When I started doing my research, I think people wanted me to come up with some kind of nonlinear gamified piece of storytelling, innovation, right? And I quickly realized that’s like putting a $100,000 kitchen in a house which doesn’t have a roof, right? We need to sort out the fundamentals. It’s journalism which is broken, and we need to fix that.
So, that comes down to understanding the user need, the audience need, remembering that journalism is for citizens, it’s for people. It’s not for journalists. So our audiences shouldn’t be other journalists. They should be what people really want from journalism. And so we need to listen to that research, not going with preconceived ideas of what we think journalism should be like in the future. We need to listen to what people actually want from journalism and then action that. And in terms of the storytelling, yeah, I think it’s using personalization, meeting people where they are, meeting their needs. And to do that, we need to leverage AI, essentially. Because to do that at scale, we need to use automation.
People want that information, they do want to understand the world, they do want to engage with it, but they’re feeling let down by journalism at the moment. So there’s repressed kind of need for that, which we can tap into. And actually, yeah, people are willing to pay for that if they get something which meets their needs. I talk about it in terms of, if you were working at Procter & Gamble or Unilever, and you never listened to your customers needs, you just carried on doing what you’ve always done without thinking about what you need to change, then you wouldn’t work at Procter & Gamble or Unilever for very long. But actually, in journalism, that’s what we do. We just carry on doing the same thing we always did, because we like doing it and we know how to do that. Regardless of the fact, we know people aren’t engaging with it or consuming it. So, there’s a really clear, hardnosed business model for doing storytelling better.
Salz: Shirish, I can’t thank you enough for sharing and, yes, for being exactly like your research, open, transparent, a bit provocative. It’s been great to have you.
Kulkarni: Thank you so much. It’s been a real pleasure.
Salz: Thank you. And of course, thank you for tuning in taking the time.
Of course, more coming in the series around how media companies are taking charge of changing their business and also increasing revenues. And in the meantime, be sure to check out digitalcontentnext.org for great content and including a companion post to this interview. And of course, join the conversation on Twitter at DCNorg until next time I’m Peggy Anne Salz signing off for Digital Content Next.
In conversation with Digital Content Next’s Michelle Manafy, Flipboard founder and CEO Mike McCue and Washington Post managing editor Kat Downs Mulder explore the evolution of digital media, serving the audience “where they are,” and leveraging emerging technologies to better meet their needs. Their talk, which was part of Collision Conference 2021, covers the challenges and opportunities of social media news distribution and consumption and the rise of Substack. They also talk about the challenges facing local news in particular. Their discussion explores AI and other technologies that increasingly impact news creation, delivery, consumption, and user experiences.
In the publishing world, Substack has grown into a bit of a phenomenon. It’s a somewhat low-tech, self-publishing newsletter platform. However, it’s gotten outsized media coverage from top brands, including The New Yorker and The New York Times. Substack has also managed to attract a number of high-profile journalists from the industry.
So why does this relatively no-frills newcomer – along with its emerging competitors like Buttondown, TinyLetter, and Revue – get so much buzz? Substack and others like it offer a bit of a twist on the typical software offering: They encourage writers to monetize their newsletters through a revenue share agreement. The company is poaching top writers with upfront incentives in order to build their footprint. This is nerve wracking for premier editors and publishers. Will their own star writers get the bug and make the switch?
The rise in popularity of self-publish newsletter platforms is now forcing media brands to consider whether they’re keeping star writers and reporters happy. It is also forcing them to reckon with their own email programs.
Newsletters are often an under-developed product. However, they have major potential to give writers a platform on which they can build a profile for themselves. They can also drive a lot of revenue. In traditional terms, it’s not much different than a writer having her own “FOB” column. These days, it’s not much different than a reporter’s active Twitter or Instagram profile. Rather than fear these emerging players, publishers should think about how to tap into their ability to retain top talent and make money doing so.
Publishers, make writers and readers happy…
First and foremost, the problem isn’t Substack. Email is a channel with enormous potential for many publishers. Substack, however, is a blaring wake-up call.
Some writers may leave for the big advance that they were promised. But many others are leaving because they want more creative control and a more direct connection to their readers. They also want the ability to directly profit from that connection.
There are publishers who have newsletters written by individual reporters, creating a more personal voice and a lighter touch in editing. CNN’s “Reliable Sources,” run by Brian Stelter, is a great example of this. Often writing late at night, Stelter confides in his readers and shares a bit about his personal life in a way that wouldn’t make sense on the website. He has a huge following. And it’s not just for a faceless roundup of the day’s headlines.
Email is an intimate, low-risk channel with which publishers can experiment to give key reporters a more visible persona. Axios has built a loyal readership by allowing reporters to publish emails under their name, encouraging them to create a human connection. Axios’ Sara Fischer is just one example.
Often, newsletters are templates that provide a list of links. Or they recycle content based on verticals of interest like travel or automotive, but with very little personality. Instead, give your travel editor the chance to write an intro paragraph. Or allow a field reporter to provide real-life snippets of what life is like on the job. These elements create more engaged readers and more differentiation from generic pubs.
Despite this proven approach, publishers are likely worried about giving it a go. They have successfully built reputable names for themselves by holding their identity close and in doing so, ensuring brand integrity and quality. Loosening the grip on the brand by allowing individuals to forge direct relationship with audiences sounds risky.
However, not doing so also creates risk. Stifle the creative potential of individuals who attract loyal followings and suddenly, publishing your own newsletter becomes enticing. Empower those same individuals to help grow the brand and tap into new revenue potential.
…And earn revenue doing it
Speaking of improving email performance, newsletters like Morning Brew, The Hustle, and The Skimm show that entire media businesses can be launched and expanded within the channel with a lot of revenue potential. Individual writers see that. They read these titles and want that same opportunity. The good news is that publishers can give it to them.
Revenue comes from a combination of factors. The first is to create a product that attracts brands. This requires scale, quality content and an engaged audience. Then, the publisher needs to have the tools to optimize advertising with flexible templates, reliable data collection, and good testing capabilities. To maximize engagement and conversion, publishers must incorporate elements like personalization and dynamic content.
Across all of these components, publishers already have major advantages over the upstart platforms. First is the benefit of scale. Even the worst newsletter program at a major publisher is competitive against the entire volume of the independent platforms. (Substack was recently estimated at only 250k total readers.) That scale means that audiences can be segmented. Content can be targeted for more relevance, which provides another major advantage with higher chances of success.
Publishers also tend to have key software capabilities in email like personalization (often tied to customer data from the website, subscriptions, events, and the like). This allows writers to get creative with their content development, offering different elements to readers based on past behavior and content preference, for example. They also probably have tools to create dynamic elements in email. Not every writer wants to pen 1,000 words of prose. Some may be talented producers and want to share videos, TikToks, or snippets of a podcast they recently hosted. Publishers have the tools for them to play with these capabilities, and more.
Substack isn’t a threat if publishers commit to improving their newsletter program. And writers will stay if given the chance. Not only do newsletters provide writers with a relatively low-risk venue for building connections between a brand and its audience, but it’s a revenue machine in the making.
Providing the incentive for writers to make their newsletters successful doesn’t require a jump to a self-publishing platform. In fact, most publishers can provide a much more robust set of email tools for writers with what they already have. This approach just takes a publisher that’s willing to ease up on creative control and allow their reporters’ personalities and names to become a part of the product.
About the author
Allison Mezzafonte has worked in the media and publishing industry for 20 years and is currently a growth consultant, as well as a Media Advisor to Sailthru. A former publishing executive for Bauer Media, Dotdash, and Hearst Digital, Allison serves as a strategic partner to media clients.
When the Covid-19 pandemic shut down gyms across the United States last year, people were forced to get creative with their workouts. POPSUGAR met the moment by bulking up its fitness content. However, even as gyms open up, the women-focused digital lifestyle brand is betting at-home workouts are here to stay. They’ve also seen that fitness serves as part of an overall content and monetization strategy that is good for audiences, and the brand’s bottom line.
Fitness was a core part of POPSUGAR’s video strategy long before the pandemic upended lives around the world. POPSUGAR got into fitness content in 2006. It launched a signature video franchise, dubbed Class Fitsugar, in 2012, which now sees an average of 1 million views per video.
Fitness content helped propel POPSUGAR’s rapid growth on Facebook in 2015. By January 2020, the brand launched a curated 4 Week Full-Body Fusion program. The collection of 25 workouts, each under 45 minutes, carries a one-time fee of $19.99.
As the Covid-19 pandemic spread in 2020, POPSUGAR released more than 200workouts across social media platforms and its own website. It amassed more than 3 million new subscribers on YouTube in 2020 alone, where its total audience now stands above 5.5 million.
The brand, which is part of Group Nine Media, now hosts live workouts with top trainers on Instagram stories and YouTube. It launches Snapchat popups, and posts on-demand workouts to Facebook, Twitter, and the POPSUGAR website. “This year, we’re continuing to see growth and audience attention on these workouts,” POPSUGAR GM Angelica Marden said.
Bite-sized multiplatform content isn’t just for news
Have just a few minutes to spare? No problem. POPSUGAR created a series of short workouts that require nothing more than a phone.
Unlike going to the gym, working out at home is about fitting fitness into your life wherever you can, according to Jennifer Fields, a new deputy editor hired from WebMD to oversee POPSUGAR’s fitness content. That could mean sliping a 5-minute ab workout in between zoom meetings or a 3-minute BTS cardio workout whenever you can carve out 270 seconds for yourself. Or it could be making a 15-minute HIIT class on YouTube part of your morning routine.
POPSUGAR’s goal is to “meet audiences wherever people spend their time,” Fields said. “So many people are looking for ways to exercise at home. There’s a freedom that comes with at-home workouts.”
The rise of at home fitness over the course of the pandemic has made it possible for friends to workout with one another despite geographic separations and differing time zones. It’s also made it easy for audiences to take classes from the farthest flung of their favorite fitness instructors.
Free is key
In early 2020, the company was exploring audience-supported models, such as it’s flat fee Full-Body Fusion program. In fact, it had plans to release a subscription app with a recurring monthly fee last spring. However, in March 2020, the company shifted gears to better serve their audience in need. They released the app as a free, ad-supported product and – with hundreds of thousands of downloads to date – have opted to keep it free.
POPSUGAR’s free online workouts are far more affordable than even a bargain gym membership and certainly cheaper than a new Peloton. In addition to amassing audiences across platforms, the strategy serves as a bridge between popular fitness experts and people who may not otherwise be able to afford or access their services. And now that audiences are acclimated to the flexibility and cost savings, the company thinks they’ll stick with the POPSUGAR plan in the long term.
The strategy aligns with that of parent company Group Nine Media, which traditionally monetizes video content through sponsorships and advertising on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Instagram, Snapchat, and its website. It also licenses content to OTT services including Discovery+ and Xumo and syndicates some content to linear TV. Group Nine also generates revenue through affiliate product sales.
It’s about more than exercise videos
Nowadays, the lines between fitness, wellness, and health are blurring. That’s a theme Fields plans to surface more this year in POPSUGAR’s content. “Fitness isn’t a separate bucket adjacent to your health anymore,” she said. “It is your health.”
Fields takes a broad view of what fitness and health content can be, one that includes mental health, particularly among women of color. That view is one that’s already begun to emerge in POPSUGAR’s content strategy.
In fact, last May, POPSUGAR launched a mental health content hub. At the time, POPSUGAR Founder and President Lisa Sugar described the project as a way “to help readers feel connected and less alone in their daily battle.”
More recently, POPSUGAR launched a Snapchat show aimed at helping Gen Z audiences answer their questions about things like anxiety and depression. The show aims to provide practical, actionable advice to viewers.
“We feel this is really an important conversation for us to be a part of,” Marden said. “Our goal across everything that we create and all of our programming is to offer an inclusive positive safe space for our audience and to help them live their best lives.”
Digital publishers face serious competition for readers at a time when customer loyalty is eroding. More than ever, readers want fast, personalized digital content regardless of device, platform, or location. Visitors are quick to abandon slow and mediocre online experiences in favor of outlets that deliver fresh content at the speed of breaking news. Unfortunately, many publishers find themselves unprepared and without a firm strategy.
Recent months have shown some progress when it comes to publishers and news aggregators. At the end of 2020, Australia was one of the first countries to require news aggregators to pay publishers for their content. Still, social networks and top-tier news aggregators dominate digital media.
Traditional publishers are responding with subscription-based services that drive predictable revenue streams and viewership. And, while not all readers are willing or able to pay for gated content, those who do have even higher expectations for a seamless experience when it comes to both accessing and viewing this content. For video content, consumers will set the bar even higher.
The key to customer retention is serving the most up-to-date content instantly, personalizing that content for readers, and ensuring online experiences are fast, safe, and secure. Let’s look a little closer at the top five challenges digital publishers currently face:
Today, milliseconds matter more than ever. Workflows and procedures must continuously be optimized and fine-tuned. Success often depends on editors being empowered to make content available the instant an article or video is approved for publication. Inherent delays, even for a few minutes, are almost certain to result in missed opportunity.
Thus, low-latency delivery is required to attract viewers and keep them engaged. Highly dynamic digital content, is more efficiently and quickly processed at and served from the edge of the network. However, that is often far from where the content is stored in a content management system (CMS).
Seen from the point of the subscriber, responsive systems that allow repeated and immediate access to gated and premium content are expected. Authentication and paywalls should be as unobtrusive as possible, as there is a significant risk of abandonment if the process takes too long for each request.
Personalization drives loyalty
With a plethora of news content, the competition for viewers and their loyalty has moved from pure availability and uptime to responsiveness and with that, personalization. Today, many digital publishers tailor news stories using variables such as viewing platform, location, and subscription status to deliver highly personalized content. However, not all CDN offerings have the needed visibility and configurability to support these efforts. This compromises customer loyalty initiatives and risks a loss of audience in both the near and long term.
Growing privacy and security concerns at every level
Strict privacy laws are placing new limits on traditional digital publishing approaches. And deploying cookies and other IP tracking methods is proving increasingly difficult. Within the European Union, GDPR enforcement requires publishers to explicitly define their tracking systems and limits any kind of data gathering unless the viewer accepts opts-in. And let’s not forget that similar privacy laws are emerging in the U.S. In order to enable compliance, digital publishers increasingly seek to control where content is viewed. To do this, many opt to partner with a content delivery vendor that can block access based on location and IP address as well as identify virtual private network (VPN) traffic.
Bots also continue to be a security concern for digital publishers. They can scrape and republish content illegally. This greatly diminishes the content’s value for the original publisher. It also poses a significant threat to both content quality and ad revenue. Advertisers are expected to lose an estimated $19 Billion to fraudulent activities this year—equivalent to $51 million daily (Juniper Research).
Political affiliations, opinion pieces, and other controversial content make digital publishers a frequent target for distributed disruption of service (DDoS) attacks. The mere exposure a hacker can get from disrupting major news sites is often incentive enough. Digital publishers wanting to build their online protection plans should be cautious of legacy CDNs that often lack visibility to detect online attacks and distinguish them from a flood of legitimate traffic when news breaks (not to mention the ability to react and mitigate).
Video content comes at a cost
Increasingly, customer demand is driving a pivot from static content to video. Snackable video is easy to consume. And, in the context of news, video usually conveys a higher level of perceived trust. Support for video can also bring additional revenue, as advertisers typically pay significantly more for video ads, especially those that can support dynamic ad insertion to target viewers.
The shift by traditional digital publishers to embed video into their news stories and feature articles is blurring the competitive landscape between video-only and video-first outlets. However, video content and delivery bring their own set of unique challenges. The amount of data needing to be transported increases exponentially. Therefore, it can put a heavy burden on infrastructure typically designed to accommodate much smaller payloads. Also, successful video delivery requires systems that can scale with audience and demand. This includes predictable demand for local news segments and purpose-built videos to unpredictable demand during significant news events such as breaking news or when video content goes viral.
Technical debt slows the pace of innovation
As digital publishers evolve their businesses to reach more customers with higher bandwidth content, they often encounter technical constraints created by legacy CDNs. Inflexible architectures fail to address fundamental content delivery requirements, including real-time visibility and control, as well as the ability to scale on demand.
Often, publishing workflows are complex and contain custom-developed technology stacks. Thus, modifying deployments for better scale and performance while maintaining uninterrupted workflows is fraught with risk and can feel daunting, if not insurmountable. Traditional CDNs routinely lack full API support, granular control, and real-time configuration changes. This flexibility is necessary in order to integrate with custom tech stacks, as well as other emerging technologies, and thus impede digital transformation efforts.
Don’t let outdated technology stand in your way
In a highly competitive market, often with thin margins, digital publishers striving to stay relevant must have modern systems in place that deliver content to readers and aggregators the moment it is ready. As you set out to architect and build your next delivery platform, be sure to evaluate the practical challenges a legacy CDN will impose when it comes to meeting the expectations of your audience.
Publishers know that competition for audience time and attention is fierce. Given increasing challenges, and rising consumer expectations, it is critical to make smart investments in order to deliver fast, excellent audience experiences.
With restaurants, bars and clubs closed, you might assume that Covid has created a surge in live TV viewing, but it has not. If you compared U.S. TV audiences in September 2020 with the previous year, all television watching was actually down 10% during prime time. This may seem counter intuitive considering that the average time spent interacting with media has shot up 17% to a whopping 12 hours, 21 minutes a day according to Nielsen’s Total Audience Report for August. However, digging into the reasons why reveals important opportunities to re-engage audiences.
There has long been a simplistic narrative that live sports viewership is declining. Yet the reality is that huge amounts of sports content is still being consumed. And that number is growing, especially in international markets. The change is predominantly around two axes. The first is that sport is no longer “the only game in town.” It must co-exist within a much wider array of activities. The second shift is that fans are redefining what “sport” content means to them – along with how they want to consume it.
This diversity of content is highlighted by 2020 offering up another landmark. As the year when time spent using an app and/or web via a smartphone or tablet finally overtook live and time-shifted TV. This cross-over has undoubtedly accelerated due to Covid, given increased home working, less travel, and more screen time. However, the data has been moving that way for a few years. Nielsen also points out that 25% of total TV consumption is via streaming. This includes the rise of highlights and “instant” sports news services that are the equivalent of fast food compared to the three-hour banquet of a typical NFL game.
Highlights packages are not new but what has changed is the way in which they are delivered. The big networks have jumped onboard. Fox, ESPN, and others have now added more content available via the web. Yet the mindset for many is still around the “big game” and reporting that fits into a traditional schedule.
In a generation, Netflix transitioned from renting a million DVDs through the mail to touching 200 million monthly global subscribers. However, sports media still trails behind the curve when it comes to the model of instant access.
Bleacher gets it right
However, sports publications like Bleacher Report highlight one possible direction. The Turner owned brand has always delivered exquisite reportage but its rapid diversification into video and social has been striking.
Its “House of Highlights,” an Instagram feed offering highlight clips across several sports, now reaches over 20 million subscribers. Their viewership that has grown 150% in just two years. Highlights describes itself as “Everything you need to see in sports and youth culture.” It offers huge amounts of user generated content. And, while this content is still sports themed, it has much broader in its appeal – especially to younger audiences.
Bleacher is joined by a growing cohort of app and clip-based ways to consume sports content including CBS Sports and Fotmob – with the latter particularly good at notifications. If done well, personalized mobile app notifications, can drive customers into full game viewing as well as scores and highlights.
These brands and others recognize that it’s not all about the game. They help people get their highlights and sports fix from following athletes, teams, leagues, and media companies via social on the go. They also feed the growing sports engagement around fantasy and sports betting. However, these data points do not necessarily translate into full game viewing.
The fear of cannibalizing traditional TV audiences through online offerings is still deeply ingrained in the psyche of TV executives. But instant gratification culture means that failure to offer a wider buffet of visual sport experiences will make decline inevitable.
And it’s not just creating a like-for-like facsimile. The audience expectation of TV watching versus engaging with on-demand via smartphone, embedded highlights on Instagram, Twitter, TikTok, or the cacophony of social-led platforms requires producers to rethink program formats.
This raises several challenges. It starts with nurturing a new generation of creatives that are digital natives, with the ability to engage with fans of today. There’s also a need for technical retooling to simplify the production and distribution process. This enables content to be disseminated easily across multiple platforms. It needs to be done efficiently and with the controls in place to ensure that rights obligations are enforced as demanded by contract terms. Last, but no means least, is the ability to monetize multiple platforms by spreading CPM across a wider reach and unlocking far more targeted advertising models.
A great example of innovation in action is NFL RedZone, an all-in-one channel that when a team reaches the 20-yard line, (i.e. the “red zone”) cuts to the local broadcast of that game. The channel also offers the option to watch any turnovers, game-changing plays and scoring plays outside of the designated area. RedZone also has an “octabox” mode with simultaneous 8 game highlights designed for fantasy football fans.
This ability to deliver “highlight packages on the fly” uses dynamic playlists. It is is part of a surge in Cloud based technologies that are leading the charge to build streaming platforms that can pivot output to match the increasingly diverse audience profile.
The long-term issue is more cultural than technical. Live sport is still a huge deal in terms of direct and ad-related revenue. Messing with a successful formula is certainly a hard call to make. However, the Bleacher report and its siblings illustrate ways to respond to a shift in audience demand. Ignoring the opportunity makes the prospect of an empty dinner table much more likely.