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 Stale or outdated goes against what any digital publisher is all about.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.
Legacy news outlets have traditionally tried to be all things to all people. They’ve broadly served up content in a shotgun approach that has them competing in increasingly crowded spaces. Unfortunately, this had led to increasingly diminishing returns.
Especially considering the consolidation of ownership of newspaper chains and TV networks, many media websites serve the same stories. With little differentiation, there’s little incentive for audiences to choose one over the other.
The lesson that media outlets could learn from the marketing world is to offer greater personalization of experiences in serving up content. Personalization, backed by quality customer data, isn’t the future. It’s the now in a rapidly accelerating digital world.
Opportunities since Covid
Research has shown that online audiences have been voracious for content since the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic. News publishers have not only seen a rise in online audiences, but a rise in subscriptions – and less churn.
That doesn’t necessarily equate to increased revenue, though. Newspapers and magazines are still hemorrhaging dollars. However, an investment in transformative digital experiences could be the key to drive growth.
According to McKinsey, the digital transformation has only accelerated since the start of the pandemic. And it’s the companies ready for big strategic change that have the best chance at thriving.
What personalization could look like
Marketers use data and analytics to understand their buyers and buyer journeys and to personalize digital experiences to inspire brand loyalty. News media websites could be doing the same thing.
Many media websites are already asking users to create accounts to read stories, whether or not they’re behind paywalls. These sites ask users to subscribe to email newsletters about a wide range of topics like cooking, politics, sports, or news of the day. And along the way, they collect information about these users and their interests.
However, instead of asking users to sign up for a newsletter, media companies could use marketing tools and technology like intent data. This would provide them with information about a visitor. Then, with the right platform, it would allow AI-driven personalization using a content hub.
Users could see personalized homepages with content tailored to their interests. These would feature key spaces reserved for breaking and important news that would always be included.
Five tips for driving engagement
Some tips for putting a personalization strategy in place include:
Know your audience: This is where quality data is critical. You have to thoroughly understand who you’re targeting and what they care about for personalization to be effective.
Define clear objectives: Understand what you really want from personalization. Do you want to drive engagement with your content? Sell more ads? Make sure your goals are clear and measurable.
Have a data and privacy strategy: Know what kind of data you’ll be collecting, where you’ll be collecting it from, and how you’ll be using it about your visitors. Set rules about data use and privacy and communicate clear expectations to your visitors.
Don’t be overly creepy: There can be a temptation to over-personalize, but that can make your audience feel “watched” and drive them away. A good tactic can be to use their preferences to populate a content block with stories labeled something like “Other readers enjoy.” That gives them the targeted content they want to see without rotating to over-personalization.
Start small, see what works, scale fast: Know what metrics you’ll track so that you can quickly pivot.
Some tools for success
Personalization will be successful when based upon a thorough, data-driven understanding of the target audience. Again, media outlets can learn from techniques used by marketing and customer experience leaders to gain a deep understanding of how to engage with audiences.
Research-based journey maps can illuminate the touchpoints your audience has with your digital channels and how you can meet their needs at each stage of their journey.
High-quality data paired with a customer data platform can give you a 360-degree view of your customer, their behaviors, and their intent.
You can segment your audience, and track and measure their site visits, which will help define the success of personalization strategy.
However, most important to the success of a personalization strategy will be depth and breadth of content that is relevant to your audience’s needs and journey.
Stay on mission
News websites can adopt marketing techniques and methodologies for delivering and personalizing content. At the same time, they can remain true to their core mission of reporting and delivering the facts without bias.
Analytics can drive personalization of how stories might appear in something like a “suggested stories” widget. That said, they shouldn’t necessarily drive decisions about what stories get covered. The important news of the day remains the important news of the day. City council meetings still need to be covered. As the Washington Post eloquently describes on its masthead: “Democracy Dies in Darkness.”
However, by better engaging audiences through personalization, media outlets may find an opportunity to capitalize on ongoing digital transformation and appetite for content that has accelerated during the pandemic. Those willing to make the investment in personalization have an opportunity to grow and thrive.
The information provided in articles are suggestions only and based on best practices. Dun & Bradstreet is not liable for the outcome or results of specific programs or tactics. Please contact an attorney or tax professional if you are in need of legal or tax advice.
Audio articles are making quite a noise in publishing. Podcasting may be hogging the headlines. But creating features and news that your audience can listen to is an audio opportunity that should not be ignored.
While offering articles in an audible format is nothing new, this type of content is currently enjoying a massive boom, as time-strapped audiences look for convenient ways to consume online media.
In the U.S. alone, spoken word’s share of audio listening has increased 30% over the last six years and 8% in the last year alone. And when multi Pulitzer Prize-winning titles jump on-board, you know that audio content is a serious business. In July, The Washington Post announced plans to make audio versions of all of its articles. And a few months earlier, the New York Times acquired Audm, a platform that turns longform journalism into audio content.
Other big brands using Audm’s audio services include The Atlantic, BuzzFeed, Wired, and Rolling Stone. Similar platforms Curio and Noa – which are based in the UK and Ireland respectively – have signed up the likes of the Financial Times, The Telegraph, The Economist, and The Guardian.
What’s even more interesting is that listener numbers have risen since Covid-19. In fact, 75% of the U.S. population has listened to spoken word audio in the past month.
The Washington Post began testing text-to-speech capabilities on its Android app in early 2020, assuming the feature would appeal to readers on their daily commute. But Leila Siddique, senior product manager, said they have been surprised to see steady adoption rates, despite people working from home.
“What we’ve learned from users is that they listen to the news while doing other things. And they are consuming far more content than they would normally,” she says.
It’s not just the U.S. that has seen a boom in audio articles during the pandemic. England’s The Economist has offered audio editions of its weekly magazine since 2007. However, according deputy editor Tom Standage they are currently enjoying “record numbers of streams/downloads and unique listeners.”
Listener figures are still way below the numbers of people who read text online, with the New York Times enjoying in excess of five million subscribers across its print and digital content. However, audio content isn’t just about numbers, it’s about audience engagement.
Reading takes time and focus – which is in short supply with modern audiences. According to Chartbeat, even the top stories only engage readers for around two-and-a-half minutes, while 45% of readers leave within 15 seconds. In contrast, Noa cites an 84% average completion rate for stories
“Completion rates are higher because people are generally busy doing other things while listening. So, it’s less convenient to switch away from something,” says Standage.
Despite the fact that these platforms use professional narrators, audio content is still fairly simplistic compared to podcasts, which often require dramatic story-telling and high production values. The key to audio articles’ success is convenience – and quality journalism.
“We know that readers are time-pressed and feel guilty that they have not read enough of a given week’s edition before the next one arrives,” says Standage. “Offering audio content sends the message: we know you are busy and are willing to pay for high-quality information. So, here’s a handy feature that will help you ensure that you get value from our journalism.”
Publishers, in turn, get more value from their audience. While The Economist hasn’t shared numbers for the performance of their audio content, Standage says figures suggests the audio edition is an effective retention tool. “Once you come to rely on it, you won’t unsubscribe.”
The Washington Post’s managing editor Kat Downs Mulder agrees the convenience of audio is a “huge benefit” to both their subscribers and their subscription numbers.
“We know people love listening to news – our podcasts show that,” she comments. “Opening up more audio content and making it easier for them engage with The Post helps draw them into our ecosystem even further. That improves retention rates.”
Interestingly, while most publishers create a limited number of long-form, analytical audio articles, The Post is using the text-to-speech features on Android and iOS to offer audio versions of all its articles. The 143-year-old paper has been experimenting with audio since 2017. However, Downs Mulder explains that they decided to offer automated storytelling across all its content.
“We are excited about the habit-forming nature of audio. But it’s
hard to build those habits if you only offer a limited number of articles,” she says. “Our readers know they always have an audio option, across all articles, which really reinforces its availability.”
Feedback from users is positive so far. Downs Mulder says subscribers who listen to audio articles spend three times as much time in Post apps.
Niche and personal
It’s not just the big brands getting onboard. Audio is a great way for niche brands to engage with their audience and create loyalty. Danish startup, Zetland, launched its audio model in early 2017 and has since grown an incredible 650%.
Just like The Post, all Zetland articles are available as audio. However, they only produce about three longform articles a day. This means they can offer a far more personalized audio experience, with each article read out by the journalist that wrote it.
“The personal voice of the journalists is quite important to the success of our audio products,” explains Zetland CEO, Tav Klitgaard. “We originally tried using professional voice actors, but it sounded too perfect. We like to build what we call a ‘human product’, including all the glitches and quirks of human beings. It is important for us that our content conveys honest passion and curiosity, and we’ve found that to be done best when the journalist narrates.”
This personalized approach certainly seems to be working. They now have more than 18,500 paid members, whose consumer habits are around 75% audio. What’s more, engagement levels are impressive, with close to a 90% listen-through rate.
“We’ve learned that once we get people to hit play on that first piece of content, chances are they listen to the end,” says Klitgaard. “They also have a higher usage frequency and subsequently membership retention, than those who do not listen.”
In addition to increased retention, audio is also a great way to reach out to new audiences, as it is traditionally consumed by a younger demographic. According to Klitgaard, more than 30% of their paying members are under age 30. And The Post says their audio audience is “generally younger” than their average reader.
As with all content, creating a successful audio model is all about knowing your audience. You need to recognize their needs and match the user experience accordingly. Whether that’s long-form analytical content, or easy-to-access daily news, audio is proving to be a highly effective way to engage, retain and attract audiences.
“Audio isn’t about changing user habits, it’s about embracing their habits,” states Downs Mulder. “Our goal is to convert causal listeners into dedicated listeners, by opening them up to getting news from us in other ways. And audio is proving to have an enormous importance to the news-interested public.”
As schools close around the world and a growing number of people are having to juggle home working and childcare, parents face unique challenges in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic. As a result, the Meredith Corp. brand Parents.com has responded with a radical shift to serve their audience.
Julia Dennison is the Executive Editor at Parents.com. She and her now fully-remote team have pivoted their digital strategy to provide advice and resources to parents during the coronavirus crisis.
The crisis has come on so quickly that just four weeks ago, the team were debating whether to even cover coronavirus. “We try to stay in our beat. We have a sister site Health.com that we syndicate content from,” Dennison explained. But it quickly became apparent that this would need Parents.com’s own input.
“Our initial thinking was that this was going to affect a lot of people. So we looked at search trends to see what terms we could answer from a parenting-resource point of view.”
The content pivot
Looking at search trends and responding is something the Parents.com team are well-practiced in doing. It has helped form a more strategic response to the content they have now produced, which has three primary areas.
The first is a comprehensive guide to coronavirus for parents, covering everything from how the virus is affecting pregnant women, to basic tips around sterilizing thermometers. This was the initial content strategy the editorial team focused on, and have been updating ever since.
“We’ve been really trying to just watch the trends and respond to them with informative content,” Dennison explained. “More than ever, parents need a reliable, trustworthy, and relatable source. We’re really trying to lean into our specialty.”
The second area is creating content that is supportive to parents. “Parents are going through the hardest test of parenthood they’ve probably ever gone through,” said Dennison. “It’s testing everything about parenthood to its limits.” In response, Parents.com have been working to create resources to help parents feel less isolated. This ranges from tips to how to cope with childcare to how to discuss the crisis with younger children.
As part of this, Dennison has been documenting her own experiences as a daily video blog on YouTube. Like many parents today, Dennison is juggling childcare with working from home. “I wanted to document that and show the world that I might be the Executive Editor of Parents.com, but I’m finding this just as hard as everybody else is.”
As video rises in popularity during the pandemic, the Parents.com team are looking out for ways to produce more content remotely, including having Editor in Chief Julia Edelstein read stories over Instagram Live.
The final strategic area involves creating entertaining content for both parents and children. “We’re trying to focus on heartwarming stories to lift people’s mood, and to keep them positive,” Dennison said. From a neighborhood drive-by to celebrate a birthday, to more practical resources around the best educational apps for children, the aim is to both help parents keep their children entertained, and also uplift the parents themselves.
Driving online growth
The swift digital pivot is paying off. By the end of March, views of articles in Parents.com’s ‘Fun’ section were up 40% week on week. There was particular growth within the section of articles on activities and printables (up 89% and 88% respectively). And entertainment content has seen a massive 110% spike in views.
The video blog has also had a “tremendous response, according to Dennison. “People are just grateful to see that other people are going through what they’re going through. I’m a mom, and we have a few moms on our team. I know how hard it is.”
This relatability, coupled with keeping a close eye on search terms has helped the digital team avoid some obvious topic traps. “We could easily have leaned into creating elaborate schedules for parents to put their kids on, and that homeschool setup,” she said. But that wasn’t the right approach for their audience.
This has resulted in a surge in positive responses to the brand on social media. “People appreciate just being told that they’re doing the best job they ca. And we’re here to help them do that,” said Dennison. “Parents are having to step up and perform the impossible. And so how, as a brand, can we be there for them?”
A post-pandemic lens
Many of Parents.com’s plans for upcoming content have had to be adjusted. They are shifting perspectives on a planned spotlight digital issue for the International Day of Maternal Health and Rights in April, looking at how America can improve birthing.
“We’ve been planning that for months. All of a sudden we’re having to pivot and see everything through this post-pandemic lens,” Dennison explained. “We’re seeing hospitals banning partners from being in the delivery room due to Covid-19. It’s a really scary time to be giving birth, and in this context it’s only going to get worse, so we have a bigger duty than ever to produce this content.”
In the longer term, Dennison is particularly interested in the crossover between parenting and education. She’s also thinking about what the impact will be for parents who have to continue working full time while also looking after their children. “We’re looking at what we can do in terms of resources to lean into the educational side of things, and how parents can keep their kids going even if they can’t go to school,” she said.
But for now, the team is keeping a sharp eye on the search terms and listening out for what their audience want. “It’s a matter of seeing how this goes, and responding to it,” Dennison concluded. “On the digital side, it’s easy as we can be pretty responsive.”
“Life will be different after this. All these things we thought mattered at one point don’t. And then all of these new topics matter, so it’s recalibrating what we’re covering, and putting it through a post-pandemic lens.”
In recent years, global publishers have shifted their focus on the ties that bind loyal readers and their propensity to become subscribers. Therefore, we wanted to better understand loyal reader behaviors, starting with an analysis across devices and distribution channels. Here’s what we found.
Loyal readers no longer tethered to desktops
Believe it or not, loyalty is actually higher on mobile than desktop when we analyze our global publisher data.
Across the board, mobile visitors show more loyalty. We see the accessibility of these devices — a 24/7 window into what’s going on at any moment — driving this trend. This does not mean desktop traffic is going away, it’s just often tethered to a single place (e.g., work or home), whereas your mobile device moves with you all day long.
When looking at weekly visits by traffic sources across mobile and desktop experiences, we saw that app direct visitors are nearly 6x more loyal than platform visitors.
Where visitors are finding apps and how it impacts loyalty
Visitors coming to apps via deep links or direct traffic on the web do so three times more often than platform visitors, as we see below. That said, our research found that at this point loyalty is roughly the same when it comes to the major platforms (i.e., Facebook and Google Search).
What our channel loyal findings mean for content creators
“Subscription is an act of loyalty, and readers need some way of developing that loyalty and affinity for a publication before they’re likely to pay,” Josh Schwartz, our Chief of Product, Engineering and Data Science, recently told Nieman Lab on the topic of reader revenue and loyalty. The data we outlined in this piece suggests that publishers are increasingly aware of this journey to develop loyalty, using multiple channels (and increasingly, mobile-first experiences) to grow these relationships over time.
A few other takeaways from the research:
Shift in app experiences suggests new paths to loyalty
The data suggests that loyal readers want a direct path to publishers — a huge indicator that there’s value in improving app and direct to mobile experiences. That being said, friction along the mobile journey poses a massive hurdle in getting even loyal readers to move closer to subscription.
Platforms still have a prominent role in loyal readership
Yes, we’re seeing an interesting shift in visitor patterns that favor direct visits to apps. Yet, loyal readers are still coming from Google or Facebook. Our recent research shows that there’s still a case to keep your platform presence top of mind.
Movement matters when it comes to device-based loyalty
Loyalty among mobile visitors is growing rapidly. This finding makes sense when you think about today’s mobile-first readers. Don’t go abandoning your investments in desktop, especially since we still depend on this experience every day.
Overall, we see that loyalty among mobile visitors is growing rapidly, which makes more sense as we think about today’s mobile-first readers. Moreover, it points to an important shift in audience behavior — loyal readers want a direct path to publishers. This tells us there’s still a massive opportunity to improve app and direct to mobile experiences.
just returned from our annual summit where a couple hundred senior
executives gather in a closed-door meeting to discuss the most pressing
issues and exciting opportunities that we, as an industry, have before
us. It was my sixth year of having the honor of setting the table to
open the executive summit, after more than a dozen years listening from
Everyone in the room is a premium publisher – with the exception of
a handful of supporting sponsors, speakers, and invited guests. The
attendees at the DCN Next: Summit are among the most knowledgeable
people in the business of digital media anywhere. It is a daunting task
to capture the proper sentiment for the direction of our industry at a
gathering of such key leaders. That said, here are the main points from
my kickoff remarks this year.
This new year also marks the start of a new decade, 2020.
Yes, perfect vision. Optimal focus. As we begin this decade, I believe
that DCN’s members are uniquely positioned. As a group focused on
creating premium content experiences, we have never lost sight of the
importance of our audiences. We’ve remained steadfast in their trust and
our direct relationships.
I see three key facets to this 2020 vision:
we find ourselves rightly renewing our resolution to put the
expectations of our audiences first. To meet, to exceed, their
expectations. To be their trusted ally.
Second, we’ve defeated the myth content has to
be free and finally defined what it means to be premium. It simply
means to have real value worth paying for whether by distributors or
given too many years of platform dominance – in which they have
indiscriminately hidden the real costs to their services and vacuumed up
as much consumer data as possible while, at times abusing trust – we
find ourselves in the best position to align with new user expectations.
To believe that data is the lifeblood of the Internet is to look past
the trust and audience expectations which underpin it now, and in the
some of those who seek to cravenly capitalize on consumer attention
merely to collect data and target ads, we celebrate an unwavering focus
on the wants, needs, and expectations of our audiences. The experience
across platforms can be rich and elegant. But even more importantly,
digital allows us to use multimedia to tell stories in ever more
engaging ways, better informing the public – something that has never
been more important.
In this case bringing it altogether, I’d like to point to the brilliant Wall Street Journal report
on Google’s ad tech business. It informed a public conversation and
made its way not just across the industry but into meetings of
regulators investigating Google – this is true impact in journalism.
Storytelling at its best
technology enables us to better tell our stories, it also becomes more
deeply embedded and entwined with every aspect of our audiences’ lives. The New York Times 1619 Project
was one amazing example featured at a DCN Storytelling Member Day. It
not only brilliantly told the story; it reexamined the legacy of slavery
and made its way into other media – not just audio and video but it
also found its rightful place in classrooms and libraries as educational
material – this is true impact in journalism.
The past couple of years have been particularly promising around subscription-based and other Direct-to-consumer (DTC) models. While ad vendors chase “DTC”, the latest acronym in their alphabet soup, DCN’s members have always focused on direct, trusted relationships with their audiences.
While concerns have loomed around subscription fatigue, recent DCN research
found the opposite. In fact, consumers aren’t even aware how much they
are spending on subscription products. (DCN’s research shows an average
of $54 per month across 4.3 products). So, it’s clear there’s room for
more! And we now see that younger audiences who grew up in digital are
willing to pay for satisfying experiences. The DCN research backs this
up showing that they see value well beyond their cost.
we build our subscription-based offerings, and optimize ad experiences
across platforms, we must keep these audience experiences top of mind.
We serve neither our audiences, nor advertising partners, if we do any
members – and the industry as a whole – are seeing a hearty appetite
for audio and video content. We see robust revenue around licensing of
our content and IP, which also allows us to impact ever widening
audiences. This is backed up by a renewed effort to preserve copyright
over their art, notably including last year in the EU.
We are also seeing true diversification in our busiess models.
desktop display eroded over the past years, mobile display has offset
it. And other forms of advertising including native, sponsored content
and leads have helped drive growth. Video advertising, where inventory
can be created, continues to carry the highest price and growth in
advertising. And arguably the most important growth of all, we’re
seeing direct audience revenues grow more than 20% per year where
content companies are being paid directly for their content recognizing
its premium value.
estimates that a combination of 16 media firms will spend $100 billion
to produce content in 2020. In fact, it has been predicted that more
than $35 billion will be spent on streaming video content alone. And
with over 60 media companies among the DCN membership, we know that the
total investment will be much higher. And rightly so. Hulu has been
investing in premium content for its streaming video platform. So is CBS
All Access. Disney+ launched in the last few months with an absolutely gorgeous experience. Peacock will launch in April and then HBO MAX a month later. And those are only a few examples.
we continue to monitor the power of platforms, their own investment in
content demonstrates that information and entertainment are the
lifeblood of social experiences online. And now the platforms are
starting to pay for it. No
DCN member is surprised that film, television, news, sports and other
topics engage audiences and ignite conversation, debate, and discussion
it delivered on the big screen, small screens, smart speakers, or the
myriad delivery channels in the digital content ecosystem, the work our
members do forms a nexus of cultural impact. We have reached new heights
of digital storytelling. And, undoubtedly our craft, the art of
storytelling, will continue to surprise and delight as its evolution
continues in the decade to come.
while we face challenges like broad-swath and blunt keyword
blacklisting masquerading as “brand safety” and the ease of data-driven
scale, we also see signs that marketers too are shifting their focus to
quality contexts and making genuine customer connections.
it is “easier” to pull a series of data-driven levers and reach
purportedly targeted audiences with generic messaging. However, as a
growing number of consumers opt out of advertising and intro tracking
prevention, savvy marketers too are reviving the art of storytelling.
They have a renewed understanding of the power of delivering compelling
messages in trusted, engaging, inspiring environments and an
appreciation for the cost to their brand when it’s associated with
experiences that abuse customers’ expectations. They see that being part
of exceptional experiences creates the kind of cultural resonance and
relevance that a click cannot compare to.
get me wrong. Certainly, data is a powerful tool for understanding
audiences. It is also critical for storytelling and we see it leveraged
in stunning executions to create vivid narratives built on numbers.
user expectations around data collection and use are of critical
concern. With increasing consumer awareness around data practices online
and looming enforcement when they’re abused, we must continue to focus
in on what’s best for our audiences and only then for our marketing
partners. The ability to micro-target, to force an action with a digital
ad is not the same as engaging audiences around trusted content. It is not the way to build long-term customer relationships.
Fans and friction
up to us to keep our customer focus razor sharp as we embark on this
2020 vision. We need to minimize complexity and reduce friction while
continuing to innovate and enhance experiences for our audiences.
Certainly, challenges abound including news deserts impacting local
communities, anti-press rhetoric from none other than our own President which sends dangerous signals globally, and continued platform competition and unequitable marketplace control now under investigation by Congress, FTC, DOJ, states, the EU among others.
I’m feeling good this year about where things are headed. I’m feeling really good. And I’m thrilled at the programming lineup we assembled for our annual summit to talk about it.
I’ve seen in my time in digital, particularly the years I’ve been
fortunate enough to spend on the team at DCN, has taught me is that we
are at the forefront of something great here. We are on the frontlines
of storytelling and communication. We have the power to shape minds, to
touch hearts, to fill the world with laughter and tears. Here’s to 2020
bringing the roar of the crowd as we focus on what matters most: the
audiences we serve.