Media consumption in the Covid-19 era is hitting record levels as captivated audiences try to stay on top of non-stop news headlines and updates. It’s an upward spiral that is causing a massive shift in consumer behavior. But new research from J.P. Morgan shows that audiences are specifically gravitating to established media outlets that make sense out of news developments – not just report them.
Harvard Business Review (HBR), is finding new success – and subscribers – with a lively mix of content. Their strategy combines in-depth analysis, podcasts, and social media experiments to put all aspects of our “new normal” into perspective. From how to maintain a work-life balance to how to cope with grief and loss, HBR is increasing reach and revenues by providing audiences analysis and answers.
To kick off our new series of DCN video interviews, I talk to Maureen Hoch, Editor of HBR.org and Managing Director, Digital Content of Harvard Business Publishing. Hoch leads Harvard Business Review’s digital newsroom and the HBP Content Lab. She joined HBR as Senior Editor in 2013. And she played an instrumental role in the redesign of HBR.org, which has since garnered three Webby awards. We discuss how HBR is harnessing podcasts and narration, as well as a growing portfolio of new audience projects, to keep audiences informed and connected.
Here are three key takeaways from our talk:
Speed matters, but advice triumphs
At first, Hoch says, HBR switched gears to publish information and insights at a “newsroom pace.” This cemented HBR’s position as a prime destination for hard analysis, around the business impact of the crisis. But the incredible success (“millions of page views”) of high-touch articles is shaping a new approach to storytelling that focuses on people first.
Audiences have a sizeable appetite for digestible content
Longer-form content is a hit with audiences, but audio versions of magazine articles knock the ball out of the park. HBR relies on a mix of narration and curation to engage audiences online and in-app. But this is just the start as HBR continues to look for more audience-first ways to make content accessible and forge the relationships that make it happen.
Audio content strikes a chord
Podcasts are driving audience engagement and subscriber numbers. But where is the money? Hoch discusses the models working for them to power monetization and increase retention. These include selling sponsorship on a CPM basis as well as more inventive models (“exclusive audio features”).
Hoch also offers some practical tips on how to emulate HBR’s success.
Digital publishers see rays of hope as they continue to monetize premium content, transform business strategies, maximize technology investments, and increase revenue diversification. Just over two-thirds (69%) of digital publishers expect to see an overall revenue growth in 2020 according to a new report, Publishers Bullish on Talent, Tech and Growth in 2020, from Folio. Of those publishers expecting revenue growth, a quarter anticipate double digits. Only 4% of participants expect revenues to decline. This research is based on 182 surveyed industry professionals accompanied by eight in-depth executive interviews.
Respondents report the top three categories for revenue
growth are digital advertising including branded content (58%), live events
(43%), and marketing services (38%). In addition to revenue growth, audience
growth is also expected in 2020. Twenty-eight percent of publishers expect a
10% growth in audience while more than one-third (36%) expect single-digit
Audience development is more than just chasing clicks on digital platforms. It’s about learning your business ecosystem and how the pieces work together. Executives cite email (54%), social media (53%), and events (44%) as the strongest performers for audience development.
Publishers recognize the need to invest in the video side (35%) of their business as well as back end technology and operation systems (34%) for content management and advertising businesses. Publishers, especially traditional magazine businesses, see video as a very lucrative way to reinvent their content strategy and distribution model with attractive advertising packages at high CPMs.
Catherine Levene, President, Chief Digital Officer of Meredith Corporation, participated in Folio’s executive interviews. Meredith charted its course in preparation for 2020. Levene said Meredith is keenly focused is on innovation. This includes technology investments, including a new content management system and a first-party data and insights platform.
She also mentioned Meredith’s investments in video
production and distribution and new content-to-commerce capabilities. Levene sees
a win-win for their audience and advertisers, “We are creating content and
experiences that drive engagement and are offering predictive advertising that
achieves results for our marketing partners.”
Erin O’Mara, President of The Nation, also participated in the executive interviews. O’Mara described the digital business as more than just a website, it’s about super-serving the audience. A new initiative, “The Nation Classroom,” uses their archives to create robust teaching modules for high school student. The goal for this project is to be profitable as well as to make available to schools that cannot afford it. O’Mara see this initiative as an important step to extend a brand experience through community outreach.
As Folio’s research suggests, there is no time digital media
brands to standstill. It’s essential for media companies to take the steps to identify
the key business and audience strategies and investment in them.
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.
Traditional news channels are transforming into hybrid
newsrooms, combining digital platforms into an integrated business model
according to The
2019 State of Technology in Global Newsrooms Report. In fact, half of the
newsrooms in six of eight global regions are now hybrid. This research was conducted
by the International Center for Journalists (ICFJ) in 149 countries, in 14
languages, and completed by more than 4,100 journalists and news managers.
Some of the ICFJ ‘s key findings include:
Newsrooms mix formats to distribute their content with
social media as the dominant platform.
Content distribution increased with two-thirds
of news organizations distributing content in at least four formats, compared
to 40% that did in 2017.
In terms of social media tools, Facebook (90%)
and Twitter (73%) lead the pack. They are followed by YouTube, which grew to
60% usage from 48% in 2017 and Instagram, now at 48%, which is up from 33% in
Instant messaging apps as content distribution
channels have declined in seven out of eight regions over the last two years.
Eurasia/former USSR, Europe and North America registered the largest declines,
20 percentage points, 16, and 10, respectively.
Security and new technologies are part of the day-to-day
More than two-thirds of journalists and newsrooms secure their communications while only half did in 2017. In fact, in North American newsrooms, the percentage of those that secure their communications doubled to 82%. The preferred method of security is encrypted messaging apps.
One-third of news organizations employ dedicated fact-checkers. In addition, 44% of newsrooms and 37% of journalists said they engage in more fact-checking activities than they did the previous year.
More than twice as many journalists use social media verification tools today compared to 2017.
Most news organizations aim to dismantle misinformation
and work to build trust.
Seventy-five percent of managers worry about the
impact of misinformation. However, less than half of journalists believe that
it impacts their day-to-day work.
Almost half of newsrooms are better at
separating news stories from opinion pieces.
More than three-quarters (37%) of news managers
in North America report building trust as a major challenge, up from 29% two
Government and politics dominate news coverage.
Government and politics dominant news journalism
with the exception of news radio. Radio is more likely to cover specialized
beats. In fact, 42% of news radio covers education and 43% covers health
compared to 27% of websites that cover these topics.
While nearly one-third of journalists do some
investigative reporting, this group appears to be quite limited with only 12%
identifying as investigative reporters.
Smaller newsrooms appear to offer a community
focus news and are twice as likely to report on local news as larger outlets. Twenty
percent of small newsrooms cover local and hyperlocal events, compared to 10%
of larger newsrooms (26+ employees).
More women are leading in journalism.
Women hold half or more of newsroom management positions in four of the eight regions. On average, one-third of management jobs globally are held by women. However, female leadership varies greatly by region.
Leading with women in newsroom management are Eurasia/former USSR at 62%, North America at 56%, Europe at 51%, and Latin America/Caribbean at 49%.
Women comprise 56% of newsroom employees in North America and 51% in Europe.
On average, women are 40% of the journalists in newsrooms worldwide.
Interestingly, more women (25%) compared to men (15%) report not having digital experience at the time they were hired.
This ICFJ study offers insight into the transition of traditional
news outlets to hybrid news outlets with digital platforms integrations. It
identifies the newsroom journey to improve the quality of news reporting. Newsroom
operations must now include the fight against disinformation, the promotion of
trusted news brands, the addition of heightened security, and the usage of enhanced
OTT players and channels are changing faster than the seasons. The spring will bring a crop of new streaming entrants, joining an already crowded market. Still dominated by Netflix, a growing number of major players are drawing video viewers.
In the publishing industry, a remarkable level of transformation is happening by way of mergers that are driven, in part, by capacity to produce video. Recently, Vox Media and New York Media joined forces. This followed close on the heels of the recent tie ups of Group Nine Media and PopSugar along with Vice Media and Refinery29. An underlying theme is upping the production of quality video programming for seeking OTT platforms and rising streaming channels battling for subscribers. So, the question is: How will consumers be watching?
The answer is on a Smart TV—whether a Vizio with WatchFree powered by Pluto TV or an LG with LG Channels powered by Xumo—the CTV universe is made up of a growing number of streaming channels (or so-called FAST services). Now, major OTT platforms are following suit with Fire TV’s IMDb TV and Roku’s The Roku Channel.
In this dynamic, programming from media companies is produced in a seller’s market as FAST services look to differentiate with new and, if possible, exclusive content. The goal is to set themselves apart from aggregated CTV ad budgets. The result is that programming is starting to be distributed on 24/7 streaming channels (like the advent of cable news). The end game is to develop an audience that can be channeled to an owned and operated network/app.
Streaming channels that take form of the lean back TV world are also coming over-the-top via leading cable/MVPD companies. For example, Spectrum recently released a skinny bundle that allows viewers to choose what they actually want to watch. And that’s for approximately the same price as an SVOD service like Netflix. The skinny bundle is trending.
Netflix vs. niche
So, here we are. We find ourselves at an interesting intersection of an on-demand world (with active content discovery and viewing) and a programmed channel world with passive watching of round-the-clock streaming content. The king of OTT and SVOD, Netflix, is ad-free. It also set a high bar with premium content licensing and quality original shows as it outspends the competition.
However, we see an emerging universe fueled by
advertising/AVOD and channels that run 24/7 content of essentially any genre of
choice as an expanding orbit of media publishers become producers of OTT
programming. On the sidelines, streaming
sports and leagues are expanding their own OTT plus channels. This delivers
their content straight to fans or through digital upstarts that make sports the
core of their offerings, like Fubo and DAZN.
The best of the bunch
The pendulum is going to swing in a direction that improves the TV experience the most. At the heart of it all is content discovery and recommendation. The next show you’re going to watch is still the biggest unknown. According to the State of Viewing and Streaming study released by Horowitz Research last year, just over one-third (36%) of viewers consider personalized recommendation algorithms helpful in discovering shows. Whereas TV ads, word-of-mouth, and social media are attributed with 35%, 34% and 26%, respectively in frequency of new discovery. The better the content recommendation, the more that will be watched on-demand.
From there, the more
“connected” your TV experience, the more it will look like a digital network
versus a TV network. It will become a more social and shareable experience. The
advertising that puts the A in AVOD will increase in value as it becomes more
data driven complying with user privacy and better in targeting viewers. The
better the social integration, the more that will be watched on constant programmed
The lessons have been learned
by media companies is that they must maintain their own brand and operated
environments in the world of platforms. However, they must continue to
experiment with publishing channels to direct audiences and own distribution (and
monetization). In the grand experiment of OTT programming, content is being
produced and distributed in 24/7 streams to start up on platforms that garner
the greatest audience for the brand. The future of OTT is here, flipping your
I recently connected with Christa Carone, who joined Group Nine Media as president in 2017, at the Collision Conference in Toronto, Canada. Carone, who came to the media side of the industry after leadership roles on the marketing and agency side, oversees Group Nine’s sales and marketing teams as well as its data insights group. Group Nine is a digital media holding company comprised of four popular digitally-native media brands Thrillist, The Dodo, Seeker, and NowThis. Carone and I discussed revenue and distribution diversification, content strategy, and building a business based on brand equity.
Here are some highlights from our conversation:
Michelle Manafy: Tell me a little bit about your content
distribution strategy and why you are all-in on social.
Christa Carone: Well, I’d say we’re all-in on omni
channel—and that includes social. Right now, we’re distributing content on over
20 different platforms. That includes Amazon Prime, Pluto, Roku, and distribution
deals with networks literally around the world. So, our approach to being
completely agnostic on distribution is that we want to bring our content to all
of the different places where people are spending their time. And we want that
to be a pretty frictionless experience. Instead of spending a ton of money to
get you to come to my website, I want to bring our storytelling to the place
where you are already hanging out.
Michelle Manafy: Truly connecting with audiences at
scale almost sounds like almost an oxymoron to me. What do you think?
Christa Carone: You can debate that content is king
and distribution is queen and whether they have an equal seat at the table. But
that’s really kind of how I look at it. When both are working together extremely
well, you are able to build successful brands like The Dodo, NowThis, Thrillist,
and Seeker. It’s like really honing-in on higher value content. We’re building
lifetime value of the content, what’s going to keep an audience interested, and
remain totally agnostic on the distribution strategy.
Michelle Manafy: The trick, of course, is the
monetization. The other side of a distributed model is fragmentation. So, talk
to me a little bit about how managing all of those channels ties into an overarching
Christa Carone: The beauty of our strategy is
diversification. I often say that if Facebook sneezes, we don’t want to catch a
cold. Just like in any industry, you don’t want to be overly dependent on one
particular revenue stream. It’s business 101. Media is no different than any
other type of business. So, that’s why we’ve been so focused on building
audiences across a number of different channels. We’re building audience on TikTok
right now. The monetization strategy there is nascent. But it’s going to come. IGTV
is another great example. We produce great content for IGTV and put it on IGTV
pre-revenue. But I have no doubt at all that Facebook is going to open up
monetization opportunities there. And I want to have established an audience when
Michelle Manafy: You mentioned diversification and that
every company should be focused on diversified revenue. I take it that Group
Nine that’s been baked in from the start.
Christa Carone: Keep in mind that we’re two years old. So, we’ve had the benefit of learning from a lot of traditional companies. And I often say: We’re not pivoting to anything. Some of our brands were born into video so there wasn’t a pivot to video. And the business model was already established. Some of our brands were social first. NowThis, in particular, was born as a social-first distributed brand. We didn’t pivot our business model from taking audience from owned and operated to distributing through external platforms.
Thrillist is the oldest of our brands and it has such a
loyal audience. So, we are looking at diversification around where we can take
the Thrillist brand and make it more of a whole-lifestyle brand.
Overall, our focus is on lifetime value for the content. So,
if we’re bringing in revenue with licensing, great. Bringing in revenue from
the syndication model, great. If we’re bringing in revenue by production deals
with OTT content providers, like a Netflix, that’s perfect. And if we are continuing
to bring in a healthy amount of revenue from advertising, wonderful. And increasingly
we’re thinking about how we can tap into other revenue streams like commerce and
Michelle Manafy: Could you tell me a little bit about
your commerce strategy?
Christa Carone: Our approach to commerce is really looking at brands like The Dodo and Thrillist and saying there’s intellectual property here. There’s a maniacally loyal fanbase. Can we be licensing The Dodo into product? The Dodo clearly has enough brand equity to be producing large scale consumer and canine events. Thrillist has been a friend to people for a long time. It is your recommendation action for food and beverage and travel. So, our ability to take that brand equity and bring it into commerce is already built in. And stay tuned: We will definitely be doing some more on that later this year and we just hired a head of ecommerce.
Michelle Manafy: So, you mentioned that maniacal
audience, that loyal audience. What’s the Group Nine secret? Because, as
publishers, that audience relationship is what differentiates us from the
Christa Carone: It’s such a credit to our editorial
teams. They know how weave a great narrative and tell an amazing story. It
sounds simple but I’m always amazed … A great example is from NowThis. Many
people are familiar with the NowThis video about Beto O’Rourke that went viral.
The raw footage of that video was already posted on Twitter. It already lived
on the Internet someplace. The NowThis team found it and was able to put it
through their storytelling lens. They said how can we construct it in such a
way that viewers are compelled to watch the entire piece? There is an art to
it. There is a narrative that was built in through the use of text on the
screen, through the use of effective editing so that we as the viewer were
compelled to watch it from start to finish. That is the secret sauce that
really exists within our editorial teams and applies to how we produce content
across all of our brands.
I would say the other massive factor for us is that scale
matters. We have such amazing insights that we’re able to glean from the
consumption of our videos that informs how we produce content. Based on our scale,
our data team is looking at 115,000 views of our content every minute. Every minute. We’ve built a very sophisticated
data engine that is able to pull in insights for things like the right color
for the text on the screen, the right size of font, the number of words that
should be on your screen, the fact that videos about dogs have three times
longer watch time than videos around cats. So, the editorial team can say maybe
that dog video should be three and a half minutes but maybe that cat videos
should just be two or something along those lines. You’re able to really start
to use these signals to inform your storytelling.
Michelle Manafy: So,
what’s your growth plan?
Christa Carone: Our business is really becoming much
more analogous to a TV buy. What I mean by that is that we have access to sell
all of the pre-roll against all of Group Nine content across all of the major
platforms. So, you have a television commercial and you are in, say, an auto
company and the pet owner is really interesting to you. You can come to us and
have 100 percent share of voice across all Dodo content on Facebook, on
Twitter, YouTube, Snapchat. You can buy our pre-roll on our channels and
transact that directly through Group Nine instead of the platforms. Brands are
responsive to it because of the importance of brand safety. When you have the
brand safety conversation with a marketer, you need to be able to say here’s
the right audience and it is against premium, brand safe content. It’s
fascinating to me that we’re having more conversations with TV buyers who are
shifting that investment from linear to wherever they can get eyeballs.
Michelle Manafy: I’m finding the distinction between television and all digital video is increasingly blurred, particularly for buyers.
Christa Carone: Completely. I think we have to redefine
what TV means. So, TV is not a device anymore. When the linear players, the
cable players start talking about TV everywhere, we’re in that boat. It
includes YouTube, it can arguably be IGTV, it could be lean-back viewing on
Facebook… It can be TikTok. How define TV going forward is going to be interesting.
Michelle Manafy: Talk to me about how you’re
innovating and how the industry needs to innovate.
Christa Carone: Maybe for some media companies,
diversification is innovative. It’s different at Group Nine because we were
born that way. We’ve learned so much from how past companies have run that we
know what we need to do as a media company. I feel like innovation is really
coming through how companies are able to scale intellectual property.
Christa Carone: I mean that’s been such an advantage
coming into a company like Group Nine. What I’m able to tap into is the
perspective of a marketer and think of everything we’re doing from the
perspective of the client. Will an advertiser really buy into this? I come from
companies with significant brand equity so I’m a massive believer in
intellectual property and that’s what appeals to me about Group Nine. these
aren’t four media companies. These are four brands. So: How can we look at
building brand equity that isn’t just about one particular revenue stream? That
has been super helpful to me to bring more of an innovative marketing approach
to building brands.
Reading Kate Lewis’s list of responsibilities as Chief Content Officer of Hearst Magazines boggles the mind. She oversees content strategy, which includes managing all of the company’s editors-in-chief and digital directors in the U.S., while working with its international network to coordinate global content.
Keep in mind that Hearst is a sprawling global publishing empire with 300 print editions and 240 digital brands. Lewis in charge of the 25 print and 25 digital publications in the U.S. The former has an audience of 89 million, the latter 108 million.
As though that weren’t enough for any single human, she also works closely with the product and technology teams, consumer marketing, and the division’s branded content unit, HearstMade – just in case she has some spare time.
Lewis is in constant motion. One thing is clear, to monitor this network of brands, she has become keenly aware of the value of data, which drives strategy across both print and digital. It also provides her with critical insights into the audience’s needs, desires, and expectations.
It’s all about that audience
Given her broad purview, Lewis has developed a core guiding philosophy (and great communications skills), which allows her to maintain a consistent approach while also considering each publication’s unique audience.
“Our approach is driven by our audience. What do they want from us, brand-by-brand, on every platform where we deliver content. We create and design content differently depending on the platform. And, of course, print is a huge platform for us. It’s where this all started! So, the thinking first will always be: ‘What does the audience want from us in this encounter?’ And yes, that is always evolving,” she explained.
As an example of that evolution, she points out that when she started at Hearst, they were very focused on Facebook to drive traffic. Now, they think about it as a way to get video views, among other things. “This kind of persistent change is something that feels digital in nature, but I think will be meaningful in the print world,” she said.
Digging the data
Back in the days before digital, it was hard to know much about your audience beyond subscriber numbers and some basic demographics. However, Lewis points out that today, print publications have access to the same data as the digital properties so that both can take advantage of it.
That means arming editors with as much information as possible. Hearst has a dedicated data operation called Hearst Data Studios, which feeds data across the brands. “This comes down to the efforts of our Hearst Data Studio, as well as an openness to sharing the data, the insights we have across our many, many brands.”
Beyond that, Lewis said that employees need transparency about how she is using the data internally to measure success or failure. “Sharing and being honest about wins and fails will be key. And truly defining, clearly, what a win and a loss is. My feeling is that content can rise from access to data, collaborative editors, and clear goals. We have established all the above amongst the digital team and I hope to add to what’s already being done on print.”
The future is now
Lewis believes that the biggest challenge on the content side of things remains distribution. And, she says that it’s getting harder to know your audience when it comes from many different sources. “People still hunger for content, big and small, but our direct connection to them has been somewhat obfuscated. It can be challenging to get in their face these days whether because of the decreasing number of newsstands or the increasing presence of social media. Our audience is huge but comes to us in many ways, not necessarily directly,” she said.
One way that media companies have tried to keep their audience front and center is through newsletters. Lewis acknowledges newsletters provide a kind of direct connection. However, she worries that consumer inboxes are becoming overloaded, which may sever that direct link. She sees chat as one way to fill the gap. “Chat is pervasive from grandmas to 10-year-olds,” she said. She also sees voice-driven media like Alexa and Siri also coming into play once they mature.
Ultimately, though, Lewis feels that everything boils down to audience engagement. It’s up to brands to figure out how best to keep the audience coming back as technology continually changes the way consumers interact with content creators. “Brands evolve based on generations and trends and the measure of good, and as the caretakers of the brands we’ll push them to be relevant and worth engaging with.”
In May of 2017, Bill Simmons, former ESPN personality and creator of The Ringer, made an interesting decision to move his successful sports media empire to Vox Media. Simmons maintained editorial independence but relied on Vox for all the non-content creation requirements of a traditional publisher. This included all revenue and product development because as Simmons said “they are great at sales and technology.” The plan, it seems, was to offload the “publishing” part of the publishing business. This allowed Simmons to focus on content creation for his widely popular podcast and website.
This wasn’t a viable model 20 years ago when publishers had established oligopolies by controlling distribution in their respective geographic regions. As a result, the publishing needs of the business, HR, printing press, sales, and distribution existed to support editorial and content creation. Now that the internet has driven distribution costs to near $0, and oligopolies no longer exists, there is little need to combine traditional publishing sales, product and HR overhead with the journalism it is intended to support.
Even so, content creations like Simmons still need to make money. To do so, they rely on content management platforms like Chorus, the purpose-built platform Vox created to manage content and revenue. As of July, Chorus supported 350 media brands. The system includes “content management, data-informed multi-platform content distribution, integrated advertising, and a suite of publishing tools.” Media brands that strip away activities not directly related to content creation establish a sustainable model that allows them to create even more great content, a reinforcing cycle of success.
In his May 2017 post, Ben Thompson covered the changing business model while referring to platforms like Vox’s as the “Faceless Publisher.” The platform handles all the monetization, resources, and infrastructure, which allows journalists to focus on creating amazing content.
The term “Faceless Publisher” might be a misnomer in Vox’s case given they have established several great brands in the market including SB Nation, Vox and Eater. However, it is clear that this federated group of journalistic brands, supported by a single business platform, creates great efficiencies. This efficiency will deliver what readers and content creators need: a sustainable business model that delivers amazing content.
After last week’s uproar over Mark Zuckerberg’s comments on censorship, Axios asked experts what they would do to decrease the fake news on Facebook. Clearly, this is not a simple problem to address but we must. In fact, because Facebook hasn’t taken proper action over the past two years, governments all over the world have stepped in to take steps to address the problem of misinformation.
As the trade organization representing media brands that seek long-term consumer trust through the creation of high quality news, information, and entertainment, we take the problem very seriously. In 2016, we wrote an unanswered letter to the CEOs of Facebook and Google – Mark Zuckerberg and Sundar Pichai – to provide our perspective on the dangerous proliferation of “fake news” throughout the digital ecosystem.
In the letter we asked Facebook to aggressively harness their brilliant minds and massive resources to clean up the garbage that was flowing, with little friction, through their platform. We also cautioned against acting as a censor. Given the escalation of concerns and the fact that the 2018 midterm elections are less than 100 days away, it’s critical that Facebook take more significant and concrete actions to help ensure their platform isn’t used against our democracy again.
In the spirit of transparency, here are a few things we mentioned to Axios that Facebook could do today.
Eliminate the viral and monetization benefits for known fake news peddlers. Take Infowars as an obvious example. (1) At this point, Infowars should only reach users who explicitly follow its account. We’re not asking for the account to be banned entirely, although the arguments to do so are reasonable at this point. (2) Infowars shouldn’t be able to buy advertising with creative containing links to Infowars content and (3) user activity (likes/clicks) on Infowars content should not enhance its presence in the feeds of users who don’t follow it. Essentially, their content shouldn’t be exposed to users unless they explicitly ask for it. It’s why on Tuesday I asked what percentage of the views of a grotesque Infowars clip were viewed by Infowars followers. The answer could be very revealing.
Publish a clear escalation policy (as YouTube does) which would suspend and permanently ban accounts which repeatedly violate their hate speech and harassment rules. Although YouTube’s escalation seems to have loopholes and oddities, as proven yesterday, it’s at least transparent and up for scrutiny by the public.
Elevate the brand presence around content. The brand is a proxy for trust and Facebook (and Google) have long minimized the brand in their experiences. This is important for those who have built up trust through their reputation but it’s also important to newer publishers who want to build their brands. If you’re reading an Axios story on Facebook in your feed, you should know the source. Likewise, if you’re reading a Russia Today story, you should know the source.
Develop a transparent ranking system by domain/brand. This is not a novel approach: Google does it. Email services do it. If Infowars wants to keep publishing garbage, then let’s see their domain score fall off a cliff. The score has to mean something. The fact is that most respectable news publishers, regardless of subject matter or leanings, would score well and not be impacted. However, the trash would get taken out.
Hire more human moderators. Algorithms are amazing but personal responsibility should involve people. The company needs to take ownership over its “news feed” or stop calling it a “news feed.” We also need transparency on where these moderators are being hired. As platforms have challenged the economics of local news, we’ve also lost local accountability to the public. Moderators need the proper context for the areas, countries and cultures they’re serving.
Engage with member associations and non-profits to get advice on codes of conduct that responsible news organizations follow. Facebook had a significant misstep here when they rolled out their political advertising labels and archive. They dangerously conflated boosted news coverage about political issues with advertising about political issues. Facebook chose to ignore counsel from publishers and shut off communication with member associations despite more than 20,000 news publishers expressing concern to its CEO and COO.
A couple of executives at what is arguably the most impactful news distributor on the planet are making business decisions that have a massive impact on the political dialogue in our democracy. They should thoughtfully listen to concerns, advice, and legal inquiry in order to become a responsible member of the digital ecosystem from which they reap great profit. The problem of misinformation is not small, it is not easy, but it’s a problem that we all have a stake in solving.
Americans are watching fewer big live events on TV — as seen in declining viewership of the Super Bowl, Oscars, etc. And you can count the Winter Olympics as another victim of those changing habits. A recent Gallup poll confirmed that lower ratings will likely follow. But Comcast and NBC aren’t letting that get them down. Instead, they are pushing even harder into social media and new platforms.
And it’s not just a way for NBC to increase its social footprint and beat criticism of #NBCFail memes of years past, when viewers were unable to access solid coverage because of tape delays and commercial interruptions. With less people watching linear TV broadcasts, multi-platform viewership on digital and social is likely going up, and NBC is pushing hard into different platforms to stay ahead of the curve. It’s a way to engage advertisers and audiences — especially younger audiences — for the future.
Here’s a look at how NBC and other publishers will take on the Winter Games this year.
NBC Goes All-In on Social
This tweet has already gathered 45,000 retweets and nearly 124,000 likes as of writing:
The tweet from NBC Olympics is just one example of a social strategy that appears to be working: Push content online right away. Research out of the Rio Olympics from 2016 reflected skyrocketing numbers for social viewership, and there was no reason to anticipate those figures would decline.
So, NBC is seizing control over the narrative of the Olympics. It’s broadcasting the games live for the first time, streaming clips on Facebook, posting videos on YouTube and Twitter, and investing heavily in a Snapchat presence that also includes hiring BuzzFeed to produce a daily, Olympics-themed Snapchat Discover channel. NBC and Snapchat struck a partnership — one of several, as NBCUniversal invested $500 million in Snap Inc. when Snap went public last year — to broadcast exclusive content on Snapchat.
That Snap had a solid earnings call right ahead of the Opening Ceremony this year also gives the company an extra boost of recognition. Snap may be suffering the fallout from Instagram and Facebook copying some of its core features, but it has long pitched itself as a “complementary, second-screen platform for live and linear TV,” as Digiday’s Sahil Patel wrote. And that’s a selling point when you think about the ways linear TV habits are changing.
Publishers, Take Note
Alongside NBC’s huge push into social distribution, a few publishers are also engaging audiences in new ways to boost their own metrics down the line. The New York Times, for example, announced a “live messenger experience” with the Times’ deputy sports editor, Sam Manchester, where he’ll be messaging directly with audiences who want a closer, behind-the-scenes, personal take on the Olympics.
With different mediums for consumption — and therefore disparate methods for measuring consumption — Discovery Communications is consolidating data from linear broadcasts, digital platforms, and social media engagement metrics, to get a better picture of who’s tuning in and who is tuning out of watching the Winter Olympics. Discovery has the rights to broadcast the Games across Europe and will share these results with their clients and partners. While no measurement approach is perfect, it’s a huge step to prepare for a future where understanding metrics can make or break an editorial or ad strategy. It’s not a question of whether other publishers will follow suit, but when.
What conversation about distribution can take place without acknowledging the influence of large gatekeepers like Google? Google’s search algorithm has long been key in ensuring people can actually find all the content publishers are putting out there. This year, Google is filtering live video, VR video, and YouTube video into its search results. It’ll offer users location-specific updates about a country’s rankings and other top news stories from the Olympics. And subscribers to YouTube TV can stream over 50 hours of live video coverage, including VR content.
Let’s be clear: The efforts in social viewing and highlight reels for the Winter Olympics this year are not a one-off endeavor. Insights gleaned from how it pans out this year will help better cater to multi-platform consumption in the future — not just for the Olympics, but for all content moving online and on social. And as live events lose their luster on linear TV, more publishers will consider ways to move to social viewing while still driving revenues along with attention.
Video has become an increasingly important delivery medium for media brands. Given the investment, it might seem like they’d want to keep this video traffic firmly on their own sites. However, as with other types of content, most publishers have developed a distribution strategy for multiple platforms. Because YouTube offers such an efficient way for viewers to find, view, and share video content, it has become a de facto video distribution channel for many media outlets.
Undoubtedly, YouTube has become a primary video viewing destination for internet viewers. And media companies need to go where the viewers are. This is true regardless of platform – desktop, mobile, or OTT. It makes little sense to make a significant investment in video exclusively for your site if the video audience is off watching somewhere else.
So, it follows that companies investing in video content are giving YouTube a hard look. Of course, as with every content distribution decision, there are always trade-offs. However, many believe that reaching the sizable YouTube audience is worth the effort. While he described the evolution of their YouTube strategy as “a work in progress,” Jigar Mehta, SVP, head of video at Fusion Media Group believes it is well worth the effort. Topping the list of priorities is making Fusion’s video more discoverable on what he describes as “the second largest search engine in the world.”
Establishing a YouTube strategy
Each company will need to develop a YouTube strategy that suits its resources and objectives. However, some may want to follow the Washington Post’s lead. They think of YouTube as a distinct content delivery channel that attracts viewers who might not normally visit their website. That provides an opportunity to introduce your brand to an entirely new audience, an exciting prospect for any content producer.
“YouTube is a space with a great deal of audience and revenue potential that we have only begun to tap into. We see it as the primary place to build a diverse audience that will think of The Washington Post as video-first and engage with our visual journalism,” Nadine Ajaka senior producer for video platforms at The Washington Post explained.
She said that they have separate strategies for how they approach video on the Post’s website and what they deliver on YouTube. “The difference between what we choose to publish on washingtonpost.com and what we publish to YouTube is that for YouTube it must stand alone. On the site, there are times when video will lead the story, but often we are plugging in and embedding clips and social video that are meant to add to what has been written,” Ajaka said.
Although they share the Post’s desire to build an audience that might not frequent their site, Kasia Cieplak-Mayr von Baldegg executive producer for The Atlantic says her company has taken a different approach. YouTube is central to their video distribution strategy.
“We recently switched to YouTube as our primary video hosting service. Now, we host all our videos on YouTube and integrate the player throughout TheAtlantic.com. This decision was motivated by a desire to build audience beyond our owned and operated platform. YouTube’s subscriber features, search functionality and recommendation algorithm all help us do that,” she said.
Long form anyone?
While audience development seems to be the be a primary driver behind using YouTube, it also offers a place to hone and deliver longer form content. This is because people see it as a destination where they can stay for a while and watch – if the content is compelling enough.
“YouTube emphasizes watch time over clicks and encourages viewers to watch with the sound turned on. We’ve seen amazing engagement. A recent 15-minute documentary has earned an average watch time of eight minutes,” The Atlantic’s Cieplak-Mayr von Baldegg said.
Mehta pointed out that this emphasis on watch time correlates with better performance for Fusion’s long form content on YouTube. He said that they approach YouTube as a specific content destination (and not a competing channel for their own sites). As such, they specifically optimize their videos for the platform.
Ajaka from the Post emphasizes that you have to really present video people want to see on YouTube, or you won’t build a subscriber base for your channel. “With YouTube, there’s a real opportunity to hone your video inventory and create a coherent body of work. For some news publishers, video can be a churning out of quick-turn clips. Luckily, we have editors and video journalists who are continually working on long-form reported visual stories, that tell a cohesive story. These are perfect for YouTube as a platform,” she explained.
YouTube offers more than delivery tools and audience engagement. It also provides a means for monetization, which is certainly welcome given that producing quality video can be expensive.
In fact, Mehta finds that YouTube offers better monetization options than Facebook or Twitter and he is optimistic about YouTube’s long-term roadmap. “We are currently utilizing AdSense on YouTube which is their programmatic option. YouTube also has other products including YouTube Red and YouTube TV that as they become more mature will be interesting options as well,” he said.
Ajaka said the Post is talking to YouTube about direct-selling of their ads, but it hasn’t yet come to pass.
At The Atlantic, Cieplak-Mayr von Baldegg said that they are “primarily focused on direct sold sponsorships and pre-roll, both on our domain and off. Our main challenge month over month is keeping up with the demand,” (which is a good problem to have).
As with any external platform, there are going to be trade-offs, but YouTube offers companies a way to distribute video that puts it in front of an engaged audience with a good search engine and monetization tools. “Our YouTube audience is seeking video first and foremost, and will have an easier time surfacing our videos than someone searching the site,” Ajaka said. That seems like a compelling reason for any media brand to build a YouTube presence.
There is little dispute about the popularity of the Apple iPhone. Since the it debuted in 2007, the company hassoldmorethanabillionunits. Last quarter alone Apple sold more than 41 millioniPhonesworldwide. Most of those phones are running Apple News, the news app that has been a standard component since Apple released iOS 9 in 2015.Ap
Simply because of the sheer number of iPhones running Apple News, it’s something that publishers need to pay attention to. After all, you don’t want to ignore a source that could give you access to hundreds of millions of potential of readers. But like so many things related to Apple (or any of the big tech platforms), understanding that potential and tapping into it are two different things.
Apple has some deals in place tomonetizethecontent inside the Apple News app, and according to Advertising Age, could allow somepublisherstousetheirownadtechnology to sell ads in the way they prefer. Some media companies are benefiting from exposure that has led to increased subscriptions, but the platform remains a challenge to publishers as they work to understand how it works.
When you have a user base that large, you want to understand how to take advantage of it, and reap the benefits it could provide for your publication. Chris Schieffer, Slate’s senior mobile product manager, says it certainly gives his publication access to readers who might not see Slate articles in other sources.
“The traffic numbers are meaningful to us but we’ve been looking at this as an investment. It’s not a pure traffic play. The more folks that see us in News, the more folks we can introduce to Slate Plus (our membership product), and the more folks that may come over to our homepage or download our iOS app to check out our podcast,” Schieffer explained.
Dave Merrell, who is lead product manager at The Washington Post, believes that the key to Apple News is similar to working with any platform. It involves a tight integration of newsroom, product, engineering, design, and analytics.
“Apple News traffic and subscriptions didn’t just fall into our lap. We recognized the opportunity of a news platform built directly into iOS and made Apple News an integral part of our editorial processes immediately. We spent a lot of time studying the Apple News audience and their habits, and our editors watch Apple News analytics every day in order to ensure that audience is getting our best journalism,” Merrell said.
The challenge of every publication using Apple News is turning that traffic into revenue. For publications that are using the subscription model, the goal is turning the casual reader who found you on Apple News into a paying customer. Making that leap isn’t easy, but it is the objective.
Slate plans to try and take advantage of the tools Apple has provided to draw in subscribers. “We’re excited about introducing our Apple News users to Slate Plus by implementing subscriptions next year. There’s still more to be done on the backfill revenue front but we have seen a small uptick as Apple has introduced additional backfill partners. We feel like the real opportunity though is through subscriptions with the ability to pay through your Apple ID. That’s a good experience for users and publishers,” Schieffer said.
The Washington Post has also been seeing a significant rise in subscriptions. “[We have] had a subscription offer in Apple News since the launch of iOS 10, and we have been pleasantly surprised by this audience’s propensity to subscribe. After only a year, Apple News is a thriving subscription channel for us,” Merrell said.
Making it better
While companies are trying to work with Apple to make Apple News work better for them, publishers would like to see more transparency. In particular, Vox’s engagement editor Blair Hickman would like publishers to have more control. “With Apple, as on many other platforms, there is a certain lack of control that publishers give up. We see views spike when Apple chooses to feature Vox. Over the year, we’ve built a presence on the app that has let us start to organically drive views. But it would be great, as with most platforms, to be able to drive that relationship with the audience a bit more,” Hickman said.
The Post’s Merrell would like to see more personalization. “Apple knows so much about me based on my phone usage. So, I would love to see more personalization that doesn’t require a big upfront investment from the user. I also think there is a great opportunity to incorporate Siri recommendations directly into the Apple News platform – and there is a great opportunity the other way as well, with News surfacing in more areas of the iOS and MacOS ecosystem,” he said.
Nobody can deny the potential of a captive audience that’s already addicted to the iPhone. However, media outlets and publishers are really still feeling their way to understand how to best use the platform. Schieffer sums it up when he says, “I think the value of all distribution platforms, not just Apple News, has taken a little while to shake out. It’s a big leap for publishers to start sending large portions of traffic without the immediate promise of equal revenue or more subscriptions. But I think the investment is beginning to pay off and that’s exciting.”