Seems like everyone is a podcaster these days. There are millionaire teens on TikTok and it seems like every yoga instructor has a million subscribers on their YouTube channel. You see big media companies rejoicing about their fan following on Spotify, YouTube etc.
These platforms share their audience, advertising revenue, and subscriptions revenue with the original content creators. They allow publishers and creators to grow their following and create their fiefdom of anonymous fans. Most of these platforms have started accepting voluntary contributions and passing back a portion of the contribution to the creator. Twitter calls it Tipjar, YouTube calls it Applause, Twitch has Cheer, TikTok has Gifts. However, this fiefdom is limited within the walled gardens of the platform. There is absolutely no way for a publisher or creator to port over their fans to another platform or build an email relationship with the platform’s audience.
The winner-take-all dynamics are just as prevalent on these platforms. Very few pieces of original content will garner outsized views or listens, enough to justify significant monthly payouts. Having spoken to 100s of creators and media companies, we have learned that the platform payouts and terms of revenue are riddled with opaqueness. It’s just like how Heinz (analogous to original content creator) does not have any control over their revenue terms with Walmart (analogous to platform). For most creators their primary source of income is actually through sponsorships; either as influencer marketing campaigns, podcast readouts, or mid-roll video placements.
In all of the above scenarios the original content creator does not own a direct relationship with the platform’s audience but rather with a non-traceable user of the platform. Some creators try to link-out from these platforms in an effort to build a direct relationship with the user and start building a reader revenue stream.
Some of the most common Link-In Bio companies like Linktree (Linktr.ee), Later (Linkin.bio) or Buy Me A Coffee provide a landing area for creators to start building a direct reader revenue relationship. On the flip side, almost all platforms curb the use of external links primarily to restrict monetization inside the walled gardens of the platform. Instagram for example does not allow web-links in posts. Creators can have only one link in their Instagram bio. In late 2017, YouTube tightened rules around videos with external links.
In the context of audio and video content, few publishers and creators have dared to branch out and go direct-to-consumer (D2C). Beyond plugging in standard advertising revenue options through various ad-networks, the D2C decision hinges on sustainable reader revenue potential. This has intensified in light of the ongoing regulatory discussion around solving for “dark patterns” or subscription traps. Globally, regulators (Federal Trade Commission in the US; Competition & Markets Authority in the UK; Reserve Bank of India in India) are revising consumer protection policies around recurring payments and mandating subscription renewal reminders with one-click cancellation options.
The business of engagement
This would bring mayhem for direct-to-consumer publishers and creators whose subscriber base is filled with zombie subscribers. Almost half of U.S. podcast listeners are lighter, casual users who listen to less than 3 episodes (across podcasters) in a month. This raises concern over their propensity to subscribe to a paid podcast subscription. A recent study by Northwestern University’s Spiegel Research Center shows that:
49% of digital subscribers do not access their paid subscriptions even once
54% have accessed their paid subscriptions just once in one month
Given the regulatory headwinds, it is becoming crucial for publishers to diversify reader revenue sources beyond all-you-can-eat subscriptions. One of the top five reasons subscribers cancel their subscriptions is because of the inability to consume all the content their subscription offers. So, while reader revenue is on everyone’s mind, subscription alone will not suffice. Unbundling audio and video for pay-per-content requires sophisticated technology.
Every publisher and creator with quality audio or video content starts off with piggybacking on platforms. They consider sponsorships as their main source of revenue. But the moment of truth comes when the sponsorship gravy train stops and platform revenues do not add up compared to the cost of production for quality audio and video. That’s when a clear direct-to-consumer and reader revenue strategy takes its rightful place in the limelight.
About the author
Abhishek is a Co-founder & CEO of Fewcents, fintech-for-publishers, that brings incremental reader revenue from “Never-Subscribers.” He is a seasoned business leader and technology product manager. He has worked in management consulting with PwC and Altman Solon in Boston, USA before moving to Singapore permanently. In Singapore, he started his own venture, Shoffr, a digital marketing solution that provides online to offline attribution for digital marketers. In 2019, Abhishek sold Shoffr to Affle, a publicly listed ad-tech company in India. After solving the advertiser’s offline attribution problem, Abhishek has now set his eyes on solving the content monetization problem for online publishers.
The subscription economy is booming. From music and movies to meals and clothing, consumers want what they want to be available when and how they want it, and without onerous upfront costs. For publishers facing the uncertainties of digital advertising — dominated by the duopoly — subscriptions offer predictable and powerful revenue streams. They also bring with them an even more intimate understanding of the audiences they serve.
One of the biggest media success stories in capturing reader revenue, The Washington Post has introduced a new mobile-first product that encourages audiences to multitask. The 7, launched in September, distills the top seven headlines into digestible snippets and delivers them daily to time-crunched audiences at the same time (at 7 am Eastern) on the channel of their choice.
Website, app, and email newsletter are just a few of the channels consumers can use to skim through the headlines (roughly 300 words in total). And, if readers don’t have time to scroll or swipe through the stories, they can opt to listen to the news instead.
But the real power of the product isn’t the multi-channel delivery. It’s the way it fits into multiple stages of the funnel, allowing The Post to attract new audiences and convert existing ones with the same content. Even if readers don’t subscribe on the spot, their continued interaction provides valuable data points (email address if readers signed up for the newsletter) that equip The Post to market and move audiences ever deeper into the funnel.
Continuing with our series of DCN video interviews, I talk to Coleen O’Lear, Head of Mobile Strategy at The Washington Post. Drawing from experience growing The Post’s digital audience and cultivating stronger reader habits, O’Lear shares how The 7 has evolved from being “an accessible, digestible on-ramp for the news” to a product that “drives exceptionally high engagement.” She also discusses the “experimental mindset” publishers must adopt to make content readily accessible and digestible, not to mention enable their success to be scalable.
Peggy Anne Salz: It’s a morning routine for many – wake up, reach for the phone, check the headlines. Now more than ever, we rely on trusted sources to inform our perspective on what’s happening globally, as well as close to home and the stakes have never been higher. What a responsibility then to be the steward of one of the most trusted names in news charged with making sure those headlines are what we want when we wake up and that they are there, they are there for us. And in the middle of all this, how do you infuse a nearly 150-year-old legacy brand with a sense of ‘always on’ experimentation to produce this? How can you then scale both, maybe the cool new products that I’m talking about here and the number of subscribers who pay to access them? A lot of tough questions, and we get the inside track here today on Digital Content Next, the series from DCN, which is a trade association serving the diverse needs of high-quality digital content companies globally.
I’m your host Peggy Anne Salz and my guest today is Coleen O’Lear, she is Head of Mobile Strategy at the Washington Post, which I’ve been talking about. Coleen focuses on editorial and product development aimed at growing the Post’s digital audience and cultivating stronger reader habits. She was a founding member of the emerging news products team where she shepherded complex projects and initiatives from inception to implementation, including the Washington Post’s select app By The Way, its channels on Snapchat, Apple News, and Facebook news. And most recently, The 7, which is the big part of our focus on the show today. Welcome Coleen, great to have you here.
Coleen O’Lear: Thanks so much for having me, Peggy.
Salz: So you’ve said it yourself, and I quote you it’s all about creating new and exciting ways to surface news for time-crunched readers to consume. I’m just wondering, how many ways can readers currently access the news we’re talking about on how many platforms speaking here, of course, about The 7.
O’Lear: The 7 is something that we offer in a lot of different ways for you to be able to consume it, how you want it, when you want it and where you want it. So, we offer it on the app, we offer it on the website, we offer it on social off of our owned and operated platforms, we distribute it on Apple news, we have a newsletter and an SMS experiment. People are really busy, and they have a lot of options and preferences.
So, we created The 7 to really be an accessible, digestible on-ramp for the news for busy readers who really just want a rundown of the morning’s news quickly. So, it’s something that they can really fit into their morning routine as it exists. And it’s something that they can consume, how they want it, where they want it. So maybe some days you don’t have time to read it, and some days, you would rather listen, we offer people that opportunity with The 7.
Salz: So, you launched in September, not a lot of time to make a lot of observations. But you have seen how audiences are interacting with The 7, maybe you can tell me a little bit more about what you’ve seen, you know, it’s on the app, on the email, maybe just have the headlines read to you while you’re brushing your teeth getting ready for work, what is working?
O’Lear: Yeah, I mean, there’s a lot working so far, which we’re really excited about. So, we created The 7 to really be a mobile-first platform, or mobile-first product, we really wanted you to be able to multitask with it. Like I said before, we wanted it to fit into your routine. And as we hoped, we’ve seen really high engagement across platforms, including the site and newsletter, but the majority of our users have been on the apps. And that’s a place where we can drive deeper engagement. And that’s a place where we have seen really high engagement with The 7, with the briefing itself but also, with the audio component specifically, readers have really been listening to it there and they have been completing it. So they’ve been listening to the whole thing. They’ve been reading the whole thing, and they’ve been coming back to it again.
That’s something that was really built into how we wanted to think about The 7, we wanted it to be something that added value to your day, something that told you the seven things that you needed to know and the things that you wanted to know. So we really think that that’s come across and what we’re seeing from readers so far, and we’ve even extended our experiment with The 7 by launching an SMS project. So that’s been interesting, too. And we’ve had exceptionally high engagement with that early on, that’s even newer than The 7 itself, it’s only been out for less than two weeks now. But we’ll text you every morning and send you that link. And people have really been engaged which has been exciting.
Salz: A little bit of a comeback, a little bit of a Renaissance. I haven’t been hearing much about SMS, it’s all been about messaging. And of course, you have products on messaging, as well. SMS is intriguing. Where did that come from? Just experiment, try another platform?
O’Lear: Yeah, we like to experiment with platforms like we’ve talked about before. The Washington Post is about experimenting at scale. And SMS was something that we saw an opportunity to do that with. We thought that this was a real value-added proposition with The 7, right? That it is going to cover the things that are breaking, the hardest news, the most important news of the day. But it’s also the stories that you want to know, because you want to talk about them with your friends, right? It’s that balanced diet and we thought that SMS really lends itself well to that. We started experimenting with SMS primarily around the Olympics. But we saw a lot of success with that experiment and thought that The 7 was a good vehicle to have another opportunity with SMS.
Salz: I’m going to stay with The 7 as content for a moment, because it’s fascinating. First of all, it averages around 400 words.
It’s also probably a huge responsibility to pick the seven, then to write it and wow, it’s written by human Tess Homan who has an actual byline. You know, there’s someone responsible for this, how important is that? You know, why not AI because AI is certainly up to – we’ve seen those experiments, but you chose a human and this format, what’s behind that?
O’Lear: For us, there’s really no replacement for human touch when it comes to something like The 7. It’s a very focused briefing, it’s really critical that an editor’s honed news judgement and sharp editing skills can be taken to the day of the news, right? The Washington Post publishes hundreds of stories every single day and readers rely on us to tell them what of those stories they really need to know. And with The 7, just the seven that they need to know, at any given moment, too.
So, while it does publish at 7 am Eastern, that doesn’t mean that news is going to stop just because The 7 has published right? There may be something that breaks after it has published, that is going to be the news of the day, that’s going to be one of the seven most important things. And so that’s something that we really feel a human touch an editor’s judgement needs to be on. Our readers rely on The 7 being something that they can turn to when they want to turn to it in the morning. And so Tess is able to give that a real human touch by making appropriate updates, by really keeping it tight, by making sure that the essence and the heart of what you really need to know, the background and context to why a story matters for you, is truly in The 7 every day. And I think that that’s something that, you know, AI is great, but a human is better.
Salz: So human judgement, definitely a plus here. And as you said also the appropriateness of the content and the update, the purpose of your overall strategy is to build a habit, to turn readers into subscribers. Tell me a little bit about where and how The 7 fits in, it feels like a top of the funnel play. But I’m sure there’s an impact on deeper funnel engagement. And also, I’ve read that people who engage with your app stay longer. I don’t know if the case is with The 7 and how that impacts it. But tell me a little bit about where it fits into the scheme of things?
O’Lear: So we offer different opportunities for different kinds of readers to come into the funnel at different points. So for subscribers, there’s a value-add to The 7, it makes your subscription even more worthwhile for you. And we hope that over time that leads to retention. The 7 is also something that could potentially attract or bring a new audience to The Washington Post, potentially more accessible. Maybe somebody is very driven by audio experiences or doesn’t have a lot of time, right? It’s for time-crunched readers. Well, any story from the Washington Post is typically going to take you at least five minutes to read, right? We’re covering seven stories, you’re going to be able to consume it in less than three minutes and I think that that’s important.
We really hope that that can sort of create a pathway to the post that might not have existed before. And so there are different opportunities there, you could get a newsletter, if that works best for you, you could consume it on our site or on our apps that might lead to an app download where somebody hadn’t downloaded the app before, or a subscription sign up, or a newsletter signup, or even giving us your phone number for SMS.
Salz: That’s really interesting that it can be a little bit of everything. Because at one level, it’s bundling it in as a value add for the whole package, in a sense, and the other, it’s maybe acquiring a different type of audience, maybe one that you haven’t necessarily been able to win over. But now hey, time-crunched is maybe a sort of persona with you. And this allows you to approach that segment as well. So it’s top of funnel, and it’s deeper in the funnel. What can you tell me about the audience overall?
O’Lear: Well we don’t really get into metrics specifically. So I can’t tell you in specifics about the audience, but I can say that we have heard from a lot of readers, a lot of consumers all say because they’re not all reading it they’re listening to it too and some are getting the newsletter and some are coming to us on our ONO, and they’re reading the briefing live on their site.
A common theme that is coming back is that they appreciate the thoughtfulness of The 7, they appreciate that they have an expectation, and that it’s meeting that need, that it isn’t just the seven hardest news stories of the day, it’s also the things that you want to talk to your friends about. It’s the things you want to turn to your colleague and discuss. It’s the things that you drop into the group chat and say, can you believe this happened? Or did you know the ways that Google is trapping you or the defaults on Venmo.
We’re giving you utility content that can help make your life better, and also the news of the day that’s going to affect your life. And so I think that that has truly been something that’s distinct and unique about The 7 is really showcasing the breadth of the journalism that the Washington Post has to offer.
Salz: So I’m going to look at what drives The 7 and I would call it an always-on experimental mindset at the Washington Post. I’ve been following you for quite a while looking at all the different experiments, you’re one of the very first to really take audio very seriously, right? And now we’re talking about super short-form content – three minutes. And it’s great to experiment in a sandbox, you have a great job, because that’s what you’re doing. But then there’s the question of like, okay, now we’ve nailed it, this is really exciting. Now we need to experiment at scale. So what allows you to experiment at scale?
O’Lear: Experimentation is just built into the ethos of The Washington Post, we always try to approach things in an iterative way too, what launches may not be the thing that it is, eventually, if that wasn’t working for an audience. We are constantly doing health checks on our products, and on our audience and making sure that we are really meeting them where they need us to be, that we are delivering on the value and what they need from the Washington Post.
I think that when we see that something works, we don’t hesitate to double down on it, and to apply those learnings to the other places where they may be applicable. And so if something doesn’t work, we also identify what’s causing it not to work, and we try to make modifications to be able to, like I said, just be more responsive and to be more agile. And I think that that’s part of what has helped us experiment at scale, sometimes it’s about starting something in a small way and seeing where it may apply. I mean, AR is something we’ve been doing for many years now. And really started in small but meaningful ways. And now you can find AR in our app, it is built into our native core products, because it is something that we invest in.
The takeaway, essentially, from being able to experiment at scale is to really identify the opportunities, be realistic about your resources, be realistic about the impact that you have the potential to make, and what is most valuable, both for your audience and for your company. And then look for those opportunities and pursue those.
We never launch a product without goals associated, right? Both company goals, strategic goals, but also goals for the reader, what value is it supposed to bring. And so I think that what we really try to do is be strategic and deliberate about what we choose to invest in. And if something isn’t working, we’re not afraid, like I said, to sort of react to that and to try to change things. And so I think that essentially gives us the flexibility of nothing being too precious.
Everything is always being an evolution, just because something has launched doesn’t mean that it’s final and it’s done. I think that you always have to maintain a mindset of experimenting, improving, reacting and making things better. And iteration isn’t just something that you do in the experimental phase, it is something that you continue to do after a product is fully baked for lack of a better way of putting it.
Salz: At the end of the day you are Head of Mobile Strategy. What are you bringing here? What is it that you see as your role or someone in your position? Is this about orchestration? Is this about innovation? Inspiration? What is it that keeps this going?
O’Lear: It’s all of the above? I mean, I really…
Salz: Then I love your job, Coleen.
O’Lear: I mean, it’s all of the above, it’s hard to say that you always have to be of different minds. But you do. Anybody who is a strategic thinker, also has to work in practicalities, and realities, right? And so I think that we really tried to be measured in our approach.
So, I think that you really have to take a strategic lens toward everything but then you have to think about people and the people building the products, the people consuming the products. And that’s everything from how we curate something to the UX of something. And I think that that often comes across in very clear goals, but also even in simplest terms in documentation, if you don’t lay out to your team, the workflow that they should follow and why, I think it’s much harder to get people to understand what you’re trying to do, especially when you’re trying to do things that are big or different, or potentially challenging.
Salz: I’d like to go from The 7 that we’ve been talking about to the future, right? You’re evolving your product, you’re iterating your product, you’re always doing something there. But you’re also uniting your product. What’s next at the Washington Post? What’s your next focus?
O’Lear: Yeah, one of the big things that I’m working on right now is the unification. So we have two core apps that are news apps. They were originally for different audiences but journalism has changed, audiences have changed, technology has changed. And essentially what we’re doing is we’re taking what works well and we’re using the unification process to really build what is the classic app into a core flagship product that is truly representative of the Washington Post of today. And it is a first in class experience for users. And so that user-first mentality, really making decisions with the reader front of mind, thinking about what an app of today and tomorrow should be, is really exciting.
I think that we’ve learned a lot of lessons from having two different apps with sort of a different reading experience. And from those we’ll be able to make something that really feels like it meets the needs of different kinds of consumers.
Salz: I’d like to just go into a little bit of depth there, because not everyone, for example, will know about the two apps, the two experiences, the two audiences. Give me an idea about why you’re approaching app unification the way you are and how you’re going to keep those two audiences because combining them can be very tricky. And if you have any tips to offer, I’m sure we’re all ears.
O’Lear: Ask me about tips after we’ve done the unification and I may have some more tips I can offer at that time. Right now, like I said, we’re approaching it very deliberately, and we’re listening to our readers.
One thing in that was that we were listening to our readers and we were finding out that the audiences aren’t that different, potentially you stumbled upon one app for one reason and not the other, or you liked the design effect of what was essentially started to be a more national app, the Select app. That was its original purpose, its original intention, we think that there’s a way to marry all of those things together, that we’ve evolved our thinking as the Washington Post, our journalism has evolved, readers habits have evolved. We want to take the lessons and the things that work really well in both of the apps to build one core product that is truly first in class.
So I think that we’ll be able to take a lot of the sort of curation philosophy and the design philosophy and showing you both the breadth and the depth of the Washington Post into our core app. And you can see that in the classic app, which is the longest-running of the apps, that we’ve already started to make those changes. So what you’re experiencing today and what will be our flagship app is actually closer to what you had experienced in Rainbow or the Select app, as it’s formerly known.
At the end of the day, our audience doesn’t need two apps. They need one app that is best in class, there isn’t really a reason to split audiences. I’m not saying that there isn’t a reason to have multiple apps for some publishers. But for us, we really want to invest in making our flagship app the destination for you to come on your mobile phone, on your mobile product, on your mobile device. And we think that we can take lessons from experimenting at scale on both of the apps for many years now. And do that better in one place?
Salz: Coleen, I’ve lost track, how many products does the Washington Post have?
O’Lear: So many I’ve lost track. We have dozens of newsletters, we have two apps, within the classic app, you can also consume the print product. So if you really love the print paper, you can read it as print inside the classic app, that’s a good example. The print app was something that was a distinct app that you could also download. And maybe you had the print app, and you had the classic app. Well, from the classic app, you can also get to the print app, so we’re just really making that connective tissue between our products stronger, I think.
Salz: Excellent. And I will, of course, take you up on your offer, maybe as you’re further on into the unification process, what stays, what goes, what flies, what fails, to share some of that decision-making process. Let us walk inside your mind, your thinking. In the meantime, Coleen, thanks so much for sharing and for being on Digital Content Next today.
O’Lear: Thanks so much for having me.
Salz: And of course, thank you for tuning in, taking the time, more in this series about how media companies are taking charge of change in their business. In the meantime, be sure to check out DigitalContentNext.org for great content, including a companion post to this interview with Coleen or join the conversation on Twitter @DCNorg. Until next time, I’m Peggy Anne Salz for Digital Content Next.
When the pandemic took hold in spring 2020, travel publishers had to think, and move, fast. In a world where travel became unsafe, if not outright banned, this segment of the publishing world faced long odds. However, many—including Conde Nast Traveler, Travel + Leisure, Thrillist, and National Geographic—refocused their strategies to keep housebound audiences informed and entertained. But now, as parts of the world reopen to travel, while others are still profoundly struggling with Covid-19, travel brands are poised to make another pivot.
Destination for information
Last spring, Conde Nast Traveler shifted its digital content strategy away from bread-and-butter destination content to travel news. In particular, it dove into how the unfolding Covid-19 pandemic was impacting travel. And, after a precipitous drop off when the world essentially shut down in March, traffic began to rebound in April as homebound readers spent more time on the site, driving up total engaged minutes 10% in 2020.
As lockdowns set in around the world, Conde Nast Traveler focused on creating a deep well of
evergreen content aimed at inspiring grounded readers to daydream about future travel. It highlighted adventures closer to home. It also provided virtual travel experiences to transport and engage housebound audiences.
However, now that actual travel is back on the rise, Conde Nast Traveler is pivoting again. “As regulations ease and attitudes towards travel shift, we’re focusing on content that helps people get back out into the world,” said Jesse Ashlock, Conde Nast Traveler’s Deputy Global Editorial Director.
Traffic to domestic destination-based content and road-trip related content began to climb last summer. Interest in vacation rentals also spiked. Audience time spent with that content rose more than 1,100% between January and October 2020. Ashlock expects those trends to continue through this summer, as people explore the great American outdoors.
Travel + Leisure made a similar pandemic pivot, leaning into the leisure aspect of the brand as the world was shutting down in the spring of 2020. The brand even updated its Twitter bio to reflect its #LeanIntoLeisure strategy.
“We maintained a very flexible approach to our content, particularly in March, April and May 2020, so that we could be nimble and change course depending on what made sense given shifting world events,” said Deanne Kaczerski, T+L’s Digital Content Director.
The brand also shifted it’s commerce-related content from travel gear toward products related to face masks and work-at-home accessories.
Aspiration and inspiration
On Instagram, Travel+Leisure chose to double down on aspiration. The team shared images meant to inspire far-flung daydreams and asked followers to share images of the places they missed most. “We didn’t entirely abandon the aspirational element of travel,” Kaczerski said. The brand continued to highlight dreamy itineraries for cooped up wanderers looking for an escape from daily pandemic life but also began covering more wellness stories.
There are several indications that strategy worked. “Overall, the website experienced tremendous traffic in the last year. People sought out trusted information, expert advice and compelling content to satiate their wanderlust in a very challenged time,” Kaczerski said.
At Thrillist, the gaze shifted toward learning more about the places that captivate travelers.
“Rather than encouraging people to go out, we encouraged people to dig into learning the history of spaces,” said Helen Hollyman, Thrillist’s Editor in Chief.
As the world reopens, Thrillist’s focus is on service journalism that aims to help readers figure out their pandemic travel comfort level. While things are looking up, “it’s still a little bit of a question mark where things will be at the end of 2021,” Hollyman said.
Given the uncertainty of international travel, Thrillist opted to emphasize domestic travel by highlighting adventures that can be had. These include camping, stargazing, and exploring national and state parks.
Advertisers are ready for the change, Hollyman said. “Everyone’s kind of in this space of let’s get back in there,” she said. “People are tired of Netflix, and they’re tired of streaming.”
George Stone, Editor in Chief of National Geographic’s travel coverage, described the pandemic as a bit of a break. It offered a breather, which allowed the publication to shift gears and return to its roots. “In a way, it gave us the opportunity to do better National Geographic storytelling,” he said. “We were stepping away from consumer travel objectives, and that was a relief.”
With consumer travel largely off the table for several months, National Geographic felt free to focus its website on looking at the world through the lenses of science, history, and culture. “We started to dig into the stories of people and places more so than the immediate story of the traveler,” Stone said.
There were also more Covid-19 stories, a reflection of National Geographic’s deep commitment to covering science. “Our traffic really shot up last March,” said Alissa Swango, Managing Editor for National Geographic Digital.
Homeschooling parents drove up demand for science-related kids content like experiments to supplement schoolwork. A popup pandemic newsletter has remained so popular it still hasn’t pivoted. “Our open rates are still very high,” Swango said.
As travel opens up, National Geographic hopes to help usher in a new more thoughtful era of travel. Like other publishers, it plans to focus more on sustainable travel and responsible tourism through its content.
The goal is to “encourage people to get out into the world for a firsthand encounter with the issues,places, communities that bring geographical and cultural context,” Stone said. “We want people to know the world and love the world as conservationists and explorers.”
Vox Media has become a podcasting powerhouse, with more than 200 shows across multiple categories. From news and tech to culture, comedy and sports, the publisher is seen as a leader when it comes to building and monetizing audiences around their premium podcasts.
The Vox Media Podcast Network is well-established. However, there is a great deal of strategic thinking and consideration that goes into developing new shows. This has been highlighted recently with the launch of a new narrative podcast, Go For Broke, from Epic Magazine.
Vox Media’s VP and Executive Producer of Audio Nishat Kurwa and Epic Magazine’s Director of Business Operations Melis Tusiray discussed the development of Go For Broke. They also explore the ways in which they leverage the power of the network when launching new shows.
Developing Epic’s first podcast
Go For Broke is a narrative franchise that looks at the stories within historical success “bubbles.” The idea for the podcast stemmed from a discussion of Pets.com. For those who don’t remember, the pet supply enterprise rose to fame after a sock puppet advertising campaign. It became one of the more high-profile victims of the dotcom bubble burst in the early 2000s.
“As we started talking about bubbles, it just really occurred to us at that moment that there was so much rich storytelling under this thematic concept of bubbles. It really made sense to do it as a podcast,” said Tusiray. “We could put in the audio texture of that time period, and really immerse the listeners in it. So when Epic merged with Vox Media in 2019, this was one of the first stories that we pitched.”
Hosted by BuzzFeed News alumna Julia Furlan, the series will address the ways in which the first dotcom bubble set up the dominance of the tech industry. It will also highlight how the same forces that caused the first crash are still at work in today’s tech economy.
This is Epic’s first full podcast show. So, it will be an opportunity for the team to discover their own audio voice and style within Vox Media’s Podcast Network. The brand has a strong background in storytelling through their publications. They’ve also done film and TV work, all with a focus on telling extraordinary true stories.
“It was when we joined Vox Media and we got to know the Vox Media Podcast Team that the opportunity became very clear,” explained Tusiray. “It became the right entry point for us to do our first Epic Magazine-branded narrative podcast.”
Leveraging a network
Having a well-established podcast network is key to the success of new shows at Vox Media. “We leverage our network inventory to do a lot of audio promotion across different audio sets and different categories,” Kurwa said.
New podcasts are frequently cross-promoted through audio promotions in similar categories. Occasionally Vox Media makes use of feed drops; it puts a trailer or whole episode of a new podcast into another show’s feed in order to attract listeners.
Go For Broke’s focus on the dotcom crash for the first season means that it covers both business and technology. These are categories which the Vox Media Podcast Network already publishes some of its biggest shows such as Pivot and Land of the Giants. “We know our audience is already interested in insightful coverage and historical narratives in those areas,” explained Kurwa. “So we took that as a strong signal that this would be a smart series to pursue.”
“That is really important when we’re thinking about developing a new show. What do we know about the audiences we already have? What do we know about the ways that we’ll be able to leverage our network to promote any new shows that we decide to publish?”
Building out franchises
One of the strategies that has made the Vox Media Podcast Network so successful over the past few years has been leaning into its franchises. This involves building out an area of focus for a brand, and then doing special series within that. For Epic, Go For Broke will play a formative part of shaping its future audio portfolio within Vox Media.
“Part of that initial pitch and development process was looking at what we can grow as a franchise,” Kurwa outlined. “As a network, we really have to develop our discipline around what makes sense for the individual brands, and what makes business sense, especially when looking at a very saturated podcast market. Where can we have success, where can we make inroads?”
This strategy plays out across other podcasts Vox Media looks to develop as well. The idea has to be able to extend across multiple seasons and stories to capitalize on the established audience. “While we’re in production for the first season, we’re already thinking about what a second, and even third season can be,” Kurwa added.
Go For Broke has benefited from Vox Media’s centralized audio team, who work across the various editorial networks to help shape their audio strategies under the Vox Media umbrella. This covers everything from the pitching and development process to support with production, marketing and sales.
Stability in podcasting
Coronavirus has not slowed Vox Media’s podcasting efforts. Like many other publishers, it has seen growth during this period, with listeners increasing by almost 50% over the past year.
At the start of 2020, Vox Media was reportedly aiming to double their $10 million-a- year podcasting business. Kurwa wouldn’t comment on revenue specifics, but said that they were on track with the target. Most importantly, the podcast business has shown stability throughout the pandemic.
“The fact that podcast audiences have remained stable and grown so much is very encouraging for the Podcast Network,” Kurwa said. There have been changes in the time that people listen, with a notable shift from the commute to now listening in the middle of the day or in the evening after dinner.
“The listening has time shifted. But it’s grown in really promising ways,” she added.
The strength of the Vox Media Podcast Network is in knowing its audiences. Epic Magazine’s Go For Broke launches into a vertical that Vox Media already has established podcasts in. This gives the brand an edge when it comes to promotion, monetization, and developing further audio products.
As the U.S. presidential election nears, it’s logical that global publishers want to understand the strategies that can encourage stronger reader engagement. Pivotal, high traffic events that truly showcase their content only come along so often.
With that in mind, we looked back at our analysis of reader engagement trends during major events — including the 2016 U.S. presidential election and Brexit vote — to see how audiences tend to interact with this type of unique content. More on our research, along with its implications for publishers, below.
Honing in on audience behaviors before, during, and after events
For the sake of this research, we wanted to put ourselves in the position of publishers for this upcoming election. More specifically, we analyzed data around three major timeframes: before, during, and after the event. These tend to offer the opportunity to reach and engage more readers.
Thinking about pre-election content strategies
There’s no doubt that direct, search, and social traffic have a significant role to play in audience development efforts during major events. However, it’s just as important to understand when they can be most effective.
Our data suggests that the majority of referral traffic in the days leading up to an event will be coming from search, as we show below. This aligns with reader behaviors we saw during the 2016 election. Search traffic was highest leading up to and during the election. In contrast, social traffic didn’t increase until hours later, when reactions (emotions, hot takes, opinions) to the news are more likely to dominate those channels. As such, we see this as a critical opportunity to reevaluate SEO and referral linking strategies in order to maximize traffic during the event.
How audiences seek and interact with content during events
We’ve also seen that loyal readerswill likely come directly to publishers once a story breaks or more details emerge. Meanwhile, the majority of newer visitors will find coverage amid a search results page. This is where pre-election SEO efforts should pay off. It could be the difference between content being seen first or buried among other outlets’ coverage.
This is also where publishers can start to get promotional channels such as social media involved. It’s critical that all visitors, new or loyal, are made aware of a publisher’s stated differentiators during major news events. That could be a “dedication to the facts” or a local angle on the event. Publishers have the ability to gain new visitors without alienating their direct, loyal readers.
Building trust with new and returning readers is important any time. However, now you have a chance during periods of higher-than-usual traffic. Loyal readers consume more than double the content of non-loyal readers. So, the experience you provide today will increase the likelihood they come back again.
Prioritize experimentation with different article formats. When we recently conducted research across COVID-19 related content, we found that the up-to-the-minute appeal of live blogs garnered significant reader attention. We also saw that pattern reflected in our 2019 Most Engaging Stories, where live blogs during major events such as Brexit were among the top articles.
Social media as a means of engaging readers post-event
The two previous sections highlighted search optimizations as a point of emphasis before and during the election. When it comes to post-event engagement tactics, our analysis suggests that social media offers a strong opportunity as traffic picks up again in the event aftermath.
Let’s use Brexit as an example. We analyzed multiple articles and angles that covered the same topic across Google search and Facebook. We found that the coverage and subsequent audience behaviors aligned with the reader behaviors we’ve outlined thus far.
For instance, we see that the most successful stories on Facebook tend to have an emotional, rather than informative, lens. Only a few highly emotional topics, like “Regrets and anger about results,” received significant engagement via Facebook. More factual topics such as “What happens if UK votes to leave” received much more significant engagement via Google search.
Therefore, we’ve seen the benefits of experimenting around sentiment on social media versus a singular “news you can use” strategy that works well in search. This approach can help attract new audiences in the post-event phase of election coverage.
Key takeaways: Planning for election coverage traffic increases
As publishers determine their election engagement strategy, here’s some key takeaways based on our research:
1. Optimize for search sooner rather than later
Consider posting search-friendly content before the election. This way, there’s no doubt that it will be indexed by Google or any other search engine of choice. Meanwhile, review linking strategies to ensure that content is being updated or iterated upon for the best reader journey possible.
2. Lean into coverage strengths
The election will have multiple angles. Even though our research suggests that audiences tend to gravitate towards factual pieces, it shouldn’t limit publishers to a single angle on any piece of content. Give readers the unique storytelling angles and formats they can’t get anywhere else.
3. Get social when it counts
Our data suggests that social media traffic will begin to gain traction as long as 12-24 hours after the event. Consider the timing and messaging of content and invest accordingly to have the greatest differentiation and impact on that referral traffic.
When preparing for the election, or any major event for that matter, we see a clear advantage to getting ahead on pre-coverage search and post-coverage social tactics based on the reader interactions we’ve seen before and after the fact. This should also give teams time and flexibility to iterate and experiment during the event, as reader behaviors can rapidly change when it comes to the diverse audiences landing on publishers’ sites.
Publishers establish editorial guidelines to provide a common foundation for journalists, creators, and producers. These guidelines provide a common language to identify an editorial framework and boundaries. Guidelines are often questioned, reevaluated, and updated in a process that allows the editorial voice to evolve over time. Editorial guidelines also present a check and balance system for standards and content moderation, which in turn creates a safe space for advertising.
Unfortunately, the editorial guidelines of social media platforms appear to be a complex maze of mixed messages. This results in unhappy content producers – given opacity around monetization of some content – and risky business for marketers.
One problem is that they frequently include different governance strategies for different creators. The result is that creators struggle to remain inside the viable boundaries for monetization.
YouTube offers a partnership program for content creators and shares advertising revenue with them. Plain and simple, the more user-generated content, the more views, which allows YouTube to collect user data to support targeted advertising. And the more ads served, the more revenue generated.
The YouTube Partnership Program (YPP) is intrinsic to its revenue model. Essentially, it is a form of unpaid labor that generates enormous revenue for the platform. YouTube’s partnership program encourages users to make more content with an offer of compensation as ads run against that content.
YouTube’s content creators vary from amateurs, professionalized amateurs, legacy media organizations, and YouTube’s contracted producers of original content. One particularly tricky aspect is that each is held to held to a different standard and entitled to a different monetization offering.
A few other social platforms developed similar programs, but YouTube’s is by far the largest. According to Caplan and Gillespie’s research, YouTube’s lack of clarity and complicated rules appears to do little in the way of effective content moderation or fair compensation. Further, the fact that YouTube works with multiple creator tiers fuels issues of inconsistent treatment. Consider how editorial standards would impact:
amateur creators who are not dependent on revenue,
creators who are dependent on revenue
professionals building their reputation for secondary distribution, or
media institutions who partner for distribution power.
YouTube’s policies vary, with little explanation, in dealing with content that violate their standards and practices around sexual content, violence, harassment, hate speech, or misinformation. Actions include content demonetization, removal of individual videos, or the suspension of entire accounts. They might also place videos behind age barriers or include interstitial warnings indicating graphic content. YouTube may also remove videos deemed to infringe on copyright infringement, violate privacy, or simply spam.
Caplan and Gillespie summarize the YouTube problem:
YouTube stated values as an open platform of expression are in direct conflict with their cautiousness regarding acceptable content and the financial and algorithmic incentive structure.
YouTube’s governance offers a different set of rules for different users. These include different material resources and opportunities for creators to different procedural protections and different expectations of fairness.
Given the ambiguity in the guidelines, creators develop their own theories as to why their content is demonetized.
Caplan and Gillespie offer examples of YouTube’s randomness in enforcing its standards. For example, it appears that YouTube determines participation in YPP based on an algorithmic mix of popularity, engagement, and propriety. However, according to many independent content creators, YouTube also allows inappropriate content to circulate and amplify based on popularity and the ability to generate revenue for the company.
YouTube’s participatory video culture does not bode well for advertisers’ demand for quality and predictability. It appears to be a system based on rewarding audience size and celebrity stardom. Unfortunately, given this revenue model, when YouTube adds new layers to its already complex labyrinth of standards, it fails its creators and fails to effectively moderate content.
As we begin to adapt to new routines amidst the coronavirus crisis, food publishers have seen a large rise in audience numbers and engagement. People facing weeks at home with limited take-out options (and even limited cooking skills) have turned to food sites and networks in droves. They’re looking for inspiration and guidance about everything from baking to budget meal planning.
However, these publishers have had to deal with challenges of their own. Production teams, editorial staff and studio stars have all had to adapt to remote working and changing audience demands.
One food publisher rising to the challenge is Condé Nast’s digital consumer-focused food brand Epicurious. The site has seen a surge in overall traffic of 69% year over year, according to Digital Director David Tamarkin. For the five years he has been at Epicurious, he says the title has focused on “realistic cooking: the kind of cooking that happens when you’re juggling childcare, or got home late from work, or the kind of cooking you do on the weekends when you have more time.” And that, it seems, aligns with the times.
Epicurius’ focus has pushed daily average traffic up +88% as audiences search for accessible recipes. The publisher is also seeing unexpected success with its eCommerce revenue. It’s seen a “huge increase” in sales of baking-related products, such as kitchen scales, which have seen a 1,000% year over year increase. Meal delivery services sold through Epicurious were another stand-out–up an astonishing 388% in March. And even individual grocery items, which are typically not high performers for the site, were up 59%.
“Because we’ve been operating with what we call a ‘home cook realness’ always in mind, it feels like we’ve been preparing for a moment like this – a moment where people suddenly find themselves cooking more than they ever have before,” Tamarkin explained. “Our content is all about helping people be smarter, more nimble, more joyful cooks, so it makes sense to me that it is resonating at the moment.”
It’s not just food-focused websites seeing growth. In April, Discovery Network’s Food Network channel saw record-breaking ratings over the weekends, as audiences tuned in looking for entertainment, community and recipe inspiration. The network reached more than 46 million viewers, which is a 6% year over year increase, and also delivered its best month ever in Weekday Daytime ratings. Early figures for May have yet to be finalized. But a Food Network representative confirmed that it is showing a similar pattern to April.
Adapting content strategies
Epicurious was quick to fine tune its editorial strategy as stay-at-home measures kicked in. “We pivoted to pantry-building content almost immediately, creating a two-week meal plan that exclusively uses shelf-stable ingredients,” said Tamarkin. “Then we launched Cooking Through It – a series of 10-day meal plans that used hyper-flexible recipes.”
This approach allowed people to do one big shop that would last for ten days or more, in order to minimize trips out. Epicurious has also seen success with its recipe-finding tool that allows readers to search recipes based on the ingredients they have on hand. They are also preparing to launch a series of articles about affordable cooking, which will continue for the foreseeable future.
Food Network on the other hand has made only slight changes to its programming. “There is a slight additional focus on pantry staples and making sure to discuss substitutions should anyone at home not have specific ingredients. But we haven’t been hyper focused on changing the shows too much,” said President Courtney White. Their focus now is on keeping their scheduling flush with premier episodes, rather than relying on repeats.
Coping with production challenges
When it comes to planning shows from home, Food Network’s team has been quick to adapt. “Fortunately, many of our talent were fairly easy to get up and running,” White explained. “With production partners also working from home, the creativity and nimbleness to continue to create, edit, and deliver content that audiences enjoy has been an ongoing evolution.”
White explained that Food Network’s programming has been bolstered by self-shot shows such as The Kitchen Quarantine Edition, The Pioneer Woman: Staying Home, and the ‘Guy at Home Watch Party’ edition of Tournament of Champions. “We want to be there for our viewers, and now more than ever as so many find themselves sheltering at home,” White said. “We’ve enhanced the lineup with even more comfort food shows and trusted food personalities.”
For Epicurious, the editorial team is relying on tools like Zoom and Slack to communicate and discuss how to best help their readers through their recipes, menu ideas and videos. “Helpfulness is in Epicurious’ DNA. But it’s rare that we see the impact of the content we put out in such an immediate way,” Tamarkin concluded.
As audiences continue to seek out practical content to help them navigate the everyday challenges of the crisis, these brands have spotted an opportunity. Publishers who can capitalize on this surge in attention and build loyalty now will be in a strong position to maintain this engagement as we settle into the much anticipated “new normal.”
As multi-channel has given way to omnichannel distribution, publishers no longer seek print readers or digital readers. Instead, they recognize that they must reach the same reader across mediums to have a real impact. Print, digital, audio, video, social media, smart speakers, connected cars – the sheer number of news mediums can be daunting. As multi-channel has given way to omnichannel distribution, publishers no longer seek print readers or digital readers. Instead, they recognize that they must reach the same reader across mediums to have a real impact.It’s official: multi-channel has given way to “omnichannel”. Publishers no longer seek “print readers” or “digital readers,” instead they recognize that they must reach the same reader across several mediums to have a real impact. Print, digital, audio, video, social media, smart speakers, connected cars – the sheer number of news mediums can be daunting. As multi-channel has given way to omnichannel distribution, publishers no longer seek print readers or digital readers. Instead, they recognize that they must reach the same reader across mediums to have a real impact.It’s official: multi-channel has given way to “omnichannel”. Publishers no longer seek “print readers” or “digital readers,” instead they recognize that they must reach the same reader across several mediums to have a real impact. Print, digital, audio, video, social media, smart speakers, connected cars – the sheer number of news mediums can be daunting. As multi-channel has given way to omnichannel distribution, publishers no longer seek print readers or digital readers. Instead, they recognize that they must reach the same reader across mediums to have a real impact.It’s official: multi-channel has given way to “omnichannel”. Publishers no longer seek “print readers” or “digital readers,” instead they recognize that they must reach the same reader across several mediums to have a real impact. Print, digital, audio, video, social media, smart speakers, connected cars – the sheer number of news mediums can be daunting.
True omnichannel publishers have recognized that repackaging
the same journalism in multiple ways is the secret to keeping up and presents
revenue opportunities previously unimagined. Every new platform or trendy
format will ultimately rely on the same storytelling and the same six
questions: who, what, when, where, why and how?
Poynter Institute fellow Mike Wendland talked about the concept of “convergence” all the way back in 2002, sharing the example of the Tampa Tribune – an early experiment in “repurposing” journalism:
Tampa, the TV station, the newspaper and the Website are all owned by the same
corporation, Media General. On a daily basis, TV reporters do their stand-ups
and then write bylined newspaper stories. Newspaper reporters write their
stories and then appear before TV cameras to do “talk-back” debriefings or
their own stand-ups. And everybody — reporters, editors, photographers —
‘repurpose’ their work for the website.”
Now, such a
practice is commonplace for large media organizations and increasingly
accessible for local media. While there are plenty of vehicles, old and
new, for journalism, there are five that should be used in tandem to share the
same work from your newsroom:
1. Interactive Online Articles
Enhancing print edition articles with interactive elements online is a great way to engage readers with the same journalism. The Washington Post published this Coronavirus simulator in multiple languages to help bring their other reporting to life. It’s the same data that support theirother stories, but the visual, interactive elements draw the reader in, keep them engaged and encourage them to subscribe.
David Leonhardt from The New York Times commented on the unique power of interactive journalism to not only repurpose the same facts, but spur on additional content, saying: “One of the less obvious benefits of interactive journalism is the way in which it generates its own follow-up articles.”
Considering our busy lives and tendency towards multitasking, is it any wonder that more than half of US adults listen to podcasts daily? Podcasts represent a great opportunity to repurpose a story and dig a little deeper, perhaps taking readers behind the scenes or sharing more historical context.
“We publish several hundred articles a day, and one of those articles each weekday becomes the basis for The Daily podcast. During that podcast, one of our esteemed journalists, Michael Barbaro, gives the story behind the story. He interviews the journalist who wrote it and other people who were involved in that piece of content. So, from that one piece of content, that original journalism, we actually have two more degrees of revenue opportunities. And within those, we can diversify the revenue streams even more. “
Video journalism can range from highly produced packages to
simply capturing a podcast recording session on camera. You already know the
benefits of video journalism – after all, it’s
not new. What is new is short-form, quick packages shared across a variety
of platforms (more on this in a moment), and the barrier to entry is lower than
Jon Savitt from Huff
Post explored the impact of video on journalism, and neatly explained that
the reduction in time from an event occurring and a smartphone user reading the
story means “we all need
to get better at being multimedia producers.”
4. Social Media
“Social media” is a huge category with many separate platforms and formats, making it a great tool for repurposing other content. Add images over podcast audio for a quick, easy to produce video. Share individual packages or user generated content. As many ways as your team can slice and dice other content, social media platforms are a great way to experiment.
Looking for inspiration? Here’s how other news media organizations dominate on:
By the end of 2020, voice searches are expected to make up
half of all online searches. Currently, 65% of smart speaker owners between the ages of 25 and 49
speak to their devices at least once a day. Knowing that voice technology will
become the primary way the next generation of consumers will search for and buy
products means publishers must prepare their web content to rank for organic
Voice queries are longer than traditional text-based searches, and most are questions. According to Search Engine Watch, the top questions people ask their smart speakers are who, what, when, where, why and how – the foundations of journalism!
advantage of this channel, make sure your online articles clearly and concisely
answer these questions in layman’s terms, and you’ll be killing two birds with
In media, content is king. But in other industries, what exactly is its value? If your organization is accustomed to the immediate return of most marketing and advertising metrics, then investing in the long-tail metrics of a content program can seem like a competing priority.
Robert Rose, chief content officer of the Content Marketing Institute, explained the real ROI of content based on where it falls financially:
“As a business manager, you have two fundamental ways to make the company more valuable – financial and strategic. Campaign-based marketing and advertising is almost always focused on creating financial value. … Strategic value, on the other hand, doesn’t include but greatly influences financial metrics.”
In other words, content is not going to be directly attributed to revenue. Content is a strategic value, and Rose argues that it should be measured as any asset would be. An asset, like your product, service, or brand position is “the multiplier that gives a differentiated (or easier) way to achieve financial value.”
At Parse.ly, we believe that the best digital companies are the ones with the best content, so we take our own content strategy very seriously. But even a world-class content analytics platform isn’t immune to the variable pressures of business. In April 2019, we wanted to tackle some big initiatives. So for one month, we pressed pause.
We stopped producing content.
How could we come to a decision like that? For starters, we knew the pause was temporary. We figured maybe we could skate by on our archive. However, this conflicted with the fact that providing the latest insights is what our content strategy was built on from the very beginning.
Clare Carr, our VP of Marketing, has spent the last six years turning data into stories at Parse.ly. “We’re so meta,” Carr joked. “We use our own data, we look at our data, we write about data.” Our network provides us with a window into the impact of Facebook, Google, and other platforms. “Without this data,” Carr added, “we’d be unaware how fundamentally these have changed the industry.”
Carr recalled one of the original questions we had, about the extent to which digital content was shaping people’s political opinions online—a notion that seems almost quaint now. At that time, Parse.ly was reliant on traditional PR. This was leading up to the 2008 presidential election, between then-senators Barack Obama and John McCain. At the time, Google drove single-digit percentages of referral traffic, and Facebook even less than that. This kind of data was our foot in the door.
When we talked about these major digital players, people paid attention. We created a quarterly analysis, a PDF called the Authority Report, which PR emailed to journalists. Over time, those journalists realized that they could depend on us.
The only pain point was that we couldn’t keep up. If a journalist reached out, the last update was at least a quarter old. We’re quick to respond, but we simply weren’t staffed to match the volume of requests we received. So our data science team made a game-changing decision: “Let’s just make this public.”
We produce 46% less content than in the previous 6 months, but we’ve increased monthly views and visitors by about 25%.
We issue a bi-weekly newsletter, from which we can expect two to three placements minimum in high-profile outlets that we respect.
We hired an analyst (that’s me!) with a penchant for media and the information economy.
Fast forward to April 2019. We had a good foundation and a lot of evergreen content. We also had a lot of other work to do.
“I want to level set,” said Carr. “I want to know if all these things I’m saying from a marketing and positioning perspective are true. We’ve got other priorities,” said Carr.
And with that, we took April off from content production.
The null state
“I undersold how daring it was,” Carr deadpanned. “I sold other projects we’d get to do instead. Some of it wasn’t very exciting, like cleaning up our CRM database.” However, she finished that project, and a dozen others that would help us scale into the next several years. Then, she looked at our numbers.
The overall site traffic to our main site didn’t change much. Our blog traffic was expectedly lower, but the blog is only a small percentage of our total site traffic.
However, there was one big problem: Leads were down almost exactly in line with our blog’s traffic.
Now, we don’t normally see leads convert directly on the blog. But we saw that the email capture forms on our blog had declined a bit. All things considered, that wasn’t the stat that worried us. What was truly alarming was the fact that all of our other lead forms—such as demo requests, pricing forms, and product information forms—all dropped precipitously. As a B2B company, this was huge.
Significantly, when we restarted publishing in May, leads climbed back up.
Producing good content is a key business objective
At the end of the day, this test provided a good opportunity to show our own team that, when we say content works for our clients, we mean it. We proved it on our own domain.
But without the right data, it is a difficult thing to demonstrate. “There are big internal communications programs at many companies, across many industries, just to communicate value. But once you see the data behind your content, and how easy it is to get that data, the more people want to be a part of it,” Carr said.
Trying to prove that content should drive conversions directly is a fool’s errand. It’s difficult to show that content will correlate with leads. Like the rest of your marketing campaign, multi-touch attribution considers all your efforts, and how they work together. Otherwise, you find yourself permanently tangled in an argument about correlation vs. causation.
If you’re struggling with that now, consider this: ice cream sales are highest between June and September. Shark attacks are also highest between June and September. These correlate, but ice cream sales certainly don’t cause shark attacks. There’s a lurking variable in this equation, and that is: June through September is summertime. Summertime boosts ice cream sales and gets us to get in the water. In this analogy, your content is summertime.
Content amplifies your efforts to initiate a conversation and build a relationship with potential and existing customers. If data helps content creators do their jobs better, then content helps businesses do the same. Therefore, producing good content shouldn’t simply be an add-on to your business objectives; producing good content is a business objective.
living in the age of “banner blindness,” where internet users are either
subconsciously or consciously (read: grumpily) ignoring display ads.
This means that of the small number of readers that are seeing these ads, a truly dismal percentage — 0.05%, to be exact — are clicking on them. But this wasn’t always the case. If you ask some old guard advertisers about the golden age of display ads, they might speak reverently about the pixelated 1994 banner ad (purchased by AT&T on HotWired.com) that inspired 44% of viewers to click on it. What brilliantly crafted message garnered this level of engagement, you ask? “Have you ever clicked your mouse right HERE? YOU WILL.”
Needless to say, times have changed. People increasingly seek out companies with a human face behind them, and the best way to show your humanity as a brand or publisher is through storytelling.
content has a major problem: scalability.
Fifteen percent of publishers cite scaling content production as a stumbling block. Yet 90% expect their company’s revenue from branded content to increase over the next year. With most publishers creating content for multiple different brands and clients, it can feel like an insurmountable task to give each one the attention they deserve.
The 3 Rs of Scale
If you’re looking to scale your branded content production, there are three words you need to keep in mind: reduce, reuse, and refocus.
Rather than over-saturating your readers’ feeds with branded content, consider focusing your efforts on a smaller number of pieces that do more heavy lifting when it comes to engaging your audience and building your client’s brand.
Instead of putting all your time and energy
into creating a wealth of broad, generic content, try homing in on a few key
topics or issues that align with your client’s goals and your audience’s interests — and be honest with yourself about what
those interests are. A quality piece of content is one that tells a story.
Stories — especially ones with a compelling character or cause behind them — engage
our entire brain, which is why
we remember them and forget every banner ad we’ve ever seen.
For example, if you’re working with a travel and hospitality client, hunt for a compelling story about the destination that you’re promoting and then tell it in an inspiring way. The New York Times’ T Brand Studio knew this when they teamed up with the Fairmont Waterfront Hotel in Vancouver. Rather than discussing room service options or bedsheet thread count, their article introduced readers to the quarter of a million honeybees that call the Fairmont home, and shared what its staff are doing to protect them.
great deal of pressure placed on publishers and content creators to
consistently produce new, original content. While staying on top of industry
trends and addressing topical audience concerns is certainly important, you
should also be taking stock of pieces that you’ve produced in the past and
coming up with ways to repurpose them.
To effectively reuse (and by extension, scale) your content, start thinking “modular.” Focus on writing foundational pieces that you can then add building blocks onto, like videos, photo galleries, or infographics. If your client has hosted a brand activation or event (or even has just a few evergreen pieces of content under their belt), you could easily turn that into a string of modular content.
Another tactic is to take stock of what kind of content you
already have on your site that the client could lend their support to. Maybe
you have an exceptionally popular series that their brand could be integrated
into. This is a great way to lend your publication’s authority to their company
and allow for a more seamless content creation process.
key to refocusing your content efforts is to keep revenue top of mind. Think
about what you’re selling and why. Then, consider how you can make the content
more profitable for you and your brand partner. The right decision will help
you maximize revenue while also giving your sales team room to negotiate with
it comes to branded content, not all business models are created
equal. However, depending on your and your brand partner’s goals (i.e. impressions
versus engagement), one model may be much better suited for your needs than
instance, the Flat Fee model ensures all costs are fixed, from creation to
distribution. It’s advantageous for partners who have strictly defined
expectations for their content. If you prefer to adapt your strategy on the
fly, this isn’t the model for you. Another option is to split the costs of
production from distribution. This makes it easier to charge incrementally
based on client expectations, while still making sure your creation costs are
covered. You can also use this method to turn a single content piece into a
significant revenue-earner by selling the client extra promotional assets, like
reads and impressions.
between these two is important, too. The Cost Per Thousand Impressions (CPM)
model measures cursory views, not engagements. Therefore, it’s not the best choice for those
seeking to build a connection with readers. It is, however, perfectly suited to
a campaign that includes a large number of assets like banners and other
display ads. In contrast, the Cost Per Engagement (CPE) or Cost Per Read (CPR) model is
well-suited to branded content, as it bundles the content with a number of
high-quality reads so advertisers know exactly what to expect.
As you’re scaling
your content, keep in mind that even a small amount of high-quality content can
go a long way if you’re smart about what you’re creating and how you’re
packaging it. The overarching goal is to communicate your brand partner’s
unique selling features to your customers, so keep your target audience in
mind. Set yourself up for success by finding new and unique ways to scale your
content, from production through to distribution.
The digital media industry is not exactly heading into 2019 with unbridled optimism. However, with great challenge comes a sense of clarity and focus. And we have to hope that it’s finally registered that building a media company on Facebook traffic alone won’t sustain another year. An actual connection with the audience will make or break media companies going forward. As Brian Morrissey from Digiday put it: “Among the biggest lies publishers have told in the past few years, “We don’t buy traffic” ranks rather high.” Without a doubt, consumer engagement needs to top publisher strategies for 2019.
Where to look for inspiration? A whole crop of brand publishers—admittedly free from the constraints of CPMs and programmatic ad-tech headaches (often with ex-journalists at the helm)—find ways to focus on building impressive audiences who contribute to revenue, without subscriptions. Imagine such a world! Maybe the traditional publishing world can learn something from these marketers (and one pretty radical publisher) when it comes to connecting with an audience.
Here are five big ideas to focus on in 2019:
1. Harvard: Get specific about your intended audiences—plural.
Resist the impulse to paint with a broad brush.
“When it comes to targeting, we start by asking that question upfront—Who’s the primary audience and the secondary audience?” said Mike Petroff, Director of Content Strategy at Harvard University. “The audience affects what we’re writing and how we’re evaluating and measuring. If the content is not hitting the right audience, it’s not successful.”
Petroff also distinguishes between audiences for specific channels. “With The Daily Gazette newsletter, we know the audience, we can understand the type of news a student needs vs. alumni or staff,” Petroff said. By understanding the nuances of the newsletter audience and their behavior, Petroff’s team can better serve all their readers. “We’re able to say, ‘Wow, this story really resonated with this audience but not at all with other audiences.’ We can give that info to certain editors about intent and what they can learn for future stories.”
2. Billy Penn: Ask your audience questions and listen to their feedback.
Okay, Spirited Media is clearly a publisher through and through. However, they’ve taken such a radical approach to local news, that their advice gets included in this list. Data and market research are important for understanding audience behavior, but so is getting feedback directly from real people.
Danya Henninger, Editor at Philadelphia local news site Billy Penn, wondered if she should change the structure of their daily newsletter. “Our sister websites, in Denver (Denverite) and in Pittsburgh (The Incline)—they both start their newsletters with a personal note and then get to the news,” Henninger said.
Should Billy Penn follow suit? She brought the question to her readers: “At one point I asked, in our morning newsletter. I said, ‘Hey, how about if we do this note up here.’ And got several replies, ‘Please don’t do that.’” Henninger learned that her readers valued the format of the newsletter as it was, a brief recap of their news for the day.
3. Delta Sky: Create and empower quality content.
It pains me that this advice still needs to be shared but even in 2018. But let’s face it, quality isn’t something we can take for granted when it comes to content.
We asked Sarah Elbert, editor-in-chief at Delta Sky magazine, what constitutes quality. She replied, “Stories that don’t underestimate their readers.” And it’s working for her team:Sky’s readership among 22- to 44-year-olds has grown 32% in the past year and they’ve found that people are spending more time with the magazine.
Specifically, “it’s about finding the most alluring places to visit and bringing new elements of these destinations to life—whether it’s an adventure angle in Iceland or an urban tour of Seoul. And finding people who are just doing really cool, innovative things.” More generally, quality content includes the “kinds of stories that make the reader want to find out more. It’s about stoking their curiosity and engagement with the world.”
Creating stories that don’t underestimate readers also means trusting your writers. As Elbert said, “We allow our writers to have their own voice and we don’t dumb-down the content.”
4. BarkBox: Create an environment that people want to be a part of.
“Our philosophy as a company has always been that we’re not the party promoters—we are the DJs at the party,” said Stacie Grissom, Head of Content at BarkBox. “We’re responsible for creating the atmosphere that makes customers want to participate in the peripheral conversations rooted around our product.”
“We try to create content that sticks to your bones a bit more than just social memes and social videos,” Grissom said. “Our goal for BarkBox is to create a really entertaining experience.”
To that end, not only does Grissom have writers and social media people on her team, she also has comedians. The Bark approach is a marriage of data-driven decision-making and sheer creativity. “We tend to pursue a lot of things by thinking, ‘Wouldn’t it be cool if?’”
5. eMarketer: Don’t make your content frustrating on mobile.
Mobile is driving growth in time spent with digital media, according to data from eMarketer. An audience-first content strategy should also connect users with content that meets their mindset across devices, including when they’re on their phones. Often, that mindset is killing time in small increments.
Nicole Perrin, Senior Analyst at eMarketer, noted that content creators need to be “respectful of the user’s attention when [they] only have five minutes to look at [their] phone.” Ensure that experiences aren’t interruptive on mobile devices.
“As a user, I often get very frustrated consuming content, whether it’s on desktop, laptop, or phone, by how interruptive the experience can be with advertising,” Perrin said. She also urged creators to be smart about recognizing subscribers across devices. Removing friction from the user experience whenever possible can help you deliver value to prospective users and current users alike.
Big ideas for 2019
To make it out of 2019, and beyond, business as usual will not be business as usual. Big bets will have to be placed, and bold moves will have to be made. Making sure you’re constantly exploring strategies and tactics that make an audience want to connect with you is the best way to go on the offense, instead of spending your time playing defense against a constantly shifting market.
Here’s to learning from unexpected sources and trying new things in the new year.
The Financial Times has announced plans to expand its tech coverage, acknowledging the growing influence of technology across all sectors. The move is part of a broader trend in recent years in which media outlets including The Wall Street Journal, CNBC, and CNN have dedicated increasing resources to this area.
Perhaps it’s because of the famous maxim that every company is a software company now. Whether it’s manufacturing, automotive, insurance or pharmaceuticals, it’s become impossible to separate the tech innovation from a specific sector. Publications are increasingly addressing that fact by offering increased tech coverage.
What’s more, the traditional tech sector itself has changed dramatically over the last decade. Instead of a handful of dominant companies like Microsoft, Oracle, SAP and IBM, we have a new generation of tech powerhouses including companies like Netflix, Salesforce, and Amazon – not to mention a whole universe of startups trying their best to out-innovate the bigger players.
Adding A Tech Desk
In response to this, the FT, which had been organized into four broad coverage desks (Companies, Markets, World News, UK/National News), decided to build a dedicated desk specifically for tech. Prior to adding this specialized group, tech tended to fall under Companies in the FT organizational structure. This resulted in coverage of the larger players in the sector. Smaller tech startups tended to fall by the wayside and readers were hungry for more comprehensive information, Malcolm Moore, the new Technology News Editor told DCN.
The FT decided to form a dedicated group of reporters exploring every aspect of tech from startups all the way up to the largest vendors. They wanted to cover the bigger picture as well, including policy, regulation, and innovation. Internally, the idea of building a desk dedicated to technology began to take shape.
“We thought wouldn’t it be a good idea to have a dedicated tech desk on top of the existing ones, a fifth desk, to give us a more holistic approach to it all. This would let us cover early companies a bit more, we can cover innovation a bit more, and we can cover this [broader] intersection of business with the with the tech industry,” Moore explained.
Giving Readers What They Want
Moore said a big part of the FT’s value for readers is providing them with insight they won’t get anywhere else. And, as technology has grown increasingly critical to investors, the audience indicated that they wanted more information to help them understand this pivotal industry better. “We collect a lot of data from our readers. We also survey them a lot. What came back to us time and time again is that they wanted more technology coverage,” he said.
FT editor Lionel Barber pointed out that publication has had broad tech coverage for 20 years with teams in Silicon Valley, Washington, Brussels, and across Asia. However, this is the first time the company put all that coverage together under a single banner. It’s in recognition of the growing importance of this coverage area for readers. “Technology permeates all areas of our lives and impacts global economies, markets and societies. The creation of this new team reflects the importance of this topic to our readers,” Barber said in a statement.
Putting It All Together
The new group began to come together over the last six months, although Moore says his bosses have been thinking about this even longer. Moore, who had covered tech in Asia for the last eight years, was tasked with leading the effort. Though the new section went live on October 1st, he says the tech desk is still a work in progress.
With a new area, they also have to figure out how where the coverage falls. That requires communication between reporters and editors, and they are still learning how to bring different kinds of expertise together. “We have tech reporters and amazing sector specialists. As tech spills over into the different sectors, we can link specialists outside of tech with our tech reporters,” he explained.
It will take time to learn where to define the coverage and nail down exactly how many people will be needed to staff the FT’s tech desk. Moore wants to build a team made up of experienced journalists, combined with young and hungry reporters working on the ground, as well people with deep technical understanding of the underlying technologies. “It’s an ongoing process,” he says, but like other media outlets, the FT recognizes tech matters to readers and like any smart business, they are making sure they give them what they want.