There are over 300 streaming video services in the U.S. – and that number doesn’t include FAST channels. Consumers have a plethora of OTT services and access points across connected devices. So, how do media companies attract and retain viewers in such a large and fragmented marketplace? Parks Associates partnered with SymphonyAI Media to identify core analytics to help guide market strategies in the OTT ecosystem. Their new report, Optimizing Video: Enhancing Content Performance for OTT Success, looks at data solutions to best optimize content investment and performance.
According to Parks Associates, 87% of U.S. internet households now subscribe to one or more streaming video service, and 20% subscribe to eight or more OTT services. Consumers are adding new hybrid-model and FAST channels to their viewership mix. Netflix and Disney+ are two examples of media businesses launching ad-supported business models to attract new viewers to monetize content.
New niche streaming services are also popular among select audience segments. While appealing to a smaller audience, they offer unique and often obscure content. Sixty-one percent of consumers added other subscriptions in addition to the big three – Netflix, Amazon Prime, and Hulu. Interestingly, very few consumers have an exclusive single-service subscription.
Content continues to be a key driver of subscriptions, with 48% of consumers referencing content availability as the primary reason for subscribing to an additional service. However, while churn appeared to stabilize last year, nearly half of streaming subscribers leave one service for another multiple times within a year.
Media companies continually invest in content to attract, engage, and retain viewers. Content analyses offer a direct link to profitability. They are essential to understand viewership and forecast the revenue generated by a specific property, series, or partnership. They also help assess workflow efficiencies and revenue opportunities across SVOD, AVOD, and FAST.
Internal data necessary:
Content data – genre, series, season, episode, asset I.D.
Distributor data – terms, avails, distributor I.D., distributor type
Revenue data – subscribers, transactions, units sold, forecast
Advertising data – impressions, CPM, fill rate, minutes streamed
Measuring content performance helps quantify consumer engagement. Each of the essential analyzes offer important metrics and insights to assess performance across business operations.
Content performance provides a foundation to assess spending on content. It allows objectivity when looking at program performance.
Assessing workflow metrics, from managing content libraries and editing ad breaks to costs associated with programming FAST channel schedules, offers insight into revenue optimization and deal terms.
Predictive content analytics are important to understanding what to charge or pay across the customer lifecycle. These analyzes assess the consumer value of the content investment and provides insight into pricing strategies.
Content ROI assesses content value across different business models ‒ subscription, ad-supported, and even transactional. It allows media organizations to understand and optimize the impact of business decisions on financial metrics.
Analytics are essential to evaluate content performance and optimize operations across revenue models ‒ ad-supported and subscription businesses. Investing in automating, standardizing, and normalizing data structures in an organization are important next steps to streamline the analytic processes.
Established in 2017, the Vox Media Podcast Network has enabled the publisher to bring together the podcasting efforts of its brands under one umbrella. Its 150+ shows span technology, news, pop culture, emerging trends, business and sports, with centralized teams to streamline production, monetization, workflows, and more.
Vox Media recently promoted two of its top podcast executives, Ray Chao and Nishat Kurwa. Chao is now SVP and GM of Audio and Digital Video, and oversees Vox Media’s digital video business as well as talent deals and distribution partnerships. Kurwa is SVP and Executive Producer of Audio, leading programming, production operations, content strategy and new show development across the Vox Media Podcast Network.
Having led a number of successful expansions of Vox Media’s podcasts into other platforms, Chao and Kurwa have a great deal of expertise in what does and doesn’t work for publishers looking to take shows to the next level. They spoke to DCN about their priorities for Vox Media’s Podcast Network this year, and what to consider when building out a podcast brand into live events, video, licensing and more.
Here are three factors that have made Vox Media’s podcast extensions so successful, and what other publishers can learn from them.
An audience-first approach
Vox Media’s podcasts have a wide range of extensions designed to engage audiences beyond just listening. Some, like tech and business podcast Pivot, have partnered to produce videos of the show, as well as launching their own tech conference. Others, like narrative series Land of the Giants, have been adapted into TV series. “When we’re thinking about extensions, everything is on the table for all of our shows,” said Kurwa.
When it comes to deciding where and how to expand, audience signals are crucial. “We get a lot of feedback from our audiences, which is really meaningful and helpful,” Kurwa explained. If they get a lot of the audience saying they’d love to see hosts on video or suggesting other ways of interacting, the feedback is all taken into consideration. “It’s a strong indicator for hosts as well when they think about how they want to spend their time,” she noted.
The audience is also the first measure the team turns to when evaluating the success of an extension. “We always ask ourselves, does this expansion resonate with audiences?” Chao said. “Is this something that our listeners, our viewers and our audiences are excited about? Are they listening and watching and engaging with the content?”
Getting this kind of feedback can be challenging with podcast listeners. It’s important to encourage communication early on – and respond – via channels like email and social media. This in turn will help when assessing which extensions will work well for audiences and the response to them.
Pivot is one of the publisher’s early forays into video podcasts. Their partnership with Salesforce+, an on-demand streaming service for business professionals, gives the platform four exclusive clips each week from Pivot. The partnership has been running for just over a year, and has taught the team a great deal about video production.
“You might think it’s as simple as sticking a camera in the recording room, taking that video and posting it, but it really does take a lot to get polished video, even for a conversation show like Pivot,” Chao explained. “We’ve learned a ton just in terms of video production and workflow.”
Videoing the shows has also given the team the opportunity to experiment with posting short clips on social. “It’s been so exciting for us to see how much listener engagement we have when we post short highlight clips of Scott [Galloway] or Kara [Swisher] reacting to something a guest has said on a show,” said Chao. “It’s been really beneficial for us not just for the audience feedback, but because it helps us build and foster the community in a space like a social media platform. Those videos also spread the word about Pivot for people who might not have listened yet.”
Although it’s difficult to attribute growth specifically to clips on social, Chao said that Pivot has seen a lot of healthy audience growth recently, which they believe engagement on the video clips on social media has contributed to.
The Verge has also been experimenting with video clips across its two podcasts, Decoder and The Vergecast. The team behind the shows have been taking short video clips from the podcasts and posting them to TikTok and YouTube with the primary aim of finding new listeners.
“We are very much in a test-and-learn phase with video,” he acknowledged, when asked if any other shows would be trying it out. “We’re approaching it on a show by show basis.”
The power of the Podcast Network
The Vox Media Podcast Network, where all of the podcasts are produced and supported under one umbrella rather than as individual brands, also lends strength to multiplatform extensions. “By having the network, we can pursue bigger, more exciting and more holistic growth opportunities than if it was one brand or one show on their own,” explained Chao. “We’re very connected to other parts of the business and editorial stakeholders that are working on projects and initiatives outside of the audio space.”
One example Chao illustrated this with is podcast subscriptions. Podcast Network division CAFE, which has a weekly interview podcast with former Manhattan U.S. attorney Preet Bharara as its flagship show, has a subscription product rooted in podcasting.
“We learned a ton just by operating that podcast subscription product, growing it, and working with that team,” he said. “We’re now not only applying those learnings on the podcast subscription front to other podcasts that we’d like to launch subscriptions for in the future, but we’re leveraging a lot of the internal infrastructure that we’ve built for subscriptions outside of the podcast base.”
Whether it’s New York Magazine’s established subscriptions business, Vox’s contributions model, or paid newsletter experiments at The Verge, consumer revenue opportunities can work across both audio and non-audio. “On the business side, the product side, the engineering side and the marketing side, we’re able to really share learnings and best practices across the network to find new opportunities for growth,” Chao added.
Focus on the podcast first
Despite the success of the publisher’s various podcast extensions, Kurwa and Chao were adamant that when developing new shows, the quality of the podcast always comes first.
“We don’t approach our podcast conceptualization or production thinking about television adaptation,” Kurwa emphasized, when discussing the recent TV adaptation of their podcast Land of the Giants. “We’re focused on the podcast first. And that alleviates pressure.”
It’s an important lesson, especially as stories grow of podcasters selling out arenas, landing huge licensing deals, and more. If a podcast doesn’t work as a podcast first and foremost, any planned extensions are futile.
Finally, both executives urged caution with successful multiplatform extensions. What works really well for one show may not for another.
“We’re not going down a laundry list of ‘here are all of the different things that a podcast could expand into’, but we’re trying to be thoughtful about what makes sense for the audience, what makes sense for the show, what makes sense for the host and the show teams, and what they have bandwidth for,” Chao noted. “We’re really looking for those types of opportunities that check all of those boxes for us.”
For savvy publishers, the opportunities to extend podcast brands beyond audio are limitless. But true success comes in expanding wisely.
You’ve put in the hard yards, integrated an effective Digital Experience Platform (DXP) with engagement and moderation solutions, and finally established a safe space for your audience. With a community framework in place, and a moderation solution in action, you can use your newfound spare time to give due praise to the golden geese of your flock: the user generated content (UGC) contributors.
First things first. You need to answer some questions: Who are the high energy User Generated Content Contributors eager to publicly make their mark? Can their contributions be used as aspirational behavior for other more passive users? If so, what are some ways to go about this that don’t feel disingenuous?
Positive reinforcement is a sure way to encourage users further down your audience funnel and strengthen retention.By putting the contributions of your community up on a pedestal, you reward those ultra-valuable UGC Contributors with recognition. However, you also broadcast to your community and beyond the kind of behavior your brand values and celebrates.
There will be clear ROI once you’ve integrated a solid UGC contributor element to your existing audience-first content strategy. You should experience ample revenue gains (in both ad and subscriptions). You will also foster a consistently expanding community of users steadily flowing through your audience funnel.
In order to determine how best to integrate UGC Creators into your strategy, you’ll need to first consider what tools and techniques are available to you. Then, consider how to optimize the efficacy of UGC Content. And, most importantly, how to do it in a way that uplifts your brand and drives its success.
Highlight user comments
On a smaller day-to-day basis, implementing a pinned comment strategy is a great way to highlight members of your community as well as set the tone for budding conversations.
In some cases, having your editorial/content team kick off the discussion in the comments section with a pinned comment as a conversation starter can lead to immediate engagement and user contributions. Once those user comments roll in, swap out your comment with a user contribution that endorses your brand values, sets the tone, and encourages others to join in.
A useful strategy is to think about where you can reach different audiences at different stages of the audience funnel. For example, if your editorial team sends out a newsletter, including a piece of UGC in an “Editor’s Pick” segment is a great way to show you value the contributions of your community members. It gives registered members a reason to bring their own opinions and perspectives to the table in the hopes of being featured as well.
To reach audiences that may not be signed up for newsletters, building these Editor’s Picks into readily available on-site content can inspire registered users and connect with as of yet unregistered visitors. Sharing these contributions with a broader audience has the potential to, once again, establish an aspirational behavior for other users to strive for and improve engagement.
Not unlike highlighting what your UGC Contributors have shared, badges are a way for you to distinguish between different types of users engaging with your content and help foster a unique community specific to your site. Rewards beget rewards in this case, as users who have put in the time and energy to earn a badge of their own are far more likely to keep up their efforts and stay active and engaged.
Harness the unique value of UGC
At the end of the day, the audiences that seek out content and invest their time, energy, and money into your publication are the bread and butter of the publishing world. Now more than ever their involvement in the content creation process could easily be considered a collaboration. Not only do their unique data offerings help publishers steer nearer to providing pitch-perfect content, but their content contributions have the potential to help boost subscription and ad revenue. Not to mention their enthusiasm has proven to be contagious and drives abundant audience growth.
When we celebrate our audience members’ loyalty and contributions, we demonstrate how much we value them, and strengthen our connection. That, in turn, allows us to learn more about them so that we can continue to provide them with the high-value interest focused content that they deserve.
The podcasting boom shows no signs of slowing just yet. As publishers get to grips with flagship shows for their brands, some are now exploring ways they can turn other content into podcasts.
Following the success of its existing shows The New Statesman Podcast and World Review, news publisher the New Statesman launched its third podcast in April of 2022. Both The New Statesman Podcast and World Review doubled their listenership since the creation of an in-house audio team in 2021.
While the first two podcasts followed a more typical interview and discussion format involving the New Statesman’s journalists and guests, Audio Long Reads takes a different approach. Each week, one of the publication’s feature articles is read out loud then published as a podcast that is about half an hour long.
Long reads debuted with four features covering Macron’s France, the anti-ageing industry, a refugee hotel and Cary Raditz’s side of the story. Since then the New Statesman has released an episode every Saturday, focused on the idea of one big listen every weekend.
Many publishers have experimented with audio versions of their articles in order to improve accessibility of written content and open up another way for readers to interact. However, those who have taken the next step and published these as full podcasts are fewer in number.
“The reason that we wanted to do it for the New Statesman was because long-form, deeply reported journalism is one of our greatest strengths,” said Chris Stone, Executive Producer of Audio & Video at New Statesman Media Group. “It is one of the things that the brand has been known for over the years, and so it seemed like a natural thing to adapt from our existing stable of content.”
The importance of curation and selection
The New Statesman publishes multiple features in its website and magazine a week and produces one of them as a podcast. Features Editor Melissa Denes oversees all the written features output, including commissioning and editing the long reads. She also decides which of the New Statesman’s many features get the audio treatment.
There are a number of criteria that a feature has to match to be considered suitable for a podcast. The first is the narrative. In other words: Is it a strong story that is going to engage a listener for an extended period of time? The second factor is the shelf life of the story. Audio Long Reads “have to be evergreen, because we want this to be a catalogue of things that people can come back to,” Stone explained. “We see that people listen to one and then go back and listen to earlier episodes.”
However, being evergreen doesn’t mean they can’t be current or topical. The themes are often chosen based on what’s happening at the time. One recent example released at the end of July is “Boris Johnson: the death of the clown”, looking at how the ex PM’s “buffoon” administration came to a close. Other episodes have covered topics from exploring the surge in adult ADHD diagnoses to the history of women’s football.
Article length is not a determining factor, as Stone cautioned when giving advice to other publishers looking to turn their features into audio products. “Just because something is long, doesn’t make it a good audio long read,” he said. “What is the determining factor is the quality of the story, how much it grabs you, and the authority and eloquence.”
Because the majority of the work has already been done in terms of the content, the workflow for turning a feature into a podcast is straightforward. “We wait until we have a ready-to-publish version of the article before we record it,” said Stone. He notes that they often batch record a few weeks before release. “Compared to doing a conversational podcast, it’s an easier lift.”
Once the audio version is published as a podcast, it has a dedicated podcast article on the New Statesman website. The audio player is also embedded in the full written feature as well, which gives audiences an option to listen to or read the article.
A premium listening experience
One surprising point Stone noted was that production values are particularly important for the Audio Long Reads podcast. “I think you can get away with Zoom calls for conversational podcasts,” he explained. “But for these, the actual pleasure of the listening experience comes into it as well. The ones that have been recorded with the highest production values have seen longer listening times.”
The New Statesman has found that certain voices and certain readers perform particularly well. They have experimented with journalists reading their own stories versus having voice actors doing it. “It’s really nice if we’ve commissioned someone to do a story to give them a chance to read their own,” Stone noted. “But we can’t manage to do that all the time, either for logistical or creative reasons.”
Stone has also explored the possibility of using an AI voice. A growing number of publishers offer AI text-to-speech on their sites as an alternative way to consume a piece. However, for these stories, the richness of the listening experience is of such importance that it’s not a task AI voices are up to taking on … yet.
“The performance element is not to be underestimated,” Stone emphasised. “It only works if you’ve got people who are really good at reading out loud.”
Text-to-speech would also only benefit existing subscribers as the New Statesman’s written content is paywalled. Having a curated selection of features available as a podcast allows the publisher to build a relationship with those who don’t otherwise interact with their journalism.
Although Stone wouldn’t divulge specific listening figures, he did say that it has surpassed his expectations, with listenership growing steadily week on week. “When we launched it, I set a benchmark of getting to 2,000 downloads in the first two or three months,” he said. “Actually, it has far surpassed that. We’re getting thousands of listens a week.”
As a subscription-focused publisher, the Audio Long Reads podcast has been designed to show off some of the New Statesman’s best long-form reporting outside their paywall. Although the podcast is still in the experimental stages, Stone hopes that it will increase users’ propensity to subscribe to their other products.
It’s a strategy which could work well for other publishers with hard paywalls. The content itself has already been created. Repurposing features into long-read podcasts is an inexpensive way to broaden the top of the subscriber funnel, as well as giving existing subscribers another way to interact with the work.
For the New Statesman, being selective is one of the biggest reasons Audio Long Reads has been a success. Carefully choosing which pieces would work well being read aloud, then matching those pieces with people who are good at reading creates a strong product which can build habit and loyalty.
Digital publishers work hard to create quality content that engages audiences and keeps them coming back for more. When an article or video receives a surge in views, that means mission accomplished, right? Not so fast.
Since invalid traffic (IVT) makes up for nearly 40% of all website traffic, it’s likely that some of these viewers are non-human, or “bots.” And, unfortunately, when bot traffic is included in analytics reports, it can skew data and give an inaccurate look at content performance.
Here are steps publishers can take to achieve more accurate website data, which allows them to make more informed editorial and marketing decisions.
Identify traffic sources and spikes
To understand how content and promotions are truly performing, it’s important to identify and remove invalid traffic from data reports. A first step is to determine traffic sources. If a visitor comes from an unusual website or unfamiliar referral source, it can be an indication that the traffic is not human. This includes traffic from locations beyond the typical readership area. Or it might be a slew of visitors from one city, which could be the site of a datacenter.
Another indicator could be the time of day that visitors view content. If many arrive on the site at an unusual time such as in the middle of the night, it could indicate that the traffic is robotic. Other non-human behavior such as spending zero seconds on a page or achieving a 100% bounce rate are also signs the traffic might be robotic.
Analyzing traffic spikes might also uncover increases in legitimate visitors, which offers insight into why content performed well. For example, an increase in an article’s views could indicate that it was picked up by another news source, shared on a popular website, or received a greater attention on social media. Identifying traffic sources and patterns can reveal what articles are truly performing well. And, of course, that is likely to influence future content decisions.
Filter bot traffic
Not all bot traffic is malicious. Search engines send bots to crawl websites to learn more about them, which helps inform search results. However, bots also visit websites for harmful reasons including scraping content to create fake sites, inserting malware to steal user data and injecting spam. Publishers can also unintentionally invite bots to their website by purchasing website traffic.
Many analytics platforms have built-in tools to filter bot traffic. Since these tools often must be activated by a site administrator to begin working, it’s helpful to check to make sure the filter is being applied to analytics reports.
While automatic known bot filtering tools are a great start to getting a more accurate look at website data, they might not detect all bots. Publishers should identify traffic patterns of good and bad user behavior to identify unknown robots that are not detected by the analytic partner and create custom filters based on the characteristics of those bots detected. Some of these characteristics may include the location the traffic came from, screen resolution, service provider, time on page and bounce rate.
Identifying traffic patterns and creating custom filters to remove bots from data ensures that publishers are getting the most accurate look possible at their website visitors.
Check site tags
Analytics providers require that publishers install a tag on their website to allow them to collect data. If a tag is inadvertently installed more than once, data analytics will be inflated. Or, if installed incorrectly, it might produce incomplete data. Publishers should check tag containers to ensure there is only one tag for each tracking suite so that data isn’t included twice in reports.
Get a third-party evaluation
Sometimes it helps to get input from a third party that specializes in analyzing website traffic. A digital publisher audit is great way to get an expert’s opinion about site traffic, tagging and creating custom filters. Website auditors keep up with industry trends and platform changes, which saves publishers time and the resources needed to identify new bots or create custom filters.
By taking the steps above, publishers can better identify high performing content, discovering promotions that drive real traffic, and making more informed business decisions. They can also take steps to reduce bot traffic and avoid common missteps that occur when it goes undetected.
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.”