With a highly competitive streaming landscape, many content brands are adopting hybrid business models. Disney+ and Netflix now offer lower-priced ad-supported tiers, and Paramount+ and Peacock offer FAST services to deliver real-time streaming of channel-based linear content. Notably, AVOD and FAST channels serve as growth strategies for many content providers in that they offer low-cost options that attract viewers.
A select number of top services—such as Pluto, Tubi, Peacock, and The Roku Channel—currently dominate the market. However, given that there are now more than 300 OTT channels, how can streaming channels differentiate to appeal to viewers and make inroads into the growing market? Quickplay, an OTT cloud business that enables personalization for sports, media, and entertainment, partnered with the research firm Park Associates to explore this question. Their report, Personalized Virtual Channels: Maximizing FAST Engagement, examines new ways for media companies to maximize the monetization of consumer viewership, particularly through the promise of personalization.
Hybrid streaming marketplace
As cord-cutting continues, and internet-connected device penetration of Smart TVs and media devices grows, OTT usage is the new norm for consumers. Eight in ten (80%) U.S. internet households subscribe to an OTT video service, 49% subscribe to four or more, and 33% use an ad-supported OTT service in the last 30 days.
As reported in DCN’s The Rise of and Best Practices for AVOD and FAST, the adoption of AVOD and FAST grew faster (55%) compared to SVOD (28%). Park Associates identifies “free cost” as the top reason consumers use AVOD (49%), followed by “content consumers like” (31%).
Consumers are attracted to the free offering of AVOD and FAST, with 38% stating that they do not mind viewing advertising on a free service. However, 41% of ad-supported customers do say that they dislike viewing video content with commercials, and 40% are dissatisfied with the frequency of ads.
Personalized virtual channels
First-party data collection is already in place with many content services requiring users to opt-in for data collection in exchange for a more personalized user experience. While other providers may not require an account, they often ask consumers to register to offer personalized favorite channels and recommendations. Content preferences and location (i.e., zip code) feed content recommendations – think local news, weather, and sports.
The report recommends combining cloud-based technology and programmatic operations to allow owned and operated brands to offer ad-supported personalized virtual channels. FAST platforms are cloud-based. They do not have channel or format restrictions and are easily adaptable for personalized virtual channels.
For the content provider, personalized virtual channels maximize the lifetime value of content libraries by extending content shelf life. Further, reusing existing libraries and programming rights can also help offset content acquisition and encoding expenses. For the consumer, personalized virtual channels deliver a lean-back experience while enhancing individual content preferences in a stress-free navigation environment.
Importantly, the data containing information on viewer preferences and habits allows virtual FAST services to deliver progressively smarter and more relevant content. The more engaged the viewer, the higher retention and, ultimately, the more effective advertising. It’s a win-win for all involved in the value exchange.
Personalized virtual channels’ delivery of personally relevant content yields higher content engagement and lower viewer turnover. They offer a better viewing experience for consumers while delivering new opportunities to monetize viewership.
Mobile is a massive opportunity only heightened during the pandemic as audiences turned to their smartphones for the comfort food of apps and entertainment. Significantly, though, throughout this period consumer tastes and appetites changed. Users had both the time and the desire to discover new apps and content, a dynamic that allowed many niche apps and content creators to gain mainstream appeal and profits. In some markets, it created a perfect storm of opportunity for hyperlocal news and entertainment that meets consumers where they are.
Continuing with our series of industry interviews [video below], I talk to Jani Pasha, Founder and CEO of Lokal, who is harnessing hyperlocal content in a play that has the potential to make it the NextDoor of India. With a model built on monetizing connections and transactions at the intersection of community, content, and commerce, Lokal is making the most of a booming opportunity.
The model is smart and replicable in other markets. However, Lokal also benefits from a seismic shift in the fabric of its addressable audience. For the first time, India now counts more Internet users in rural areas than cities. And rural users typically aren’t as interested in national and international news developments. Instead, they crave information about civic, political and social issues that impact their towns and villages.
But India isn’t the only country experiencing these shifts. The explosion in the number of Internet users, accelerated by the pandemic, reveals opportunities in regions such as Central and South America. While we might think that growth has slowed, in the last 12 months alone, the total number of Internet users globally has grown nearly 8% to reach 4.72 billion. That’s more than 60% of the world’s total population.
From silver surfers to app initiates, new users in these regions rely on mobile and apps as their personal lifeline for news and information (even education). They turn to them to make daily decisions about how they live and what they buy. Tapping that potential requires companies to micro-segment audiences and tailor content to the needs of towns and communities, not cities. It also helps to focus on fundamentals.
Understanding that new users are likely to be low on the learning curve, Pasha made a bet on voice that paid off. Bypassing bell-and-whistle tech features for a dead-simple interface like voice fast-tracked new users to frequent app use and interaction. Ease of use also increased trust in the app. And that trust allowed Lokal to acquire new users easily through the most effective advertising on the planet: word-of-mouth.
Voice also empowers every user to make a contribution. This enabled Lokal to grow its ecosystem at minimal cost. Users call in stories about developments in their local towns, creating the content that keeps other users engaged and loyal. They rely on the app to learn about offers and events nearby, sparking conversations that end in commerce conversions.
And this is where Lokal’s strategy to be a local content platform, not a content provider, makes business sense. By positioning itself as a super app — one that allows a user to access several services in one place — Lokal establishes itself as the trusted middleman in interactions and transactions. What’s more, Lokal drives in-app activities it can monetize. And let’s not forget that first-party data is gold.
In our interview, Pasha shares how Lokal is training creators to ensure its content is fresh, relevant and relatable for audiences who crave hyperlocal content on their terms. He also weighs in on the future technologies and opportunities local news apps and outlets everywhere should embrace to grow their revenue streams.
Peggy Anne Salz: The pandemic had a massive impact on local media. In the U.S. alone, more than 300 national newspapers closed their doors. Local newsrooms also shut down contributing to the growth in news deserts, that is, cities where people depend on one local news source, if any at all.
But one company is bucking the trend big time, Lokal, a hyperlocal news app in India is not just growing its user base, it’s also making money. It’s a new twist on monetization. And we get the inside track here on Digital Content Next. I’m your host, as always, Peggy Anne Salz, mobile analyst, content marketing consultant, and frequent contributor to DCN, which is a trade association serving the diverse needs of high-quality digital content companies globally. And in this series, we shine a light on the people pushing the envelope. That’s why I’m so excited to have Jani Pasha, Founder and CEO of Lokal. Welcome, first of all, to Digital Content Next, Jani.
Jani Pasha: Hi, Peggy. Nice to be here.
Salz: Absolutely. And coming to us from a very hot Bangalore today, I understand.
Pasha: Yeah, right. It’s very hot, actually.
Salz: So let’s start with Lokal. You have described it as a hyperlocal Tinder because it cuts out the middleman in finding a date or partner. But it’s also a news service. It’s much more than that. So tell me about Lokal and, above all, the user experience.
Pasha: Yeah, Peggy. So we are not just only the Tinder of that place. We do quite a lot. But I’ll tell you the backstory of how we started. So essentially, if you take India, it’s a very diverse country with 90% of its population living in tier-2, tier-3 cities, and towns of India. And these people, most of them, have not traveled further than their adjacent district, because it’s so diverse that with every 50 to 100-kilometre radius, your food habits change, cultures change, language change quite frequently.
So they are staying in those locations of their towns and cities generationally with their parents, grandparents, their homes, and businesses. So naturally, they’re so curious to know about what is happening around them. And there is one more factor that kicked in, in 2016, Jio, a mobile operator who has reduced the prices of internet drastically to make India the cheapest place for 1 GB data for you to use mobile internet.
So then we have this, all these 90% Indians who didn’t have access to internet previously suddenly had access to internet. But essentially, these users are new internet users who are not comfortable in English language. And so then what will they do with the internet, right? So Lokal is the platform which we started it as a platform to deliver hyperlocal content, which is extremely useful for them. And that is the gateway of how they’re adapting to the internet to use internet more usefully in their life. So today, if you take this 90% Indian audience who are new to internet, they are using internet prominently for entertainment, either to… You know, we used to have TikTok. We don’t have it anymore. It is banned by the government. So there are many TikTok parallels and YouTube and Facebook. And then they use WhatsApp for communication.
Apart from that, they can’t use internet meaningfully. And Lokal is actually being that platform giving them the content that they can use and that is of importance for them. Then naturally, making them use internet for multiple use cases. And as at a location, our density of usage increased. We evolved as a platform. So you rightly said we evolved as a Tinder, a place where people find other people to get married. It’s a place for businesses to advertise about their businesses to local community. It’s a place for businesses or people to actually sell their properties. And all this is happening in their native languages of Telugu, Tamil, and Kannada. We are expanding across the country. And we have seen because we have a lot of density in that location, users are adopting platform like crazy with more use cases coming up almost every day.
Salz: But, of course, internet penetration alone doesn’t spell the profits that you’re getting. Part of it is also the experience. You talked about ease of use. You talked about local languages. What are some of the innovations in the UX and UI design that contribute to your success? What does an app with local news need to look like and offer?
Pasha: Very interesting and relevant question, Peggy. So when you talk about these new users right, so all the smartphones have the keyboards in English language. So one challenge when we’re trying to build Lokal was how can you make the content creation easy on Lokal, especially that of text format.
Like, a lot of information about what are the vegetable prices in that location to what are the updates happening in that town, not everything can be captured on video. So they have to be typed. How can you make that easy? So, the first thing that we did, or we built was, making this creation easy, where the user will input the content by voice instead of typing. So they are using voice to actually create the content. And once we started doing that, we realized that creation with our voice is much more convenient than typing on a keyboard because you have to… It’s not natural, right?
Like humans, we speak to each other. So that’s a major shift, right? So if you go on a website today like on Amazon, you have multiple navigation. There are filters, there is sorting, there are multiple pages, multiple categories, but for an interaction, like the natural interaction for a shopkeeper in our location is to go and ask to a small retail shop owner that, “You know, what is the cost of this item? And how can I get it?” It’s natural voice-based input. In India, a lot of businesses are SMEs, sort of small and medium businesses unlike in U.S. where you have a Walmart. You go and then you select. It’s a voice-based communication. You ask, the shopkeeper goes and gets the information, and we’re replicating the same because the technology has caught up.
Salz:Interestingly enough, you were talking about how your audience is very focused on local content. I mean, hyperlocal is really hot in India right now. It’s fascinating that local newspapers, right, newspapers are growing at a double-digit rate. Now, you also have impressive growth results. Now, I’ve seen numbers growing 25% roughly month on month, that’s the last I’ve read, and that’s because of your monetization model. So one is the content, but it’s also a very smart approach to how you generate revenues. Tell me about that.
Pasha: We have built a playbook, via which we launch a location, and we get local content creators in that location to create content, which is very relevant to that community, very, very hyperlocal in nature. And then you get a density of users using the application. And once you have that critical mass of density at a location level, then it becomes a platform where everyone…like, everyone relevant started coming onto the platform, and then they start doing a lot of things, which are monetizable.
Even this is true for people in the West also. Newspapers used to be the place for everything, right, at a location level. You want to do real estate, you want to do jobs, classifieds. Everything used to happen on newspaper. Internet came in. All the small, small parts became large businesses, right? Craigslist, Airbnb, they’re all part of this local newspaper, right? Had these newspapers, you know, are technology-friendly or had they been…had they had that vision or foresight, they would have been the super applications that everything is happening on them.
It’s just that the news publishers migrated their digital publishing online, but they left the rest of the parts for others to pick. In India, we have that opportunity right now, where it’s a very new audience. Internet is being built for them in their native languages. And Lokal is trying to do that with our approach of delivering hyperlocal content. So we don’t consider ourselves as a local news platform. We consider ourselves as a local content platform. So that is the different approach that we are taking compared to newspapers, Peggy.
Salz:That is fascinating because you’re showing that there is a great deal of benefit to being a fast follower here. I mean, you have purposely… It sounds like you have thought this through, Jani. How to be a content platform, keep the social media, keep the connection for yourself and not give it over to the big tech giants or the big social media platforms. That’s the focus. That’s the essence of your strategy. How do you keep the momentum? Because, of course, you’re on a growth trajectory, all of India is on a growth trajectory. And high growth usually means high competition. And how are you keeping these large companies literally from eating your lunch?
Pasha: Our competitive advantage that comes in is based on how hyperlocal we are and how much our team understands the nuances of India, which is very difficult for a tech platform sitting in the U.S. or sitting in some other place to understand and build for it. And these are very new behaviors Peggy. So, as I told you, right, how does a business establish trust digitally? What happens on Amazon is that you go and list on Amazon their ratings, and those are the places how you do it. But how will it happen for a new internet use case, right?
For these very new people where the trust on internet is low, right? How will you do that? It’s a new challenge that we will solve probably for a small business to establish trust very quickly on our platform, and how they can do it. So it’s just that, the nuance, I would say. I would like to summarize that the nuance is very difficult for someone to understand. And hyperlocal in general, is a network effects business, right? You have large density using your platform for multiple use cases, someone coming and replacing it would be difficult.
Salz:It’s interesting that you started monetizing wishes. Tell me about that.
Pasha: It’s just crazy. We never expected all this to happen. We just thought we’re solving a problem of local content not available digitally. When we started creating content, people started coming. So that is the nuance. Like, in India, you have this behavior.
In the small town of India, especially in the southern part, this is very prominent, so that south Indian part, that if Peggy you were a friend of mine and I want to wish you a happy birthday, and I want to do this in a way that everyone in the community would know that I care for you, and we are actually close friends. And how will I do that? I used to either buy advertisement on newspaper with your photo, my photo coming and I’m wishing you happy birthday. Or I am sticking a big banner in the city or town center wishing you a happy birthday.
So the same behavior has been adopted on Lokal now, where the same people who used to do that are posting their wish, like I’m wishing Peggy happy birthday. So there is a standard template where your photo, my photo, will come and I’m broadcasting it to 10,000, 15,000 people in the town, the same purpose they wanted to accomplish previously, now, they’re accomplishing on Lokal. And they have that data to see also that how many people are actually looking at it. So this is being monetized on Lokal. And this is a very, very interesting, unique use case, Indian use case that we are monetizing. And we are seeing a lot more use cases coming like this, and we’re super excited for that.
Salz: You’re also speaking very much as the maker of a content platform. And, of course, a content platform needs creators, needs citizen journalists. It’s all local. So it’s probably very much just about empowering individuals at the local level to grow your business, how do you do that? How do you find them? Train them? How do you make it possible for them to contribute to your platform?
Pasha: The prominent content distribution platforms used to be newspapers like how it happened in the West also. And over the last three, four-, or five-decades time In India, large news publications, this content distribution platforms, have created a lot more content creators in these locations by training them, by informing them, by letting them know what is happening.
And most of these creators in this town used to work for this large distribution platforms like newspaper or television for free, most of them. Why? Because I told you, right, how important these small locations and communities are for these people.
So if I am a creator who can get the word out in a big distribution place like a largest newspaper, I get invites to events happening in the town. Anything big happening in the town, I get to know about it first. So I’m an influencer in that location. So then we have these influencers across India, hundreds of thousands of them. What we simply do is that we have this network of people. We have this digital crunch of hyperlocal content; we just connect them. And that is how we are getting this content.
Salz: You are more than a Nextdoor in India, you’re a content platform, news platform connecting, making business possible, helping merchants. And the reason I have you here today on Digital Content Next is because there are lessons here for publishers everywhere. What do they need to pay attention to if they want to succeed in hyperlocal news?
Pasha: My take is that technology is evolving very rapidly. Publishers should be open to work with new technology coming in. Like, Substack is a great platform where publishers are able to monetize their content. So there are a lot more innovation that is coming. So publishers should be thoughtful and be open to experimenting with these technology players because these new platforms are coming in. And with the creator economy coming in, I’m also very hopeful of how publishers becoming much more important than what they used to be before.
Salz:We started off by talking about the situation particularly in the U.S. where local news, local newsrooms, they are declining, there’s no question. What would be some advice to those that are there to say, “Here’s what you can do to up your game. Here’s what you can do to be sustainable and successful?”
Pasha: I think for small-level publishers, I think what is working for us is being hyperlocal and having a plan. And for us, it’s about figuring out that playbook of how you can get or make the things work at a location. So I think for publishers, especially individual publishers, I think hyperlocal play is going to work, with them also having…who are open to work with, new technology players, which essentially are tools and not platforms possibly.
So Substack is a tool for you to distribute your content. It’s a tool, right? And essentially, for payments, you can use a tool. So someone who is more open to work with these technology platforms and having hyperlocal focus would be able to build sustainable businesses. That is what our belief is. And I can’t compare clearly India to U.S., but in India, specifically, because of how the market is, the maturity of the user towards internet interest, it’s going to be very, very large play in India, especially the focus of hyperlocal.
Salz: So very, very much about being a platform, which is what you’re doing connecting people, connecting businesses, that’s what local content can do really well. The monetization model currently is about classifieds. What’s it going to be going forward as you try to be more and more a super app?
Pasha: So, yeah, Peggy, we are today connecting people, and monetizing on that for the sake of making money, for the sake of selling property, for the sake of improving…giving deals to people, small businesses advertising about their offerings. As the trust increases among these people, we would eventually go into a place where we will enable commerce as well. So that is what the plan is.
We will enable commerce. We will enable these local economies much more digitally. And we are a user-focused company, Peggy. So we have a creator who creates content, and we always think about how we can empower him or her, how can we make their lives easy. Similarly, we have businesses and how can we better help them to get more business. In that, the natural next step is to enable commerce on the platform to have additional revenue streams for them. So we will figure out how we will monetize. But we want to build that use case on our platform. It can be search, it can be something else, we’ll figure out. It’s too early right now. Probably in a year or two, I can tell you a lot more about it.
Salz: Great, Jani. And I think I’ll be back to hear it as well. Thanks so much for sharing your story at Lokal with me today.
Pasha: Thank you, Peggy. And nice talking to you too.
Salz:And thank you, of course, for tuning in and taking the time. More in this series about how media companies like Lokal are taking charge of change in their business. And in the meantime, be sure to check out digitalcontentnext.org for great content, including a companion post to this interview, and join the conversation on Twitter @DCNorg. Until next time for Digital Content Next, I’m Peggy Anne Salz.
The blind reliance on algorithms to sort and target content has resulted in a tidal wave of fake news. The resulting consumer sentiment is that all companies, not just Facebook, should guarantee greater transparency and accountability around the content they produce and the audiences they reach. While we have an opportunity to improve how we use technology to weed out disinformation, we also have a responsibility to invest in human effort to ensure the spread of high-quality news, not low-quality content.
UPDAY has embraced this view. The mobile news app owned by digital publishing house Axel Springer pairs machine learning with human judgment to deliver users personalized news and information aligned with their explicit preferences and implicit requirements. Operating in 16 countries across Europe, UPDAY has established eight editorial “hubs” where teams of local journalists review content from the top news sources to pick top stories and news consumers will genuinely appreciate.
Peggy Anne Salz – mobile analyst and content marketing strategist at MobileGroove – catches up with UPDAY CEO Peter Würtenberger to discuss how the company’s approach to news curation and aggregation has allowed it to build partnerships with publishers, deepen engagement with users, and optimize content delivery to a plethora of devices and platforms.
PAS: AI and algorithms have a legitimate role to play in matching audiences with information they will likely appreciate. But we also see what happens when judgment is left to the machines. How do you maintain a balance?
PW: Fake news happened because companies relied 100% on technology, and this is what we have avoided at UPDAY from the start. Part of it is because, unlike the Apple, Facebook, and Google, we come from the newspaper business where journalists are the most valuable resource, not an overhead. Axel Springer is one of the leading publishers in the western world, selling over 1.5 million copies of the Bild newspaper daily. This was possible because we relied on journalists. At UPDAY, rather than leave news decisions to algorithms, we combine the intelligence of machines with human judgment to deliver personalized news that doesn’t trap audiences in a filter bubble.
The algorithm aggregates news—what you want to know—by understanding your personal interests and preferences out of approximately 300 hand-picked sources per country. There’s a dedicated team of Content Engineers that carefully checks each source in each country before integrating it into our source set. The human—in our case, eight editorial hubs in Europe where editorial teams on the ground curate news and information – judges and delivers what audiences need to know. This is the news of the day that matters, and we rely on a team of trained journalists in their fields to make this call. It’s about serving up the best of both worlds, the best of what technology and humans can offer when they work together.
PAS: You are aggregating content from original sources and packaging it with the help of personalization for your users. Tell me about your audience and their usage.
PW: The feedback we have from our users since day one is that they feel safe and confident that they are reading what really matters to them. This tells me that a user-centric approach to deliver the perfect and personalized mix of stories is working out very well. Users are engaging with UPDAY and highly appreciate the variety of our media brands. Our sources include the top 100 publishers in each of the markets where we are operating in.
We launched UPDAY in March 2016 and last year we counted around 10 million users. Today we have more than 20 million users spread across 16 countries, which makes us the fastest growing news app in Europe. A user session is around 5 minutes. We have more than 3 billion page impressions per month. And we aggregate more than 3,500 sources.
By the way, the publisher also gets a massive amount of traffic from UPDAY, and in some cases 10% even 15% of their mobile traffic comes from Upday. We aggregate their content—snippets with headlines and some body text from the publisher which they provide as part of the RSS feed—and, when the user clicks on the story, we send them directly to the property of that publisher. This is what publishers appreciate most. Unlike Facebook, which keeps all interaction and news consumption in its ecosystem, we drive traffic to publishers.
PAS: You deliver personalized news across over a dozen countries and languages. Do you rely on translations and localization to keep it relevant, or is there something else at play?
PW: We don’t translate any of the content, because that wouldn’t serve the user’s interest. Instead, we serve the users with their local sources in the local language. Our local team of journalists—the quality control, so to speak—is responsible for selecting the 30 to 40 most important top news stories per day and curating them, so they appear in the top news section we show to the user.
Clearly, this isn’t the way all media companies approach localization. Some agencies prefer to translate content from English to Spanish, for example, in order to serve it to large audiences. But we don’t believe this is the right way. In our view, it’s a better experience to source the local sources and media brands in the local language. And that’s the beauty of UPDAY—and now we see that other products and offers are changing to do it this way, too. I can only say we have been doing it like this for over two years and it’s great to see how others are understanding why this is the better way to deliver news and now come up with similar offerings.
PAS: You have engineered the algorithm that you pair with the human intelligence of your editorial hubs to deliver personalized news. How does this combination work to ensure the delivery of more relevant advertising alongside this news content?
PW: Our editorial competence and the understanding of the user behavior enabled us developing an offering that addresses various needs of the advertisers and brands. UPDAY offers a premium user experience with a flow of content and integrated native advertising which does not disturb the flow. It’s not a layer ad that users see and click it away. It’s in the natural stream of the news stream, showing every sixth card on average. It’s also the approach that kicked our monetization forth.
We started with an offering for so called direct sales – premium formats adjusted to the needs of our clients. We talked to clients and agencies and they booked display ads and video ads. At all times, our priority was to develop an advertising offering that enhances, not interrupts the user experience, where we could be the platform that brings advertisers closer to users. Our understanding of the users’ interests plays a crucial role here.
We also integrated a programmatic technology into UPDAY. It became the second phase of UPDAY’s advertising. But we established our capabilities as an SSP. We did this together with AppNexus and with Google. We started with programmatic native advertising that was perfectly aligned with our content. On UPDAY every news card has a photo, a headline, and text— native advertising looks similar to that and attracts the users with a great strength. Together with the data, it boosts our capabilities to deliver the right advertising in the right moment to the right user.
PAS: So, what are you seeing –and what are the lessons for other media companies that seek to monetize their assets and audiences?
PW: Our click rates are beyond expectation because our experience pairs human sense with data intelligence. We are seeing between 0.5% and 0.8% for display and more than 1% for native ads – regarding formats which are non-intrusive and integrated in the flow of UPDAY news. We’ve also seen native campaigns where we get between 5% and 6% click-through thank to our optimization measures. Overall, this is far above the industry standard, which hovers at around 0.1%.
It’s a combination of our human salespeople with our ad tech that leads to a success. We have teams that go to the companies and brands and say, “Hey, we have a high-quality, Europe-wide platform which is a perfect place for your marketing communication.” Once the brands realize there is more than Facebook, they are on board. We are running direct campaigns for SEAT in five major markets as a result. This is premium advertising with higher CPMs on a high-quality platform. We rely on human teams to understand what brands want to communicate and work with them—and really show them–what is possible on our platform. It’s a dual play between people and a constantly developed advertising product, and that is the play that gets advertising right.
If I look out at many media companies out there, they are still filling their pages with what they have been showing for last 20 years. It’s nothing more than a copy of the first page in their newspaper. Advertising is similar. It overwhelms the user with too many blinking parts, banners and annoying interruptions. This is a mistake, and so many content companies are still stuck in this rut. I would recommend content companies change this by introducing more user-friendliness and personalization into what they offer and how they deliver it. For the companies that make the algorithms—the Facebooks and Googles that read the user signals to personalize the content and advertising—they should look for ways to introduce a human touch and ‘humanize’ their tech because that is what they are lacking. It’s got to be user first —and the advertising needs to be highly personal and highly relevant.
PAS: You are also aligned with technology and your partnership Samsung is evolving to take you beyond the smartphone. What are the new opportunities on the horizon?
PW: It started out as a strategic partnership between Axel Springer, an expert in journalism, news, and creating a digital information brand, and Samsung, an expert in engineering and building devices. We pair our learnings from the news business and our learning algorithm with Samsung’s leadership position in devices and distribution. Remember, globally Samsung is far bigger than Apple.
However, it’s not just about having a larger share of the smartphone market. It’s about the breadth of devices and platforms where we can provide news content. We are already on the smart watch, and we are also the news source on the Family Hub that Samsung enables on its smart refrigerators. Most recently, Samsung has integrated our news app on their ambient QLED TV screens. These are screens that just turn on when you pass them, and UPDAY news is what consumers will see when they interact with that screen – across 12 countries in Europe.
Now other industries are contacting us. The car industry is asking us to develop an integration for smart cars to deliver personalized news in the car. We are thinking about how we can provide news in this environment, and it’s clear that the news we aggregate will also have to be read out-loud to the consumer.
PAS: But that also brings challenges as humans can’t scale, and your editorial team will have to…
PW: It has to be scalable. And you do this by making sure all the content comes from a single platform. If we were to start building content data platforms for each of the platforms we serve — for smartphones, watches, fridges and now TV — we would be dead from the sheer complexity of it. All those different devices and platforms must be served from the same content engine, from the same algorithm engine, and from the same journalists who are curating the content. This is what we have built and manage.
It’s one content platform, and you see the same content — even the same headline — on all four platforms. But it will get more complicated when we add voice—and voice is coming. It’s very early in the market, and there are great text-to-speech engines around, but this is just the beginning. Some of our main challenges will be: How to deliver the most relevant content in the most convenient and appealing way to the audience? There are legal issues to solve and we have to consider ways to monetize most efficiently, of course.
Print media was disrupted by the Internet and mobile is disrupting online. Now voice is poised to disrupt everything we as an industry have known or done so far. The best preparation for a media company is to be paranoid. Watch everything, experiment everywhere and execute on the ideas with potential. It’s why we maintain and motivate a startup culture in our company determined to stay alert and always be open to drastic change. It’s better we disrupt ourselves from within than risk being disrupted by a trend or technology beyond our vision.
Think of it like products in a supermarket. Content companies with mobile apps are locked in a fight for two incredibly scarce resources: consumer attention and shelf space. Unfortunately, on the digital shelves of the app store, discovery is the bottleneck. Consumers can’t download apps they don’t know exist in the first place. (And how can they in a market where the number of apps submitted to the Apple App Store in the month of January alone topped 500 submissions daily?)
To rise above the noise, and drive app installs in the process, app owners compete for a top-notch spot in search results. Smart companies are winning the battle with App Store Optimization (ASO) by tweaking keywords, icons and other assets to make sure their app store landing converts. It takes dedication and budget to get ASO right, which is why companies that succeed and boost downloads in one country or store are leaving money on the table if they don’t publish their apps in more places.
But before you go global with your app, double-check that you have mastered more than the ASO basics. The checklist is much longer than it was just a year ago because ASO has evolved, expanding beyond the app store presence and deeper into the funnel. Looking back, the first wave of ASO was a lot like the early days of SEO (Search Engine Optimization). Companies could score quick wins by hacking Google algorithms or focusing on “long tail” keywords. Moving forward targeting “killer” keywords is not enough. ASO is morphing into what I call AMO (App Marketing Optimization) and ready for a rethink.
ASO/AMO tops the agenda at every stage of the app lifecycle. But it’s never a case of set-it-and-forget-it. It requires app owners to monitor and manage a laundry list of elements that starts with keywords and ends with compelling video clips. It’s an ongoing effort, but the pay-off is massive organic growth that every app owner can afford to tap for their app. The key is to take the right steps in the right order.
It all starts with testing, refreshing and optimizing all of the moving parts of your app (titles, descriptions, icons, screenshots, videos, and reviews) on a regular basis. Once you have the processes in place to achieve positive results for your app at home, it’s time to take your app abroad.
Mobile Games companies need little convincing. They were pioneers in aligning app elements, visuals and gameplay with the preferences of a global audience. Consider Candy Crush, a blockbuster app with audiences in nearly 200 countries thanks to a look-and-feel that is a match with local tastes and trends. Now other categories of apps, notably those in the Entertainment category, are following a similar blueprint to attract and acquire more users.
Localization differs from internationalization
But before you embark on a strategy to take your app global, know the difference between localization and internationalization. Think of internationalization as table stakes. It encompasses what you need to adapt your app to different languages, regions and cultures to reach a global market. Your focus in this stage is on the basics: changing time, dates, region format, and other aspects of your app to fit with your target markets and audience.
Localization goes deeper. It starts with translating the language of the app and other elements (keywords, description, and even the name of the app) to be a tight fit with your target audience. If you plan to engage in commerce, be sure to adapt your app to local regulations and payment methods to avoid any legal battles further down the line.
Clearly, localization is not a job you want to leave to Google translator. Amateur efforts rarely pay dividends, and literal translations can do your app brand more harm than good. (Case in point: KFC’s famous finger lickin’ good motto for its fried chicken is a notable example of a bad translation. In Chinese, it urged consumers to bite their fingers off.) It’s also important to resist the temptation to localize every aspect of your app from the get-go just because you can. It pays to pace yourself.
If you don’t know what you’re aiming for, or the countries to target, then start with your app name and keywords and localize these assets for popular countries or languages. As a rule, use your organic app installs as a guide. Pinpointing countries where your app is taking off allows you to prioritize your efforts, starting with keywords. Use tools to check traffic volume for specific keywords and bake the best (yet most relevant) keywords into your app assets. If you see a bump up in your app downloads, then take it as a sure sign you can move on to localize other assets, such as the app description, followed by other marketing collateral including screenshots.
Cater to local cultures
From here on, industry literature tells us localization is just a matter of “wash, rinse, repeat” for every additional country or app store on your list. But is it really that simple? In a word: no.
An effective strategy to go global with your content goes beyond the pure “science” of ASO/AMO to the “art” of understanding how addressing individual cultural preferences and nuances. Pay close attention to other aspects of your app—such as colors, images and user interface—to build a loyal audience for your content.
Do your homework and use common sense.
Primary design considerations:
UI: Does your audience read left to right or right to left? Or is it vertical? Make sure you factor in how the text and images are read. And make doubly sure the use of directional icons in your app are logical and genuinely helpful. It impacts engagement and dictates how users will interact with their device, especially as they swipe left—or right—depending on the app and activity.
IMAGES & CONTENT: Brush up on ethnology (or hire someone with those skills). Adapt the ethnicity of your visual elements to local culture and pay special attention to skin, hair, and eye color. It’s a no-brainer that Asians or Indians might be wary of buying into localized content that displays blonde-haired, blue-eyed models, presenters, or families. Rethink the obvious icons and idioms. Sure, using a piggy bank icon as a metaphor for saving money works well in North America and much of Europe, but it’s a miss in most Middle Eastern countries.
COLOR: First impressions count, and different colors resonate with different cultures. For example, Japanese players like subtlety and pale, softer colors and shades. Chinese users, on the other hand, prefer vivid, strong and bright colors like red and orange. The mobile games industry learned this the hard way, so deep-dive into posts and publications (such as Pocketgamer.biz) where they share their tips and tricks.
From images to music, be prepared to adapt every aspect of your app to match your target markets.
Pay attention to the political spectrum
Done properly, localization engages your audience with content that resonates because it respects their local customs and cultures, not just language. Significantly, the same rules apply to your choice in app marketing and advertising messages and ad creatives. Sure, it’s a must when you take your app global. But the surprise success of SmartNews, the news app that delivers the top trending stories downloaded by over 25 million readers in over 100 countries, suggests the same approach can boost results and user loyalty in your home market as well.
In the case of SmartNews, it started with the realization that readers in North America were divided by political parties but united around one goal: the desire to access to real news, not fake news. “The most effective way to show we understood our audience and their concerns was to adapt our marketing to appeal to all sides,” Fabien-Pierre Nicolas, Head of Global Growth at SmartNews, told me in a recent podcast interview.
A review of app data and demographics revealed that the SmartNews audience was a mirror of American society. “Our readers are mostly between the ages of 35-65, and they range from liberal to moderate conservative in their politics,” Nicolas explained. An effective campaign would have to be objective and emotive. Nicolas, recently named a Mobile Hero for his user acquisition approach and accomplishments, went to work and immediately rejected flashy images and trendy buzzwords. Instead, he worked with his team to develop a simple creative capable of delivering a powerful message.
The approach worked, boosting usage and earning the app positive reviews. Nicolas says the results are still coming in and a focus group will provide the inside track on audience and brand impact. In the meantime, internal data shows the focus on eliminating the filter bubble has allowed SmartNews to increase app appeal to both genders at all levels of society and across the complete political spectrum.
You’ve invested time and resource to make your app a hit at home, and it makes business sense to take your app to global in order to maximize exposure. Yes, that starts off with mastering the fundamentals of global and local design considerations to adapt your app to your audience. But we all know that designing a terrific app is not enough given the glut of products in the market and the increasing consumer requirement for apps that are aligned with local tastes and trends. Discovery is a critical component of conversion, but apps have to strike a chord. Moving from simple App Store Optimization to an effective global app marketing strategy will help you maximize your investment so that your app will be popular with audiences everywhere.
Peggy Anne Salz is the Content Marketing Strategist and Chief Analyst of Mobile Groove, a top 50 influential technology site providing custom research to the global mobile industry and consulting to tech startups. Full disclosure: She is a frequent contributor to Forbes on the topic of mobile marketing, engagement and apps. Her work also regularly appears in a range of publications from Venture Beat to Harvard Business Review. Peggy is a top 30 Mobile Marketing influencer and a nine-time author based in Europe. Follow her @peggyanne.
Weather: The universal conversation starter. Weather may well top the list of daily content go-to’s worldwide. Perhaps because it has global and local implications. In fact, what could be more hyper-local? Deciding whether to plant the tulips or to send the kids to the park this weekend? Figuring out if your Monday work outfit requires you to rock the rain boots or the Manolos? Yet as any content provider knows, the demands of local content are complex.
Steve Smith, president of digital media for AccuWeather knows the challenges presented by the company’s continued global expansion: AccuWeather has a global audience of 1.5 billion and two thirds of them are outside the U.S. “While a lot of people talk about ‘going global’, we’ve been living it,” says Smith.
Weather information and its related news, editorial and video has to be localized. And to do so, AccuWeather often partners with local media companies to incorporate their content into its product and also to understand the needs and expectations of customers in a given area.
But localization goes well beyond content according to Smith. Delivery, UI and UX all need to be customized for specific audiences as well. For example, in much of Europe, weather content is map-based and employs what would be a dizzying array of icons and symbols to audiences elsewhere. Whereas in Japan, weather animations are extremely popular.
While the company does market research and user surveys to understand specific markets, Smith says that AccuWeather’s longstanding partnerships with global companies like Samsung, LG and Sony have been extremely helpful in enhancing their learning. Samsung, for example, has many country-specific offices that Smith and his team visit to show them products and concepts and solicit their feedback. “Use the partnerships you have,” Smith advises. Though he also feels that “the digital toolkit available today makes it much easier to test products across audiences.”
The company’s global strategy is not entirely focused on meeting the needs of its diverse audience while they are at home, of course. Smith says that consumers also have an expectation for a personalized experience wherever they are. “In many ways, language and location are big indicators of intent,” says Smith. And AccuWeather looks at these factors to determine whether, for example, your phone is German so that your information is presented in the metric system no matter where you are traveling. There are also subtle language distinctions that contribute to this experience. If you are American, the day might be “partly sunny,” but if you are British that same day will have “cloudy spells” instead.
“We’re living in an age where we all have supercomputers in our pockets equipped with high-powered GPS,” says Smith. As a result, customer expectations are growing more intense. Typing a location, he says, will soon be a thing of the past. Even the notion of location being city-based is also fading. AccuWeather already offers weather on a neighborhood basis in many cities. In New York City, for example, Manhattan isn’t nearly specific enough; the app knows if you are in Chelsea or the Upper West Side. The company is rolling out this level of specificity worldwide on a city-by-city basis and in 100 languages. The investment is a sound one, says Smith. “We have found that if we don’t get the location right, consumers don’t trust anything we tell them.”
Given how personal weather is—no matter where you live—Smith sees a time in the near future when your trusted weather ally has access to your calendar and sends you useful information before you ask. And then, you won’t even need to consider whether or not to pack that umbrella.