As publishers strive to reach revenue targets, the open programmatic market has cast a shadow over publishers’ ability to nurture their audiences. With the continued rise of mobile-first and in-app advertising, revenue growth in 2023 requires that media companies take a new approach that views advertising as a means to enhance consumer experience, rather than distract – or detract – from it.
In an age where audiences are inundated with content, publishers and app developers struggle to create “stickiness”. Here, stickiness refers to when users choose to stay with your product in a competitive environment because of the value it offers.
Mobile app stickiness is a metric that measures user engagement with an app. “Stickier” users mean lower churn rates, greater opportunities for upselling and cross-selling, higher customer lifetime value, and more customer referrals. Your audience will stick with you as long as there’s no compelling reason for them to stray. Irrelevant, offensive, or off-brand ad experiences are all reasons that users lose interest.
The key is demand optimization. It ensures brand suitability, ad relevance, and builds effective feedback loops that put audiences’ needs first.
Getting to the heart of churn
The lines that define a safe and engaging ad experience have never been clearer. One poor ad experience is all it takes to result in quick app abandonment. However, publishers rarely hear from 96% of their users. For every complaint logged, there are countless users who quietly slip away to explore competitors’ offerings.
Malicious ads, unwanted ad content, and disruptive formats cause a drop in engagement and a disconnect with brand identity. These issues manifest differently from app to app, even the offerings of a single publisher.
Most app publishers (93%) report that bad ads lead to negative reviews of their apps in the app store, and 71% of publishers say low-quality ads have driven users to uninstall their apps altogether. The impact is especially felt by gaming app publishers, with 57% sharing that bad ads have caused players to stop playing for good.
The need for flexible controls
The question remains: What can publishers serve to ensure long-term audience engagement?
Engaging, brand-suitable ads look different from app to app. Sites and apps that cater to teens have vastly different brand suitability standards than those for adults. Even among adult audiences, ad content standards vary greatly. What’s acceptable on a dating app may be damaging on a finance or gaming app.
When it comes to ad quality, it is crucial to have the autonomy to craft and fine-tune one’s guidelines. The ability to exclude certain content is a must-have for any publisher who wishes to maintain control over their ad experience.
Not only are many ad experiences offensive and disruptive, they are increasingly less relevant, as they are based on assumptions about audience preferences. Publishers must implement a sustainable feedback loop with audiences to efficiently tailor ad policies to user feedback. Publishers can turn to AI powered technologies to keep up with user preferences and constantly shifting expectations for in-app experiences.
Preserving publishers’ power position
Silent churn echoes louder than a scream. After enduring too many poor ad experiences, users simply opt for an alternative app. Publishers require visibility into the ads that appear in their apps, along with controls to ensure ads are relevant and engaging.Ultimately, the stickiness of your app is a powerful engagement metric that indicates long-term mobile app health. Appropriate, engaging ad experiences are the key to attracting stickier users who are more likely to become brand loyal. The result is a sustainable monetization strategy that will empower and benefit publishers and their audiences alike.
March marked a new milestone for streaming, as audiences spent nearly 30% of their total TV time watching over-the-top video (OTT) content. The Gauge, the monthly total TV and streaming snapshot from Nielsen found that, despite a 0.7% decrease in time spent streaming from February, viewing share across all streaming platforms was either flat or gained slightly in March.
In a further boon for the sector, Sensor Tower Usage Intelligence’s Q1 Data Digest found that the top mobile subscription video on demand (SVOD) apps in the United States saw an average of nearly 18 million monthly active users in Q1 2022, up 14% compared to Q1 2020 and 49% from Q1 2019.
The release of new streaming platforms and the race to add more content has made the space more competitive ever in Q1 2022. According to Sensor Tower, six different apps had more than 10% of the download market among top apps, and four apps had more than 10% of the monthly active users.
While market competition continues to intensify, Sensor Tower believes that enthusiasm around new launches and the strength of the top players continues to drive mobile usage. “The addition of these new content providers, as well as increased content offerings by existing platforms, have led to a consistent upward trend in average MAUs even after the expected spike in usage during their launch months,” according to the analysis. Netflix, Hulu, and Disney+ led the cohort as the top three most-used mobile SVOD apps in the U.S. in 1Q22.
The Gauge reports that, as a whole, total television usage was down in March, decreasing by 4.2% versus February. Cable stood out as the only viewing category to see an increase in both share and volume, jumping 1.6 share points from last month. Cable news viewing was up 14% from February and accounted for 21% of the cable share, driven by continuing news coverage of the Russia-Ukraine war.
Gaining a full share point over February, The Gauge finds that streaming services benefited from the transition away from the finale of professional football and the Olympics, which bolstered fall and winter TV viewing across broadcast networks. Sensor Tower also finds that content drives download and viewing. According to their report, several big events in Q1 2022 helped boost adoption and give certain apps an edge in this competitive space. HBO Max’s season two of “Euphoria” was incredibly popular, and Peacock TV and Paramount+ benefited from major U.S. . sporting events.
As the subscriptions race has intensified, media companies are turning their attention to the substantial segments of their audience who aren’t willing — or financially able — to pay for a full subscription. Some are returning to the tried and true tactic of lower-cost ad-supported offerings, while others have doubled down on putting the plus in premium.
News brands have always run the gamut from super-premium to completely ad supported. And some have speculated that the trend of premium digital news offerings – with the notable success of The Washington Post, The New York Times, and Financial Times – bodes poorly for readers in search of quality and value. And the proliferation of low cost or free offerings can often overwhelm, and even under-inform when consumers actually avoid the news.
It’s possible that a new approach is emerging which may address these issues – and offers premium brands a way to expose a broader range of consumers to their content.
A financial case
Last month, Financial Times launched a new lightweight offering called FT Edit. The app offers readers eight hand-picked stories every weekday for just £0.99 per month.
Though it has amassed 1.2 million subscribers to date, FT has traditionally attracted a certain kind of subscriber due to the high-end financial news it covers. A typical subscriber is of a higher income, with an interest in or working for the financial sector. Its most affordable digital package, which ranges from $40-$69 a month (£35-£55) would be a stretch for those who don’t need specialist financial coverage. If a consumer is after more general news, plenty of other organizations have more affordable subscriptions.
But increasingly, FT is gaining a following outside of its financial journalism. Part of that appears to be the result of making certain facets of its broader scope publicly available. Its coronavirus coverage was the first to be made freely available in March 2020. It currently has a page dedicated to free-to-read coverage of the Ukraine war “to keep everyone informed as events unfold”.
“We are known for financial news, and we’re incredibly strong at our core product. But we produce a wide breadth of news that matters, and I don’t think people really know that about the FT,” Assistant Editor Janine Gibson explained. “We weren’t really sure whether people wanted to read our free stuff more than anyone else’s, but it was very, very, very successful.”
Creating a more affordable product
The team began to see that there was a much wider appetite for their journalism. The conversations started to turn towards what a much lower-cost product would look like for the publisher. Their research about what people wanted came back with a core message: a simple product with a start and end point. Something more reflective, analytical, and deeply reported – but also expertly curated.
“There’s a different thing happening in the world of quality journalism. People understand that paying for quality journalism is vital, but they don’t necessarily have the resources or the appetite for the full, unexpurgated experience,” Gibson said.
Within a matter of months, FT Edit was conceived. Not only is the price point low, the limited offering provides a concise and digestible solution to too much news. The company says “the purpose of FT Edit is to provide an alternative to endless scrolling, allowing readers time to digest eight important stories selected for them each day. It will launch with the strapline: time well read.”
An audience-centric approach
The concern for many publishers considering this option is cannibalization of the existing subscriber audience. But Gibson sees the audience for FT Edit as adjacent to their core subscribers, not competing.
“This app isn’t here to solve a problem for a news organization,” she explained. “So many digital product launches over the last decade have come from a position of weakness, like ‘We need to replace this revenue gap’. This is, is there a wider audience out there at a lower price point for the FT? But we don’t need to offset the cost of what we already do.”
“The price point really reflects the commitment from the board and the chief executive to genuinely saying, ‘I would like to expose a much wider audience of people to some FT journalism.’”
Now, the app will go through some tweaks to find out how many stories each day works best. It is early days, but should the app get a good response in the UK, Gibson said a dedicated US version with content curated for a US audience would follow.
A bracing shot of news
FT is not the first publisher to experiment like this. The Economist’s Espresso app is the most well-known example of a separate, lower cost, lower quantity subscription offering. The recently updated app, launched eight years ago, was introduced as a daily digital briefing to complement the core magazine, with short pieces of news and analysis. It was marketed as a quick ‘shot’ of news to get readers ready for the day.
Espresso is included as part of The Economist’s full digital subscription. It is offered as a standalone app for $7.99 (£7.99) in the UK after a seven day free trial. Those who don’t choose to subscribe can still read one article a day.
The publisher has been working on an upgrade of the app over the past few months. The new version delivers Espresso stories in both written and audio form, alongside charts, facts and quotes each day. It also includes a ‘For You’ tab that lets the user sample four stories a week from the main Economist site, based on their interests.
“The new Espresso is aimed at readers who may not have the time or inclination for the more in-depth Economist experience,” a spokesperson told us. “We see it as introducing a new generation of readers to the Economist brand.”
“We imagine that, over time, some will migrate to an Economist subscription as they come to appreciate the role that our full journalism offerings can play in their lives.”
Is an app the perfect outreach product?
The question of affordable quality journalism is likely to become ever-more pressing as more publishers turn to reader revenue. From the Washington Post to Bloomberg – and even The Smith’s yet unlaunched Semafor – the market is saturated with publications targeting the global elite who barely blink at paying hundreds of dollars a year for news access.
The challenge for publishers looking to attract a wider audience to quality journalism is pricing for access. This is where paid products like apps or even newsletters can be a good way of building a relationship with readers without asking them to pay premium prices.
The longevity of Espresso and the initial success of FT Edit also demonstrate that audiences respond well to content with a start and a finish point. Aside from the obvious parallels to print newspapers, a carefully curated, high-quality set of stories is now seen as a refreshing antidote to the endless scrolling, misinformation, and frantic news cycle. In other words, for a tiny fraction of the cost, you get a tiny fraction of the news: just what you need to know, concisely offered and expertly crafted and delivered.
Now, limited is in demand. A small bundle of stories well-packaged for mobile could be the key for other publishers to unlocking their vast untapped audiences who haven’t yet opened their wallets.
Google’s Accelerated Mobile Pages (AMP) promised a faster and better user experience on mobile while helping publishers boost traffic and generate more revenue. Recently, however, a number of digital publishers have announced that they are reassessing their usage of AMP.
Google introduced AMP in 2015 presenting it as open-source code available for developers. Before AMP’s announcement, Apple, Facebook, and Snapchat announced content partnerships (e.g., Apple News, Instant Articles, Snapchat Discover) which focused on improving the consumer experience but shifted the publisher’s content to their platforms. Each of these proprietary, closed services promised consumers easy access to content but offered limited publisher monetary upside.
Industry executives feared that publisher brands would fade in the background on platforms. Others debated that these channels would provide a path to new and younger audiences, which seemed like a fair trade-off for content control. However, AMP had a unique proposition for publishers: They would keep publisher’s content on the “open web” and, maybe more importantly, they’d also gain a special shortcut to the top of Google search results through a new carrousel.
Fast forward to 2022, and publishers increasingly question the value of these partnerships because they add overhead and offer limited revenue or consumer benefit. In particular, AMP appears to restrict some mobile page functionality like detailed navigational paths and search icons. Given these disappointing results, some publishers are testing life without AMP, while others are phasing it out altogether.
It is important to note that, in December 2020, a lawsuit filed by multiple states accused Google of “anti-competitive conduct” in the digital advertising ecosystem. An unredacted version of the court document became available in January 2022, offering additional details. The added information explains that AMP pages hosted on Google’s servers made it difficult for publishers to use auction platforms other than Google’s ad exchange. It also alleges that Google made non-AMP pages load with a one-second delay. This gave publishers even more reason to be skeptical.
Digital Content Next (DCN) surveyed its membership earlier this year to provide insight into publishers’ experience with AMP, its impact, and its use in the future. The results show that most respondents use or have used AMP (96%), with the majority re-evaluating (57%) their AMP usage. Close to half (48%) report that they have they stopped or will stop using AMP.
Respondents report that their top reasons for using AMP were the promise of more search traffic, faster website performance, attracting new audiences, and industry pressure. Unfortunately, respondents reported mixed results in some core benefits like increased search traffic and audience development.
A recent Wall Street Journal (WSJ) article, Publishers Move to Abandon Google-Supported Mobile Web Initiative, essentially confirms the DCN survey results. WSJ reports that Vox Media, BuzzFeed, Complex Networks, and Bustle Digital Group started “testing or are considering using their versions of mobile-optimized article pages.” These publishers are in addition to The Washington Post, which stopped programming AMP pages last year.
Many publishers said they started to review their AMP usage after Google made algorithm changes in 2021. According to the WSJ, Google made changes “so that pages’ loading speeds, interactivity, and visual stability became factored into its search rankings.” Also, AMP content was no longer exclusively featured in a top-stories carousel in search results. Further, as publishers started testing, they learned that dropping AMP did not affect their load time or search ranking.
Reassessing the benefits of using AMP is triggering many publishers to rethink the control of their content, page designs, ad formats, and paywall. Publishers are rightly taking a harder look at content partnerships to evaluate how they fit their editorial and business strategies and monetization goals.
TikTok, the insanely popular social video app, comes pre-installed on a number of Samsung smartphones. That’s hardly surprising. Samsung and TikTok have a longstanding relationship, with the app finding a place on Samsung smart TVs back in December of 2020. It’s a mutually beneficial partnership: The hardware manufacturer rides the wave of the app’s rapid growth in popularity, the app expands its audience, and the pair have access to a new suite of data between them.
What is surprising, though, is how deeply embedded TikTok appears to be in Samsung hardware. As reported by Screenrant, and as pointed out in Samsung forums, the app is not just pre-installed on Samsung devices. It is in fact deemed “essential.” That means it can’t be uninstalled completely, on par with the Camera app. While workarounds do exist, the message is clear: Samsung dearly wants its users use that TikTok app on its smartphones.
As Screenrant’s Nadeem Sarwar points out, there must be a tangible benefit for both parties – even if that comes at a storage and data cost to the user: “How TikTok is an essential app is unclear. But to the average smartphone user, it is nothing more than a cash-grab scheme between the world’s most popular app and the world’s largest smartphone seller.”
While the partnership between Samsung and TikTok is pertinent for media companies, it is far from the only pre-installed or essential app tie-ups of the past few years. The PlayStation 5 media remote comes with physical buttons for launching Netflix, Disney Plus, Spotify, and YouTube. Samsung also includes Facebook as one of its essential pre-installed apps, which adds fuel to the fire of user accusations of bloatware.
But what does that mean for media companies, news publishers whose apps are not considered essential in their own right? And should those companies be considering pursuing similar exclusive partnerships with hardware manufacturers?
Apps strong together
Newspapers do have a presence as pre-installed apps to some extent already. Apple’s News app has been pre-installed on iPhones for some years now, itself the successor to its Newsstand app. That has been further developed with the implementation of News+, which boasts any number of publishers by now. That means that users, at least in theory, have a pre-installed and essential app through which they can reach newspapers on iOS (provided they agree to Apple’s terms, which have been… tumultuous).
In practice, however, it isn’t the same at all. Access via an aggregator is not the same as having a dedicated app, for both publishers and audiences. Readly, Apple News+, and many of the other aggregators are not focused on media brands creating a direct relationship with audiences. They’re about revenue, not engagement.
Worse still, this bundling robs publishers of the ability to iterate and experiment with an app they own and operate. Mathias Douchet, director of product at The Telegraph, says that freedom is the single most important point when it comes to establishing long-term user relationships:
“Even with a continuous improvement cycle, it is important to celebrate your success as it happens. With the new digital edition app, three out of four users are coming back daily. This is even higher among core subscribers at 95%.”
So even when publishers do have a presence on essential apps, it doesn’t necessarily replicate the benefits of the partnership between TikTok and Samsung. It does not serve the same purpose, nor does it necessarily benefit the user.
Beat the bloat
So why does it matter to publishers if their apps do not appear as pre-installed solutions on smartphone hardware? The answer is that in the battle for attention those pre-installed solutions allow some apps to cheat. They leave the starting line before the firing gun has gone off. This puts the rest of apps – newspapers and magazines included – at a disadvantage when it comes to audience attention.
A good rule of thumb is that unless your app appears in a users’ top five most-used apps, they aren’t visiting it every day. That in turn means that users are unlikely to develop the habit of opening a news app regularly, which creates fewer touch points with your subscriber.
According to research from App Annie in its State of Mobile 2021 report, news publishers very rarely appear in the top five most used apps on users’ smartphones. The few that do typically are state broadcasters like the BBC. The top two most used apps among Gen X in the UK are BBC Weather and BBC News respectively. No news apps appear in the top five most used apps for either Gen Z or Millennials. In the US, the only news app to appear in any of the cohorts’ most used apps is The Weather Channel.
A second factor is that news apps come with political and emotional baggage, which apps like TikTok are unlikely to have. It is unlikely given accusations of bloat and the need to work out partnership deals that any smartphone manufacturer would seek to force users to keep a particular outlets’ news app on their device. It is more unlikely still that they would do so given that accusations of bias and monopolistic practices around big tech companies are rampant.
Consider U2’s “Songs of Innocence” debacle, in which the band and Apple received backlash for distributing the band’s album for free onto people’s devices. Now add in the current supercharged political climate and consumer’s polarized position on news brands. Things could get complicated fast.
Apps, particularly on smartphones, remain a key part of many newspapers’ and magazines’ strategies. Users spend more time on their phones than with television, and time spent in apps made up a significant proportion of that. But despite the value they create for media companies and their audiences, it is unlikely that hardware manufacturers consider them as big a draw for their consumers as entertainment apps.
So, if newspapers want to be included in a pre-installed app on smartphones, maybe they should invest in dancing lessons for their journalists. Because, for better or worse, making their apps a fixture of users’ mobile diet may not come as easily as negotiating a pre-install position.
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.
A lot of mobile app developers are looking toward March and sighing something along the lines of: “It’s been fun, but the salad days are coming to a close.”
As promised in the iOS14 update, Apple will begin enforcing the user consent requirement for apps to share its Identifier for Advertisers (aka IDFA) in March. This was delayed from September; however, it’s been a dark cloud rapidly approaching for anyone advertising or monetizing in the mobile app space.
IDFA was a giant boon to mobile advertising. Arguably, it kick-started in-app programmatic by enabling cross-app targeting and measurement for advertisers similarly to the way third-party cookies function in browsers. While third-party cookies are (reportedly) hitting the end of the road in 2022, Apple’s IDFA will live on. However, advertisers, adtech companies, and publishers alike are pessimistic about the percentage of users who will opt-in due to a rather negative permission window from privacy-centric Apple.
Unfortunately, those developers may get hit with a double whammy. They face severe revenue loss and a storm of malvertising and malicious ads taking advantage of a drooping programmatic marketplace and mobile vulnerabilities.
Publishers’ incessant mobile troubles
Mobile has been a long, hard road for digital publishers. As more and more of their traffic creeped over to smartphones and tablets during the last decade, publisher revenue opportunities dwindled. Less screen real estate was available to show display ads, visitors scrolled by impressions at warp speed, and the available formats not only failed to satisfy advertisers, but also alienated audiences.
And that was before Apple’s Safari, the most widely used mobile browser in the US, introduced Intelligent Tracking Protection (ITP) and cut off third-party cookie support. Eventually, Apple plans to put even tighter restrictions on first-party collection.
At AdMonsters Publisher Forums, ad ops professionals described their mobile web environments like ghost towns. “Oh yeah, the advertisers know that iOS users skew more affluent and that we have solid first-party data segments. But they won’t bite without client-side measurement capabilities and attribution.”
Scammers step in
No surprise then that the scammers saw a weak mobile programmatic marketplace and came to play. The current age of ad quality challenges started with omnipresent mobile redirect campaigns. For a while in 2018, it seemed like every weekend you could be greeted by scam announcements that you’d won a gift card if you dared to brave the mobile web.
And their interest in compromising mobile users has only grown. The biggest named malvertising threats of 2020, including LuckyBoy and IcePick, used fingerprinting to pinpoint mobile devices.
Late 2020 and early 2021, The Media Trust saw a dramatic rise in malicious ads on mobile devices. (And when we refer to an incident, we mean a specific malvertising campaign; the amount of infected impressions is exponentially higher.)
As Pat Ciavolella, Digital Security and Operations Director at The Media Trust, explained on a recent webinar, “Mobile is a juicy target for bad actors…. Most people access the Internet through their mobile devices and malvertising is harder to detect. Malicious actors are starting there to make sure their code is working before expanding onto desktop and reaching anyone and everyone.”
A significant slide in in-app programmatic CPMs—due to unidentifiable or unmeasurable traffic— will simply open up new testing grounds for malvertisers.
So, the enforcement of consent for IDFA—with Apple messaging that’s likely to dissuade users from opting in—couldn’t come at a worse time. As noted elsewhere, even rosy opt-in predictions could have devastating consequences on app developers’ revenue. We know because we’ve seen how advertisers pull out when users are unidentifiable and unmeasurable on Safari. (On mobile and desktop).
And when benign advertisers step back, we’ve then seen how the malevolent ones step forward. A simple examination of the rise in malicious advertising during the early days of the pandemic is enough to set your hair on end. An explosion in supply with lowered CPMs is a scammer’s paradise. The scam opportunities around Covid will once again hit fever pitch as bad actors try to capitalize on vaccine distribution.
App developers face a dual threat. First, the are likely to see a serious drop in revenue as in-app programmatic CPMs decline when users fail to opt-in to IDFA-sharing. And then a host of bad advertisers will try to infect their users with malware or rope them into some kind of scam.
As tempting as it may be to send the programmatic bid floors to the basement, app developers – and mobile publishers in general– have to keep their guards up against malvertising. The must also demand better protections from their upstream demand partners. It’s never been more important to scan and track where bad ads are coming from.
In the long run, infecting your users with malware or a credit card skimmer could have far worse ramifications than a revenue shortfall.
There’s no precedent for holiday shopping this year. It could be muted, or it could be massive. If data from the 2008 financial crisis is a guide, then holiday shopping is likely to stay the course. Back then, consumers reported they would spend 29% less for the holidays. As it turned out, retail in the U.S. dipped just 4.7% as compared to the year before.
Still, with so many variables and unknowns, we can only be sure of one outcome: This will be a holiday season unlike any other. The impact of the pandemic is profound. But mandatory lockdowns and self-isolation have accelerated a number of digital trends, including ecommerce. It has also opened opportunities for ecommerce marketplaces and mobile apps.
In particular, mobile shopping is set to skyrocket. App store intelligence provider App Annie estimates U.S. consumers will spend more than 1 billion hours on shopping apps on Android devices alone. That’s a 50% increase from the same time last year. App Annie is convinced this year will be the biggest year for shopping apps yet. The ecommerce explosion is good news for brands and businesses. However, content will be a critical component for companies that want to clinch the sale. In particular, they will need content that drives upper-funnel awareness and deeper-funnel engagement.
While most content companies today have a mobile app, they need to raise the bar by better integrating content into commerce. Serving the pandemic era shopper means being nimble and adaptable,
Today’s consumers want experiential content that brightens dreary days and drives meaningful connection. Here are two strategies content companies should consider as they prepare to be ecommerce-ready for the holidays.
#1 Refocus your approach to mobile development
Mobile is a stage in the customer journey where content companies can make a huge impression, provided they position their media properties and assets to be a growth driver for retail businesses.Today, more than ever, that means being able to iterate your mobile app at the speed of change.
Mobile and apps have combined to become the “the central nervous system of our connected lives,” according to App Annie’s State of Mobile 2020 report. Ease of use, convenience and personalization are driving a surge in shopping-app use and downloads. They are also factors fueling a massive increase in new shopping app releases.
The race to be app-optimized in time for the holidays is one even industry laggards can win thanks to the evolution of low-code solutions. At its core, low-code allows companies to fast-track mobile app development allowing companies to cut development time by “an average of 50%,” according to Samir Addamine, Founder and President of low-code platform provider FollowAnalytics.
But it’s not enough to deliver content that supports shoppers every step of the journey. It’s critical to embrace what Addamine calls an “always-on innovation” mindset. This means relying on low-code to “surface the same experience as the website and leverage mobile capabilities such as push notification, augmented reality and geolocation.”
Even better if the outcome is an app experience that anticipates, not just answers, shopper requirements. Because of their intimate audience understanding, and first-party data, content companies are uniquely able to deliver on this.
Aspiring to this level of integration is a must for companies seeking to add or enhance their commerce experience. From advice and assistance based on location, to chat dialogs that infuse messaging with a personal touch, apps are evolving because they must.
The pandemic has accelerated this dynamic, creating a “forcing function” that pushes audiences to apps for all their needs. It also turns up the pressure on content companies to evolve a full-funnel strategy, powered by feature-rich apps, to meet ever-evolving customer requirements.
#2 Prepare now to enable “content-enhanced commerce”
Content companies can win big if they position themselves to deliver what I call “content-enhanced commerce” to consumers online and in-app. In this scenario, content companies do more than offer advertising space or craft native advertising. They forge partnerships and harness platforms (including their own) to deliver commerce-complementary content, relevant messaging, and riveting storytelling.
The concept of content-enhanced commerce is in its infancy. However, it draws inspiration from a mature and massively successful model: home shopping. Thanks to mobile devices, chat apps and live streaming, this reboot makes ecommerce a two-way conversation. Hosts, brands, companies and consumers connect in real-time. And that authentic engagement makes this model unstoppable.
While technology is a must, the right content clinches the sale. This means priming audiences with expert reviews, entertaining hosts, and exciting approaches to drive content and product discovery. If it sounds like heavy lifting, then consider the enormous market potential. In China alone – a mobile-focused country where shoppable live streaming got its start – sales revenues reached $63 billion in 2019.
Elsewhere in APAC, content companies are teaming up with brands and broadcasters to deliver a local and lucrative spin. Mediacorp, Singapore’s largest content creator and national media network operates a suite of TV channels, radio stations and multiple digital platforms. The company has partnered with ecommerce platform Lazada. The alliance turns shopping into a retail experience. To go one better Mediacorp plans to leverage more “immersive content marketing. That will allow people to discover products, compare prices and shop items, all while watching content.”
Is APAC an indicator of what will come next to the west? Let’s just say Asia has a first-mover advantage in what is shaping up to be the next trend in e-commerce.
Content companies need to use this unusual holiday season as an opportunity to experiment. They should test ways to infuse the shopping experience with credible content and reviews. It is important to partner with brands that understand that content is an asset.
Content companies are in the enviable position of employing experts in any number of areas. This allows for a seamless integration between that expertise and commerce, which is far superior to the social media influencer model.
Finally, if your content has a local focus, explore partnerships with local brands and businesses. Research shows that new audiences gravitate to companies that support local interests and enterprises. Clearly, working with local-focused companies is the best way to show your support.
Maybe you plan to drive full-funnel engagement through your app to empower ecommerce. Or perhaps you want to enhance a shoppable live streaming experience. The precise path you take will depend on your content assets and strategy. But these pathways are sure to pay dividends and prepare you to ring in the revenues at a time when the pandemic is wreaking havoc with physical retail and driving consumers into digital at a breakneck pace.
When you’re launching a new brand amidst multiple global crises, it helps to hone your focus and target audience. That’s part of the thinking behind NowThis Earth. The new channel from Group Nine Media’s mobile-first news publisher NowThis will address the impact of human actions on the Earth’s climate.
NowThis Earth launched in partnership with a coalition of climate-focused non-profits, research organizations, and NGO’s. The new channel will offer daily coverage of science-based coverage of the changing climate, as well as stories that focus on sustainable living. According to NowThis President Athan Stephanopoulos, climate change is a topic around which the NowThis audience is already highly engaged.
Mobilizing the brand
That’s one way in which NowThis differs from some legacy publishers. Many have struggled to find a way to cover climate change comprehensively. They cite limited consumer appetite for science-based coverage and the risk of fatigue with the sometimes-dire stakes of the issue. Attitudes toward and interest in the issue has started to shift among the public at large. However, Stephanopoulos is confident that NowThis’ young audience, primarily composed of Millennials and Generation Z, is more than ready for a sharper editorial focus on the issue many see as the defining challenge of their age.
“When we’ve covered issues of climate and sustainability in the past we’ve seen those stories over-index in terms of engagement, particularly with our younger audience,” says Stephanopoulos. In fact, NowThis viewers are five times more likely to engage with climate and sustainability content than with any other topic. This engagement has produced a reported 600 million views across NowThis’ existing news and politics channels. Clearly, its native audience is ready to see the topic take center stage.
Of course, even with signs of growing consumer interest, launching a new mobile-first news channel in a crowded ecosystem presents challenges. That’s why NowThis is leveraging some of its existing assets to give the new brand a boost. NowThis Earth will take over the channel previously occupied by NowThis Future, a science and technology vertical that was one of NowThis’ most frequent homes for sustainability-driven content. Taking over an existing channel with a built-in audience will give Earth a leg up as it aims to break into an increasingly competitive mobile video market. NowThis can seamlessly connect new brand’s content directly with the segment of the audience most primed to receive it.
The channel also enjoyed a boost from science educator, climate activist, and occasional NowThis collaborator Bill Nye. He gave the launch a boost with the introduction of a live climate tracker. The new channel is open to partnerships with relevant voices in the climate conversation. However, Stephanoulos stays that bringing Nye into the launch has more to do with foregrounding future collaborations with the brand than a concerted influencer strategy for the channel. “It was mostly about the fact that we’ve done work with Bill in the past. And we’re talking about things we can do with him now under the NowThis Earth umbrella.”
The new channel will also leverage an array of non-profit partnerships that will play a key role in informing its editorial coverage and helping it to connect with new audiences. NowThis has teamed with the Global Commons Alliance, a coalition of climate-focused organizations including research, business, and philanthropy. According to Stephanopoulos, the partnership will help NowThis Earth to identify stories on the frontlines of climate coverage. IT will also provide access experts who can provide additional context. GCA member organizations will also contribute local reporting from journalists and NGO employees involved in conservation efforts around the world.
The Global Commons Alliance will also help support the new channel through funding that will allow it to remain, at least initially, ad-free. In the near-term, the focus for Stephanopoulos and his team is on building an editorial brand that can motivate its viewers to take the kind of actions that help to address the global climate crisis. This could be by donating to preferred causes, following tips for more sustainable living, or engaging in activism.
NowThis has successfully partnered with commercial brands in the past. However, Stephanopolous thinks it’s important to avoid any potential conflicts at launch. He remains optimistic about the long-term potential of traditional advertisers to support sustainability-driven content both on NowThis Earth at large.
“We’ve seen a lot of brands and advertisers who want to be in this space, particularly content around sustainability,” says Stephanopoulos. “There are a number of companies that are driving themselves to be more sustainable as brands. I believe there will be even more opportunities in the future.”
Lessons to repeat
For publishers looking to launch a new video brand into today’s highly competitive market, there are some valuable lessons in the NowThis approach. NowThis Earth isn’t so much a new vertical, as a distillation of coverage that was previously spread across multiple channels in the NowThis portfolio.
With close attention to user engagement, the NowThis team was able to identify an area of opportunity that it was already well-positioned to develop based on its existing network of partners and to grow based on its established cross-channel audiences. The topic is timely, but as Stephanopoulos pointed out, NowThis has been nurturing this audience across several of its brands for years already.
Around the world, mobile accounts for just over half of all online traffic. However, a concerningly large number of local news publishers have sites that are either inaccessible to mobile users, or are slow to load and clunky.
“A good mobile experience is absolutely pivotal,” emphasized news industry analyst Ken Doctor, who is launching his own local news outlet Lookout in the fall. “At least 65-70% of news reading is mobile. That defines the landscape. If you want to be in the news distribution business, you’ve got to go where people are.” And they are using their phones.
But providing a good local news experience is about more than just making sure the content is accessible to readers. “The massive yet slow movement of traditional publishers to the web meant that they largely took their news sections and put the headlines on mobile in the most boring way possible,” Doctor explained. “A good local newspaper always gave you a sense of city life. It would show you the problems. But it also told you what was going on in town, fun things to do, characters in town.”
According to Doctor, most mobile experiences from local publishers lack a sense of place. “And local press at its best has always been about a sense of place.”
Many legacy organizations struggle to cater to the growth of mobile. But some recent launches have shown just how vital a good mobile experience is. Here, three publishers explain how they’re putting the mobile experience at the front and center of their local news delivery.
Spectrum’s new News App
SSpectrum Networks, a News and Sports Network owned by Charter, has recently launched its own local news app. The Spectrum News App combines written reporting from existing newsrooms and curated content from partner news organizations. It also includes local weather and linear feeds of all Spectrum News networks.
Although Spectrum already has local linear news networks, they saw a mobile app as a way to go deeper into those communities with a wider range of content. “We were seeing these trends with mobile growth just exploding, and TV and mobile getting to a similar amount of time spent,” said Alison Hellman, Group VP, Audience and Content Strategy at Spectrum. “It made sense for us as a business, but when you look at the gaps, there really is a gap in high-quality, targeted local news. We wanted to bring it to a new platform, and that’s how we got here.”
The app has live video and podcasts as well as text content. Hellman emphasised that it was how it all worked together which is one of the key draws. “Weather is critical for local news, and it’s not just the data, but it’s about the context,” she explained. “If we do this right, we are a one stop shop. People are doing some of these pieces well in the mobile space. But no one was providing it all.”
The app is free to access to all 28 million of Spectrum’s residential customers. For non-customers, the company offers a 30 day trial. The mobile initiative is a play for a long-term relationship with their customers. “We want to be a part of their lives in the way that they live their lives,” Hellman said. “If they watch TV, we want to be there. But if they’re on the go, we want to be providing that information as well.”
Each locale in the Spectrum News App features original content produced specifically for the app by dedicated local digital journalists. It is also includes content from nearly three dozen local news partners. Sources range from major daily newspapers to community digital news outlets. This has helped bolster the app’s content in local areas.
Launching The Longmont Leader
McClatchy is another publisher using mobile as a key part of its local news strategy. The company has partnered with Google to found The Compass Experiment. This news laboratory explores new sustainable business models for local news. The second of their local news sites, The Longmont Leader, was launched in May in Colorado.
Rather than building the site from scratch, The Compass Experiment partnered with Village Media, which operates a number of local news sites in Canada. Village Media’s platform is mobile-responsive. It also has features such as classifieds and obituaries which can sometimes be complex to build and manage from scratch.
The Compass Experiment’s General Manager Mandy Jenkins explained that partnering means the team can focus resources on reporting rather than development. “I’ve seen other startups that have built their own thing. It always ends up being more expensive and more clunky than they think,” she said. “Ultimately, there’s a lot of people who do this well. And I don’t feel like we have to reinvent the wheel.”
The team did extensive research in the local community before launching to find out what people’s expectations were around both the content and the experience. The answers were unsurprising, but included not wanting hugely busy screens, ads popping up or autoplay videos. A clear, easy-to-navigate site was needed. And with the vast majority accessing the internet via mobile, a mobile-default mindset was essential.
This mindset extends back even to before the stories are published. “Even within the CMS, when [the journalists] produce stories, we get a mobile preview by default,” explained Jenkins. “Most of our readers are on mobile, so that’s where we have to look at it.”
This mobile-first thinking doesn’t have to mean producing an app as there are plenty of ways to engage users through mobile sites. “Although we’re not going with an app strategy, we’re sticking with a mobile web strategy, we’re still looking at doing mobile push alerts,” Jenkins outlined. “Not just for breaking news, but things like local election alerts and what’s going on around town. We’re starting to put together the strategy around that and how we’ll use them.”
Lookout for local news in Santa Cruz
Unlike Spectrum and The Longmont Leader, Ken Doctor’s Lookout has yet to launch. However, he is applying his extensive knowledge of the news ecosystem to how he and the team are shaping the Santa Cruz, CA publication.
Doctor is working on the assumption that around four fifths of the readers are going to be on mobile. So, the whole experience will be mobile-first. Like the Longmont Leader, Lookout has chosen not to build the site from scratch. Instead, they’ve opted to use the L.A. Times’ Graphene platform. The team will benefit from the technology expertise and development resources of a much larger publisher, which allows Lookout to focus on the content.
Lookout will also focus on just content for the first few months, saving audio and video capabilities for later down the line. But they are looking to get the community involved very early on.
“We have a number of community features and interactive features that are important in terms of the two-way communication between our reporters and the public,” Doctor explained. “It’s a small community – 275,000 people – and to get to know them, to be able to interact with them and do weekly chats with the correspondents, those kinds of things are build-in.”
However, a good mobile experience is just a part of the puzzle piece for local news organizations. “It’s a combination of what kind of content [it is], how it’s presented, what the overall experience is, and how it’s optimized,” Doctor outlined.
His advice for local publishers looking to provide a better experience is to work hard to understand their readers and would-be readers. “They need to understand how their reading habits work today, because they’re not going to change those reading habits,” he emphasized. “It takes a mind shift and it takes investment, and it’s amazing how slow both moves have been.”
To anyone paying attention to the digital publishing space in recent months, it is clear that the already fraught relationship between digital publishers and platforms has frayed even further. Publishers have long been critical of the power of Apple and Google, the two major mobile operating system operators, which dominate the mobile app economy through their respective app store platforms. However, in just the past month, intensifying antitrust investigations, legal action from gaming publisher Epic, and publishers’ vocal concerns have all highlighted concerns about Apple’s anti-competitive practices.
As digital media consumption has become ever more mobile, a broad cross section of publishers built mobile apps. Their goal has been to build deeper audience connections and try to regain some control over customer relationships increasingly mediated by social platforms.
In that endeavor, publishers have historically had a friend, or at least frenemy, in the OS providers that allow them to access mobile audiences through their app stores while exacting sometimes onerous terms. As that complex relationship transitions to open hostilities, the industry is asking itself some fundamental questions. Among them: “Are app stores even worth it?
To better understand some of the drawbacks of the app economy, we spoke to Paul Bannister, Chief Strategy Officer at CafeMedia. He discusses some App Store challenges that have led his company to forgo apps altogether.
First among these challenges, according to Bannister, is the limits of discoverability in the app store environment. This is a particular issue for niche and emerging publishers that don’t have globally recognized brands. Prominent legacy news brands like the New York Times and Wall Street Journal can use existing channels to drive a critical mass of dedicated audience members toward an app. However, this is far more difficult for publishers that are still building a business, or for those with niche audiences.
Instead, says Bannister, publishers should build properties on the open web that can be discovered through multiple channels by people searching for the kind of content they excel at producing. Smaller publishers can’t solely rely on a dedicated core audience that’s dedicated enough to a brand to seek it out and download an app.
Bannister also points to the limited monetization opportunities offered by the existing mobile app ecosystem. The advertising model has taken a beating in recent years. Critics blame both the market-distorting presence of Google and Facebook and, more recently, the advertising pullback spurred by the global pandemic. However, he argues that advertising remains a significant source of revenue for almost any digital publishers, be they niche brands, publishing startups, or household names like the Times and the Journal.
By contrast, Apple favors monetization through in-app purchases transacted through its own App Store, through which it extracts a 30% transaction fee. This fee is the subject of Apple’s current fight with Epic. But, according to Bannister, it’s this self-interest on the part of the tech giant that curtails the advertising opportunity of publisher apps.
“It’s clear that Apple is really opposed to advertising,” says Bannister. “They prefer to make everything about in-app purchases so they can collect their pound of flesh. They don’t have a presence in advertising so there’s nothing in it for them. So they make it harder to make money in other ways.”
When it comes to the app sector as a whole, Bannister takes a historical view. He compares the role of today’s two dominant mobile operating system providers, Apple and Google, to the monopolistic dominance of telecom giant AT&T’s Bell System in the 1980s.
“They’re the gateway to content for all consumers,” Bannister says. “If you’re any sort of digital publisher, you have to go through one of the mobile operating systems or one of the browsers. And those two companies control 99% of the mobile OS market and 95% of the browser market. That’s unhelpful to competition and they need to be opened up.”
The Bell System was famously broken up and regionalized following the landmark antitrust case United States v AT&T. Bannister isn’t necessarily recommending similar action be taken to reign in the power of OS makers and their app store platforms. However, he does believe that change is needed.
“I have no strong opinion on whether that means regulation or whatever that means breaking them up, but it’s not healthy for two companies to dominate all access to information,” Bannister says. “The desired outcome is a level playing field where everyone can compete, and win, and do well. How we get to a level playing field is up for debate. But a fair competitive environment is the goal.”
The world of mobile is built on scroll and swipe actions. Addictive and habit forming, infinite scroll became the defining characteristic of social media networks for a time. Clicking is making a decision. Scroll is an everlasting stream of possibilities.
Readers do love to scroll. However, it is also a better way to read and digest long content. Usability studies by the Software Usability Research Laboratory show that users can read long, scrolling pages faster than paginated ones. And they absorb the same level of information from the content.
‘Participants using the paging condition took significantly longer to read the passages than either the full or scrolling conditions. They stated that they found the Paging condition to be “too broken up,” and that they had to “go back and forth” quite a bit to search for information.’
Publishers, hoping to establish the kind of enthralled readership seen on social media, built infinite scroll and swipe navigation into their UIs, expecting readers to drip through page after page of their content. Scroll and swipe seemed to be purpose-built for news and entertainment sites.
Unfortunately, the results of scroll and swipe for publishers didn’t hit the mark.
A bottomless pit
Infinite scroll gave readers a bottomless pit of publishers’ content. But dig into the data and you can see that most readers are still only skimming the surface of the content. According to the readership data studied here at Marfeel, we find that 75% of readers never get beyond 10% scroll depth in an article.
Content may have infinite depth. But even engaged readers are unlikely to ever stray from the shallow-end.
When it comes to publisher content, if a reader is not engaged, they are unlikely to continue scrolling. So, if your recirculation strategy relies on readers scrolling past the bottom of an article, you’re losing out on 80% of your audience.
With swipe, the results aren’t as damning but still deeply flawed. Swipe has been shown to potentially increase page views per session by over 400% for some publishers. However, only about 20% of readers ever discover it.
Infinite scroll needs structure, variation, and novelty
Infinite scroll works so well on social media because the content and the formats change on every swipe. You’re rolling the dice for another chance at entertainment. On a publishers’ site, a swipe may just lead to another few paragraphs of content.
Traversing this dead-zone is cognitive work. There’s a lower dopamine response from making a judged evaluation on a longer article or piece of content. Faced with a paragraph of dense analysis on Euribor inflation before the next crumb of content is offered up, a reader’s first instinct will be to leave the page, not continue.
A Chartbeat report found only “slight evidence” infinite scroll contributes to deeper scroll depth, but no definitive evidence that infinite scroll improves depth of visit.
For infinite scroll to work for publishers, varied and exciting content is key. It needs to be digestible as single-scan content chunks. Users must be able to look at once and make a decision about whether they want to read or not.
Grouped titles, images, and instantly understandable content give readers more bursts of information they can use to make quick decisions. These atoms make up a proposition that a user can decide to delve into or keep scrolling. Publishers need to spot scroll-stopping points and introduce alternative exits at these points to keep readers engaged. Writing in Psychology Today, Susan Weinschenk explains, ‘If there is a small, specific cue that signifies that something is going to happen, that sets off our dopamine system’. UI/UX cues that more content is available become a dinner bell that connects to a Pavlovian response inside us.’
Without these cues, infinite scroll becomes an endless litany that unengaged readers will choose to leave rather than find the end. With these tools, publishers can reconsider scroll depth as their most crucial metric and start focusing on recirculating readers, which techniques such as ‘inline articles’ as seen above can increase recirculation by an average of 60%.
Take a lesson from Tinder on swiping
Swipe removed pagination from the mobile experience. However, not every reader discovers it in mobile publishers’ content. Imagine a world where only 20% of visitors to Tinder realized they had swipe for more content.
Apps such as Tinder and TikTok are built around swipe because they make it explicit. Publishers’ audiences are not expecting to swipe, rather follow the sections and pagination of traditional news sites. Publishers that have managed to make swipe work for them use clear and simple UI cues that make swipe a logical and intuitive cue.
Another major difference in what swipe offers us – compared with clicking new content, changing pages, or switching apps – is that we’re unsure of risk/reward ratio. And this can deliver higher rewards than evaluating decisions.
Provided we have some information about a user’s tastes, such as broad interests, swiping to a new article in a relevant or category or similar topic can even be more rewarding than choosing a new link based on rational decision-making. To do this, swipe needs to be integrated with cues to show that swipe is the intended action. As it is not yet a natural motion on content sites, this behavior needs to be taught and established.
By re-working these born-mobile techniques, publishers can re-define swipe to make it a more natural and established action. This will help publishers turn swipe and scroll from well-intentioned but ineffective tools into powerful and essential components of any content-based UI.