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.
The publishing industry has undergone a serious transformation in the past five years. It’s moving away from an all-out push for scale and toward earnest efforts to create meaningful relationships built on trust with online readers. It’s not just about eyes on the page. It’s about loyalty.
A loyal audience is more likely to subscribe, attend events, and engage with relevant ads — ultimately increasing revenue. To succeed, newsrooms will, of course, need to rely on the editorial and ethical foundations that have made journalism a pillar of society. But to truly compete with global powerhouses like Facebook, Google, Apple, and Netflix, news organizations need access to data on the same scale that those tech companies have.
To increase loyalty, journalists and editors need to be armed with data and AI-based tools that guarantee a great experience for each visitor every time. These tools tell publishers what topics their readers are interested in and help writers create engaging headlines. These tools also surface the right content to the right person at the right time, whether it’s editorial, sponsored content, or an ad. It’s a tall order. But this marriage of old and new worlds will undeniably fuel the most powerful newsrooms of the future.
Keeping up without compromising
The algorithms that power the world’s most popular social channels master the art of personalization. They give users a never-ending flow of content and ads they find interesting, relevant, and downright addictive. And, perhaps most importantly, they help social media platforms rake in revenue.
According toresearch from Gallup, 45% of respondents said they use social media as their primary way to stay informed on current events, while only 14% said they turn to online news websites. But despite turning to social media the most, respondents also expressed distrust for it. They reported that they’re twice as likely to trust the authenticity and validity of news sites over social media.
This presents the news industry with a monumental task. Publishers need to build sustainable systems that allow them to keep up with the new wave of user experiences ushered in by social media. Thanks to these social platforms, today’s consumers expect personalization from both their editorial and sponsored content. And publishers have to deliver those customized experiences if they want to attract and retain new audiences. But at the same time, they need to maintain the integrity and values that make journalism so important.
The solution to this challenge is strategically designed and applied AI. Publishers can harness the power of massive databases and sophisticated predictive algorithms while maintaining editorial controls.
AI’s role in digital news
Research from Reuters shows that AI’s various use cases are already widely embraced by news industry leaders. A whopping 85% of respondents said AI will play an important role in automated content recommendations and personalization for users, including sponsored content like native advertising. However, it’s not all about content delivery or personalization; 70% think AI plays a significant role in investigating or finding stories through patterns in data. And 81% believe AI can help speed up and automate workflows, like content tagging, interview transcription, and assisted subbing. Meanwhile, 69% believe AI will help with commercial strategies and revenue growth, like identifying “high-propensity” readers or future customers who are more likely to purchase a subscription.
5 tips for building the ideal AI-powered newsroom
To meet today’s challenges, publishers need a 360-degree approach. In addition to involving engineering and data science teams, it’s critical to involve editors and journalists every step of the way. Ad ops teams will also play a vital role in the AI-powered newsroom since they have the tools to optimize ad campaigns for increased revenue. This comprehensive approach ensures that every player’s needs and perspectives are suited while designing UX and algorithms.
Plus, the insights and best practices offered by editors and journalists are the secret sauce to ensuring that these tools meet ethical standards. Here are a few guardrails and features that can help build ideal AI tools and workflows for the newsroom:
The ability for editors to influence how algorithms make decisions. This involves reviewing and moderating the logic that “teaches” algorithms how to make automated editorial decisions.
The ability for editors to craft “definitions” that dictate the content mix. This way, personalization isn’t able to hide or remove any content areas, regardless of the user’s interest in them.
Allowing AI to power your website ads. Use AI-powered automation to programmatically deliver targeted, personalized ads in the most relevant placements for your audience.
An interface that allows flexible personalization on certain parts of a website, for example, the homepage. Users can see dynamic and personalized content based on their interests and preferences while still allowing curated content based on the news cycle and current events on a local, regional, and global level.
A focus on original content as opposed to syndicated and aggregated content. This helps to reduce information bubbles while staying in line with consumers’ tendency to trust news over social media and other forms of aggregated content.
Better user experience, better business outcomes
In the face of cold and calculated social media algorithms, many of today’s news sites are struggling to keep user attention, drive engagement, and build loyalty. It may be a hard road ahead, but it’s possible to stay in the game while maintaining your journalistic integrity and building scalable, sustainable models.
The newsroom of the future is powered by strategic teams and comprehensive databases that feed highly-specialized algorithms. The result: personalized experiences that rival those of social media and the business metrics to prove it.
About the author
Tim Ruder is the Principal of Audience Development at Taboola. Tim works with editorial teams at premium news publishers, helping them incorporate data and AI-based engagement and personalization solutions into news operations and workflows. His experience in personalization and audience engagement includes working with publishers like the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, Hearst Newspapers and many others.
Bugs Bunny and Michael Jordan co-starred in Space Jam. Bill Cinton was re-elected to serve a second term as President of the United States. Tiger Woods became a professional golfer. The Summer Olympics were hosted in Atlanta. And washingtonpost.com went live. What do all of these events have in common? They all took place in 1996.
It has been 25 years since those first readers could get their news from The Washington Post online. Back then, Post articles couldn’t be “googled,” since Google — as a company — would be founded two years later. And sharing a news article with friends couldn’t involve Facebook or Twitter, as these networks wouldn’t come to market for eight and 10 more years, respectively… TikTok was only the sound an analog clock made and early-social media adopters were closer to Tom being their first friend on MySpace than influencers going viral and becoming millionaires from creating content on Instagram, Snapchat and/or YouTube.
News consumption was a one-size fits all paradigm: heard or seen via broadcast news on TV or radio, read from printed ink on paper, and skimmed from websites that were effectively static brochureware representations of their print big brothers (with some supplemental content online). There was no personalization. The model was one-to-many: here are the top things reader X, Y and Z need to know to stay informed. That model is changing and has changed. And The Post has shown success in personalizing the news to readers’ interests through My Post, newsletter subscriptions and much much more.
Stay tuned, Washington Post readers are about to see more personalization in 2022!
Creating and distributing the news: then vs. now
An “Apple-to-Apple” Comparison of Reading The Washington Post on December 20 in 1996 and 2021 through then-Modern Apple Technology:
Change is good. But change needs to be managed. A lot has changed in this last quarter century at the intersection of media and technology. The Post has responded to change by building new systems that manage how content is created, distributed and amplified. But one thing has remained constant — great reporters and editors create great journalism.
Another constant is that quality journalism will be seen or heard by consumers looking to stay informed. And it can shine through the cloudy haze of mis-and-disinformation maliciously shared online.
Although these constants of good journalism from trusted institutional brands and other media players communicating the news remains, how consumers get their news has certainly changed with the times. In today’s digital new media landscape, according to The Pew Research Center, “more than eight-in-ten U.S. adults (86%) say they get news from a smartphone, computer, or tablet ‘often’ or ‘sometimes.’”
As a media AND technology company, The Washington Post has not just followed consumers to their preferred destinations, it has been a leader in creating content and bringing it to readers — readers who may have an interest in politics can get their Daily 202 newsletter emailed to them; food enthusiasts can cook with confidence with Voraciously recipes and guides; podcast listeners can subscribe to Post Reports, Please Go On, Can He Do That, and other audio format news; and over 1.2 million fans of @washingtonpost on TikTok can be informed and entertained by short, witty, videos by a creative team of content creators.
All of this work needs to live somewhere. Platforms, tools and services power this news before it reaches readers’ smartphones, computers, or tablets. The Washington Post has had to understand not just the scalable infrastructure needs of today to deliver this news where and how readers want it, but technology leadership has also had to set the organization up to be successful in the future with new and expanding infrastructure and Infrastructure-as-a-Service (IaaS) resources. It’s like the old sports adage — Wayne Gretzky wasn’t the fastest skater on the ice in the NHL and he wasn’t the biggest professional hockey player. He was the greatest because he played not to where the puck currently is, but where the puck was going.
The Post’s aspiration and northstar is to not just continue to deliver excellence in journalism, but also to equally deliver excellence in engineering and innovation. The Post is playing to where the innovation puck is going by as, Deloitte Insights suggests, “designing systems in which humans and machines work together to improve the speed and quality of decision-making.” The Post is doing this to improve the reader experience through personalization and to allow company leaders to turn more data into actionable intelligence at scale.
“I’ve always understood and appreciated the work that The Post contributes to the journalistic space, but interviewing [for my role at The Post] quickly made me realize the sophistication behind the engineering effort supporting that mission.”
— Washington Post Data Engineer Jack Miller, who joined The Post in 2021.
Data, data, everywhere. Data, data, time to share.
Inside-and-outside of the newsroom, The Post — as a business — relies heavily on data-informed decision making at strategic and operational levels. Over the years, in addition to the increased need to approach data management in a holistic way, The Post has experienced a significant increase in subscriptions and traffic across various platforms and channels. This increased data volume and velocity coupled with new sources and complexities has created new challenges (and opportunities) to turn raw, siloed and unstructured data into business intelligence.
To address these challenges/opportunities and gain maximum journalistic and business benefits from reader interests, The Post began to develop a more integrated approach to data management in 2021 under the leadership of Beth Diaz (Vice President of Audience Development & Analytics), Venkatesh Varalu (Head of Data and Analytics), and in collaboration with leaders across Subscriptions, Advertising, Newsroom, Marketing, Finance, Product and Engineering.
This data was available and accessible prior to 2021, but The Post began to manage it in a more innovative, agile and programmatic way. Under this new approach, customer data is being positioned to power various marketing and reader personalization efforts through enhanced workflows, automations and data activations via homegrown tools or services and vendor platforms. The Post is calling this macro-initiative WaPo 360.
“I’ve always been a huge fan of data. Working as a newsletter analyst, I got the opportunity to explore The Post’s various data sets to answer interesting questions about how our readers behave, and to find evidence of what works best for keeping them engaged,” said WaPo 360 Senior Data Engineer Patrick Haney. “It was a fantastic experience. However, while working with these data sets, it became almost immediately clear that they weren’t arranged in an optimal format for analysis. Answering simple business questions could take hours instead of minutes due to the siloed nature of each data set, along with the business logic that needed to be applied in a consistent fashion and often it required reaching out to a subject matter expert for validation.”
“I was ecstatic when I learned about this new data integration initiative because it would solve all these aforementioned issues and enable analysts and non-analysts to quickly and efficiently use our data to answer vital business questions,” said Haney regarding his choice to transfer from one Post team onto another.
According to a recent Deloitte study, “most executives do not believe their companies are insight-driven. Fewer than four in 10 (37 percent) place their companies in the top two categories of the Insight-Driven Organization (IDO) Maturity Scale, and of those, only 10 percent fall into the highest category. The remaining 63 percent are aware of analytics but lack infrastructure, are still working in silos, or are expanding ad hoc analytics capabilities beyond silos.”
WaPo 360 will improve the turn-around time for The Post to turn data and signals into insight-driven business decisions.
WaPo 360 and the engineering experience
When he applied to work at The Post, Jack Miller said his “interviewers stressed the importance of the WaPo 360 project across many different verticals within the organization. Being able to join a growing team supporting that project was a huge reason why I decided to pursue the position and so far it has been a great experience.”
Fellow team Data Engineer Zach Lynn agrees, saying, “the WaPo 360 project struck me as an excellent opportunity to learn and also support The Washington Post’s core mission.” Lynn’s interest included working in several business areas and collaborating with other software teams.
The first step of WaPo 360 has been focused on stitching data signals from various data sources together. Data that previously was unstructured and accessible only to data analysts is becoming democratized for Washington Post engineers and technical business users. This first pillar of work is essentially warming up the oven and organizing all of the ingredients to make it easier for business stakeholders, in different departments, to bake their own pies. Data from site and app traffic, newsletter engagements, ads, subscriptions, and other sources are becoming more structured in WaPo 360 through Customer 360 — our first pillar of the initiative.
A Washington Post data analyst recently presented how his work has been impacted by WaPo 360. In his presentation, he outlined how he experienced a nearly 96% improvement in a SQL query run time by switching data sources from the siloed unprocessed data that he was looking for to the same data signals that were structured and pre-processed in WaPo 360. As noted earlier, different data sets have been accessible before 2021, but with WaPo 360, The Post is turning data into intelligence and making it easier for staff to do their jobs. WaPo 360 is essentially replacing their hand tools with power tools.
WaPo 360 and the business-user experience
The data that is becoming structured and pre-processed in Customer 360 isn’t just going to live on an island to be visited by data analysts and data engineers. The second pillar of WaPo 360 is to make that data accessible to those with a business need to access it, in anonymized ways, through improved self-service tools.
Joshua Zieve, Senior Data Analyst, joined the WaPo 360 team, to “help catalyze The Washington Post’s data sources to better understand and serve our current and prospective readership.” Zieve has been active in coordinating with business and technical users on many fronts. “Working across the Analytics & Engineering teams, I’m grateful for the opportunity to develop systems that facilitate, deepen and expedite analytics for use-cases throughout the organization,” Zieve said.
Good data is the foundation for WaPo 360 and that leads to personalization benefits. Following the team’s work in delivering structured data in Customer 360, WaPo 360 sends relevant data to power the business use-cases that Zieve references into a new Customer Data Platform (CDP). The CDP then works as an engine to allow business-users to perform exploratory data analysis, build audience segments, create marketing and reader engagement campaigns, analyze their success, then deliver an improved personalized experience to readers through integrations with Washington Post-built tools and popular offsite services that The Post utilizes to reach potential readers.
“[I’m] most excited about the self-service potential for The Post’s newsroom and business teams … with data in one place, which is aggregated and ready to be queried, users can get their data without waiting for The Post’s Analytics team to prepare the data. For the Analytics team, this will also reduce time spent for serving ad hoc requests from the newsroom/business side.”
— Sam Han, Director of Zeus Technology and Artificial Intelligence (AI) / Machine Learning at The Washington Post
WaPo 360 and the reader experience
The Post will be doubling down on personalization in 2022 — directly and adjacent to the work being conducted by the WaPo 360 team.
Early work is underway to improve the onboarding experience for new subscribers. And the team plans to unlock significant opportunities to retool, rethink and reshape how articles are suggested to readers — such as through improved content insights and an updated Content Taxonomy System with new article subjects/topics metadata powering future innovation.
Members of the WaPo 360 team recently presented the team’s work at a company-wide virtual forum. Washington Post Organizational Development Consultant Cameron Booher said, “Planning for any What’s Next event involves talking with many project teams about their ongoing and upcoming initiatives. And the usual format of What’s Next is to highlight three projects from different areas of the business. But it very quickly became evident through conversations just how significant of an undertaking WaPo 360 is. It’s extremely collaborative, and has been built upon expertise from almost every department at The Post. It will be rolled out in various phases, which speaks to the iterative process of develop-test-improve.”
“Some of the insights we’ll gain will help us improve reader and user experiences in spades,” Booher said.
This article originally appeared on Washington Post Engineering and is re-published with permission.
Targeted contextual and behavioral advertising currently dominate much of the digital advertising marketplace. Behavioral advertising uses personal browser data collected by intermediaries to serve ads to users by assigning them into micro categories. In contrast, contextual advertising serves ads to match the marketer’s requirements.
GumGum, a contextual intelligence company, commissioned Harris Poll to survey consumers to better understand their online advertising preferences. Nearly eight in ten (79%) consumers report being more comfortable seeing contextual ads than behavioral. While more than three-quarters of all people are more comfortable with contextual ads, there are some generational differences: 84% of consumers ages 35 to 44 preferred contextual ads, while 76% and 75% of those between the ages of 18 to 34 and 45 to 54, respectively, preferred a contextual experience.
Personalized ads are not beneficial
In contrast, most respondents (66%) report they are uncomfortable with companies tracking their browsing history to show them personalized ads. Further, women are more uncomfortable with behavioral ads than men (70% vs. 61%). Older adults aged 55+ are also more likely than younger adults to say they are uncomfortable with brands tracking their browsing history.
While marketers often overstate the value of personalized ads, consumers are also uncomfortable when brands use their browsing history and habits to serve personalized ads. Personalization often relies on surveillance advertising, which is data-invasive and has consumers concerned.
Similar trends have also been observed in European research. Last year, Global Witness commissioned YouGov to conduct research among 2,000 regular social media users in France and Germany about personalization in online advertising. The findings show that consumers are uneasy about targeted ads — driven by everything from income and religious views to life events such as pregnancy, bereavement, or illness — and do not want to receive any personalized advertising. Further, approximately 38% of the respondents said they are “creeped out,” and 31% said they feel violated.
Google announced a cookie replacement called FLoC, Federated Learning of Cohorts, in mid-2021. The company planned to shift online advertising tracking from user to group tracking. However, many voiced concerns that users could potentially be identified within cohorts. Google’s newest idea in their Privacy Sandbox is an API called Topics, which links user browsing history to topics for interest-based advertising. Unfortunately, there’s a significant disconnect between Google’s Sandbox initiative and consumers’ sentiment from the user privacy perspective.
Contextual advertising addresses consumers’ privacy concerns, allowing publishers to serve more relevant ads to their customers without tracking their browser history. Interestingly, few marketers transitioned their dollars from behavioral advertising to contextual advertising after Google announced the end of cookies in 2022 and then again when it announced its delay until 2023.
The research clearly shows that consumers are uncomfortable with behavioral and personalized ads. As the digital advertising industry moves forward to make changes and create solutions, transparency is essential, and it is necessary to inform consumers on how their data is collected and used. Digital ads that do not make consumers uncomfortable build brand trust and increase the likelihood of a positive response.
Retail brands with a data-driven approach to commerce have captured consumers through the pandemic. They’ve done so by leaning on personalization through targeted messaging, relevant offers, and orchestrated campaigns across channels.
Now, many retailers are going a step further. They are offering personalized content that delivers a hybrid retail/media experience: The inspiration section of IKEA’s website resembles an interactive home and garden publication. Upstart retail brands like Thrive Market have an entire content team that creates lifestyle content that is targeted to consumers based on their buying preferences. They send out curated newsletters that have content similar to a wellness magazine.
The key element that makes retailer content so powerful is their data-driven approach. People like personalization, and successful retailers are approaching content with personalization in mind. The good news is that publishers can, too.
Create a value exchange
A recent study by Sailthru finds that 71% of consumers will shop more with brands and retailers that personalize their experiences. What’s more, 80% will share data in exchange for deals and special offers.
Many retailers have created a “value exchange” with their customers in order to address this reality. For example, Thrive Market asks for information about diet and food preferences on the first website visit. Then, it uses these insights to deliver more personalized shopping experiences, deals and content. Consumers give more data because they get a better experience in return.
This exchange is not dissimilar to some subscription products served up by media organizations. Take Seeking Alpha. Geared toward passionate investors, Seeking Alpha offers a super-premium paid “value exchange” with very specific content for those investors who closely follow the market. A subscriber can receive real-time news and alerts for their stocks and other investment picks. Further, upon sign-in, their portfolio page will display personalized news and articles related to the stocks in their portfolio.
For publishers with more general audiences, one beneficial place to offer a value exchange is with a referral program. theSkimm was an early adopter of referral programs. Their Skimbassador program long awarded readers who referred new readers to subscribe with swag and shout outs in the newsletter. After driving 10 referrals, readers also became a part of a private, gated community. The Hustle and Morning Brew have also seen great success with referral programs to scale their businesses, gaining new subscribers and loyalty from current readers.
Tailor the experience
Consumers are willing to provide personal data and expect brands to use the information they gather to create tailored experiences that make them feel like individuals. Many publishers want to take their insights to the next level with even more tailored content. Understanding the topics that are interesting to a reader and sharing articles and videos that fall into specific categories is a good start, but retailers provide examples for how to go even further.
Everyday Health and Baby Center are two publishers that make the most of the data they collect for expecting mothers in order to deliver personalized content. They prompt for due date, gender, number of children at home, and more. They use that data to customize the entire email journey over the course of a woman’s pregnancy and beyond.
A fitness-based publication could do something similar, with a health quiz that leads into a continuous engagement of more and more personalized content. This might launch a content journey that includes a custom workout routine, recipes, and more. There is no end to the possibilities, as long as publishers start thinking in terms of collecting insights that drive a strategy of smaller content blocks that can be assembled into personalized experiences, rather than long-form articles and videos.
Personalizing at the right time and right place
Successful retailers personalize every moment of the shopper experience from in-store to online, and across platforms and devices. A brand like Sephora ensures that they know everything about a customer on the website, the mobile app, and when they visit a store. This includes their loyalty status, recent purchases, what email content they have received, and more.
Sports enthusiasts are maniacal about following their teams and their players, and publishers like The Athletic have been meeting that need for years now. Subscribers indicate which cities, teams, and players they want to follow, and will receive personalized emails and news alerts. They also have a personalized homepage filled with “recent news” about content of interest and discussion groups with kindred and passionate fans. Fans can filter content to see news and information about their competition too.
Marketing at the speed of the customer is the “future of commerce.” It should also be the future of media. This can be done with personalization that creates a constant feedback loop of testing, insight collection and optimization.
Publishers should be constantly in “learning” mode – asking for preferences, running small tests, and re-incorporating results into the next email, page load, or SMS message. With a commitment to continuous incremental improvement and data gathering, the audience also starts to get more relevant experiences and sees the value in providing more feedback to the publisher, creating a virtuous cycle that can increase both loyalty and ROI.
Online news organizations have had a rough go of swaying audience behavior. First you had to get them to click. Then you had to convince them to stay. Now you have to keep them coming back. And with any luck, they’ll tell you who they are while they hang out. But the question that needs to be answered to get them past any of these thresholds is: Why should they?
The biggest barrier in converting anonymous users to known community members isn’t a reluctance to hand over data. Because despite waning trust in Facebook following the Cambridge Analytica scandal of 2018, social media platform still counted 1.93 billion daily active users in its third quarter of 2021. Elsewhere, a study conducted by data privacy company Entrust shows that almost 64% of consumers are quite willing to let companies know who they are if they feel they’re going to get “relevant, personalized, and convenient services” out of it.
There’s the rub: relevance, personalization, and convenience. Relevance can cut both ways. It can be about the content you produce, but it’s also about the interactive environment you create and how essential it is for your user base to get the most out of your platform. Personalization can be a provision for registration. (If you sign up, we’ll make sure you only see the things that interest you.) Convenience is about having fewer hoops to jump through to get to the things you’re interested in. All three are experiential conditions.
So, what does it look like to provide an experience that leads to registrations? First, tackle convenience with a simple sign-up process. Then, start hosting engaging, community-led features on your owned platform that make sense not just for the content you produce, but for the types of interactions people want to have around that content.
A perfect example is The Independent, the national U.K. publication that went fully digital in 2016. It implemented different engagement solutions, including live blogs for breaking news, live AMA series on current events, and automated comment moderation. One popular AMA series is hosted by travel correspondent Simon Calder, who answers questions about ever-changing travel restrictions due to Covid-19. Part of a recent strategy was to make the UI of their engagement solutions simpler for users.
Otherwise, users who want to participate in any discussion on The Independent’s platform have to sign up, and boy, have they ever! Over 12 months, The Independent reported a 100% increase in registrations, with over 2,000 monthly registrations driven just by the comments section. The newspaper attributes 1 million article views from AMA content, and reports 15 times more time spent on the site after a user registers.
Meantime, the Philadelphia Inquirer ushered in Gameday Central in September 2021. Its goal is to create excitement around Philadelphia Eagles games. From the Gameday Central hub on the Inquirer’s website, viewers can watch a live pre-game video that’s also streamed on social media. During a game, users can interact on the Inquirer’s platform with a live blog, polls, comments and pinned comments. Managing editor of sports Michael Huang recently told Digiday that Gameday Central has attracted thousands of users.
It’s not surprising that a major sporting event would attract this much attention. But what’s interesting is that the Inquirer combined several experiences at once to keep users hooked.
Our own research shows that it only takes a few engagement solutions to make your users spend more time on your website, and when they do that, they’re 25.4 times more likely to register. Features like sharebars, email notifications, trending carousels, and personalized newsfeeds generate more page views and considerably increase dwell times. In fact, a user that clicks on a personalized newsfeed profile spends on average 42 minutes more per month on a news website than an anonymous user.
It also can’t be understated just how significant a well moderated comments section can be, because when it’s safe and generates civil discussions, even users who don’t necessarily contribute will spend time reading the comments. When we culled the data from 5 of our media clients, we found that both registered and unregistered users spent an average of over 1.6 million minutes in the comments.
So, you can try to convince your audience verbally that registering is a good idea, or you can incentivize them with a rich experience they won’t want to miss out on. A live blog during a major sporting event, an AMA about a hugely unpopular policy: these are things people are talking about on social media already. What if they were talking about it on your troll-free platform instead?
The subscription economy is firing on all cylinders and across all verticals. However, an avalanche of subscription offers turns up the competition for audience attention. Content companies must find innovative ways to drive customer connection and conversion to rise above the noise.
The stakes are high and so are the profits. The 2021 Subscription Economy Index published by subscription technology platform Zuora, reveals an impressive 21% uptick in subscription revenue growth in Q4 2020 alone compared to the previous quarter. That’s yet another data point in a growth trajectory that has seen subscription revenues increase 6x over the last nine years.
But cashing in on the boom requires publishers to embrace flexibility and customer convenience, even for cancellations. It’s not enough to build the capabilities to sell as a one-time transaction to readers. Publishers must reach potential subscribers in the right context, and at the right stage of the customer journey, to reinforce the decision to commit to recurring costs.
Personalize pricing and paywalls
Each customer is an individual, not a generalized demographic. Their willingness to subscribe also differs widely. Most efforts focus on moving consumers from free trials to the full-meal deal. However, an increasing number of content companies are experimenting with flexible pricing and new subscription billing models.
Some publishers offer readers the option to commit to smaller, more frequent payments instead of annual subscriptions. Others remove friction by providing options that allow consumers to manage or upgrade their accounts quickly and easily. While these efforts to convert consumers deeper in the funnel can yield impressive results, they bypass the business benefits publishers can gain from customizing pricing earlier in the consumer journey.
Publishers are “leaving money on the table by not changing subscription offers and upsells based on acquisition source,” according to Andy Carvell, CEO and partner at Phiture, a mobile growth consultancy that specializes in app engagement and retention.
Keynoting at CleverTap Quarterly, Carvell advised publishers to use data to optimize pricing and advertising based on acquisition source. At a basic level, this means showing consumers a different offer or pricing depending on whether they come into the app via paid advertising versus if they discover your app organically.
Customize for customer wins
Different platforms attract different audience segments. But publishers should resist giving away discounts based on generalizations. “The theme here is: Go in high and then drop prices after they [consumers] have resisted a few of your paywalls,” Carvell says. However, rather than assume a GenZer exposed to your content via a TikTok ad can’t afford a subscription, check the data. Metrics such as low time-to-install or time-to-conversion suggest high intent and signal a strong willingness to pay.
Consistency across the funnel is critical. Align the pricing on the paywall with the ad campaigns and copy currently running on your acquisition channels and ad networks. That way, Carvell says, “the user feels like the subscription is right for them because you’re speaking the same language as you did in the app.”
Cancellations and connections
Customizing top-of-the-funnel communications can attract and convert subscribers. But what do you do when your audience makes the conscious decision to cancel?
This is the cue for most publishers to show apologetic pop-ups or send emotional emails asking for a second chance. Granted, a sincere message to remind consumers their subscription matters or helps support quality journalism can be convincing. But if publishers are delivering this nudge after consumers click the button and prepare to make their exit, it may be a moment too late.
A better approach is to preempt the decision altogether by playing to FOMO fears and showing consumers upcoming content they don’t want to miss. It’s the strategy Sasha Kurdiuk, head of customer experience at Shahid MBC, has followed. Shahid is the leading Arabic language video-on-demand service globally known for the largest library of Arabic movies, shows and dramas – including two Emmy–nominated series.
In a podcast interview, Kurdiuk told me how he uses personalized perks and content shorts to stop churn before it starts. “Rather than pop-up and ask you not to go, which is a message that could enrage you if you are determined to cancel, we asked ourselves what might happen if we showed you a bit of the top content you haven’t watched.”
Drawing from behavioral and analytics around what subscribers view and enjoy, Kurdiuk’s team personalizes messaging to influence them at this critical moment. “Contextually relevant communications convince many subscribers to think twice and then press resubscribe,” Kurdiuk says. It’s also the well-timed and highly customized nudge that has allowed Shahid to “reduce voluntary cancellations by more than 20%.”
Given the pressure on content companies to compete for advertising, it is only good news that the subscription economy is booming. However, as an increasing number of products, entertainment, and information services compete for subscription revenue, companies must work hard to stay competitive. They will need to stretch their models and personalize offers and experiences to drive connection and conversion across the subscriber lifecycle.
When it comes to the future, increasing user registrations and building robust first-party datasets should be at the forefront of every publisher’s strategy. Building first-party data unlocks a publishers’ ability to increase user loyalty, activate their audience, monetize their content, and improve their editorial strategy.
However, according to a recent survey from Teads, 65.3% of publishers say they are not planning on increasing the usage of logins to gather first party data. Why is that? According to the report, they’re worried about a “potential disruption of user experience.”
It’s a valid concern: 67% of customers say poor user experiences are a reason for churn.
It doesn’t have to be this way. Many leading publishers are leveling-up user experiences on their website by creating social experiences and using personalization to create a seamless registration and log in process. These publishers stand to attract and grow an audience of loyal readers. Let’s take a look at how they’re doing it.
Three tactics to engage loyal audiences
1. Give users a reason to register with immersive social experiences
Stand-out content will always drive readers to a publisher’s website. Increasingly, though, readers are looking for other ways to interact and engage once they’re done reading an article.
Today, the publishers who are creating social experiences on their website see more registrations and greater retention rates. At OpenWeb, we’ve found that publishers who create these experiences have users who spend 35% more time on-site. They are 450% more likely to return month-after-month, and drive 4x the revenue as the average user.
There are a number of ways that publishers can create social experiences. Many are adopting engagement tools like one-click polls where readers can weigh in on the article they just read. Others are producing interactive ask-me-anything style interactive forums (AMAs) with authors or journalists. Another effective social experience is hosting a comments section. When publishers invite readers to interact in quality conversations where they feel valued, they’re more likely to register and return again and again.
2. Use active personalization to provide value and keep users coming back
Users not only crave engaging social experience, they’re loyal to publishers who “get” them.
That’s why more publishers are creating personalized content experiences to drive registrations and loyalty. In fact, 88% of marketers believe that audiences now expect personalization. One of the most effective ways that publishers can provide value to their users is through active personalization, or personalization that allows users to self-select their favorite authors, topics, and more.
Readers who receive targeted content tend to stay on-site longer, return more often, and view more content. They also provide publishers with more information about their content preferences, allowing publishers to take advantage of rich first-party data insights. One of the great things about personalized experiences is that, with the right tools, just about any publisher can create them—even those without a comments section.
3. Optimize your first party data success strategy
First-party datasets will play a pivotal role in every publisher’s future. In fact, they’re absolutely critical for any sustainable strategy, particularly in light of cookie depreciation. Through exceptional user experiences, publishers will drive more registrations. This will, in turn, allow them to collect more robust and accurate first party data which ultimately enables them to provide additional value to their audiences. In other words, all roads lead to a loyal, active community.
Time to interact
So if you’re still contemplating how to navigate the cookieless future, start by evaluating your user experience and ask these questions:
What opportunities are there to create social experiences and build a thriving, active community?
How can we leverage personalization to provide targeted content experiences for readers?
With this approach, publishers stand to see more registered, active users and higher retention rates, like Salon has. Thanks to immersive social experiences on their website (including a comments section), they built a loyal community of active users—and boosted their retention rate 4X.
The bottom line? Give users exceptional experiences and see exceptional results.
About the author
Joel Bejar is the Vice President of Business Development at OpenWeb.
The pandemic triggered further consumer reliance on media for entertainment, information, and social connections. As consumers reenter life outside the home, publishers are assessing how they will maintain strong post-Covid consumer relationships. Deloitte’s new report, Digital Media Trends, 15th Edition delves into this issue. The analysis identifies consumer attitudes and behaviors and how to best serve their needs to form a strong relationship. The research is based on the survey results of 2,009 US consumers in February 2021.
Consumers have multiple free and paid entertainment choices competing for their attention. Content and cost are key factors driving paid video subscriptions. Content, no cost, and ease of access are drivers for ad-supported video services. Consumers often assess subscription costs based upon their willingness to offset price by viewing advertising.
Nearly the same number of consumers prefer to pay for content as those that prefer ad-supported services. Interestingly, 40% of respondents prefer to pay $12 a month for a service with no ads versus 39% preferring a free service with 12 minutes of ads per hour. Understanding how ad-related preferences and expectations around personalization and privacy impact consumer choice is crucial to driving subscriptions, paid or not.
Consumer frustration and churn
The flip side of acquiring subscribers is retaining them. Listening to consumer frustrations is an important action step for all businesses.
Content they want to view is no longer available on the service: 66%.
They must subscribe to multiple services to access the content they want: 53%.
They find it difficult to access content across so many services: 52%.
A service fails to provide them with good recommendations: 49%.
Anchoring consumers in a customized user experiences with an ease of navigation builds audience engagement and prevents churn. The report states the churn rate for streaming video services remained constant at approximately 37% measuring from October 2020 to February 2021.
Impact of data economy
Consumers are wary of data collection. They want more oversight in the data economy and question the value they get from its collection. In fact, eight in 10 respondents (82%) believe they should be able to view and delete the data that companies collect about them. Further, 78% said providers are responsible for protecting consumers’ personal data. Looking to put controls in place, 77% say the government must do more to regulate data collection and its usage. Importantly, publishers should assess ad-related preferences and consumer expectations around personalization and privacy to inform their internal policies.
As media companies navigate their subscription practices, they must continue to keep consumer preferences in focus. An emphasis on data and analytics is key to create a personalized entertainment service for consumers. Further, a customized user experiences makes it easier for subscribers to find content they want to view. Improving the interface with personalization and ease of use strengthens the audience connection. As the competition for audience grows tighter, it’s necessary to take actions that support developing and maintain a strong relationship with the audience.
From General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) regulations in the Europe Union to the California Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA), consumer privacy is a focal point for digital media. These new data privacy and security laws speak to the need to reassess the collection and use of personal information in the digital media ecosystem. Importantly, it is time to review consumer expectations around current online data collection practices.
To better understand consumer expectations with online data collection practices, Digital Content Next (DCN) surveyed a nationally representative sample of adults in the U.S. Over the past few years, DCN has also queried consumers to better understand expectations for Google and Facebook, as public examination of tracking by major tech platforms became a critical focus.
Overall, consumers expect websites and apps to collect data about them to personalize, protect and improve their experience. In sharp contrast, consumers do not expect outside vendors to collect data about them for reuse or sale.
When consumers are asked specifically about their expectations about the data practices of outside vendors, few are comfortable with the future reuse (38%) or the sales (24%) of their data. Interestingly, when consumers are provided with a clear explanation of how their data will be used and the benefit (i.e. such as collecting online data to identify consumers across devices), their expectations better align with the practice (47%).
Understanding there is an option to be tracked shows low awareness. Only half of all U.S. adults (52%) report that they are aware of ways they can choose not to participate in online data collection.
Consumers also report a limited understanding of what it means to “opt out” or how to opt out of online data collection. Fewer consumers stated they opted out of online data collection or will in the next 30 days (40% combined) than those who do not know how to or do not understand what it means to opt out (44% combined).
Unfortunately, the top consumer actions for opting out of online data collection are quite ineffective. Deleting cookies or turning them off often results in turning off both 1st and 3rd party cookies. First-party cookies offer consumers a seamless log-in and authentications process for subscriptions and memberships. Removing these cookies, can actually lead to a frustrating user experience. Regrettably, the “Do Not Track” signal is ignored by many tech companies. Also, consumer use of ad blockers penalizes the entire media ecosystem including the publishers and their advertisers.
As an outcome of opting out of online data collection, most consumers expect more privacy, a better internet experience and enhanced security.
The research findings show the importance of aligning data collection practices with consumer expectations. Consumers do understand the need for websites and apps to collect online data. However, there’s a major disconnect with 3rd parties reusing in the future or selling this data. Importantly, it’s critical to understand what consumers demand, align expectations to those demands to help grow trust in our industry.
If you are a DCN publisher member, please be sure to log in or register to access the special member’s only Report, which will appear below this notice once you have logged in.
There are currently no products, vaccines or drugs approved to treat or cure the coronavirus. However, that wasn’t the news on social media. There was much misinformation and many false claims populating consumer news feeds. In fact, Facebook is now coordinating with health organizations to make accurate information about the virus easier to find. Unfortunately, there are still many paths to misinformation.
Platform algorithms selectively guess what information a user would like to see. By filtering content, these platforms sort out news that we may disagree with or dislike. Filter bubbles narrow the opportunity to learn from differing perspectives and that’s cause for concern. Richard Fletcher at the Reuters Institutes explores these concerns in his study, The truth behind filter bubbles: bursting some myths.
Further, with heightened interest in Corona news, consumers
seek platforms (e.g. Facebook, Google, Twitter) for their daily updates. It
implores us to try to understand the impact of filter bubbles created by socially
curated and algorithmically driven news content.
Fletcher’s study contends that offline news sources, without
algorithms, provide a natural filter effect. Offline readers self-select their
new sources. The report refers to this as self-selected personalization.
It’s the personalization we do by selecting what newspapers to buy, what TV
channels to watch, and at the same time which ones to avoid.
In contrast, online news consumption is often about pre-selected
personalization, where choices are made for consumers by algorithms, without
the consumer’s knowledge or understanding. Social media includes both
self-selected personalization and pre-selected personalization. We know that
people may choose to follow certain news outlets and not others. Algorithms
offer no choice; they are not exposing people to news items outside of their
interests or likes.
Significantly, Fletcher’s research investigates the level of
polarization that exists in online news consumption compared to offline news
environment. The research looked at 12 different countries and found in
general, online news environments are more polarizing than offline.
It’s important as consumers continue to receive their news
on social platforms, that they actively seek out a range of news brands. Further,
platforms are changing the way they serve news to people each day. It’s
essential for the media industry, consumers and social advocates to critically
examine the effects of algorithmic selection on news impact on society. Social
platforms effort to ensure accurate information on the Coronavirus is easily
accessible is a step in the right direction.
With that in mind, here are a few things you should consider if you want to create a truly satisfying user experience:
Today’s users expect to see content that’s relevant to them right now.
Consumers today expect immediate results—from their devices to their workout routine and everything in between.
In 2019, almost every digital space is saturated and hyper-competitive. And that means an “okay” user experience—in this case, surfacing somewhat relevant content— probably isn’t good enough to grow your business. So you have to make sure the articles, products, recommendations, etc. that you serve people are relevant to what they need right at that second.
Personalization is key—but don’t make it creepy.
With machine learning giving us greater ability to collect vast amounts of user data, we can now provide more accurate recommendations than ever before.
In theory, this is great. But at some point, we need to take a step back and make sure that we don’t veer into creepy, potentially unethical territory. It’s fair to feel your privacy has been invaded when you see an Instagram ad for smartwatches immediately after viewing them on an unrelated site.
In other words, there’s a right way and a wrong way to approach personalization.
“We saw you searched for yoga mats on Amazon, so here’s a bunch of yoga content” doesn’t cut it. That’s not great user experience. And it makes people feel uneasy, which could result in scaring users and customers away.
In creating great user experience, the Japanese “omotenashi” approach to hospitality can teach us a lot. Omotenashi is a term that essentially equates to understanding your guest’s needs even before they say anything. Omotenashi is more than merely going the extra mile when servicing customers, clients, guests—or, more accurately in this case, users. It means picking up on users’ subtle clues to give them something they didn’t even know they wanted—yet.
Don’t rely solely on what’s trending.
Every company online today wants clicks.
But just because an article or product is trending doesn’t mean it’s going to lead to repeat customers or subscribers. And while surfacing trending content should be part of your strategy—if something is trending, that’s certainly a good indicator of value—it shouldn’t be your only focus.
It’s better to determine what’s really going to resonate with users. Personally, I don’t want to be told, “Hey, you should like or be interested in this because everyone else is.” When brands take this approach, I lose interest. And I’m sure I’m not alone. It is so much better to be able to say, “Hey, you will be uniquely interested in this”—and to be right about it.
Make sure you bring in longtail content and products.
When longtail content resonates, it adds immense value to the user experience.
Longtail content is often niche content. For example, it might be the exact brand and color shoes someone is looking for, or an article that answers the precise answer to a question someone needs answered. It also has high engagement/conversion potential.
If you’re providing recommendations through filtering and rules, you obviously don’t have the brainpower or time to figure out rules and connections to a million items. That’s going to limit both you and your customers. It will also make it incredibly difficult to show users everything you have to offer.
Utilizing technology like machine learning, which can intelligently and systematically surface longtail items, can be effective in optimizing user experience. With machine learning, you can pull from your entire universe of content rather than just a small top percentage.
Remember: Discovery takes many forms.
Companies should keep in mind that users discover and browse content—articles, products, etc.—in many different ways.
In the digital world, users will find content, products, etc. via different pathways. Some websites use a tree structure to help users find what they’re looking for; others rely on search. If your website features a one-track discovery experience—for example, they offer no navigation route other than the search bar—you’ll frustrate users who are more attuned to other types of navigation tools.
At the end of the day, customers want a lot of options. But they don’t want to have to sift through them all. The ideal user experience offers an expansive universe of relevant options but is also easy to navigate for when the user knows exactly what they want.
What makes or breaks the success of your website is that all-important moment in which someone decides whether to stick around, read an article, or make a purchase. And that decision is typically made pretty quickly, usually based on a first impression.
So when that golden moment arrives, make sure your site is optimized to provide users with a super-relevant user experience that delivers exactly what they were looking for (or maybe what they didn’t even know they wanted yet).