Many media brands are now active on TikTok, the world’s fastest-growing social media platform. News brands see the platform as an opportunity to attract and engage younger audiences who are less likely to go directly to their websites or apps.
However, many media brands are holding off due to concerns with the platform’s Chinese ownership, as well as reservations about the platform’s environment for news. Reuters Institute’s new report, How Publishers are Learning to Create and Distribute News on TikTok, examines news media concerns and identifies how they can deliver professional content with influencer-type authenticity.
Reuters Institute interviewed 20 news organizations and individuals from companies among the top news brands in 44 countries. Interviews included large, digital-only, socially native brands and some individual creators and activists. Reuters also tracked publisher usage activity across more than 40 countries.
Many news brands are using TikTok to engage younger cohorts. Reuters’ Digital News Report 2022 shows that half of all global news organizations (49%) produce content for TikTok. Indonesian (90%), Australian (89%), Spanish (86%), French (86%), U.K. (81%), and U.S. (77%) publishers have the highest TikTok adoption. Overall, 40% of 18-24s and 28% of 25-34s use TikTok for any purpose, and 15% of 18-24s and 10% of 25-34s use it for news.
Regardless of concerns, news publishers use TikTok to build relationships with younger audiences and experiment with new vertical video formats. Others, like the Czech website HlídacíPes.org, use TikTok to help improve news literacy by identifying disinformation and explaining how to use open sources of information. Further, the Washington Post sees fact-checking and verification as their social strategy. They encourage users on TikTok to tag them to help to verify false footage.
Approaches to news content on TikTok
Reuters identifies two main approaches to news content on TikTok: a creator-first strategy and a newsroom-led approach.
The creator approach looks to a core team for content coverage. At the Washington Post, Dave Jorgenson leads the creative team trying to create light and fun videos that match the brand values of their news organization. While they try to keep a light and comedic tone in their videos, part of the TikTok DNA, they also create more serious stories. The French, Le Monde, also uses a creator approach on TikTok. Their mission is to explain the news by deploying different creative techniques using metaphors, drawings, fake video games, and acting.
The newsroom-led approach uses the whole newsroom and looks at TikTok as another distribution channel. For example, The Economist uses high-quality video to tell the story. Their mission, to explain geopolitics and economics, appeals to younger audiences. Liv Moloney, Head of Social Media, describes their strategy, “We’ll never be the first to tell you something’s happened, but we might be the first to explain it to you or explain it the best.”
Vice World News also uses a newsroom approach and focuses its TikTok content on short explanatory videos about international news. Vice’s content strategy blends news explainers, on-the-ground reporting, and listicle formats – adapting the content to the shorter attention span of TikTok users.
TikTok presents its problems with content distribution:
Transparency about the removal or blocking of news content especially given Chinese ownership and the potential for censorship.
Better monetization of content and compensation for the content value. While short videos are not the best advertising vehicle, publishers would like the ability to put links to their websites or apps, which currently is limited.
More detailed and timely demographic information is needed about who has viewed posts, with more data about how particular posts perform.
News organizations use TikTok to engage and build relationships with younger audiences. While many are concerned with its ownership and that short-form videos can marginalize important news stories, they are testing the waters. Importantly, news brands need to look to new technologies and platforms to reach new audiences, and while challenging, experimentation is key for growth.
As the Chinese social giant recently boasted over a billion active monthly users worldwide, even the White House is turning to TikTok influencers to deliver news to young audiences. And, given TikTok’s popularity, older social media sites like Facebook and Instagram are making big changes to their algorithms and content to compete. Because more people of all ages are getting news through social media, these shifts could have significant impact on delivery of news and information. However, there are steps media organizations can take to address this impact.
Focus on quick video clips: In 2020, Facebook added “Reels” to user feeds. Reels are 60 second video clips – the same length as the current TikTok limit on video length.
Less social, more media: Social media platforms are tweaking their algorithms to de-emphasize social connections, as TikTok has proven the “friends” angle isn’t necessary to engage users. Instagram recently rolled out changes giving less priority to content by users’ friends and family in favor of automatically “recommended” short video reels like those of TikTok.
Focus on fun: As TikTok’s stated mission is to “inspire creativity and bring joy,” other platforms are shifting to emphasize lighter content.
De-prioritizing news: News article links constitute only about 4% of what users now see in their Facebook feeds, a spokesperson from Meta told Today, adding: “We have learned from the data that news and links to news content are not the reason the vast majority of people come to Facebook, and as a business we can’t over-invest in areas that don’t align most with user preferences.” Facebook changed the term “News Feed” to “Feed” in February.
Misinformation concerns grow
A related concern is the number of Gen Z adults using TikTok as a search engine. A recent study by Newsguard analyzed 540 TikTok search results on prominent news topics – including school shootings, elections, and vaccines – and found that 19.4% turned up misinformation. The study also found TikTok results to be more polarizing than similar searches on Google. (However, TikTok did detect and remove several false or misleading videos planted by Newsguard as part of the study.) TikTok’s website states its content is vetted by technology, with a “safety team” to evaluate some flagged content.
Social media features problematic for news providers
As entertaining content captures more engagement from users, platforms are incentivized to deprioritize serious news, wrote Navene Elangovan for Today. Her interviews with experts in academia and journalism highlighted social media issues problematic for news providers: emphasis on engagement over content, emotion as a driver of engagement, and the opacity of social media algorithms.
Social media platforms are geared to maximize engagement by having as many users as possible. The goal is to have users spend as much time on the platform as possible, engaging in as many ways as possible. Because strong emotions trigger engagement, social media algorithms reward upsetting content- the opposite of the objectivity valued in traditional news journalism. “Outrage fatigue” can then lead to news avoidance.
Another problem is the opacity of social media algorithms. Changes made to reduce emphasis on quality news should be communicated to audiences. If users are aware of social media platforms downplaying news, they may be more likely to seek reputable news sources elsewhere.
Tips for news providers
Experts interviewed by Elangovan suggested steps newsrooms might take in response to social media TikTokification:
Separate marketing from journalism so that journalists can focus on content, not views.
Create incentives for viewers to return daily to news sites to build a habit.
Diversify channels of news distribution.
Find ways to draw viewers from “lighter” platforms to more serious content, accepting social media sites as conduits rather than main sources of delivering news.
Newsrooms may consider setting up their own social media platforms as a means of diversifying how content is communicated.
Will outrage fatigue turn to fluff fatigue?
When Instagram changed its algorithm and content to align more with that of TikTok, a flood of user complaints forced Instagram head Adam Mosseri to defend the decisions at length on Twitter. In the wake of this pushback, Instagram rolled back some of the changes.
When it comes to news content on social media, some experts surmise that outrage fatigue may give way to fluff fatigue. As users are increasingly bombarded with frivolity in their social media feeds, they may turn to more traditional news outlets for deeper and more reliable coverage of major events.
You probably have a presence on YouTube, but do you have a specific strategy for the platform? If you don’t, then it’s time to address that.
With close to 2.5 billion monthly active users, YouTube is the second most popular social network in the world. Only Facebook, with 2.9 billion users each month, enjoys greater reach.
Despite this, many publishers’ presence on YouTube can often feel like an afterthought. The popular video-sharing network sometimes seems like an also-ran when compared with the content strategies (and resources!) being deployed across newer, shiner, networks like Instagram or TikTok.
It’s time for that to change. Here are three key reasons why.
1. YouTube is too big to ignore
Originally created way back in 2005, YouTube is not exactly a new kid on the digital block. Yet it’s also far from being an internet dinosaur.
“YouTube is a seriously undervalued part of most publishers’ audience development plans,” Nic Newman, the lead author of the annual Digital News Report, recently told me during an email conversation about their 2022 study.
The latest findings, which were published in June by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, found that across the 46 countries covered by the report, YouTube “is the second most important network for news after Facebook,” Newman says.
Because this is a global study, there’s considerable variance on a country-by-country basis.
Nonetheless, in the United States, YouTube is the second most popular social channel for news in a typical week (19% of the sample). That puts it behind Facebook (28%) but some way ahead of Twitter (11%).
It enjoys similar popularity when figures are aggregated across 12 major markets. This reflects the universality of its appeal and begs the question of whether publishers are giving the platform the attention it deserves.
2. YouTube is a versatile platform
User habits for news and other content on YouTube might also surprise you. As Micaeli Rourke explained in a feature for Digital Content Next last December, YouTube is something of an audio powerhouse. (Disclaimer: She interviewed me for the article.)
YouTube was the leading platform for podcast consumption in the Ulast year, the 2021 Digital News Report found. They don’t provide comparative data for 2022. However, the latest study does note that YouTube is the second biggest platform for podcast consumption in Germany (19% of listeners) and the top source in Spain (30%).
Video-led podcasts are part of the reason for this popularity, as well as the opportunity to access content on multiple devices. This includes desktop and Smart TV consumption, which allows YouTube to play in the background, as well as more active “lean in” viewing.
The rise of YouTube viewing on TV sets is one reason why mobile increasingly makes up a smaller percentage of overall views in many developed markets. This presents opportunities for content creators to reach audiences in new places and spaces.
Meanwhile, the ease of publication (and lack of a requirement for a broadcast licence) has resulted in the emergence of YouTube TV-style shows and commentary alongside popular formats such as WIRED’s Autocomplete Interview (where celebrities answer the internet’s most searched questions about themselves) and Vogue’s 73 Questions video series. It also creates opportunities for historically text-centric outlets, such as Portland-based newspaper The Oregonian to go deep with long-form investigative stories. And it enables the Guardian (and others) to produce highly effective short explainer videos on issues du jour.
Looking ahead, Podnews revealed in March that YouTube is working to improve promotion, discoverability, and monetization opportunities for podcasters, including audio ads and “new metrics for audio-first creators.” Similarly, YouTube Shorts, its “TikTok clone,” is also a growing priority for the platform and another space that publishers may look to capitalize on.
Collectively, these formats, along with more traditional video content found on the site, present a variety of means for publishers’ to harness YouTube as part of their engagement and revenue strategies.
YouTube generated around $20 million in advertising revenue in 2020, CNBC reports. Arguably, that puts it in competition with publishers for ad dollars. However, creators can join the YouTube Partner Program (YPP) to earn income through mechanisms such as advertising, sponsored content, channel subscriptions and online shopping. YouTube’s revenue share model means that publishers typically take home 55% of the revenue from ads shown against their videos, Digiday stated back in 2020.
That said, some of these returns might be less than publishers hoped for. Digiday notes that “news publishers, in particular, have a harder time attracting ad dollars because advertisers remain wary of their ads appearing next to controversial topics.”
Nevertheless, when it comes to both content and opportunities for revenue, the platform’s versatility means you don’t have to deploy a cookie-cutter model to be successful on it. There’s scope for variety, experimentation and avoiding the “one size fits all” approach, which you sometimes encounter on other platforms.
3. YouTube effectively reaches younger audiences
Reaching a youth audience has long been the Holy Grail for many brands and media companies. For publishers interested in reaching Millennials, Gen Z, and even Generation Alpha (a cohort born in the past decade), YouTube should feature prominently in their plans.
New data from the Pew Research Center demonstrates how YouTube usage is virtually ubiquitous among American teenagers. Teenage boys are more likely to say they use YouTube than teenage girls. However, in terms of those who have tried the service, there’s actually surprisingly little variance across a wide range of different indices.
Moreover, when looking at teens overall, Pew’s “Teens, Social Media and Technology 2022” report discovered that nearly one in five (19%) say they use YouTube almost constantly. That puts it ahead of both TikTok (16%) and Snapchat (15%). Collectively, around three-quarters of U.S. teens (77%) visit YouTube on a daily basis, some way in front of its rivals.
This isn’t a piece extolling another “pivot to video.” We’ve been there. We know how that worked out. Instead, it is a recommendation to take a look at YouTube and whether you are using it as effectively, and comprehensively, as you could.
Of course, the platform is not without its challenges. Its recommendation engine can drive viewers away from your channel to other creators. Publishers might prefer to keep traffic (and its associated ad revenue) on their own properties. And last year The Information argued that programmatic ad sales were also hurting midsize publishers. Companies like BuzzFeed and Vice receive less money via YouTube’s revenue share arrangements than if they sold the spots directly, they said. Nonetheless, despite these real considerations, YouTube’s size, versatility, and reach with younger audiences are all major plus points.
Press Gazette has outlined how the biggest publishers on YouTube—in terms of subscribers and all-time views—are typically broadcasters. Many of these providers will post copies of reports, bulletins and shows, or offer a livestream, on the platform. But that doesn’t mean non-broadcasters can’t punch through. Press Gazette’s research also shows how Vox has broken the paradigm with a distinctive approach to high-quality (and often quite evergreen) video.
Vox, along with Vice News and Insider, have also achieved success on the platform despite publishing considerably fewer videos than many of their more broadcast-led peers. This makes it clear that this isn’t just about volume of content.
In a separate discussion with video leads at UK newspapers, The Sun and The Guardian, they also posited how a clear voice, a willingness to experiment and “building trust with the casual audience,” are all potential ingredients for YouTube success.
Thus far, tapping into YouTube’s potential isn’t something that many non-broadcast publishers have done well. Yet.
But, if publishers are able to look beyond platforms like Twitter, Instagram and TikTok (channels that either fall into the media’s longstanding issue with “shiny object syndrome” or spaces that might also seem more natural hubs for their content), then that might change in the not-too-distant future.
Certainly based on its audience, reach and breadth of content you can post, there’s an argument to be made that YouTube merits more of many publishers’ time and resources than it currently enjoys. If you want to ride the next digital wave, this trusty steed may not be a bad one to back.
Getting attention and creating awareness is vital to influencers and journalists since both compete in the same attention economy. As part of her Polis Newsroom Fellowship at the London School of Economics, Salla-Rosa Leinonen explores the idea of adopting an influencer style of journalism to bring the audience closer to the newsroom. In her new report Can Journalists be Influencers? she makes the case for newsrooms to support staff who want to experiment with a journo-influencer role to help build credibility among a younger target audience.
A vehicle to reach a younger audience
Influencers create original content with a distinct and authentic voice. Building creditability among a younger audience is an effective tool for marketing, branded content, and endorsements. Effective influencers attract a lot of attention on social channels like TikTok, Snapchat, and Instagram. Leinonen suggests that journalists who want to reach a younger audience implement influencer practices on social media.
Notably, a new study from UK communications regulator Ofcam shows that for the first time, Instagram is the most popular news source among younger people (22%) of teens, with TikTok and YouTube close behind. Further, TikTok users participating in the study said they get more of their news from “other people they follow” (47%) than from news organizations’ accounts (24%). Another study, Reuters Digital News Report, also shows that 40% of young adults, 18- 24, report using social media as their main news source. Therefore, social media provides a critical point of connection for younger news consumers.
As part of her research, Leinonen interviewed Olivia Le Poidevin, a BBC reporter, to discuss the similarities between the journalists and influences. Poidevin noted that journalists use the news as a vehicle to connect to the audience, while influencers use their content. However, Poidevin concludes that there is a convergence between news and content. She states, “Up to now; there has been a clear division between ‘content’ and ‘news,’ in many media organizations as if they were two separate worlds. From the audience’s point of view, they are not separate; they are the same.”
Benefits of being an influential journalist
The report defines the role of an “influential journalist” as someone who gains awareness or fame through more traditional modes of journalism but also uses social media to build their following. Only pieces of their content like article excerpts, snippets, and clips are usually available on social media. They use social media to market, share, and showcase their work with new audiences who are not spending their time on traditional media platforms.
Leinonen cites Sandra Banjac and Folker Hanusch’s research on audiences’ expectations of content creators on Instagram, YouTube, and blogs, compared to journalists. The research finds that both content creators and journalists share many of the same values. These include likeability, the feeling of being directly spoken to, sharing valuable information, and expertise, which all drive followers to seek more information.
Importantly, “journo-influencers” can learn to leverage new storytelling formats without sacrificing the skills and integrity of journalism. They can also connect their journalistic style to their personality to build trust with their followers. This report suggests that journalists rethink their news reporting process as content creation to generate an authentic voice to connect to younger audiences.
Social audio, which came to prominence with the now eerily-quiet Clubhouse, took off during the pandemic. A slew of competitors has emerged during the past 24 months. And just this week, Amazon joined the market with Amp. The company’s pitch is that the new audio app allows users to become live radio DJs, curate playlists, and talk to listeners and guests.
NPR is no stranger to live radio. The Washington-based non-profit media organization hosts two flagship news broadcasts: Morning Edition and All Things Considered. And, in 2020, more people than ever before were consuming NPR content through their website, radio, apps, live streaming, and smart devices, according to Nieman Lab, which pinned its audience around 57 million.
For Matt Adams, engagement editor + social audio at NPR, moving into social audio spaces made sense because it allowed them to meet audiences where they are. Audio also clearly plays to the strengths of their radio roots—but offers added benefits. And, unlike live video, which may take a while to set up or look a certain way, Adams explained, social audio can be set up in minutes. “This is like, get on your Twitter app. You start it. And then you’re just in a conversation. It’s very quick and easy.”
NPR has been doing Twitter Spaces for a year. Adams says that its first Spaces was with the Code Switch team about their fellowship. “I thought it would be a great way to get people who are interested in applying to that fellowship to ask questions and get answers for it,” he said.
And from there, Adams started to experiment. What’s Next: An NPR Conversation Series ran two or three Spaces every day for a week. NPR and member stations would invite their audiences to join on various topics including kids and COVID, climate change, The Supreme Court, and Indigenous community coverage.
Social audio is a great tool for digital content companies to connect with and expand audiences. Adams says it clearly offers a quick and easy way to talk to their social audience. “What I think is cool is it’s we’re not speaking at them; we’re speaking with them. We can bring them on stage and get their questions and thoughts.”
One of the Spaces that worked really well in the What’s Next series, Adams says, was a conversation about the housing market. “There was a lot of back and forth about, how do you buy a house now? Why is the housing market so wild out there? How do you figure it out?” Adams said.
Find new audiences
While engaging with current fans is important, a big goal for a lot of digital content companies is to attract new and younger audiences. Adams believes social audio offers a way to do just that. In fact, over the last year, Twitter Spaces has introduced new audiences to NPR.
One way is through audience referrals. As companies invite speakers to social audio spaces, their followers are notified that there’s a Space happening. When NPR Weekend Edition host Scott Simon interviewed Matthew McConaughey, they did it on Spaces. And that brought Matthew McConaughey‘s fans to NPR’s Space. “They might not follow NPR, they might not even listen to NPR, they might just be there because they’re Matthew McConaughey fans,” Adams said. “But maybe we pick up some new followers… and that’s key.”
“It’s a great way to just interact with people that you might not be able to interact with otherwise. I think that’s very cool.”
Find new content
Adams said that NPR’s social audio spaces have also sparked content and story ideas from the audience. “Sometimes they’ve said, ‘I think you should be thinking about this or doing that. The host’s like, ‘it’s a good idea. We should think about that or add that to our coverage.’”
NPR has opted to record some of their social audio spaces and later make them downloadable—or even broadcast them on air. They have also transcribed their Twitter Spaces into stories that get page views also grow audiences. All of these tactics allow them to better leverage what might be a one time live-only event in a variety of ways, and to reach broader audiences.
Where Adams has seen social audio really work is for trending topics. They can quickly produce Twitter Spaces to discuss current events and issues, like Ukraine, Russia, or the State of the Union Address.
Listen and learn
As Amazon jumps on the bandwagon this month, it’s clear that social audio isn’t going away soon. And, with potential options to monetize it in the future – from in-app tipping features, to sponsorship, to tickets for premium events – it might become a revenue stream as well.
Social audio offers Zoom-weary audiences the intimacy of podcasts but also the ability to participate in discussions, be brought up on the stage and ask questions directly to speakers in real time.
It is interesting the way in which live social audio experiences mirror live radio, but also how they differ. Unlike pre-recorded segments or podcasts, live offers real time audience engagement. But, as the name would imply, social takes it even further. Audience members can “see” each other. They are able to react even if they don’t speak up. And they feel easily empowered to engage. For younger audiences, who may have never listened to terrestrial or even satellite radio, this new format offers the ease and comfort of social media. But for all audiences, engagement and interaction can clearly reach a new level altogether.
Adams saw this firsthand when NPR hosted a Twitter Space based on a story about college students’ experience during the pandemic. Adams asked the reporter to bring her sources into a Space for a discussion. “And then all of the college students in the audience were joining and then jumping up to talk about what was happening at their school and what they were going through,” he said. “There was just this big conversation between the sources and the audience, and we were just directing traffic. It was awesome. It was not what you would do on the radio.”
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.
In conversation with Digital Content Next’s Michelle Manafy, Flipboard founder and CEO Mike McCue and Washington Post managing editor Kat Downs Mulder explore the evolution of digital media, serving the audience “where they are,” and leveraging emerging technologies to better meet their needs. Their talk, which was part of Collision Conference 2021, covers the challenges and opportunities of social media news distribution and consumption and the rise of Substack. They also talk about the challenges facing local news in particular. Their discussion explores AI and other technologies that increasingly impact news creation, delivery, consumption, and user experiences.
Each year the Reuters Institute publishes an analysis on the state of the digital news ecosystem. The Digital News Report is vast, covering six continents and 40 markets across the globe. This year’s report explores the impact of coronavirus on news consumption and on the economic prospects for publishers. It looks at progress on new paid online business models, trust and misinformation, partisanship and populism, and the popularity of curated editorial products like podcasts and email newsletters.
The report provides a comprehensive review of the marketplace and incorporates and tracks core consumer metrics of trust and engagement. In particular, it offers insights into digital news publishers’ business models, their sustainability, and the overall impact on modern society.
With the rise and distribution of low-cost internet publishing and its usage to fuel political polarization, the news media as a whole has been called into question. Unfortunately, extreme viewpoints intensified by social media algorithms and the amplification of echo chambers produce a lot of noise and misinformation. Consequently, divided societies trust media less, as they are generally dissatisfied with institutions in their countries.
This type of dissatisfaction is reflected in the data with only four in ten respondents (38%) trusting news overall. However, close to half (49%) trust the news brands they know and use. Further, news in distributed environments (search and social) are trusted the least at 22%. Not surprisingly, social media leads as the biggest source of concern about misinformation (40%), twice the level of news sites (20%).
With a surge of politicize news sources, respondents want the facts. Close to two-thirds of Americans (60%) prefer to get news from sources that have no point of view compare to 30% who prefer to get their news from sources that share your point of view or 10% who prefer to get news from those who challenge their views.
Many publishers added new opportunities for paid content to their business model, such as subscriptions, memberships, donations, and micropayments. Growth in subscriptions continues with 20% of respondents in the US paying for online content, up four percentage points in the last year.
Reuters identifies two waves of subscription growth in the U.S. Wave 1 was set in motion by the younger and more liberal voter population in 2016 who subscribed after Donald Trump was elected as president. This segment wants to be informed and to support journalism as a tool to maintain democracy.
The second wave is upon us now. It is fueled by a new election cycle and tighter restrictions around paywalls and what content is available for free. News publishers also experienced growth in new subscribers with the onset of the coronavirus. And that comes, despite many of them offering free Covid-19 content.
With more pathways to news content, just over one-quarter of consumers (28%) report accessing news websites or apps directly. Another 26% access via social media and 25% access through search. However, among 18-24-year-olds, only 16% have a direct connection with news brands. More than twice as many (38%) prefer social media for their news. Developing a relationship with Gen Z is an important target for publishers’ long-term sustainability.
Overall, the majority of consumers report that the news media did a good job in helping them understand the details of the pandemic. However, close to one-third (32%) reported that the news media sensationalized the seriousness of the situation. The coronavirus also showcased the need for local news, however long-term demand (and support) is in question.
With quality journalism in demand, digital news publishers must be highly consumer focused. Given that close to three quarters of consumers using backdoors to access their content, publishers need to increase their focus on brand value and customer experience. The 18-24-year-olds are a focal point for growth. And fostering a relationship with this younger demographic holds strong promise for news brands.
This past month, we took an in-depth look at the referral platforms sending the most traffic to our network. We looked at the rate of their growth in 2018, the word count and device type for each, and the specific categories of content that attract readers, both in total volume and pageviews per post.
We’ve got loads of data, which you are welcome to dig into. But here are five key highlights from the 50+ graphs, 5000 words, two posts, and a PDF we created out of the data report we produced.
1. Consistent growth on Flipboard and SmartNews for 18+ months.
Non-social and non-search traffic referrers grew (in terms of percentage) the most in 2018, 21%, you can see the breakdown for each below.
Specifically, a lot of people didn’t realize that SmartNews and Flipboard have been growing for a while. Sure, their volumes still don’t warrant the attention that Facebook or Google gets. However, their steady growth numbers still surprised a lot of people who saw our data. For anyone that wants to learn more about these two platforms: Axios covered more about SmartNews, and Digiday looked at Flipboard’s user growth.
Figuring out if that’s an audience that works, and how to work with them should at least be on the short list of considerations for audience teams in 2019.
2. Twitter referrals vs. content “about” Twitter
Twitter didn’t grow in terms of referrals in 2018, but does that mean it’s not important? Just because we see a platform go down in one metric doesn’t mean it should get written off. One example of why was this data stat: More views go to articles that include Twitter as a topic than views that are actually referred by Twitter.
The relationship between media and Twitter is clearly more complicated than a simple “how much traffic are we getting” question.
3. Pinterest gets the highest percentage of its referrals to short (<200 word) posts.
SmartNews and Facebook also both send more shorter posts than is average on our network. LinkedIn sends the highest percentage of its traffic to long from (>1000 word posts), as does the Drudge Report.
This data itself doesn’t say much about whether people stay and read those long form pieces, but it does indicate what people want to share on those platforms and the mindset they’re in.
4. Desktop dropped, mobile and tablet increased:
Well, this one isn’t exactly a surprise, but it is worth noting that the trend hasn’t stopped.
From Mary Meeker’s annual Internet Trends report, per Recode:
“People, however, are still increasing the amount of time they spend online. U.S. adults spent 5.9 hours per day on digital media in 2017, up from 5.6 hours the year before. Some 3.3 of those hours were spent on mobile, which is responsible for overall growth in digital media consumption.”
Speaking of mobile, AMP is everywhere.
44% of mobile referrals from Flipboard are on are AMP. As are…
50% of mobile referrals from Google Search
89% of mobile referrals from Google News
39% of mobile referrals from LinkedIn
19% of mobile referrals from Pinterest,
54% of mobile referrals from SmartNews,
AND finally, 48% of mobile referrals from Twitter.
The Facebook’s News Feed, introduced in 2006, was once a strong source of traffic for many publishers. News organization utilized the intermediary platform to grow their audiences. The social sharing of news also altered the direct-to-consumer paradigm.
Earlier this year, Facebook announced that their News Feed would prioritize posts from friends and family over news content. While some news publishers faced modest declines, others reported significant ones. Chartbeat, a content analytics platform, provided data showing Facebook traffic to publishers declined 6% since the beginning of January. However, LittleThings, a publication focused on feel good stories and other content for women, claimed they lost 75% of their referral traffic due to changes in Facebook’s New Feed and subsequently shut down.
In its latest research, The Shorenstein Center on Media Studies explores the impact on non-profit news brands. Non-profit news organizations rely heavily on social interaction to help encourage donations. A traffic decline could negatively impact donation revenue. Shorenstein’s new report, Facebook Friends? The Impact of Facebook’s News Feed Algorithm, offers a custom analysis of eight non-profit news publishers.
The research divides the publishers into two categories: investigative and single-subject. The investigative group focuses on producing investigative journalism on a wide range of topics. The single-subject group produces investigative journalism in the context of a single subject. The three investigative organizations include The Center for Public Integrity, ProPublica, and Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting. The five single-subject organizations include Chalkbeat, The Hechinger Report, The Marshall Project, The Trace, and The War Horse. The analysis focuses on two key metrics – total users and total sessions – looking at the three months prior to and after the News Feed change.
In the three months after the News Feed changes, in terms of overall traffic, the investigative organizations saw small changes in both the number of users and the number of sessions. In contrast, the entire single-subject cohort registered growth for these two metrics.
The analysis also looks at the composition of traffic, where the traffic is coming from, by using the Google Analytics channels Direct, Email, Organic Search, Other, Referral, and/or Social. Referral traffic was most consistent; increasing both in users visits and sessions. Only two of the eight non-profit publishers show social referral increases. Not surprisingly, Facebook referrals closely follow in line to social.
Given some of the non-profit news publishers registered small to moderate traffic increases, the Shorenstein research hints to Facebook’s potential growth path for non-profit news publishers, even with the algorithm changes. The difference between larger commercial news publishers and non-profit may be due to how non-profit new organizations’ stories are shared on Facebook. More research on this is needed to understand the consumer experience sharing content from commercial news publishers compared to non-profit news publishers.
For so long, Facebook has been the classroom bully in social media, with Snapchat taking it on the chin when Facebook copied Snapchat’s Stories format on FB, Instagram and WhatsApp. But now, the little tyke is exacting revenge as Facebook deals with blow after blow in the public arena: ongoing Russian meddling on the platform, incendiary posts inspiring real-life violence in Myanmar and Sri Lanka, and a stock market plunge that encapsulates its challenges fighting misinformation. Meanwhile, Snap has been quietly rolling out new deals with publishers and making itself out to be a much friendlier space to do business.
While it’s hard to compete with Facebook’s 1.47 billion daily active users, the story of Snapchat as the underdog fighting back is one to watch — especially as publishers tire of Facebook’s litany of problems.
‘Brand Safety and Control’
While Facebook consistently dominates tech news coverage, Snapchat also turned heads recently when it launched a private marketplace for advertisers akin to its own premium programmatic advertising marketplace. Now, advertisers can book space on specific shows and channels from a variety of publishing partners, including BuzzFeed, ESPN, and NBC Universal. Previously, brands could buy Snapchat ad inventory, but not target their advertising to specific publishers.
The beauty of this? Publishers can set their own ad rates, target only certain segments of a show’s audience, and advertisers can find more brand safety on Snapchat than they currently do with Facebook and Google’s YouTube. This is of course a boon for Snapchat too, as AdAge’s Garrett Sloane put it:
“Advertisers have been concerned about the type of content that appears on both YouTube and Facebook. Snapchat is trying to take advantage of the industry’s unease by offering a higher level of brand safety and control: Discover already operates as a gated community for professional publishers only, and the private marketplace now lets advertisers expressly select the shows they want while still using ad tech.”
On top of this, Snapchat is planning to sell six-second, unskippable ads in the private marketplace — meaning the chances of sustaining audience attention is even higher.
Broadening Discover’s Horizon
Snap also recently announced a new Discover partnership with an LGBT publisher — its first one — the U.K.-based website PinkNews. According to PinkNews CEO and editor-in-chief Benjamin Cohen, part of the incentive is that Discover is still a curated platform, meaning that accessing the humans behind the automation is still possible. Snapchat was also enticing in part because Facebook traffic for PinkNews— as is the case with many publishers — has gone down, Cohen said, and so he was looking to broaden audience traffic elsewhere.
The idea of working with a social platform like Snapchat that is actually willing to pay publishers became even more attractive for PinkNews. The partnership is also, undeniably, a win for Snapchat. It gains an outlet that will help the platform attract a young audience willing to push the boundaries of sexuality.
Indeed, it’s obvious that Snapchat is on the hunt to broaden its 191 million daily active users. In addition to working with traditional publishers, Snapchat has made a bigger effort this year to partner with digital publishers and social media stars that appeal to younger audiences. That includes Daquan Gesese, a hip-hop and pop culture personality with a huge presence on Instagram, and Fanbytes, an 18-month-old digital media company that runs four popular accounts on Snapchat, and operates a network of mostly 15- and 16-year-old creators who run their own accounts and publishing brands on Snapchat.
In May, Daquan launched his own Discover channel, and Fanbytes and Snapchat are currently trying to figure out whether “official” versions of its channels could be tailor-made for Discover.
But here’s what’s ironic about the Snapchat comeback: It wasn’t that long ago that Snapchat was ridiculed for a redesign that paired friends and family in one stream, and publishers and advertisers in another. Audiences complained, publishers worried.
“Content producers from eight publishers I spoke to said that the redesign had made their metrics go haywire,” Vanity Fair’s Maya Kosoff wrote. So it seems pretty natural that some publishers don’t necessarily see Snapchat as a particularly good long-term strategy if they can monetize better elsewhere, as one publisher anonymously confessed to Digiday last month.
However, it’s also understandable — decent, really — that Snapchat is letting publishers introduce non-exclusive shows to Snapchat Discover. Syndication is not particularly sexy, but even if shows have already aired on YouTube or Facebook Watch, this is a chance for Snapchat to build a Discover audience — and it’s a chance for publishers to ignite new revenue streams for its most popular intellectual property without having to create something original for each platform.
While publishers aren’t going to give up on a massive platform like Facebook anytime soon, Snapchat is getting back in the game on two counts. First, it’s actually the steady performer as Facebook struggles. And second, it is finally serving publishers in more ways while opening itself up to newer creatives. As with all platforms, there’s only so much trust publishers can give third parties who change their practices and rules on a whim, but it’s a good thing that Snap is trending up at just the right time – finally getting off the mat to give Facebook a few good licks.
It is official: We are finally “mobile-first.” At the conclusion of Q2, we reached the much-anticipated pivot point when all mobile traffic (direct and referred) caught up with desktop (see chart below). But while we waited, the mobile ecosystem and what we thought we knew about mobile has evolved. Is your media company prepared?
Here are five trends to watch as media flips to mobile-first:
1. The mobile pivot point
Since January 2017, total traffic from desktop to news sites declined by 14%, while mobile traffic increased by 34%. One of the main drivers for this is the growth in referred traffic from pages using AMP. For news sites, mobile has finally met desktop.
2. The shapeshifting reader
Mobile readers are now more likely to go direct to mobile apps and homepages by typing in the URL than they are to be referred to a site by Facebook. Recent data shows that direct mobile traffic surpassed all Facebook-referred traffic as of mid-October and is steadily climbing. Despite the recent News Feed changes in Facebook which have resulted in declining traffic to publishers (-15% since January 2017), readers still seek out news news, and they are doing so on mobile devices.
3. The browser: the next major traffic source?
Are discovery tools in the browser the next main gateway to news?
We’ve seen a rise of in-browser content recommendation modules, such as Google Chrome Suggestions. And, with a rise that started last year, traffic from Google Chrome Suggestions has grown 21x. Another is Pocket, which has an integration with Firefox and was acquired by its parent company Mozilla in February 2017. Pocket may be significantly smaller than Google Chrome Suggestions, but with a 297% increase in referral traffic since January 2017, it is worth watching.
4. The next class of news referrer emerges
In looking beyond Google Search and Facebook, we see that traffic from Twitter to publisher sites has declined by 18% since January 2017 and is now at a similar traffic level to Google Chrome Suggestions. While Twitter may be off of its high, there are very strong gains in the last year from a new tier of news aggregators including the brand-new Google News app, Flipboard, Instagram, and Axel Springer’s Upday app. Here’s what we’re seeing:
Google News is quickly trending up as a referrer source, particularly since May when Google announced an all new Google News app that replaced Google Play Newsstand as well as the old Google News & Weather apps. We will be watching this closely in the next few months, particularly as Google continues to execute the next steps in its mobile news strategy.
Flipboard has had a dramatic increase in the amount of referrer traffic it sends to publishers, and it is now a meaningful leading referrer, having doubled since June 2017.
Instagram, which recently announced its billionth user, is commonly thought of as only a photo and video sharing app. However, we’re also seeing that it’s becoming a meaningful source of traffic for news sites; Instagram referrer traffic to publishers has grown 232% since January 2017.
Even more surprising is Upday News for Samsung – a news app from Axel Springer that is featured on Samsung phones. Since January 2017, Upday saw a huge tick upwards of 763% growth in referrer traffic. Upday is one of the fastest growing sources of traffic for publishers in Europe. It is also now driving roughly the same level of traffic to publishers as Instagram.
All of this indicates that the consumer demand for news via apps has strong momentum, and you should keep a close eye on the growing news app ecosystem as part of your content distribution strategy.
5. The more-engaged-than-we-thought mobile homepage reader
You may think reader attention is more scattered on mobile than on desktop. However, our data shows otherwise, specifically with regard to mobile homepages. On mobile homepages, the average visitor spends 40% more time actively engaging than their desktop counterpart (22 engaged seconds on mobile vs.16 engaged seconds on desktop). While this comparison isn’t entirely apples-to-apples (you could imagine that a reader is more likely to idle in a more information-dense desktop experience), this is a notable reversal of the reading behavior we see on article pages, where desktop readers engage slightly more (38 engaged seconds vs. 34).
Mobile readers are also 20% more likely to click-through to articles than those on desktop. Mobile homepage visitors click through to articles 68% of the time, compared to 57% on desktop. Whereas desktop homepage readers scroll more of the page, mobile readers are more engaged in reading articles by clicking from the mobile homepage into content.
What does this mean in terms of how we value the mobile reader or monetize the mobile homepage?
There is no doubt that the consumer, publisher, and device-maker shift to mobile is driving growth and evolution in how and where traffic flows around content. Consumers are increasingly seeking content directly on publishers’ mobile websites and apps. They are also using news aggregators, where we see a new class of secondary traffic referrers emerging. And with mobile homepage readers more engaged in content than we thought, now may be the time to rethink what we thought we knew about mobile.