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.
Everyone seems to be focused on the “new” data strategies that publishers can deploy in a post-cookie world. The New York Times set the agenda with their news about phasing out third party data and introducing their own proprietary first-party audience segments. Vox Media and The Washington Post were fast followers in announcing their respective first-party data solutions.
Alas, not all publishers have an army of data scientists and technical specialists to figure this out for them. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t other opportunities to capitalize on in this new era. The often overlooked strategy to consider is demand path optimization (DPO). Here are a few reasons why DPO is an optimal solution.
More ≠ More
With programmatic advertising came the promise of a democratized ecosystem. Publishers big and small would gain access to a new array of ad spend. The reality, however, was (and still is) something very different. Publishers partnered with more and more ad tech providers promising unique access to premium demand. Initially, each new partner correlated to more revenue. So, publishers found themselves hooked up to dozens of partners. But then the revenue plateaued–or in some cases decreased–because more is not always more.
Despite the continually increasing investment in digital advertising by brands and ad agencies, it is not infinite. Enter DPO. The best way for publishers to ensure they are accessing truly unique and quality demand is to connect to it directly. This doesn’t mean doing away with the systems and efficiencies that come with programmatic advertising. It starts with assessing which partners are performing the best.
Last year, education publisher Chegg cut out all ad resellers and trimmed its supply-side platform partners that delivered less than 5% revenue. The result: a third fewer ad tech partners and no impact on performance. Chegg was able to achieve the same level of performance with fewer partners because they focused on quality not quantity.
Optimize the experience to optimize results
Another benefit of DPO is an improved user experience for publishers’ audiences.
With every additional ad tech partner integrated with a publisher’s ad server comes a tax on page loads. The longer it takes a page to load, the more likely users are to leave the site. But that’s not the only side effect of increased latency: auctions can timeout, ad slots can render irregularly or even go unsold.
Unsold ad slots became especially problematic for news sites during the last 15 months. A heightened focus on brand safety by advertisers reluctant to appear next Covid-19 and civil unrest content led to a drop off in fill rates.
While standard display ad slots may have gone unsold, there was an uptick in the adoption of integrated ad formats such as sponsored content. These formats not only offer premium, brand safe environments, since the ads render as unique editorial content, but also drive revenue. In fact, we’ve seen a 45%+ lift in revenue when publishers began using integrated ad formats such as sponsored articles. Publishers deploying integrated sponsored articles also saw an increased average in audiences’ time spent on page and reduced bounce rates.
Context > Cookies
Digital cookies have been crumbling almost since their invention, and the effectiveness of that data is not as impressive as many advertisers believe.
Publishers and their content have an innate value to their audiences. When advertisers don’t take that into account it not only undervalues publisher’s content, it undervalues the loyal audiences that they’ve built. Furthermore, with each degree of separation between publishers and advertisers, this innate value may not even be realized.
At Nativo, we started putting third-party data targeting to the test as compared to contextual targeting. Consistently we’ve seen contextual targeting meet or beat engagement performance as compared to third-party data targeted campaigns. In fact, looking over sponsored content campaigns from the last 30 days, we’ve seen a more than 2X improvement of engagement performance with contextual targeting versus third-party data.
For too long, advertisers have undervalued the importance and performance of contextual targeting. But times are changing.
Here are some of the best media stories our team has read so far this week:
- Vox | How subscriptions took over our lives (10 min read)
- The Drum | Can niche streaming services co-exist with the giants of OTT? (6 min read)
- CNBC | Tech giants’ earnings showed their absolute dominance (4 min read)
- Iris Chyi |The Impact of Covid-19 on 20 U.S. Newspapers’ Print and Digital Circulation (3 min read)
- The Washington Post | Why your favorite new NPR show might sound a lot like a podcast (7 min read)
- Wired | The One Legal Question That Will Probably Decide the Epic-Apple Lawsuit (7 min read)
- The Guardian | Facebook ruling on Trump renews criticism of oversight board (4 min read)
- CNBC | Amazon’s ads business is generating nearly $7 billion a quarter, and growth is accelerating (2 min read)
- ICJF | How Disinformation and Hate Fuel Online Attacks Against Women Journalists (5 min read)
Last Friday marked 100 days since Donald Trump officially left the White House as U.S. president. His departure ended a chapter crammed with chaos and controversy for hundreds of millions of Americans, and many more around the world.
As the pandemic enters a second year, a deafening lack of Trump has been coupled with a general public malaise from too much news. As a result, the historic ratings bump enjoyed during the Trump administration quickly turned into a slump. Few outlets have been spared.
The Washington Post reported that of the three largest cable news networks, only Fox News has held relatively steady. Its three prime-time opinion shows fell just 6% in viewership since the first weeks of the year. MSNBC and CNN, meanwhile, declined 26% and 45% in the 8-10 p.m. ET time slot, respectively.
But it’s not just cable networks that have been affected. The Washington Post itself saw a 26% fall in the number of unique visitors to its website from January to February. The New York Times experienced a 17% decline in the same period.
A slump by any other name
While the “Trump Slump” is a legitimate reason for the downward trend, it’s not the only cause. Nor is it a universal experience.
At The Atlantic, SVP of growth Sam Rosen says that, “We’ve found even in just the past five or six months, what has really changed is that the motivation to understand this historic moment has decreased and the desire for personal intellectual growth has increased.”
As he points out, “It’s been an exhausting five years for many people and especially the past year. So, it kind of makes sense that the core desire to just understand what’s happening in the world still exists. But people want to invest in their own growth.” And the company is banking on that willingness to invest.
After a decade of open access, The Atlantic relaunched its paywall 20 months ago. The 163-year-old organization now boasts more than 750,000 subscribers. It is well on its way to eclipsing one million paying members by the end of 2022. Rosen says that ensuring the outlet’s retention and acquisition efforts are equally strong is critical for achieving this goal.
Fundamentals and experimentation
On the retention side, The Atlantic focuses on the fundamentals. For example they’re migrating as many subscribers to auto-renew as possible. Targeted email campaigns are also reawakening dormant subscribers.
Acquiring new subscribers has been more colorful. For example, experimenting with new slogans such as “Read. Think. Grow.,” which are a change from more newsier lines of messaging in the past. Rosen said The Atlantic thinks of its audience in terms of psychographics: people that are curious, interested in the world, willing to consider multiple perspectives, and open to new ideas.
“Looking at the vanguard of marketing technology is one of our biggest priorities right now,” Rosen said. “We’re evaluating a slew of technology partners that do customer journey orchestration, dynamic paywalls, personalization, and content recommendations. So that is where we’re doubling down.”
Not content with the content
Another newsroom building value not reliant on Trump’s hoopla is Axios, which was launched in January 2017. The well positioned itself strategically for a post-Trump world. Though the fall in traffic is unmistakable, Axios’ director of audience and growth, Neal Rothschild, believes this could actually be a good thing.
“I think if you were going to ask the founders of the company [Axios] whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing, they would say it’s 100 percent a good thing,” Rothschild said. “Jim VandeHei, our CEO, has maintained that people needed to wean themselves off of politics during the Trump years. It was like fast food and it became very unhealthy. So, we’re starting to see the news landscape kind of clear out and make way for the topics that were core to the founding of Axios. Though it may not have seemed like it just because Trump sucked up so much oxygen.”
Those other topics include the rise of China, climate change, and the gaming industry. For the latter, Axios hired Stephen Totilo and Megan Farokhmanesh from Kotaku and The Verge, respectively, to write Axios Gaming. Their newsletter launched this week and will focus on the multi-billion dollar gaming industry. Rothschild added that the company isn’t limiting its expansion to specific topics. Its strategy of hiring experts to build readership extends to local journalism in news deserts, where just a single outlet currently operates, or where no community newspaper exists at all.
Perspectives and connections
Centralized business units have been crucial for Axios. It’s technology, sales, audience, and marketing teams have allowed it to fill local voids without the vast capital needed to build startups from scratch, like The Texas Tribune in Austin and Seattle’s InvestigateWest. Axios currently has five local newsletters. It also recently announced plans for a sixth in Northwest Arkansas.
“To stand up a newsletter in each city, we try to hire two experts that can helm that newsletter so that we can speak to the city and have it growing quickly. I think that’s a departure from previous models for supporting local news. Usually, you need more of a physical presence in that city or at least need to invest more on the ground,” Rothschild said. “That’s not a huge site traffic audience strategy. But it is a pretty good growth and revenue strategy. And it is increasing our footprint around the country.”
As important as local news has been to CBS, Trump was an international story. Significantly, the international audience it gained over the past four years remains. While many U.S. outlets have cut their international presence in recent years, CBSN — CBS’ 24/7 streaming news service — last year expanded to almost 100 countries. That global presence was critical in CBSN delivering 291 million streams in the first quarter of 2021, up 30% from the same period a year ago.
Christy Tanner, EVP and general manager of CBS News Digital said her team has only just scratched the surface of its global potential. Through Network 10 in Australia, which ViacomCBS owns, its partner the BBC and its own international bureaus, it’s creating even more international programming.
“With streaming audiences, we do not see what was at one point conventional wisdom in the news business: Allegedly, U.S. audiences are not interested in international news. That’s simply not true from our perspective.” In fact, Tanner said, “We think it’s an important differentiator. It’s important to tell the stories. We at CBS News digital have been extremely fortunate that CBS has continued to invest in international coverage.”
The local news
That said, Trump was as much a local story as he was a national and international one. So, CBS is also taking advantage of the dearth of local newsrooms. It now offers 14 total live streams including 10 in local markets such as the Bay Area, Pittsburgh, and Minnesota.
One new feature Tanner is especially excited about are video push alerts. Launched last fall, the proactive alerts nudge CBSN viewers whenever news is breaking across the U.S. Instead of only watching that day’s White House news conference on the national live stream, viewers could easily toggle over to CBSN Minnesota to watch Minneapolis’ police chief providing an update to the George Floyd case.
Tanner says her team sends out alerts dozens of times a day. This means that viewers are engaged in numerous stories, as opposed to any one story such as Trump or Covid-19.
Fail to prepare, prepare to fail
The past four years certainly provided newsrooms across the country with a welcome surge in readership. However, the smartest strategists were planning for Trump’s inevitable departure well in advance. As a result, the fall in traffic hasn’t been enough to hurt their bottom lines too much.
For Tanner, who entered journalism as an editor at the AP in 1991, the Trump presidency was just another wild cycle. And she’s experienced many. Tanner says to work in digital media, one always has to be ready for what’s next, and make intelligent fact-based decisions.
“Things are constantly changing and those who don’t adapt fall by the wayside.”
Right now, the digital advertising industry is in a frenzy over how it will adapt to new privacy restrictions that will inhibit marketers’ ability to serve targeted ads quickly and widely. Yes, the nature of digital advertising is changing. However, the direction it’s headed regarding ad quality is on a collision course with high quality user experience. Everything is on the line — including the bottom line.
These new and legacy ad quality-related brand safety challenges are poised to have an outsized impact on publisher revenue in 2021. Over the course of the past year, low ad quality has proved to have drastic effects on user churn, brand reputation, and revenue. Across the ecosystem, ad inventory is flooded with offensive, deceptive, off-brand, and malicious forms of advertising. In fact, 85% of publishers reported seeing increased or constant levels of low-quality advertising in the last year. The most common types of low-quality ads are: poor creative or creative not to spec, auto-redirects, inappropriate formats and inappropriate ad content.
Further, 89% of publishers report that they encounter deceptive ads coming through demand channels on weekly basis. And a fifth of publisher’s report that they’ve lost advertising revenue and/or paid subscribers as a result of deceptive ads. With that’s said, one of the core challenges of programmatic advertising is the lack of control of sites’ user experience.
When a publisher processes thousands of bids per second, unwanted ads will inevitably slip through. And as publishers move away from cookies, they must enact stronger quality control measures to ensure they’re never serving ads off brand ads that kill user experience. This negative association with the publisher weakens their market value. It also makes it difficult for them to attract high-quality, more valuable advertising. Nearly half (47%) of all advertisers say that they avoid working with certain publishers due to the high number of low-quality ads on the publisher’s website. Brands do not want to be associated with, let alone do business with, publishers that serve bad ads. And publishers lose revenue because of them.
Yes, losing cookies poses an enormous business challenge. Without cookies, they’ll have to alter their business models and put hyper focus on user experience to maintain steady revenue. That adjustment should include a pivot to higher-quality advertising, to root out unwanted ads and strengthen relationships with their users. Unfortunately, common ad quality practices often over block or leave money on the table. Nearly half (49%) of publishers often inadvertently block safe ads as they’re racing to keep out bad actors. There’s an obvious need for publishers to be able to fine tune tactics for blocking low-quality ads.
Precise and premium
The solution is to avoid automated blunt blocking solutions which block safe ads, thus reducing legitimate revenue streams. For digital publishers operating in an open marketplace, a precise solution is an important asset to protect readers and brands alike.
In essence, a better ad experience, means a better user experience. A better experience means more engaged users, and higher engagement means the publisher’s ad inventory is even more valuable. Fueling this flywheel is premium advertising from trusted, vetted providers.
Buying and selling large amounts of media has never been easier. However, the most successful publishers will prioritize quality to maintain a quality user experience. The trick is to ensure that your partners reinforce the integrity of your site.
In the publishing world, Substack has grown into a bit of a phenomenon. It’s a somewhat low-tech, self-publishing newsletter platform. However, it’s gotten outsized media coverage from top brands, including The New Yorker and The New York Times. Substack has also managed to attract a number of high-profile journalists from the industry.
So why does this relatively no-frills newcomer – along with its emerging competitors like Buttondown, TinyLetter, and Revue – get so much buzz? Substack and others like it offer a bit of a twist on the typical software offering: They encourage writers to monetize their newsletters through a revenue share agreement. The company is poaching top writers with upfront incentives in order to build their footprint. This is nerve wracking for premier editors and publishers. Will their own star writers get the bug and make the switch?
The rise in popularity of self-publish newsletter platforms is now forcing media brands to consider whether they’re keeping star writers and reporters happy. It is also forcing them to reckon with their own email programs.
Newsletters are often an under-developed product. However, they have major potential to give writers a platform on which they can build a profile for themselves. They can also drive a lot of revenue. In traditional terms, it’s not much different than a writer having her own “FOB” column. These days, it’s not much different than a reporter’s active Twitter or Instagram profile. Rather than fear these emerging players, publishers should think about how to tap into their ability to retain top talent and make money doing so.
Publishers, make writers and readers happy…
First and foremost, the problem isn’t Substack. Email is a channel with enormous potential for many publishers. Substack, however, is a blaring wake-up call.
Some writers may leave for the big advance that they were promised. But many others are leaving because they want more creative control and a more direct connection to their readers. They also want the ability to directly profit from that connection.
There are publishers who have newsletters written by individual reporters, creating a more personal voice and a lighter touch in editing. CNN’s “Reliable Sources,” run by Brian Stelter, is a great example of this. Often writing late at night, Stelter confides in his readers and shares a bit about his personal life in a way that wouldn’t make sense on the website. He has a huge following. And it’s not just for a faceless roundup of the day’s headlines.
Email is an intimate, low-risk channel with which publishers can experiment to give key reporters a more visible persona. Axios has built a loyal readership by allowing reporters to publish emails under their name, encouraging them to create a human connection. Axios’ Sara Fischer is just one example.
Often, newsletters are templates that provide a list of links. Or they recycle content based on verticals of interest like travel or automotive, but with very little personality. Instead, give your travel editor the chance to write an intro paragraph. Or allow a field reporter to provide real-life snippets of what life is like on the job. These elements create more engaged readers and more differentiation from generic pubs.
Despite this proven approach, publishers are likely worried about giving it a go. They have successfully built reputable names for themselves by holding their identity close and in doing so, ensuring brand integrity and quality. Loosening the grip on the brand by allowing individuals to forge direct relationship with audiences sounds risky.
However, not doing so also creates risk. Stifle the creative potential of individuals who attract loyal followings and suddenly, publishing your own newsletter becomes enticing. Empower those same individuals to help grow the brand and tap into new revenue potential.
…And earn revenue doing it
Speaking of improving email performance, newsletters like Morning Brew, The Hustle, and The Skimm show that entire media businesses can be launched and expanded within the channel with a lot of revenue potential. Individual writers see that. They read these titles and want that same opportunity. The good news is that publishers can give it to them.
Revenue comes from a combination of factors. The first is to create a product that attracts brands. This requires scale, quality content and an engaged audience. Then, the publisher needs to have the tools to optimize advertising with flexible templates, reliable data collection, and good testing capabilities. To maximize engagement and conversion, publishers must incorporate elements like personalization and dynamic content.
Across all of these components, publishers already have major advantages over the upstart platforms. First is the benefit of scale. Even the worst newsletter program at a major publisher is competitive against the entire volume of the independent platforms. (Substack was recently estimated at only 250k total readers.) That scale means that audiences can be segmented. Content can be targeted for more relevance, which provides another major advantage with higher chances of success.
Publishers also tend to have key software capabilities in email like personalization (often tied to customer data from the website, subscriptions, events, and the like). This allows writers to get creative with their content development, offering different elements to readers based on past behavior and content preference, for example. They also probably have tools to create dynamic elements in email. Not every writer wants to pen 1,000 words of prose. Some may be talented producers and want to share videos, TikToks, or snippets of a podcast they recently hosted. Publishers have the tools for them to play with these capabilities, and more.
Substack isn’t a threat if publishers commit to improving their newsletter program. And writers will stay if given the chance. Not only do newsletters provide writers with a relatively low-risk venue for building connections between a brand and its audience, but it’s a revenue machine in the making.
Providing the incentive for writers to make their newsletters successful doesn’t require a jump to a self-publishing platform. In fact, most publishers can provide a much more robust set of email tools for writers with what they already have. This approach just takes a publisher that’s willing to ease up on creative control and allow their reporters’ personalities and names to become a part of the product.
About the author
Allison Mezzafonte has worked in the media and publishing industry for 20 years and is currently a growth consultant, as well as a Media Advisor to Sailthru. A former publishing executive for Bauer Media, Dotdash, and Hearst Digital, Allison serves as a strategic partner to media clients.
Here are some of the best media stories our team has read so far this week:
- The Wall Street Journal |Apple, Spotify and the New Battle Over Who Wins Podcasting (6 min read)
- Wired | Why Lawmakers Are So Interested in Apple’s and Google’s ‘Rents’ (4 min read)
- Digiday| Publishers like The Guardian become conscientious FLoC objectors, as The New York Times and others open to testing the controversial tech (6 min read)
- CNBC | YouTube is a media juggernaut that could soon equal Netflix in revenue (3 min read)
- The Financial Times | EU to charge Apple with anti-competitive behaviour this week (2 min read)
- Axios | Congress drags algorithms out of the shadows (4 min read)
- CNBC | How local TV stations plan to remain relevant as viewers shift to streaming (9 min read)
- The Drum | The current state of US state data privacy laws (9 min read)
Launching a new product during a global pandemic could be classed as a bold move. However, given its customer-centric approach, The Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) team knew the time was right. “The feedback from our clients was they didn’t want things at EIU to change. But they wanted to navigate our products more easily, so that they can compare information at speed,” EIU’s Chief Digital Officer, Sharon Cooper told DCN.
Launched this month, EIU Viewpoint integrates EIU’s subscription-based services into a unified digital platform. It combines the EIU’s expert insights and analysis with forecasts and proprietary data to offer clients a 360-degree view of the world, encompassing politics, policy, and economics. “Before, these were separated, so clients might only have one aspect,” says Cooper. Now EIU has integrated them under one umbrella product. This allows them to provide “a more nuanced perspective of the world and the forces shaping it.”
However, EIU Viewpoint wasn’t launched in response to Covid-19. It launched in spite of it. “We had to deliver Viewpoint remotely, with every single person working for home. We didn’t miss a beat.” She says that “It’s testament to the global nature of our business, as we have over 650 analysts in 130 countries. It was also our ability to pivot quickly, but not lose sight of the thing we needed to deliver for the client. We stayed focused on our end goal. But were flexible to the changes brought about by Covid.”
A customer-focused approach is at the heart of EIU, which was created back in 1946, in response to the needs of The Economist’s readers. They wanted to know how to better run their business in a challenging and changing post-war environment. Today its team of economists, industry specialists, policy analysts, and consultants help businesses, financial firms, academics, and governments understand the shifting global landscape.
It’s a business model that clearly works. EIU revenue increased by 1% for the six months ending 30 March 2020. And The Economist’s circulation revenues rose by 6%. EIU Viewpoint hopes to build on these figures by combining EIU’s award-winning political insights, policy analysis and economic outlooks, with curated forecasts and proprietary data.
This global view includes forecasts for the global economy, daily insights, and country economics. It also incorporates political analysis, medium- and long-term forecasts, macroeconomic datasets, and proprietary ratings and rankings. But what makes Viewpoint’s offering unique is the editorial team.
“Anyone can access the data we produce. But our key differentiator is our analysis. It’s a critical part of what we do” says Cooper. “EIU Viewpoint isn’t a news business, it’s a forecasting business. We are saying what will happen as a result of the news. EIU Viewpoint allows clients access to our editorial team’s thinking. We try and contextualize the news for each of our clients.”
Creating a platform that offers such a tailored user experience had it challenges, as their clients range from industry experts to total amateurs. “Bringing this context to life and making it simple to navigate was the toughest part of the build,” says Cooper. “We had to ensure lots of different types of users could navigate the same system and get all their questions answered in a consistent way.”
Preparing for opportunities
The product is a great example of how listening to your audience and responding to their needs adds value to a brand. The Economist is a well-respected title that offers news. EIU is a trusted resource that explores the impact of that news. The two go hand in hand to offer an independent and authoritative voice, which has resulted in loyalty and high levels of engagement with some of the biggest brands in business.
“Our content is about looking forward and thinking ‘what does this mean for our clients?’” explains Cooper. “There might be 101 things that happen in a day. Rather than just giving a bunch of facts, we weave them together to make a comprehensive overview of a country and how its changing.”
As a result, EIU has been able to guide their customers during the toughest times over the past 12 months. This includes providing a “huge amount” of additional data, to help with risk management and forecasting. The EIU also built its own Covid tracker, which looks at when the global economy will get back to pre-pandemic levels. It also reports on vaccine rollouts and how they impact the economy.
“It’s all about preparing for opportunities and helping our clients understand the whole market” says Cooper. “There are different models for different countries. We think about each one, in terms of what is happening today, what this will look like tomorrow, and what this means for our clients.”
EIU Viewpoint manages to hit that sweet spot that all media are trying to achieve: identifying opportunities for customers that translate into revenue opportunities for their own business. By working closely with their clients, EIU has become an integral part of their business. Thus, its clients have a “strong commitment” to the brand.
“If you look at most big banks, NGO organizations and governments around the world, you will find EIU at the heart of them,” Cooper says. “We believe Viewpoint will consolidate this relationship. It will help both our clients and the Economist Group plan for the future in order to operate effectively and profitably.”
Compared with the automotive industry’s “teenage years” when it dallied with radical interfaces for how to drive a car – including levers and pullies for steering, acceleration, and brakes – the TV world settled down quickly in terms of accessibility. The TV channel model with sequential numbers and +/- volume controls led on neatly to the Electronic Program Guide (EPG) which celebrates its 40th birthday this year.
The biggest change to the EPG was the arrival of pay-TV services in the 1980s and OTT/VOD in the 1990s. However, as it enters middle age, stagnation of innovation may have set in. For many, the Netflix-style carousel has become the defacto standard. However, there are a few market insurgents. Pluto TV and even non-traditional platforms such as TikTok are challenging how an increasingly “tech savvy” audience engages with content.
TV: Wounded but far from dead!
The recent pandemic has accelerated a growing trend away from linear towards on-demand viewing. Yet, the TV is still winning overall. Nielsen’s 2020 total audience report highlighted that the average U.S. adult spends 27 hours per week watching the TV. This includes live, on-demand, and DVR. Only 19% of video consumption is through subscription streaming services. And, while not explicitly broken out by Nielsen, areas such as video gaming and even DVDs saw significant rises during the pandemic.
Even at a time when Netflix breached 200 million global subscribers and Disney+ edges over 100 million, most viewing is still initiated through an EPG. And there are probably several thousand variants in use across the 1.8bn global TV households.
Its ubiquity has led to familiarity but also a potential constraint to innovation. On the plus side, the EPG’s simplicity and almost universal “scroll down for more” methodology is easy to use, fast, and well understood. The left and right functions to show timeslots fit neatly with the way broadcast schedules work. This familiarity is a factor in why TV viewing is still number one – at least for the over 25s. And, for better or worse, many of its rules have been passed to the OTT/VoD world.
However, the EPG has recently evolved within OTT and Netflix’s own research group. This provides insights via controlled A/B experiments to test most proposed changes to its product. These include new recommendation algorithms, user interface (UI) features, content promotions, and other areas. Some of the nuggets to emerge include 75% of all Netflix watching is based on its own suggestions and algorithms. Content slate images, when tweaked, can result in up to 30% percent more views for a particular title. However, the Netflix kimono is not completely open. For example, few data points exist around key areas such as churn and session duration.
Yet, the biggest shift for the EPG concept is not even coming from Netflix. The real insurgents are the likes of Facebook and, more recently, TikTok. It might seem odd to define TikTok as built around an EPG. However, the interface design – with instantly playing videos, up and down swipes to move forward and back within a linear output – and follower model (…remember ‘favorite channels’ from old TV remotes) shares the same traits of simplicity and ease of use. At its heart, it is not a revolutionary. That said, it takes an evolutionary step from the “so uncool” EPG era.
As an app launched in 2016, downloaded over 2 billion times, and with around 700 million monthly active users worldwide, its model can teach the wider media industry a few lessons. The TikTok experience is both wonderfully simple yet incredibly powerful. In 2019, TikTok generated an average session time of nearly 11 minutes, which is over twice that of Facebook.
TikTok is clearly in the category of social media rather than TV platform. However, it stands out in terms of high engagement levels – and ad revenue for ByteDance. According to AdAge a single ad on TikTok can cost between $50,000 to $120,000 depending on format and duration.
Behind the scenes TikTok (as with all social platforms) is crunching data troughs filled by its audience to create a “TV for one” format. And this concept is at the heart of where the EPG is heading as an interface. It is becoming more personalized and dynamic to reflect a similar shift in content better tailored to the audience.
Can’t all data just get along?
Yet building engaging EPGs that draw in audiences for longer sessions requires several components. The technology is already here. However, what is missing is the data to underpin the creation of highly personalized, dynamic, and relevant services. This data must flow between those who produce content, those who distribute content, and the content consumers.
Unfortunately, at present, the various parties don’t share much of this data. That means that linear TV output and, to a lesser extent, what is surfaced on OD platforms, is still very much trial and error. We need is an Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB) style organization that can help standardize data sets and broker stakeholder data sharing agreements. Although a potentially radical idea, the result is a net win for all involved – especially consumers that can finally get more relevant content. And, within a Free Ad-Supported Television (FAST) model – they will also see more relevant advertising based on their aggregated preferences.
This data sharing is starting to happen, albeit slowly. We are also starting to see real-world services populate content via the EPG with a dynamic playlist that updates the content in real time. This way, the time slot for content is not static. With sports as an example, the highlight of a goal from the most recent game would be inserted into the feed – like consumers expect from linear TV today.
EPG innovation is not dead – far from it. However, it is inexorably tied into the wider question of how our industry manages relationships, data, and privacy within an increasingly complex content distribution chain.
The lifespan of a subscriber is dictated almost entirely by how they perceive value in a service. Subscribers will simply cancel and churn if their expectations are not met. Thankfully, there are many approaches to take. These include building a diverse product portfolio, informed product pricing, and promoting engagement to encourage loyalty.
Here are six approaches to consider as you work to satisfy subscribers and grow revenue:
1. Bundle / unbundle pricing
Bundling – putting all your content in an all-you-can-consume package – is a common strategy for simplifying a subscription product. To build a more diverse portfolio, however, consider unbundling. To do this, provide topic-centric packages to suit “fly-by-trial” subscribers, with low CLTV and conversion rates. This strategy is also helpful for the “neglected middle” subscribers who subscribe to full packages, but concentrate their interest in key topics.
To increase CLTV and serve both markets, consider offering tailored packages for the subset of subscribers that show less engagement. At the same time, maintain strong value in the full package for the rest of your audience. Balance is key. The full package must be a better value than a combination of tailored packages. It must have a lower barrier of entry in terms of cost, to serve both markets.
2. Stepped pricing
A traditional trial takes the form of a free period, followed by a full-paid period. Triallists cancancel before making payment. The problem here is that a free trial does not reflect the value of the content you are producing. An alternative is stepped pricing, which puts a smaller, “trial” price at the start of the subscription. The most common form of stepped pricing is a lower price trial period, for example, £1/$1/€1 for one month, before stepping up to full price.
The key advantage of this model is that it demonstrates content value right at the start of the subscription. And even low lifetime value subscribers and “fly by trial” subscribers still generate revenue.
3. Tiered pricing
Tiered pricing is like stepped pricing, only the onus of switching tier is on the subscriber. The customer can gain access to more content by opting to “upgrade” their subscriptions. Crowdfunding services such as Patreon, which allows users to configure many levels of “rewards” based on different monthly fees, is a good example.
This format uses a single product with a low monthly fee, with incentives to subscribe to more comprehensive access at higher price points. Again: Balance is key. There is research to suggest that companies operating five tiers or more realize 40-50% higher ARPU than those with fewer than five (including none). Remember, though, that too much choice can also be a turn off.
4. Role based pricing and family/business plans
Role based pricing is like differential pricing, in that it provides a price based on certain attributes. However, it is actually based on the customer’s status, rather than geographical location or a reward-based system. Common examples include student, Over 65s, family plans or business accounts. As a result, subscribers will perceive this as a better deal than a standard subscription.
Corporate accounts are popular in the publishing industry. These allow business subscriptions under many accounts, with one single paying account.
5. Super-premium pricing
Consider offering an all-encompassing “super-premium” offering. You know: a top-tier, platinum package. There are two key advantages with the super-premium tier. Engaged, loyal subscribers have an opportunity to invest fully in the service, as a “badge of honor” for being part of the community.
Secondly, adding a top-tier price sets the maximum that subscribers could pay for a service. This provides a “price anchor” in the minds of subscribers and potential subscribers. Any price below this is seen as a deal in some respect. This in turn makes standard subscriptions seem more affordable, and boost conversion rates.
6. Dynamic pricing
Dynamic pricing, or propensity pricing, is the natural evolution of intelligent pricing. It relies on rich consumer data, subscriber persona building, and the ability to deliver personalized offers at scale. It’s a tall order. But with a flexible subscriber management solution, aggregated data, and A/B testing, true next-generation customer experiences will drive up acquisition rates.
This process would track a subscriber using first party cookies and analyze their viewing habits. Then it would suggest a subscription package tailored to their buyer persona and tracked habits. This would significantly increase that user’s likelihood of signing up. From a revenue optimization perspective, that same system could track engagement rates and content types, suggesting content and subscriptions accordingly.
Ultimately, dynamic, personalized experiences driven by AI are likely to be the future of the digital subscription.
Engagement and value
CLTV is commercially important. However, it is not fit for use as an engagement measurement tool. To really understand subscriber value over time, study their engagement compared to the price they are paying. How do they perceive the value of your product? This information must be gathered from centralizing first party customer data and tracking audience habits. It is important to engage people by asking them questions through surveys or social media.
Then, you can use this data to experiment with one or more of the models described to determine what works best for your subscribers. This will allow you to truly drive CLTV, retention, and brand loyalty. Engagement is everything. Understanding how to maximize engagement is the key to breaking through subscription revenue plateaus.
Here are some of the best media stories our team has read so far this week:
- The New York Times | In the Roaring Twenties, Ads Make a Comeback (6 min read)
- The Wall Street Journal | Researchers Uncover Advertising Scam Targeting Streaming-TV Apps (3 min read)
- The New York Times | Netflix’s Dominance Starts to Slow as Rivals Gain (5 min read)
- CBS News | Apple set to release long-awaited iOS update to restrict tracking by advertisers (4 min read)
- Variety | Gen Z Ranks Watching TV, Movies as Fifth Among Top 5 Entertainment Activities (3 min read)
- The New York Times | The Supreme Court’s Increasingly Dim View of the News Media (5 min read)
- The Ringer | Live Sports Are the Next Great Battle of the Streaming Wars (12 min read)
- E&P | Wave of New Newspapers Sue Google and Facebook (3 min read)
BBC News presenter Ros Atkins and I often talk about “pinch yourself moments” when it comes to 50:50 The Equality Project – a grassroots initiative he started at the heart of the BBC’s London newsroom four years ago.
He wanted to increase female representation on his program Outside Source by monitoring the contributors his team could control. Now, more than 100 organizations in 26 countries are using the data-driven core principles he came up to improve the gender balance on the content they produce.
That in itself could constitute a moment – reaching 100 partners. For me, however, a moment of truth has come. We can see how the global network is preforming. For the first time, the BBC invited 50:50 partners to join our annual challenge to see how many of us could feature at least 50% women contributors on our output.
The BBC Director-General Tim Davie found the results encouraging. He called on others to take up the next challenge. As he said, “We are now also seeing a real impact beyond the BBC on a global scale.”
This time around, 41 partners took up the challenge. So how did they fare? As a collective, 50% of the content reached gender balance. That’s up from 31% compared to when those organizations first joined the project.
Our 50:50 Impact Report 2021 details how even those organizations that did not reach gender balance showed signs of improvement. Over three-quarters (77%) of content-makers featured more than 40% women contributors on their output. That’s compared only 58% when they first joined the project.
BBC upward trend continues
Now, the 50:50 partners network has set itself a benchmark. So, next year’s challenge will be a real test of the progress 50:50 is making collectively. However, it is achievable, particularly if the BBC’s performance is anything to go by.
This was the BBC’s third challenge. For third consecutive year, there has been an improvement in the number of teams reaching gender balance. In fact, 70% of content reached 50:50 compared to 36% in the first month of monitoring. Plus, no team monitoring for three years or more featured less than 40% women contributors. That is a big first.
Audiences are noticing these equity advancements. A survey of more than 2,100 BBC online users found that 62% felt there were more women contributors on output. Meanwhile 58% of women aged 16-34 said they consumed more services as a result of greater female representation. That’s a 12 percentage point increase on comparable data from last year.
There are now 670 teams committed to 50:50 in the BBC. 50:50 Project Lead Lara Joannides is proud of the teams that took part in this year’s challenge. She said: “This is an incredible achievement, especially considering the extra demands teams have faced as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. The results prove that ensuring fair representation of all audiences across our content remains a priority for 50:50 teams, no matter what.”
The Australian way
ABC News in Australia was one of the very first partners to join the BBC in implementing 50:50. Together, the two organizations are creating real impact at opposite ends of the globe. In March, the Australian broadcaster saw 75% of their participating teams reach 50:50. That’s a big jump from 29%, when they first joined the project.
The scale of implementation of 50:50 at ABC means they have a core team to drive the change across the organization. Their 50:50 Equality Project Leads keep themselves attuned to the evolving news landscape so that they can provide support to ensure women’s voices are heard.
The changing working practices for journalists due to coronavirus is a good example of that. The ABC team gently reminded content-makers of the role 50:50 had in ensuring different voices were heard at such as crucial time.
“We also asked them to consider how the pandemic was specifically impacting Australian women, to tell the story of the health crisis in a way that surfaced women’s perspectives and gave voice to those on the frontline – nurses, doctors, care workers and teachers,” explained Emma Pearce and Rhiannon Hobbins in the report.
They added that there were unexpected benefits emerging from the pandemic too: “Some teams found it easier to reach and engage female talent, particularly in our afternoon and evening timeslots, as working from home became the norm and school pick-ups and commuter runs no longer affected their availability to do a quick Zoom, Skype or Slack interview.”
Covid-19 was not the only story the team had its eye on. At the start of 2021 there was a series of headline grabbing stories concerning the treatment of women in politics and the culture faced by women working in Canberra Parliament House.
ABC’s 50:50 Leads said: “Our 50:50 work fed into and enhanced our journalism on these issues. Our coverage incorporates female perspectives and the specific impacts on women. And our teams are alert to the need to empower and respect the agency of women at the centre of the stories.”
From Australia to Austria
In Europe, the Austrian public broadcaster ORF had 90 teams taking part in the March challenge. Overall, 52% of teams taking part featured at least 50% women.
ORF equal opportunities commissioner Katia Rössner said ORF is seeing improvement beyond the March snapshot. Over half of teams (55%) taking part for six months or more reached 50:50 by the end of March. That marks a 3% increase on the overall ORF performance. She said: “This confirms the fact, that the longer the teams are part of the challenge, the more likely they reach a quota of 50% in their programs.”
Rössner acknowledges in her submission to the 50:50 Impact Report that there was some trepidation when ORF started to implement 50:50’s core principles. She wrote about an observation by a regional news editor who told her: “At first there was some skepticism regarding ‘token women.’ But the team started focusing on interviewing a female intensive care doctor instead of a man. We found a great doctor who has the potential to become a new coronavirus expert on our show.”
For Rössner the “competitive and sporting spirit of the 50:50 Challenge” appealed to many ORF program-makers. She said: “Honest engagement and even small steps towards 50:50, no matter where you start, makes you a winner.”
Building a 50:50 future
One promising sign for the future is that 50:50 has a growing network of universities and journalism schools. Lecturers use it to get their students to think about the diversity of contributors during their News Days or Weeks.
Nottingham Trent University is one of 19 academic institutions taking part. In the report, BA Journalism student Emilia Roman said implementing 50:50 was “an eye-opening experience” for her.
During the first week, the students were asked to monitor their content but not change their way of working. In that week, Emilia said they recorded 29% women contributors across their website. Week two, the students focused on equal representation.
“The challenge of incorporating the principals of 50:50 into our work came down to one crucial element of story development – research,” said Roman. “Accepting the first reply and focusing on ‘getting the story up’ was not enough to help us drive a significant change in our coverage.”
By the last day of production, the students’ content featured 49% women contributors. Emilia said that “It’s pretty clear to us that recognizing the need for equal representation can significantly change the way your content looks.”
Spreading the 50:50 word
As evidenced by the universities, the 50:50 network now spans outside of media, with 50 partners coming from a range of sectors – public relations to legal to corporate. They use 50:50 to monitor their websites, social media, spokespeople, and event speakers. They seek to understand whether they are reflecting in their content the gender balance of their organizations.
Richard Purnell is communications manager at the Construction Industry Training Board (CITB) and he said 50:50 “has helped draw attention to the issue of diversity in our organization, and given us the tools to do something about it.”
He said, “While it’s clear we have some way to go, 50:50 has triggered a whole series of conversations about equality which weren’t really happening before. As a result, we are now planning to train and develop a new set of media spokespeople. That should improve the breadth and depth of insight we can provide.”
An everyday movement
What the 50:50 partners have demonstrated is that we can all make small changes that are in our control and they can have a much wider impact.
The BBC’s Director of Creative Diversity June Sarpong reminds us in the 50:50 Impact Report a quote from American feminist Gloria Steinem: “The future depends entirely on what each of us does every day; a movement is only people moving.”
She goes on to say she believe 50:50 is creating that movement. I leave you with her words: “Every day, thousands of people are counting the 50:50 way. A small action for one individual, but a powerful tool of change – a movement. I would urge as many people and organizations as possible to join us so we can work together to reach a common goal – creating content that better reflects our world.”
About the Author
Nina Goswami is the BBC’s Creative Diversity Lead and is spearheading initiatives to support the Corporation’s aspiration that its on-air representation reflects society. Nina is also a journalist and, before her current post, was a BBC News senior producer. She has worked in media her whole professional career including The Sunday Times and The Sunday Telegraph.