The SXSW Interactive festival has expanded beyond its tech-centric past to include panels and discussions on politics, journalism, food, and other cultural conversations of the moment. But among these hot topics is, of course, technology and its influence on the future of these other sectors. From grasping the blockchain to pushing back against tech giants, the festival, in many ways, is media Twitter come to life. (Remember that SXSW brought Twitter to life after the show in 2007.)
But this year certain trends stood out more than others. The show was dominated by politics and ideas – which trumped gadgets and apps. Here are some key takeaways and themes from this year’s festival:
Pushback on Technology
It’s been over a year since the 2016 election, but technology’s role in its outcome, the resulting fallout, and the rise of misinformation and social media warfare has given tech a black eye. Top that off with the outsize influence platforms such as Facebook, Google and Amazon are having over our lives. Those topics and conversations dominated SXSW panels this year.
The back and forth between Facebook director of product Alex Hardiman and CNN media correspondent Brian Stelter during a panel on Facebook and publishers delved deeply into the tricky territory publishers find themselves in, especially with Facebook’s recent algorithmic changes that prioritize friends and family over news outlets. Hardiman, for one, admitted that Facebook has flattened news. However, he insisted that Facebook is not a publisher, much to the chagrin of tech and news experts like Kara Swisher and Christiane Amanpour, who cried foul to these claims during another panel.
SpaceX and Tesla founder Elon Musk’s much talked-about appearance included a depressing take on artificial intelligence: “The danger of AI is much greater than the danger of nuclear warheads,” he said. “If humanity decides that digital super-intelligence is the right move, we should do so very carefully.”
One thing is certain: No longer are we simply enthralled at the latest gadget or the future of tech. Just as the media and tech beat has changed for the journalists who cover them, so too have festivals like SXSW that present the myriad of ways media and technology are intersecting and changing our world.
Hollywood Makes a Scene
When the most-talked about marketing ploy at SXSW is an HBO show come to life, that proves that the convergence of Hollywood and technology is complete. The real-life replica of HBO’s show “Westworld” makes the case for investment in experiential marketing to drive brand attention. Certainly, SXSW attendees will recall the show when it returns for a second season. And with the way the news cycle seems never-ending, brands and shows that draw attention to themselves outside the digital world and in the real world can elicit interest and help ensure audiences won’t scroll past them.
To further reinforce Hollywood’s SXSW impact, look no further than the premiere of Steven Spielberg’s new film, “Ready Player One.” Set in a dystopian future where the characters spend their lives inside a virtual reality system. SXSW is certainly a fitting festival to premiere a movie of this kind. But with the avalanche of shows like “Westworld” and “Black Mirror” that deal with these topics, the movie premiere is simply one of the ways we can see tech’s imprint on our culture.
The Voice Battle Continues
Google Home or Amazon Echo? It’s a huge question among those testing the digital voice assistants revolutionizing the future of search and the mainstreaming of a “smart home.” Amazon may have an initial leg up with Echo over Google and Apple’s HomePod — Alexa hit the market first — but Google is playing catch-up with massive marketing splashes at CES and now SXSW.
The tech giant turned a house in Austin into a huge advertisement for Google Home by connecting everything from blinds to appliances to Google Assistant, and showing people how such a Google home could function. A sign in front of the house, “Make Google Do It,” reinforced the concepts behind the gadgets, which included a sock-sorting robot.
But the battle for the voice is very much at the center of a smart home. With voice technology continuing to evolve (and the stiff competition against Amazon in this market), Google is also testing custom voice commands and working with third-party publishers to keep users engaged. Magazine publisher Hearst, for example, is partnering with Google to support subscriptions that can offer news alerts and daily “wisdom” in whatever areas a user prefers.
This sounds a lot nicer than Alexa laughing at you (a recent tech glitch). But it’s safe to say that Google and Amazon are in a tough battle in this department. And Apple is knocking at the door, which will push all the companies to do better.
SXSW Gets Political
From Russian trolls hacking Facebook to YouTube’s war with misinformation and Trump’s tweets, technology is now tightly intertwined with political life. And the presence of politicians at SXSW and conversations about news and politics were inescapable.
There was Mark Warner, U.S. Senator from Virginia, on “Hacking our Democracy and Discourse.” Discussions on policy and regulation with “Tech Under Trump.” Another panel on curtailing patent trolls, patent regulation, and U.S. Supreme Court cases that are bringing reform. And let’s not forget former presidential nominee and U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders — endearing to many for his grouchy take on trends, but who has now made his first appearance at SXSW, in a conversation with CNN’s Jake Tapper. And Ta-Nehisi Coates remarked on the tendency among journalists to still not give Trump supporters credit for knowing what they were doing when voting the president in.
Then there’s the begrudging and critical look at the news cycle and national reckoning over #MeToo. Christiane Amanpour made it clear that the battles she thought she won in the ’90s are still taking place today — like continuing to be the only woman in the room. Amanpour boiled the situation down: “We are at peril and at risk if we don’t know the difference between truth and lies…Truth and lies are the only thing that separates us from democracy and dictatorship.”
It was the perfect underscore for the New York Times’ recent marketing campaign, also present at SXSW. Over social hour and drinks at the bar, attendees could leave with a Times button defining our era: “Truth. It’s more important now than ever.” And at SXSW, the importance of truth, politics and ideas seemed to drown out the newest apps and tech gadgets.
A veritable bonanza of market developments – ranging from pedestrian pricing pressure to international political drama – have conspired to cause the “‘pendulum’ of power in global media to [finally] swing away from Google and Facebook” and “signal that their domination of global media is not guaranteed”. Though by no means a fait accompli, the digital media landscape could very well be undergoing a significant change during this first half of 2018. And the net result could mean that the “duopoly” – Google and Facebook – could be vulnerable to eroding market share for the first time in nearly a decade. Here’s a list of issues that competitors need to attend to in order to take advantage of the opportunity.
The Google algorithm rewards websites that download quickly – on both desktop and mobile devices – with favorable results placements. This is a constant challenge for publishers that try to cram as many advertisements as possible into a finite amount of real estate. Finding the correct balance is more art than science, and requires constant monitoring and tweaking to maintain the proper balance.
Action Items: Ensure your website is housed in a formidable hosting environment, and configured to run as fast and smoothly as possible.
While driving reporters and editors crazy, savvy keyword strategies are the linchpin to healthy inbound traffic volume and exposure to new audiences. Publishers are well-served by building teams that combine data-intensive digital marketing analysts with writers who understand audience needs. This is straightforward in concept, but exceedingly difficult in practice.
Action Items: Formalize a keyword strategy – which could include hundreds of keywords if you’re a midsize or large publication – and make its governance and evolution part of someone’s job description.
By now, we all know the value of “viral” content – i.e., the rare but impactful piece of prose (or image, meme, or video clip) that strikes a chord and makes its way around the internet at warp speed, registering hundreds of thousands or even millions of “shares”. Less celebrated, however, is the regular amplification of content by means of a coordinated effort that transforms a typical content asset into one that has meaningful engagement and marketplace impact.
Action Items: Make sure your publication’s content is easy to share, effectively promoted and re-purposed; and make use of your employees’ digital footprints to promote and disseminate content.
Old School Tactics
Considering the mind-blowing pace at which digital tactics take hold, proliferate, and sometimes fizzle –- remember MySpace, AOL, Ask Jeeves, Tumblr, etc.? – it’s easy to forget about the staying power and effectiveness of some of the *old school* tactics. Using the principle of relativity, remember that tactics involving email newsletters, LinkedIn (especially with B2B), and Bing (a Microsoft property that continues to grow steadily, if not remarkably), are the closest things that resemble sure bets in the digital ecosystem.
Action Items: Audit your properties’ promotional tactics, and make sure they incorporate proven (but admittedly, less sexy) initiatives that target audiences use regularly. Note: this may even include things like direct postal mail; given the massive drop-off in DM efforts, it’s easier to stand out as unique through the channel now as a result.
One of the most impactful metrics in digital success is “domain authority”, which is generally understood to be the relative value of what the internet (i.e., Google and Bing) assigns to a specific domain URL. For example, one measurement company rates IBM.com and NYTimes.com as scoring in the 95+ range (on a scale of 1-100), which makes sense, considering the value of the brands, and the level of effort they both put into maintaining successful websites.
Action Items: Multi-property publishing outfits can help their titles maximize domain authority through strategic cross-promotion, since a significant criteria in the algorithm is “inbound links”.
Since the category’s inception two decades ago, the digital advertising marketplace has mostly confounded traditional publishers. Only a handful of organizations have been able to incorporate online channels into their operations without residual upheaval and near-debilitating transformation. Far more organizations failed at managing the evolution, and shuttered. For those that survived, there are signs that new opportunities may soon become apparent, and preparing for a market turn would be prudent.
There’s a good chance that you have a cell phone within arm’s reach right now, maybe in a pocket, next to you on your desk, or even in your hand as you read this post.
Even so, when you imagine a reader interacting with your site, do you tend to picture a person browsing on a laptop or do you see a commuter reading on her phone? Getting a clearer picture of how readers discover content via devices starts with checking in with the data.
As recently as 2013, peak dailymobile usage only accounted for 20% of traffic. Parse.ly network data shows that on average over 65% of traffic to publisher and brand sites in 2017 was “pure mobile.” Now, at the beginning of 2018, mobile and tablets drive 73% of traffic to our network.
With the mobile audience growing faster and bigger than ever before, it’s essential to understand the media habits unique to those readers. Here’s what the data suggests about people’s habits when it comes to when, where, and why we’re on our phones.
When: Desktop during workdays, mobile all the time
The times that people are more likely to browse on mobile vs. desktop vary. Desktop still has a weekday cadence (following peoples’ work schedules), whereas mobile is “all day every day,” including some morning and night-time peaks. People also tend to use tablets on weekends.
We also consistently see a drop-off in desktop traffic between 5:00 pm and 5:30 pm in every local timezone in the U.S.. Of course, this makes sense because many people head home from work around 5:00 pm.
Desktop ended 2017 at only 25% of total traffic across all our publishers, and kicked off 2018 at only 23% of traffic.This does vary quite a bit on a publisher-by-publisher basis. For example, some international publishers are almost all mobile traffic, and some subscription or workday reads lean desktop. However, overall, it’s a safe bet that mobile and tablet have firmly overtaken desktop for “casual” news reading.
Where: Five big movers of mobile traffic in 2017
When you break down the services or referrers that drove mobile growth in 2017, five bigs ones stand out. People are discovering content on mobile devices via:
1. Plain old Google Search
Google experimented a lot with highlighting premium publishers in their mobile search experiences, and unifying Google Search with Google News, which drove more traffic back to publishers’ sites.
Traffic from Google AMP increased by 87% in 2017. Not only that, but making AMP available to other platforms contributed to mobile growth. AMP drove 3% of visitors to our network by way of non-Google platforms, including Twitter, Pinterest, and LinkedIn.
2. Google’s non-search connected services
These services include Google Now and Google Play Newsstand, mostly on Android. Though these services did not grow the most out of the five listed here, the absolute number of visits delivered was substantial, and contributed to Google overtaking Facebook as a primary source of traffic. AMP and Android platform dominance propelled Google’s shift from news search to content discovery.
Flipboard was the big independent (read: not Google or Facebook) traffic source growth story of 2017. Especially in the latter half of the year, as they launched their formal partnerships with major publishers, Flipboard grew over 300% over the year in mobile.
Twitter and Flipboard are now sending similar levels of mobile visits to publisher sites. Twitter has reinvested in news partnerships, mobile speed, and their mobile apps. Notable changes to the app include the shift to the 280 character limit, AMP embeds, and algorithm changes.
Why: We feel the need, the need for speed on mobile
Speed heavily factors into why people are browsing the way they do on mobile.
With people using their phones everywhere—in transit, waiting in line, you name it—it’s likely that they’ll be off wifi and on a network. The speedier the network connection, the better the experience. This resonates with a finding from a recent Pew Research survey: half of Americans say an unlimited cell data plan would help them get information to make decisions.
“A majority of digital news consumers report it is very important to them that ads not interfere with the news (63 percent); that the site or app loads fast (63 percent); that the content works well on their mobile phones (60 percent).” — American Press Institute
Facebook, Google, Twitter, Flipboard, and others were right, we think, to focus so aggressively on mobile page speed improvements. For example, Google recently re-emphasized the fact that their search algorithms would penalize slow sites on mobile.
It’s worth noting that just because people want content to load quickly, that doesn’t mean they want to move on from content quickly. Long-form articles get more than twice the engaged time of short-form articles on cellphones, according to a 2016 study from Pew Research.
Keeping up with the pace of mobile growth
With the fast growth of mobile, and especially now that Facebook referrals are declining, building direct mobile channels allows publishers to meet readers where they are.
People still spend a lot of time checking email, and having a “daily read” newsletter is a great way to drive traffic to your mobile site, without requiring a native iOS or Android app strategy. According to a study by Campaign Monitor, 41% of email opens happen on mobile devices, exceeding the amount of opens on both desktop and tablets. If you can’t build your own app, integrate your content into users’ habitual engagement with their email app.
However, it’s also important to keep in mind that readers are less likely to click through on mobile. Campaign Monitor reports, “As more people consume email on mobile devices, the standard for compelling content is higher than ever.”
As mobile grows, checking back in with the data helps ensure that you’re connecting with readers when and where they are on mobile, and delivering content that resonates with them.
People ask me why I think the “duopoly” conversation resonated so profoundly when DCN began to use the term in 2015. I think it’s because publishers had long-sensed something was wrong with the widely proliferated and utterly misleading growth stats of digital advertising. They were ready for someone to call b.s. and start open conversations about it because many weren’t seeing the purported “growth.”
I’ve been told that executives at Google and Facebook dismiss the term duopoly as a marketing gimmick invented by publishers to go after the two companies. They are dead wrong. This discussion didn’t surface in some public relations brainstorming meeting. Sure, it’s useful if you can describe an entire marketplace in one word. But at the end of the day, the duopoly label resulted from simple number crunching, the results of which challenged conventional wisdom on who was actually benefiting from the growth in digital advertising. Perhaps now is a good time to dig deeper and take a closer look at some Google math.
Google’s battle with transparency
A whopping 50% of the US Digital Advertising Market is recorded as a single line in Google’s financials, deftly titled “Google Properties Revenues.” This single line includes advertising on Google Search, YouTube, Gmail, Google Shopping and more and will surpass $100 billion this year – a number larger than the entire US digital advertising market. Let that sink in for a moment and then consider the fact that we hardly know anything else about it.
While fledging and century-old publishers live and die in the millions of revenues, Google doesn’t even specifically disclose revenues for its flagship growth site, YouTube. Their video business, which seeks to compete with broadcast television, is widely estimated to have revenues approaching $10 billion — a number larger than more than half of the companies in the S&P 500. Last week Bloomberg reported that the SEC had taken issue with Google’s lack of transparency but was sent packing after Google made the astounding claim that YouTube revenues aren’t important enough to hit their CEO’s desk. Say what now?
There is also near zero transparency in how this revenue is shared with the ecosystem. In the case of major cable companies, we know very clearly how much they pay each year, measured in the tens of billions, to the programmers who create valued news and entertainment for their services. This is helpful information, and revenue. Transparency is a hallmark of a healthy ecosystem. On the other hand, we have no idea how much Google spends on news and entertainment because they bury this programming expense in multiple places. In terms of YouTube, we’re left to run our own analysis and we only know the members of DCN see less than $100 million of the billions that YouTube is raking in.
Where have all the billions gone?
We also know that Google is using billions in cash to shore up its monopolies. Google invests heavily to secure the default position over any browser that competes with its “free” web browser, Chrome, including Apple Safari and Mozilla Firefox. It subsidizes its lock on a majority of mobile devices through its “free” operating system, Android. We also know that billions go toward populating the long-tail of the web with Google’s AdSense text links. Once again, all of this undisclosed money is lumped together and buried in a few lines of Google’s financials. This leaves everyone in the dark while making it easy for Google to spin its way around those who question it – in Washington and in the press.
Heck, we even learned that Google pays off ad blockers to whitelist its own ads. But once again: We don’t know how much. This is a distasteful situation considering the leadership position Google has chosen in the future of solutions for ad blocking. Google is literally blocking publishers’ ads while paying an undisclosed amount to have its own ads whitelisted. Say what now?
Numbers don’t lie. The simple, irrefutable (and unacceptable) fact is that the digital advertising landscape is more lopsided in favor of two companies than we’ve seen in any previous media market. This is especially striking when you recognize that neither of these companies contributes directly to the creation of the news and entertainment they so richly capitalize upon. They profit solely by directing and mining attention across the valuable assets others create. Please note I haven’t used the term Alphabet once here. To publishers, their layered corporate structure isn’t anything more than Google fighting tooth and nail to avoid disclosures. If Google and Facebook want to be seen as benefactors to the media world — or better yet, become honest, trustworthy partners in it — they’re going to need to provide a level of transparency that they’ve quite clearly avoided.
Mobile journalism sounds like a great idea for cash-strapped media outlets. Get your journalists to use smartphones to shoot and edit video and photos, and save a bundle versus the cost of DSLRs and pro camcorders.
It sounds simple enough. But newsrooms that are getting on the “mojo” bandwagon have learned the hard way that asking journalists to find and use tools to create mobile content on their own can be a quality control nightmare.
Most consumer video editing apps reduce the size of a video file on export. Some give it a squeeze on import as well, meaning the finished video is fine for social platforms but useless for television. Some audio editing apps will export MP3s, but charge extra for broadcast-standard .WAV files.
A Very British Approach
So, what’s an editor to do? Well, one way is to appoint someone to curate your apps. At the BBC, where smartphones are increasingly used to create content for linear, on-demand and social platforms, there is a “Mobile Apps” team, which includes a group of IOS developers.
They’ve developed an in-house video recording app that shoots at 25fps (a requirement in PAL-system countries like the UK) rather than the standard 30fps, and which can file video recordings direct to the BBC’s news ingest system. The team also curates an internal-facing BBC Apps Store, where journalists can download bespoke BBC and recommended third-party apps.
The BBC’s internal training department also employs mobile journalism trainers like Marc Blank-Settle and Deirdre Mulcahy who teach reporters how to use a smartphone for radio, photography and video storytelling, and how to use the apps best suited to their jobs. In mid-2017, the BBC published some of that learning during a ‘Mojo Week’ at the BBC Academy.
That being said, the BBC is a huge news outlet with 8,000 journalists, who are also free to try out new apps to find ones that work for them.
The Dutch broadcaster Omrop Fryslân is a much smaller operation than the BBC, and its in-house mobile trainer Wytse Vellinga has a high level of control over the apps and phones the reporters use to make TV, radio, online and social content.
Every journalist is required to learn to use their phone to create content for all three platforms, and to use a curated list of apps that give the best results. They receive two days’ training and follow-up support.
“If you do not standardize, people tend to get lost in what they can do with their phones,” Mr Vellinga says. “There are just too many different apps out there that claim to deliver quality results – but those results will vary too much for use in a newsroom.”
The Irish Way
A combination of the above two approaches is in place at Irish broadcaster RTÉ, where smartphones are also used across all platforms – radio, TV, online and social. Many journalists at RTÉ use smartphones some of the time, but the broadcaster also has a small team of mobile journalists who shoot and edit on mobile and publish to online and social first, and then, if appropriate, repurposed for television.
The team is led by video journalist Philip Bromwell, who says reporters across the organization are encouraged to use apps designed with reporters in mind – Filmic Pro for shooting, and Luma Fusion for editing – and to adopt consistent styles in their choice of fonts and supers.
“This content could include anything from a reporter taking a still photograph for an online article, to a journalist shooting and editing an entire story on their phone,” he says.
Having an in-house ‘mojo’ team means any RTÉ reporter can get immediate, job-specific guidance from a colleague on which app to use – Bromwell says his team has experimented with more than 50 and narrowed day-to-day use down to “a handful” – and the wider newsroom has a small group of experts to advise on file formats and workflows.
“That said, I also encourage colleagues or trainees to explore and ‘play’ with apps themselves,” Bromwell says. “Mobile journalism is still evolving – none of us has all the answers yet!”
So, while the proliferation of accessible and affordable mobile content creation tools abound, it is important that you set standards for the content. Experimentation is essential, but so are leadership and quality results.
Corinne Podger is a digital journalism educator and consultant for media outlets, NGOs and businesses. She is a specialist trainer in smartphone storytelling for television, radio, online and social media, and has taught more than 2500 journalists and communicators to use smartphones for TV and social video, radio, podcasts and photography.
She has worked as a trainer with BBC Media Action, Thomson Reuters Foundation, the Financial Times, Fairfax Media, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation and Konrad Adenaeur Stiftung and supported learning for journalists from over 30 countries in Asia, Africa, the Middle East, Europe and Australasia.
Corinne has also lectured on mobile journalism at universities and colleges in Australia, Europe and the United States, and speaks regularly at journalism conferences.
She runs bespoke consultancies and individual workshops on request. To contact Corinne, click here.
The growth in mobile content consumption has been a boon for media companies. That’s partly because users spending more time with their content – whether they’re watching video interviews during their commute, waiting in line at the grocery store, or even second-screening at home. And this should mean more potential ad revenue.
However, the ongoing challenge has been identifying those users as they jump from device to device for advertisers. Cross-device targeting solves this problem, by helping publishers effectively aggregate, understand and then monetize their audiences.
This technology uses a combination of data sets, signals and device-specific information to identify relationships between disparate devices and tie them together. For publishers, there are three specific ways this can directly impact their bottom line:
Increased App Revenue
Users are spending far more time with tablet and smartphone apps. But those apps are not inexpensive to build or maintain. By layering audience data into their app inventory, a weather site, for example can command higher in-app CPMs by offering a more precise audience to advertisers. Adding in additional audience targeting also often leads to increased sell-through rates, reducing the overall “cost” of developing great mobile content while increasing revenue.
Better Campaign Performance
Publishers can also harness cross-device intelligence to optimize advertisers’ campaigns, potentially leading to greater retention and bigger buys. The device graph can be used to improve a campaign by delivering sequential messaging across screens.
For example, consider a news site with loyal readers who visit their site multiple times with different devices. Cross-device intelligence can help ensure that their readers don’t see the same ad too many times. Rather, the news site can use cross-device targeting to serve readers a series of sequential ads that vary based on the device they’re using – such as a 15-second video for a mobile user – and then a longer, 30-second video when they’re on the desktop. Ultimately, this means a better brand experience with consistent (but not annoying) messaging.
But beyond generating revenue, cross-device intelligence can also lead to better user experiences overall.
A financial services site, for example, could see that a particular group of users only consumes content related to choosing the right credit card – and not any of the articles about saving for retirement or stock performance. By matching these users to specific devices through the device graph, the site could prioritize credit card content when those users returned and accessed the site, no matter the device.
Ultimately, cross-device technology can help publishers better satisfy both users and advertisers, maximizing revenue-generation opportunities at a time when this is critical. But there remains a lot of room for improvement when it comes to cross platform measurement.
In an ideal world, publishers would have instant access into measurement across the whole market to really understand the dynamics between TV and digital, but we aren’t quite there yet. For marketers creating cross-platform campaigns, measuring how many ads each customer has been exposed, regardless of media, is the next challenge that remains to be solved.
Recent research from DCN shows that major tech platforms have brought very little in the way of revenues to publishers. Distributed content from Google and Facebook only amounts to five percent of the total average digital revenue for publishers. So how can the platforms turn that around and improve on those numbers? By helping drive subscriptions and conversions for paid products.
Last June, I called out Facebook and Google on this very point. Driving subscriptions would be a win for publishers who need more revenues, and for the tech platforms which need a way to build trust, support the news ecosystem and generate positive press in these times of bots, misinformation and election meddling.
The good news is that both Facebook and Google are now taking clear steps to help drive subscriptions for publishers. Facebook will take a 0% cut on subscriptions they drive through their app on Android and Apple devices, while launching a new Local News Subscription Accelerator. And Google has upped the ante with plans to help publishers identify potential subscribers by sharing more data. The bad news is that there is a long road ahead to making these initiatives work.
Facebook Makes Peace with Apple, Launches Accelerator
Facebook’s News Feed tweaks — most recently, to downgrade publishers’ posts in favor of content from friends and family — have long influenced the kinds of stories Facebook users see. Because people are used to the free-flowing nature of news in the Facebook News Feed, the social giant had been loath to introduce friction.
But after mounting criticism, Facebook has been developing ways to drive subscriptions from its app. And best of all, its support for paywalls will not include taking a cut of revenues from publishers. Instead, Facebook will show users five free articles and then direct them to the paywall on the publishers’ site. That means 100% of subscription revenue goes to publishers – and they get to keep all the data about users as well.
It wasn’t an easy task to pull off on iOS, because Apple is notoriously stubborn about waiving the 30% “Apple tax” it takes from any monetary transactions in apps. But after some tough-knuckled negotiation, Facebook’s Campbell Brown announced at the Code Media confab that Apple caved in and would waive the fee.
Not only that, but Facebook also recently announced a Local News Subscription Accelerator with 12 metro dailies getting training support for a three-month trial. It’s nice that the social giant is putting $3 million into the effort, and partnering with the Lenfest Institute. The big question is whether that work will scale to help more publishers.
Google Leading the Way So Far
While Facebook has made a lot of progress lately, Google, in comparison, has been more consistently friendly to publishers: At the recent Digital News Initiative summit in Amsterdam, for example, Google announced it would help identify which kinds of users would be attracted to which publications. The company also said it would ease the process of subscribing within Google. It also plans offer users a tailored search experience based on their subscriptions. This push to support subscriptions is one that Google has been working on for over a year. At the International Paid Content Summit in Berlin, publishers also touted Google’s efforts in distributing digital subscriptions. A survey among summit participants revealed Google shows much more “cooperative behavior” than Facebook.
Google also recently surpassed Facebook as the internet’s top referral source for publishers, a status that takes on significance for both Google and publishers given Facebook’s decision to de-emphasize news. A friendlier Google in the midst of News Feed shifts can help offset what publishers might lose with Facebook’s algorithmic changes. Coupled with access to Google’s coveted data insights — which publishers want and Google controls — working the publisher-Google relationship is indeed enticing for both parties. If Google wants to win favor with publishers, now is as good a time as ever.
Sharing the Wealth
Ultimately, though, whether Google or Facebook will do better in driving subscriptions is not as important for publishers as whether the two will really commit to the process. Because Facebook and Google together account for such a huge chunk of the attention for internet users, publishers must stay focused on working with both of them, along with other players like Twitter, Snapchat and LinkedIn.
It’s surely a positive that both Facebook and Google are taking big steps in driving subscriptions, and perhaps their rivalry could help push them even more. And while they surely dominate in online advertising, it’s incumbent upon them to make sure the news ecosystem is healthy and thriving. If digital ads are getting sucked up by the duopoly and subscriptions are becoming an important source of revenues for publishers (both for-profit and non-profit), then publishers will need to insist on better data, better leads, and a transparent funnel that helps them survive and thrive.
Publishers are rethinking their editorial practices and diversifying revenue streams to become less dependent on advertising or foundation funding. They (especially digitally native publishers) are implementing mixed revenue approaches, which include advertising, corporate underwriting, foundation funding, article syndication, events, affiliate programs, merchandise, and book sales revenue. The newly released report, Guide to Audience Revenue and Engagement from the Tow Center for Digital Journalism, provides insights on strategies for building audience revenue and engagement.
To win a share of consumers’ valuable attention and money, paid news products (whether supported thorough subscriptions or member donations) must be vital to the subscriber. They must also clearly represent an editorial mandate they support.
The Tow Center identifies key strategies to support the develop of direct audience revenue:
Offer a unique perspective as a publisher. Readers become members when they want to be part of a unique community and access a valued news brand.
Clearly express your mission to accurately reflect the values you provide the world and your member community.
Identify activities and programs that are interesting, valuable and useful to retain members
Develop a strong editorial engagement with readers.
Build and monitor the steps in the audience revenue program conversion approach: research, expose and attract, engage and deepen, convert, and sustain.
Research (to learn about prospective member needs)
User experience research
Segmentation: reach different audience groups strategically
Expose and attract:
Increasing reach through social media
Increasing reach through in-person community events and conferences
Engage and deepen:
Article pages and site structure
Using events to engage readers
Managing data infrastructure
User data effectiveness
Giving and asking frequency
Recognizing and thanking members
Engaging and sustaining members
Engage your audience through your journalism, face-to-face interactions, product design and email newsletters. Each is a great way to build a loyal and engaged audience.
Importantly, when developing editorial products, it’s important to ask what do people want (desirability), can we make what they want (feasibility), and can we make what they want successfully (viability).
Further, developing audience segments based on user research and site analytics is important in understanding the different reader experiences. It’s critical to maximize the individual user segment experiences to ensure each is fully engaged.
Overall, online news consumers aren’t used to paying to support publishers. However, this transition is evolving. That’s why it’s important to establish a series of interactions to engage individuals to help shift the occasional reader into a paying supporter.
Think of it like products in a supermarket. Content companies with mobile apps are locked in a fight for two incredibly scarce resources: consumer attention and shelf space. Unfortunately, on the digital shelves of the app store, discovery is the bottleneck. Consumers can’t download apps they don’t know exist in the first place. (And how can they in a market where the number of apps submitted to the Apple App Store in the month of January alone topped 500 submissions daily?)
To rise above the noise, and drive app installs in the process, app owners compete for a top-notch spot in search results. Smart companies are winning the battle with App Store Optimization (ASO) by tweaking keywords, icons and other assets to make sure their app store landing converts. It takes dedication and budget to get ASO right, which is why companies that succeed and boost downloads in one country or store are leaving money on the table if they don’t publish their apps in more places.
But before you go global with your app, double-check that you have mastered more than the ASO basics. The checklist is much longer than it was just a year ago because ASO has evolved, expanding beyond the app store presence and deeper into the funnel. Looking back, the first wave of ASO was a lot like the early days of SEO (Search Engine Optimization). Companies could score quick wins by hacking Google algorithms or focusing on “long tail” keywords. Moving forward targeting “killer” keywords is not enough. ASO is morphing into what I call AMO (App Marketing Optimization) and ready for a rethink.
ASO/AMO tops the agenda at every stage of the app lifecycle. But it’s never a case of set-it-and-forget-it. It requires app owners to monitor and manage a laundry list of elements that starts with keywords and ends with compelling video clips. It’s an ongoing effort, but the pay-off is massive organic growth that every app owner can afford to tap for their app. The key is to take the right steps in the right order.
It all starts with testing, refreshing and optimizing all of the moving parts of your app (titles, descriptions, icons, screenshots, videos, and reviews) on a regular basis. Once you have the processes in place to achieve positive results for your app at home, it’s time to take your app abroad.
Mobile Games companies need little convincing. They were pioneers in aligning app elements, visuals and gameplay with the preferences of a global audience. Consider Candy Crush, a blockbuster app with audiences in nearly 200 countries thanks to a look-and-feel that is a match with local tastes and trends. Now other categories of apps, notably those in the Entertainment category, are following a similar blueprint to attract and acquire more users.
Localization differs from internationalization
But before you embark on a strategy to take your app global, know the difference between localization and internationalization. Think of internationalization as table stakes. It encompasses what you need to adapt your app to different languages, regions and cultures to reach a global market. Your focus in this stage is on the basics: changing time, dates, region format, and other aspects of your app to fit with your target markets and audience.
Localization goes deeper. It starts with translating the language of the app and other elements (keywords, description, and even the name of the app) to be a tight fit with your target audience. If you plan to engage in commerce, be sure to adapt your app to local regulations and payment methods to avoid any legal battles further down the line.
Clearly, localization is not a job you want to leave to Google translator. Amateur efforts rarely pay dividends, and literal translations can do your app brand more harm than good. (Case in point: KFC’s famous finger lickin’ good motto for its fried chicken is a notable example of a bad translation. In Chinese, it urged consumers to bite their fingers off.) It’s also important to resist the temptation to localize every aspect of your app from the get-go just because you can. It pays to pace yourself.
If you don’t know what you’re aiming for, or the countries to target, then start with your app name and keywords and localize these assets for popular countries or languages. As a rule, use your organic app installs as a guide. Pinpointing countries where your app is taking off allows you to prioritize your efforts, starting with keywords. Use tools to check traffic volume for specific keywords and bake the best (yet most relevant) keywords into your app assets. If you see a bump up in your app downloads, then take it as a sure sign you can move on to localize other assets, such as the app description, followed by other marketing collateral including screenshots.
Cater to local cultures
From here on, industry literature tells us localization is just a matter of “wash, rinse, repeat” for every additional country or app store on your list. But is it really that simple? In a word: no.
An effective strategy to go global with your content goes beyond the pure “science” of ASO/AMO to the “art” of understanding how addressing individual cultural preferences and nuances. Pay close attention to other aspects of your app—such as colors, images and user interface—to build a loyal audience for your content.
Do your homework and use common sense.
Primary design considerations:
UI: Does your audience read left to right or right to left? Or is it vertical? Make sure you factor in how the text and images are read. And make doubly sure the use of directional icons in your app are logical and genuinely helpful. It impacts engagement and dictates how users will interact with their device, especially as they swipe left—or right—depending on the app and activity.
IMAGES & CONTENT: Brush up on ethnology (or hire someone with those skills). Adapt the ethnicity of your visual elements to local culture and pay special attention to skin, hair, and eye color. It’s a no-brainer that Asians or Indians might be wary of buying into localized content that displays blonde-haired, blue-eyed models, presenters, or families. Rethink the obvious icons and idioms. Sure, using a piggy bank icon as a metaphor for saving money works well in North America and much of Europe, but it’s a miss in most Middle Eastern countries.
COLOR: First impressions count, and different colors resonate with different cultures. For example, Japanese players like subtlety and pale, softer colors and shades. Chinese users, on the other hand, prefer vivid, strong and bright colors like red and orange. The mobile games industry learned this the hard way, so deep-dive into posts and publications (such as Pocketgamer.biz) where they share their tips and tricks.
From images to music, be prepared to adapt every aspect of your app to match your target markets.
Pay attention to the political spectrum
Done properly, localization engages your audience with content that resonates because it respects their local customs and cultures, not just language. Significantly, the same rules apply to your choice in app marketing and advertising messages and ad creatives. Sure, it’s a must when you take your app global. But the surprise success of SmartNews, the news app that delivers the top trending stories downloaded by over 25 million readers in over 100 countries, suggests the same approach can boost results and user loyalty in your home market as well.
In the case of SmartNews, it started with the realization that readers in North America were divided by political parties but united around one goal: the desire to access to real news, not fake news. “The most effective way to show we understood our audience and their concerns was to adapt our marketing to appeal to all sides,” Fabien-Pierre Nicolas, Head of Global Growth at SmartNews, told me in a recent podcast interview.
A review of app data and demographics revealed that the SmartNews audience was a mirror of American society. “Our readers are mostly between the ages of 35-65, and they range from liberal to moderate conservative in their politics,” Nicolas explained. An effective campaign would have to be objective and emotive. Nicolas, recently named a Mobile Hero for his user acquisition approach and accomplishments, went to work and immediately rejected flashy images and trendy buzzwords. Instead, he worked with his team to develop a simple creative capable of delivering a powerful message.
The approach worked, boosting usage and earning the app positive reviews. Nicolas says the results are still coming in and a focus group will provide the inside track on audience and brand impact. In the meantime, internal data shows the focus on eliminating the filter bubble has allowed SmartNews to increase app appeal to both genders at all levels of society and across the complete political spectrum.
You’ve invested time and resource to make your app a hit at home, and it makes business sense to take your app to global in order to maximize exposure. Yes, that starts off with mastering the fundamentals of global and local design considerations to adapt your app to your audience. But we all know that designing a terrific app is not enough given the glut of products in the market and the increasing consumer requirement for apps that are aligned with local tastes and trends. Discovery is a critical component of conversion, but apps have to strike a chord. Moving from simple App Store Optimization to an effective global app marketing strategy will help you maximize your investment so that your app will be popular with audiences everywhere.
Peggy Anne Salz is the Content Marketing Strategist and Chief Analyst of Mobile Groove, a top 50 influential technology site providing custom research to the global mobile industry and consulting to tech startups. Full disclosure: She is a frequent contributor to Forbes on the topic of mobile marketing, engagement and apps. Her work also regularly appears in a range of publications from Venture Beat to Harvard Business Review. Peggy is a top 30 Mobile Marketing influencer and a nine-time author based in Europe. Follow her @peggyanne.