Quick thought: Don’t forget UGC is not just for extreme weather

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With the recent spate of extreme weather in the US, UK and Ireland, User Generated Content has featured everywhere and there have been some amazing captures. There’s nothing new about this, everytime we experience a bad bout of weather news organisations go into overdrive seeking out content from their communities.

Although a lot of news organisations are working with their communities all the time, reaching out, curating, collaborating and encouraging them to contribute content, many are still only using UGC sporadically.

Good UGC practice is not about having an upload function built into an app, setting up a dedicated email address or using social channels to gather content it is centred on good community management. Imagine what your community might contribute if you worked with them all the time.

Image credit: David Thompson/Flickr 

From IPO to email: Reflections on social, community and content in 2013

I gave a guest lecture earlier this week in DCU to final year and masters’ multimedia students . For the lecture, I decided to take a look back over 2013 and pick out some of the key things that happened in social, community and content and how they have affected, or might affect, media companies. Thought I’d share some of them here also:

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2013 was another huge year for video. Media companies with any sense made it a large part of their strategies. I could easily write a half-dozen posts just on video and the major developments, but here I’m only going to talk about the trend towards shorter videos.

Vine was introduced to iOS users in January with an upward limit of six seconds. Its simple format uncomplicated video, making it easy to shoot and even easier to upload. Soon after it launched, media organisations started to try it out as a distribution platform. One company that has been using it well is Ireland’s RTÉ, which has been leveraging the platform to showcase its archives. Archive material can be inaccessible but using Vine brings it to a new audience. Here’s an example: buying the Christmas turkey in Ireland, 1964. A month after its iOS launch Vine was used to cover a news event when reporter Tulin Daloglu used it after the bombing of the US embassy in Ankara, Turkey. In many senses Vine was just the catalyst as it was Instagram that took the ball and really ran with it.

In June, Instagram added video to its product, enabling users to create clips of up to 15 seconds. Smartly, Instagram allowed users to upload videos shot outside the confines of the app, which meant media organisations could edit and produce content before uploading. I really like what mobile news start-up NowThis News has done with Instagram as a distribution platform in recent months. Here are a few examples: Syria, the UN and chemical weapons, ice rink opening in Tehran, photos of winter storm Dion from the community.

On the news gathering side, Storyful’s Malachy Browne recently wrote a good blogpost on Instagram as a source of news video, it’s worth a read.

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We really began to experience the impact of Facebook’s 2012 IPO this year. A week didn’t go by without a new headline about a possible or confirmed change to the social networking site’s ad platform or its News Feed (this week it was auto play videos in the News Feed). Facebook is clearly pushing hard to generate revenues and keep investors happy. A lot of page managers had anecdotally talked about organic post reach falling, but Ad Ages’s story earlier this month seems to have confirmed this. This change certainly affects brands marketing products, but it is likely to also have an impact on news sites that built large audience numbers on their Facebook pages (often spending to do so) as a way to drive traffic to their sites. Facebook wants pages owners to pay to reach the audiences they have built. This is definitely something to watch in 2014 as Facebook continues its experiments with the News Feed.

2013 brought Twitter’s IPO. Like Facebook, we’ve been hearing a lot about changes to Twitter’s ad platform with users receiving emails every week encouraging them to advertise to build audience. It’s early day yet, but it’s inevitable that the public nature of the company will mean an increased focus on revenue-driving measures in 2014, which will have knock-on effects on users, brands and media.

It is worth noting that both platforms invested in reaching out to big media companies this year.

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Content created with social in mind (like Buzzfeed, Upworthy, Distractify, ViralNova) boomed in 2013. Upworthy, which launched in 2012, had a huge impact this year. According to Newswhip, which analyses and ranks publishers in terms of social sharing, Upworthy didn’t feature in the top 40 social sharing websites in 2012, but by 2013 this year it had charged into the number 5 spot above The New York Times, the Daily Mail and the Guardian. It’s a feat that is even more interesting when you consider that, on average, Upworthy only publishes 250 stories a month, substantially less than its social-sharing-focused competitors. There are some good practices within Upworthy – most notably that staff members write 25 headlines for each piece of content they post (good explainer on this here). I also think its tagline is so simple: ‘Things that matter. Pass ’em on.’ In just six words Upworthy tells users what it is and what it would like users to do. I’m not sure exactly how long the Upworthy formula can sustain but we’ll continue to keep an eye on it.

Buzzfeed’s announcement that its partner sites received a huge boost in referral traffic from Facebook is significant. Traffic from Facebook referrals to Buzzfeed’s 200 partner network sites are up 69% from August to October of this year. Facebook is placing a premium on, and rewarding content that is entertaining, funny and valuable.

There are some drawbacks, of course, to this. Firstly, let’s not forget what happened with content farm Demand Media, which is now valued at a quarter of its peak value. Demand Media created content to appear in multi-word searches. However, Google’s shift in its algorithms made content from websites like Demand Media’s a lower priority, drastically reducing traffic to its site. I think it’s a cautionary tale for sites that hitch their wagons to platforms like Facebook relying on them for almost all their traffic. Bryan Goldberg wrote an interesting piece on why viral content is a bad business model, it’s a must read.

With Facebook’s algorithms placing an emphasis on content created for a social audience it’s likely going to lead to smaller markets becoming even more competitive and it will become more challenging for straight news sites to get traction on these platforms.

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Email newsletters have, of course, been around for a very long time, but for a lot of news organisations they were farmed out to someone very junior to write or pulled direct from the RSS feed. I don’t know why organisations bother sending these mails, they are so ineffective.

However this year there have been some changes to the once humble email newsletter with the likes of Quartz, Circa and recently-launched Ampp3d leading the charge. This is mostly for two reasons they’re writing emails with mobile users in mind and secondly the mails sound like they’ve been written by a human (a simple thing really, but how many email newsletters do you get that feel like they’ve been written with you in mind?).

Quartz sends its email in the morning (it has three regions for users to select from), emails are around 800 words long and are perfect for a commuter, containing links not only to Quartz stories, but other links to stories on other sites that people should watch for, things that happened while readers were sleeping, matters for debate, Quartz’s obsession interlude and surprising discoveries. I also like that the emails tell me to have a productive day – it’s a nice sign-off for a business-focused website. The email is good set-up, digest for the day and one that is clearly worth reading. A recent column from the Monday Note shared an insight that Quartz’s daily mail goes through four people, including two editors, before it is sent.

Circa sends only one email a week on a Friday evening with a pick of its stories curated from the week. The most important point about the Circa mail is that it’s designed (like everything Circa does) with mobile in mind. Ampp3d, the new data-driven spin-out from the Trinity Mirror group, also has a very nice email, it’s probably the most ‘human’ of the three examples.

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Organisations and their audiences have been working collaboratively now for some time. User generated content projects from the BBC and CNN are seven/eight years old. However, I think this year we saw some interesting steps towards proper collaboration between news orgs and audience.

In particular, I think Storyful’s Open Newsroom project is a great example of collaboration between a news org and the wider community. There are more than 460 confirmed members so far. Anyone can watch the process, but only verified members can contribute – thus keeping it open but reducing excessive noise and confusion. In August, the Open Newsroom played a key role helping Storyful to verify videos emerging from fresh protests taking place in Cairo. This project has shown great potential for how organised collaboration can produce really good results, especially considering the other conversations we have had this year and the backlash that happened following the Boston Bombings.

I thought BBC News Director James Harding’s remarks earlier this month were interesting and telling about where big news orgs are at when it comes to audience: ‘When we talk about “our stories”, I hope that will mean not just the work of the 8,000 people who work for the BBC, but the information and ideas of the 300 million people who use it.’

Hopefully 2014 will prove to be a more collaborative year.

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Finally, for this post, I’d like to talk about the growing importance of private. Of course when I talk about private I mean privacy in a non-private sphere. Most people will have noticed the trend of teenagers and people in their early 20s making their Twitter and Instagram accounts private – some even deactivating their Facebook accounts for short periods to avoid being tagged in photos or checked in to a location. The rising popularity of photo messaging service Snapchat with its 350m photo messages a day has lit a fire under both Twitter and Instagram (don’t forget Facebook offered $3bn to acquire Snapchat, which it turned down) with both announcing significant changes to their platforms to include a private photo messaging element in the last few weeks. Twitter users can now send photos in direct messages, while Instagram offers its users the option to send photos to one follower or a small group of up to 15 people.

News orgs (and brands) are already trying to find their feet in this new environment. I’ve started to receive Snapchat messages from Ampp3d in the last week. It’s early days but it’s definitely a space to be experimenting in! When it comes to private vs open I don’t think it’s a competition – we’re always transitioning and this is another part of the transition both are going to be a part of our lives in 2014, that’s for sure.

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This is not a definitive list of the major things that happened this year, but it’s my reflection on some of the interesting changes, events and trends. I think we’re heading into somewhat uncertain waters with Facebook and also with Twitter. However, that said, there are lots of opportunities ahead for 2014. It’s shaping up to be another interesting one.

Here’s to a good 2014!

Blathnaid

Image credits: clasesdeperiodismoclasesdeperiodismoGuudmorning!, Grizdavecroland 

NewsWhip Creators, another smart service from the Dublin-based start-up

Screen Shot 2013-07-25 at 09.24.01NewsWhip Creators leader board

If there is one personality trait you can count on when it comes to journalists it is competitiveness. This is something NewsWhip is capitalising on with its new service NewsWhip Creators, which puts journalists into a dynamic leader board based on the social activity the stories they have authored received.

But Newswhip Creators is more than just an elaborate vanity contest, this a gift for managers who want to see quickly how their journalists are performing compared with rival organisations. Perhaps the bigger gift to managers is that it’s going to spur their journalists on to make their content more social. However journalists can only do so much, this leader board is also going to very quickly shine a big light on media orgs who are enabling their audiences to share and interact using social media and, perhaps more importantly, those lagging behind who are not.

The task for Newswhip now is to localise this product and sell access, also I can see media organisations paying for access to custom builds of this (particular niches, landscapes etc).

Mobile: We are all really in the attention game now!

I was away last week in Santiago de Compostela attending the Circom Regional conference where I heard a lot about the different innovations European public service broadcasters are making in terms of their mobile output.

Listening to the presentations got me thinking about something that hit me a while ago and about which I have been meaning to write – ATTENTION.

As we move more and more to mobile, content makers are in an even fiercer battle for the users’ attention. It’s no longer just about competing against other content websites, ecommerce, email, social media etc. We are all really in the attention game now!

Whether it’s making calls, texting, watching videos, emailing, gaming, reading books, banking, listening to music, browsing the web, IM’ing, social networking etc there is so much to occupy a smartphone user’s attention before they even contemplate checking a media org’s app or mobile website.

Commenting on research released earlier this year the Harvard Business review pointed out that people spend only 47 minutes a month ‘seeking news or information’ only 4% of the overall time they spend on their smartphones. For a media org that’s a scary prospect and surely means you have to find ways to aggressively play the attention game. It’s time to work hard to get the user’s time and attention.

Five ways to go about it:

  1. Go social: incorporate social networking elements strongly into your  offering. Give people ways to interact with each other. Encourage it, stimulate it, devote resources to it.
  2. Gamify: Learn from the games industry and introduce the concepts of competition and rewards.
  3. Personalise: Find ways to introduce as much personalisation as possible – location, interests, peer recommendation/referrals.
  4. Be useful: Place an emphasis on content that people really need – practical stuff that’s required every day. Prioritise this and build a core around it.
  5. Entertain: Use your mobile platform to grab some of that time where people just want fluff, eye candy, humour and distraction.

We are not going to boost the amount of time the smartphone user spends on finding news or news discovery so we must push hard into the other areas that interest them more. It’s essential you are very clear about what you’re building when you are working on mobile platforms. Keep the audience in mind at all times and think of ways to disrupt their current behaviour and gain their attention – otherwise you’re just building follies!

Buzzfeed, Foreign Policy and storytelling

I’m sure I wasn’t the only one who did a double take at Foreign Policy’s list post that compared 14 photos of Vladimir Putin to 14 photos of hairless cats – in some the resemblance was uncanny. It was part of a series of posts the magazine’s staff carried on Foreign Policy’s website yesterday after they decided to ‘look at the world through BuzzFeed’s eyes for a day’. Jihadi rap and North Korea also received the Buzzfeed treatment. The short series followed an op-ed written by Buzzfeed Editor-in-Chief Ben Smith where he suggested that the viral web isn’t just for cats and Ryan Gosling, but instead the same techniques could be used to report on more complex issues such as the topics regularly covered by Foreign Policy.

Buzzfeed is the current wonder kid with 40 million monthly users who enjoy a mix of irreverent pop-culture lists, recipes, celebrity news, gifs and some pretty darn good political reporting. Its influence is stretching far and wide as other publishers rapidly adopt scrolling, photo-heavy, light text lists that add up to some, preferably quirky, number.

The Buzzfeed list format makes for a pleasant user experience. It’s scrollable (good for most devices), there are no click-through-page-impression-gathering galleries, minimal text means it’s perfect for weary brains and crucially the over-arching voice/tone is familiar sounding – like something your most hilarious friend might say.

I don’t think I’ve seen any format spread quite as fast as the Buzzfeed list. Of course lists existed before Buzzfeed, but it took the list and put the user first. Whether it was just a one-day experiment or not at Foreign Policy the Buzzfeed format has now truly crossed the line from the viral funny web of bunnies and childhood nostalgia to telling stories about serious topics.

There are two subtle points here. The first that serious people are using the Buzzfeed format to tell serious stories, yes as an experiment, but if it drives traffic and makes complex issues easily digestible you can be sure they’ll use it again (who doesn’t want to appeal to the demographic that gives your stories the greatest viral bounce?). The second is that with copycats (some good, some bad) springing up everywhere, how long can Buzzfeed keep its edge?

Buzzfeed, because it looked at online storytelling in a radical and different way, has perfected a powerful storytelling format, but for how long can you keep something, which is ultimately formulaic, fresh? If it can apply that different perspective again and find other new ways to tell stories and engage readers as competition heats up (as it always does on the web, and the spread of the Buzzfeed list is a great example of) they might just be able to stay ahead.

WorldIrish publishes its first ebook

 

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Around a week ago, WorldIrish published its first ebook101 Irish Phrases You Need to Learn to Kindle and Kobo

What’s interesting is that the book evolved very naturally out of an article that we posted on WorldIrish with a much shorter list of Irish phrases. After the story went viral, I suggested we publish a short ebook and it’s worked out very well.  WorldIrish Community Journalist Mark Farrelly wrote the text in the space of two days, while Community Journalist Dave Molloy designed a cover for a fast turnaround. The book was set the next day and we were live on Kindle within two or so days after that (with the help of Green Lamp Media). 

I’ve written before about the importance of media companies working quickly and being flexible and this is a perfect example of just that. It’s an exciting time to work within a nimble start-up like WorldIrish where things like this can be conceived, produced and published in the space of just a few days. 

If WorldIrish can publish an ebook with our start-up-sized resources it won’t be too long before this kind of activity is an everyday occurrence for the larger media companies and everyone else too.

 

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*DOI: I’m COO of WorldIrish.com