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:

Video-slide-edit
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.

slide2-IPO
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.

Slide3-social
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.

slide4-email

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.

slide5-collaboration

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.

Slide6-Private

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.

*****

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 

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RTÉ Digital at the Dublin Web Summit, October 2011

Blathnaid Healy & Editor-in-Chief of Huffington Post UK & AOL Europe Carla Buzasi

A selection of interviews that I did for RTÉ’s digital platforms at the Dublin Web Summit last week. It was the first time that I worked on a digital outside ‘broadcast’ for RTÉ’s News Now and I really enjoyed it.

AOL Digital Prophet David Shing

Storyful founder  Mark Little

LinkedIn & Presdo founder Eric Ly

Mashable Editor-at-Large Ben Parr

Editor-in-Chief of Huffington Post UK & AOL Europe Carla Buzasi 

New York Times’ Lead Technology Writer Nick Bilton 

Facebook Director of Platform Partnerships Ethan Beard

Current Director of Social Media at TSL Education and former Head of Social at Ogilvy Group UK Maz Nadjm

More coverage of the Dublin Web Summit and F.ounders on RTÉ.ie.

Interview with New York Times lead tech writer Nick Bilton

Nick Bilton being interviewed by Blathnaid Healy at the Dublin Web Summit

I was reporting for RTE’s digital platforms at the recent Dublin Web Summit. One of the interviews I did was with lead technology writer for the New York Times Nick Bilton. A shorter version of the interview was put out across RTE News Now, RTE.ie etc, but I transcribed the full interview here.

Nick talks about a range of topics including why video games are good for you, what makes tablets so desirable and why big media organisations need to get their heads our of their asses.

Blathnaid Healy: Your book is called We Live in the Future and Here’s How it Works, so tell us how does it work?

Nick Bilton: It works in a lot of different ways but one of the things that I talk about in a very positive light is what the future looks like with technology and devices and how social media is going to create this world of hyper personalisation and all these devices we have are also going to do that. So you can imagine a world where you can watch television with your friends where they’re a thousand miles away and actually comment with them. Or an experience where news starts to follow you around so you have a tablet and an iPhone and a computer and the news is aware of what you’ve read on devices and then can actually distribute the news to you differently. So it’s really this look of having personalised experiences that are really catered to you.

BH: We’ve had a lot of conversation recently about tablets and the mobile market. Where, first of all, are tablets going? Is there a lot of hype around it? Is that hype deserved? And, second of all, we’re all going mobile, where’s it going next?

NB: Well I think one of the things that happened with the computer was that it didn’t really work for a lot of people. Computers were not really designed for most consumers. Even though there were all these analogies between a mouse, a trash can and a desktop it just doesn’t make sense, it’s not intuitive. So when Apple brought out apps and the iPad, and so on, it gave them an opportunity to reach an audience that was scared of computers and is not scared of these devices because there is nothing they can really mess up with them. So that’s why you’ve seen this huge rise in people that have purchased these things and are using them the way they are. They’re replacing their newspapers, they’re replacing their televisions, they’re replacing their radio players. A big part of it is the simplicity. I think when you look at the numbers and the patterns and the research these things are not going anywhere. They are here to stay. And another aspect of that with the mobile side of things, is that companies like Facebook and Twitter they don’t consider themselves services or companies they’ve said in the next couple of years they’ll consider themselves mobile companies.

BH: The web has been blamed recently for people’s lack of concentration, but you disagree with this, you think it’s something that we’ve had for a long time. Can you explain your theory on this?

NB: Well there’s a couple of things. One is when we say kids who play video games – it’s bad for them. I think it comes down to the amount of time people spend on these kind of things. If I literally read just print books every day and didn’t go outside, that would be bad for me too. But if I read books for a couple of hours a day that’s fine and if I play video games for a couple of hours a day that’s fine too. A lot of the neuroscience research show video games are very very good for kids and for their brains and for adults too. A perfect example is around research that was done for the game Tetris, where you drop these cubes and you have to line them up. Researchers in the US actually followed people who had played Tetris before and after. And after playing for a couple of months their brains re-wired themselves in completely different ways where they had better hand-eye coordination, better long-term and short-term memory, a whole list of things. Another really fascinating research project that happened at NYU was the students who were studying to be surgeons, they found that half the students were 60% faster and 40% more accurate than the other half and they couldn’t figure out why. After months and months of research they finally realised that the group that was better had played video games as kids. So video games are actually very very good for us and not bad for us and you can see that all this research that applies to every different type of technology that we use.

BH: So if you’re a kid and you want to be a doctor, what type of video game should you be playing?

NB: Believe it or not, two different types. One is Wii video games like golf and things like that, but the other is first person shooter video games because the reflexes and the way you learn to use your hands and your fingers wire your brain in a way that other experiences can’t. So we assume that they are bad for us, but in reality they’re not. The other thing that I found too with my research, was that we have these fears of technology and we’ve had them forever. We were scared of the telephone, we said people would never leave their homes again. We were scared of trains, we said that people who travelled on trains at over 20 miles an hour, that their brains could explode and we’re now going through this with technology and the internet and I think it’s about finding a balance.

BH: You’ve spoken a lot about the area of newspapers and newspapers being more of an experience, people paying for the experience and not for the paper itself. What do you think it’s going to take for people to pay for that experience online. What type of an experience do news organisations need to give people?

NB: I can go online and find news. Lets just say that Yahoo’s stock crashes tomorrow, I could go read that at the New York Times or I could also read that on a blog or I could read that anywhere. I don’t have to pay for it on the blog. So I can’t say to someone, ‘hey you have to pay for this content’ because it’s available anywhere. I have to create an experience that is better than that. Whether it’s creating a community where I talk to the readers or creating interactivity. Whatever it is I have to be able to say to them ‘this is something worth paying for’.  When you look at the analogy with paper, we pay for that because we know it arrives on our doorstep at six in the morning, we know that the photos are going to look beautiful and that the headlines and the typography, all these things that are going to be there ,that are worth paying for and it’s not just the words on the page it’s the entire package and I don’t think we’ve solved that problem online yet.

BH: What do you think a news organisation can do, to give them that similar experience. Something that you can feel it, you can see it. What do you think they can offer?

NB: The experience of paper that we paid for was the tangible aspect of it. That feeling of sitting there in the morning with your cup of coffee and your sandwich and having this newspaper and developing an experience that flowed around that. Online it is very different because we’re jumping into that experience on different devices throughout the day. But one of the things that I believe you can do is create community. So I know as a technology reporter for the New York Times, my stories have to be vetted and have to go through an editor and they sometimes take a little while to end up on the website. A blog that I compete with like Techcrunch or Mashable or something like that, they can literally post a press release and a headline and that’s breaking news. So what I try to do is create a community with my readers. I respond to them on Twitter, I go on to Facebook and discuss things with them and I also go on to the website nytimes.com and have a conversation. And so it drives people back because we have this kind of rapport with them where we engage with this type of experience together and that’s something that maybe someone will pay for. Creating interactivity and graphics and all these other things. Creating things that your competitors can’t do is creating an experience that people will be interested in.

BH: Do you think the New York Times sees itself now as a media organisation or a newspaper?

NB: It depends who you ask. I don’t tell people, necessarily, that i work for a newspaper. I tell people I work for the New York Times. I write for a blog, I do videos for the Times, I do stories for the paper that end up online. It’s definitely moving to being a fully multimedia organisation. You have multimedia graphics, you have a video department, you have a radio department that creates podcasts, you have writers, you have all these different things, interactive slide shows. So I don’t necessarily think it’s a newspaper anymore. I think it’s a full-fledged news organisation.

BH: It (New York Times) recently announced good results in terms of its digital subscriptions, following on from this metred paywall that it has. Is that a model that can be rolled out to other news organisations?

NB: I don’t know. I think the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal and places like that are in a different league but at the same time there are other pathways for news organisations. I think the question other news organisations need to ask themselves is, if I were to start my company today, would I have a printing press? Would I deliver a newspaper every morning? Would I put my video out on broadcast television and have to pay the fees that go along with that? And when you look at blogs that set up they start with a couple of people sitting in their bedroom reporting stories or blogging or whatever it is that they’re doing. So that’s what these big news organisations have to compete with. And I think it’s about finding the balance between how much you should be paying for the content you’re creating and how much you create that is a much less investive experience than you’ve had to in the past. I mean if you think about the New York Times, for example, there’s printing presses there’s delivery trucks there’s literally millions and millions of dollars that go into creating this piece of paper that goes out into the world every day.

BH: Massive legacy costs make it difficult to compete with a start-up companies. Looking to the future for big media organisations, do you have much hope for them?

NB: No, I have a hope for them, but I think they kind of have to get their head out of their ass. Look at some of these organisations that refuse to put their content online still. Look at Simon and Schuster, for example, which is a book publishing company. They do this thing call windowing. When they get a big author that they know people are willing to … you know they really want the book, they will actually hold the book in digital form for three to four months because they want people to go to the store and buy the print copy. It’s ridiculous. It’s like telling somebody ‘here buy this digital camera but we won’t let you see the photos for three months later’. It doesn’t make any sense. I think that these organisations, rather than trying to push consumers in the opposite direction, have to embrace what the consumers want and figure out a way to work with them because they can’t control what they are going to do, they’re going to do it anyway.

News organisations and the Facebook app – is it an equal relationship?

I’m very positive about Facebook. I have been for a while now. Working for a news organisation I see how it can reach new audiences, help journalists to engage with users and drive web traffic back to base.

In the past few weeks some of the world’s biggest news organisations have announced they’ve teamed up with Facebook to produce apps, which live within the social network’s walled garden.

This has obvious advantages for Facebook, which gets to keep its users on its site for even longer. It might also, eventually, be a good deal too for the user who gets to read content without being diverted to a third-party site (especially useful on mobile devices!). But thinking about this long-term, if it gains traction and users like it, news organisations may dig themselves into a bit of a hole.

What I can’t figure out here is how the news organisations are measuring success. Jump ahead a few years and assume the idea is massively successful, Facebook has become the place not only to find news but also to consume it, where is the benefit for the news organisation? People won’t need to come to news organisations’ websites for community either, they’ll have that on Facebook and (within reason) will be able to say more than they could on any news site in the world.

At best, news organisations will gain new audience and advertising revenue but the audience will be  loyal to a Facebook/news organisation partnership not to the news organisation itself. If for any reason the partnership were to break up, where would those readers go? In my opinion, if they have become accustomed to finding and consuming news within Facebook, it’s unlikely they’ll follow the news organisation out of the walled garden.

To me it seems like a more unequal relationship than it should be. I understand that news organisations are working with a behemoth, but are we not jumping the gun and surrendering. Do we need to do this right now or can’t we maintain the fairly successful strategy of collaborating with Facebook to guide its users to our content outside the garden? I’m sure news organisations think these apps are targeted at users who currently don’t consume content on their websites, but if the existing tools of sharing and linking are not achieving this I am doubtful an app will be that much more successful and instead will likely attract their current audience.

Perhaps I’m missing something (I know I haven’t discussed the new ‘read’ function etc, but while interesting, the greater value accrues to Facebook not the news organisation)? I am in favour of making news organisations as social as possible but within the context of building sustainable businesses.

I would love to hear more from news organisations about the long-term gains for THEM in such a partnership and how they see this developing.

-Blathnaid

The future flexible

Recently I’ve been thinking back to August 2005. I had just moved to Chicago to start a masters programme at the Medill School of Journalism in Northwestern University. It was the first time I had my own wifi network, which changed the way I used the internet and subsequently the amount of news I consumed. At the same time, my roommate suggested I join Facebook, which had just been made available to US universities. Then I started getting those ‘sent from my blackberry’ messages at the end of emails sent to me and I realised how many people were taking the web with them in their pockets. Every day and everywhere they went. And lets not forget the blogs. Tonnes of people were turning to simple content management systems like WordPress to communicate their news and views to the world one post at a time. Even prompting editors to say they wouldn’t hire new journalists who didn’t keep a blog. Wifi, social networks, smartphones/mobile internet, blogs and its relative microblogging are things we are all exposed to (some might say over-exposed to) these days. But just six years ago, at least in Ireland, they were not yet commonplace.

Now most people have a wifi network or a good broadband connection (heck, it’s so well established it doesn’t need a hyphen between wi and fi anymore), they are on at least one social network (2m people, that’s half the population, are on Facebook in Ireland and counting), smartphones are becoming universal and thousands of people microblog and read others’ microblogs in Ireland several times a day every day.

Sitting here taking stock, six years on from my own technological awakening, I realise how blinded we often are to the big developments. Six years ago, sitting in a newsroom who would have believed that some newspapers in the US would be serving their entire digital audience just through Facebook, or that businesses would be set up to curate those microblogs, or that thousands would use an app to watch presenters like Bryan Dobson read the news on their smartphones (the concept of an app economy hadn’t even struck).

It should be acknowledged, the underlying driver of all this change is digital distribution via the internet and how that facilitates peoples’ imaginations, their experiments and ultimately their innovations.

So what are we going to be doing six years from now. And how the hell do news organisations prepare for it?

The first thing to accept, and to become comfortable with, is that we don’t know what’s coming next. There are low barriers to entry for innovative ways to deliver news and news content. In the next six years at least one person will come up with a another novel way to deliver news in a way that people want it. Upsetting organisations’ strategies and plans.

The only way to prepare for something you can’t prepare for is to create and foster a culture that values flexibility and has a desire, even a hunger, to work on the cutting edge driven by its audience’s demands. It must be a culture supported by everyone not just driven by a few digital leaders.

The only future a news organisation can plan for is a future of flexibility.

My fast growing appreciation for Facebook

I always believed Facebook was a great platform for news organisations but even more so following RTE’s social media coverage of the General Election. Analysing the stats post-election was really interesting and revealing.

Neworld Blog reports 77% of all Irish internet users use Facebook, according to recent figures from Comscore.

(The) average Irish person spends 4hours 10 minutes on Facebook per month, well ahead of competitors Google sites (2hrs 51mins), Microsoft sites (1hr 36mins) and RTE.ie (22 mins). (Comscore)

According to Ipsos MRBI, 1.75 million or 50% of the entire Irish population, over the age of 15 years, use Facebook. 175,000 new Irish users joined the site in the last six months.

Facebook’s own figures estimate there are 1,865,000 Irish accounts on the social network.

With 1.8m Irish accounts and growing it’s hard to argue about Facebook’s dominance.

So we know there’s an audience, but what are they looking for?

Vadim Lavrusik over at Mashable has a very interesting post about Facebook’s growing role in social journalism. It even points to a news organisation that is moving its community news website totally over to Facebook. (Note: Lavrusik has just been appointed Facebook’s first journalism programme manager)

CyberJournalist has a post with some nice quick tips for publishing content to Facebook (this link has five tips,  there are eight if you download the document).

After using Facebook successfully during the General Election and seeing the power of the platform first hand – I’m hoping to experiment even more with it soon.

-B

Banter on Publishing 2020 – The Podcast

Last month, I joined Hugh Linehan (The Irish Times), Michael McDermott (Le Cool Dublin) and John Ryan (Broadsheet.ie) for a very lively panel discussion, chaired by Jim Carroll (The Irish Times/On The Record) on where the media and news industry might be in ten years.

We discussed a broad range of topics, if you have a spare couple of hours – check out the podcast here.