In this age of digital transformation, consumer habits and technology preferences are rapidly changing. COVID-19 has accelerated many of these trends. With new digital channels available and new audience preferences and expectations, publishers must navigate online and ask themselves questions such as:
What types of platforms are available to publishers, and who’s already using them well?
How should publishers develop strategies to invest in these platforms?
What’s next on the digital horizon?
“As we all know, print usage has continued to decline, but that decline accelerated [during the pandemic],” Eisenband said. “When we look at the percentage of adults globally who get news from each source, [print] went from 32% in 2019 all the way down to 20% in 2020.”
He added that while the percentage of people who got their news online didn’t change, holding at 82% from 2019 to 2020, social media played a greater role: 55% of adults across the world reported getting news from social media in 2020, versus 52% the year before.
News Web sites and search continue to be the most popular ways people find news online, but social media and podcasts are increasingly important as critical discovery and engagement mediums. Social media now accounts for just over half of the source for online news, and podcasts are now nearing one-quarter.
“These platforms continue to grow in popularity and usage, and they can be used to nurture your current consumers — but more importantly, they can usher in new audiences,” Eisenband said. “This is where top-of-funnel can be very, very important in driving exposure to your brand, exposure to your news, back onto your own platform, and helping new audiences find your content.”
Social media and podcasts are also great for re-engaging past visitors.
Demographics and news consumption
Younger audiences consume news differently, Eisenband said. Not only do they consume more news digitally, but they consume it in different ways. By far, people in the 18-49 age range get their news on mobile devices such as a smartphone or tablet — 71% of those ages 18-29 and 67% of those ages 30-49.
Along with device differences, there are also differences in what digital platforms younger audiences are consuming news on.
“In the older demographics, news Web sites and apps still tend to be most popular in the 50-plus age group,” Eisenband said. “Very few are using social media, very few are using podcasts. But when you look at that 18-49 group — and specifically within that 18-29 group — you can see the most popular form of news consumption from a digital perspective becomes social media.”
He added that while podcasts are still the least-used platform for all age groups, its usage doubles from the 50-plus age group to the 30-49 — and triples for the 18-29 age group.
“Podcasts continue to be more and more popular amongst younger demographics in terms of how they use news, and we expect that to continue to go up and up as we look to the future.”
Social media platforms and news
YouTube and Facebook remain the most dominant platforms for news publishers, with 74% and 68% of adults in the United States using them, respectively. However, there is also significant growth in Instagram, Twitter, LinkedIn, Snapchat, WhatsApp, Reddit, and TikTok.
“As we dive into each of these platforms and their usage for news, they vary significantly,” Eisenband said. “For example, while YouTube is a very popular platform for social media, it’s only 31% of U.S. adults who use YouTube for news. Still a reasonably sized audience but certainly less than Facebook, which is over half of U.S. adults who regularly get news from Facebook.”
When looking at some of the other platforms, he said it was interesting to see how news is consumed on each of them. Twitter and Reddit, for example, are more news oriented: 60% of U.S. adults use Twitter regularly for news, and 40% use Reddit. Instagram is also growing, at 28%, and TikTok and Tumblr are both at 25%.
Eisenband circled back to the age demographics with social media.
“While Facebook still remains the most popular platform for news, its usage has actually declined worldwide since 2016. The younger demographic doesn’t use Facebook as much as some other platforms. When we look at YouTube, Instagram, Twitter, and Snapchat, these are all platforms that over-indexed amongst younger audiences. Trying to reach these younger demographics, clearly the strategy changes.”
This medium has really accelerated over the past five years, Eisenband told INMA members, and during COVID that growth was even stronger. Podcast listeners continue to grow at more than 30% globally, and listeners tend to be younger audiences than traditional news readers. For example, in the United States, the 18-24 age group represents 28% of the population, but is 39% of the podcast audience.
Monetisation has yet followed this growth in significant ways yet, the audience is clearly there. Platforms are becoming more pressured to help publishers monetise their podcasts. Another important point is that podcasting tends to be “hit-driven.” In the United States, the top 10 podcast publishers account for a whopping 76% of unique listener market share.
“That’s not to say that publishers shouldn’t be investing in growing listenership and new formats in audio, but this is important to note that listenership is fairly consolidated.”
The importance of data journalism
COVID-19 emphasised the importance of data journalism in 2020, Eisenband said: “Data journalism really turned the page has a huge piece of the storytelling arsenal in this past year.”
The Washington Post has even started a data journalism department.
“It’s not just about putting data together and putting charts together,” Eisenband said. “It’s about telling meaningful stories with that data. Interactive storytelling drives four times more engagement. These types of projects, which tend to be more time-intensive, can really draw in users, increase time on site, and increase likelihood to subscribe.”
Digital publishing formats
Expanding to new distribution platforms may require publishing content in new formats, Eisenband said, outlining the four main formats available to digital publishers:
Text: Re-circulated articles, modified existing content, alerts and notifications, and newsroom POVs.
Photo and video: Modified existing content, video native reporting, short-form clips, and behind-the-scenes.
Audio: Podcasts and transcribed articles.
Interactive: Webinars, Q&As, virtual events, and data journalism.
Eisenband led INMA members through a few case studies of news publishers that have used these formats and platforms with success.
The Portland Press Herald uses Twitter to distribute article links and promote subscription goals. The strategy shares Web site articles to drive referral traffic, highlights investigative journalism, engages with existing followers, and expands to new audiences.
The Dallas Morning News uses video-native reporting to create serialised content on YouTube, which drives advertising revenue. This gives behind-the-scenes newsroom access and engages with existing followers and reaches new ones.
USA Today and The Washington Post use TikTok to engage with younger audiences and build connections with the newsroom. The strategy uses short-form reporting and behind-the-scenes access to expand to new audiences. This is more a strategy for brand-building than monetisation.
The Toronto Star has invested in daily podcasting with This Matters, doing a deep-dive on passionate topics to engage with followers and attract new audiences. It also allows them to expand coverage outside of traditional text content.
The Washington Post uses data-driven, interactive content to provide engaging digital experiences during COVID. This offers secondary virality and allows for more engagement with its audience.
The Economist built a live Webinar programme to conduct in-depth interviews between experts and newsroom staff. This offered sponsorship and networking opportunities.
The New York Times uses Reddit “Ask Me Anything” forums to connect the newsroom directly with audiences and focus on passionate topics.
Strategies publishers can develop to invest in these platforms
FTI Consulting Director John DeFriest spoke to INMA members about the ways in which publishers can integrate these platforms into their strategies, outlining a three-step approach that FTI developed for this:
- Identify which platform you’re interested in targeting. What is the audience challenge you are trying to address? Platform strategies should focus on the quantity of audience, quality of audience, or a combination of the two. Publishers should have defined reach and distribution goals when identifying platforms to target (or not to target).
- Develop the go-to-market and content strategy. Offsite platforms can provide one of three main benefits: monetisation, referral traffic, and engagement. Platforms that do not effectively offer any of those benefits might be passed over in favour of alternatives.
- Understand the required investment not only to develop on the platform but to succeed. This is financial as well as time investment. Consider the investment and expected impact before moving forward. It’s critical to involve all different functional groups throughout this process.
What’s next in the pipeline?
“Most of the platforms we’re talking about didn’t exist 10 or 15 years ago,” DeFriest said. “And I think it’s reasonable to expect that platforms we’ll be using regularly [in the future] don’t exist today.”
Therefore, it’s important to keep an eye forward on developments within the industry and trends that are shaping up. DeFriest identified three types of expansions or improvements that are currently in the works for existing formats:
Audience-involved: Q&A sessions, selecting storylines/coverage, and newsroom access. Examples include Clubhouse, Twitch, and The Athletic.
Personalised and curated: E-mail newsletters, home page, and article recirculation. Examples include Zaius, MailChimp, and HubSpot.
Real-time: News feeds, integration with social media platforms, and live audio/video. Examples include The Athletic, The Washington Post, and The New York Times.
He also shared three others that are more experimental and a little further down the pipeline:
Voice-activated: Voice-based search optimisation, content recommendation and site taxonomy, and transcribed, interactive content. Examples include Amazon Alexa and Siri.
AR and VR: Visual reporting and storytelling, and location-based reporting. Examples include USA Today, Google Glass, and Oculus.
Ownership: Audience-sponsored content and publications, crypto and NFT integrations, and loyalty tokens. Examples of this include Mirror, Decrypt, and Time.
How do publishers win?
DeFriest summarised the main points of the Webinar:
“These digital platforms continue to shift right before our eyes,” he said.