News publishers must meet 2 imperatives to rebundle the news
Ideas Blog | 22 September 2021
Editor’s note: This is part two of two. Part one can be found here.
The first blog in this series looked at the first imperative facing publishers: To tell readers what matters at the moment. But they also face a second thematic imperative: To help readers understand the news better.
Digital publishers, to date, have been pretty poor at this. General news publications have focused on a single user experience (article and section pages) often linked through recirculation elements — which can be manually curated or automatically generated by tagging systems.
Interested users can find out more if they want. But the products aren’t built to do this job. Many publishers have created detailed explainers or timelines for particular stories, but again, this isn’t creating a product to do that job; it’s commissioning a single piece that does a deep dive.
One of the few genuine attempts to build a product or experience for this user need was FT’s Knowledge Builder, an experiment that gave readers a “knowledge score” on particular topics and suggested what they should read to increase that knowledge score. Great idea. But it didn’t last and was subsumed into the personalisation available in myFT.
However, in the audio space many news brands — and non-news brands — have successfully built communities around ongoing themes and particular personalities (Joe Rogan, Kara Swisher & Scott Galloway, etc.) or compelling stories (Jamie Bartlett’s brilliant Missing Crypto Queen, Patrick Radden Keefe’s excellent Winds of Change, etc.).
Some publishers have had success with serialised audio content; e.g. Zetland, and of course, The New York Times, which has blazed a trail with The Daily, Nice White Parents, and more. But for many, audio feels like an add-on — everyone else is doing it, therefore, so should we.
But the commercial potential around creating a product that explains a topic in detail is huge. Yes, the longer explanation is a job that needs to be done less frequently than snacking on news — certainly for general news sites, although maybe not for niche publishers.
But when it comes to digital content consumption, business models that don’t link to individual stories have proven more successful. Evergreen and serialised content keeps audiences coming back for more — and paying for it. This is more obvious in entertainment where, thanks to OTT Video, serialised long-form storytelling has become dominant. Without the ability to catch up on a show mid-run, Game of Thrones and its ilk would never be able to attract new viewers and would decline in reach with every episode forever.
Attention spans haven’t got smaller — as many have claimed — however, the nature of the content that drives more attention (and therefore more loyalty and revenue) has changed. Everything can now be plotted onto an attention pattern spectrum. Mo’ attention, Mo’ money, baby!
By embracing unbundling, news publishers have actively pushed themselves down the spectrum. Perhaps this is due to the fact that many still feel paper products are better suited to longer sessions and more detailed consumption: Paper is for long reads; digital is snackable. Others are cannier. New media entities like Spotify and Netflix are increasing ARPU and reducing the propensity to churn by creating and promoting serialised news content.
Publishers who aren’t investing in digital product development and marketing that hammers home longer, linked narratives (as opposed to individual articles) around stories of cultural and social significance risk missing out on reliable B2B and B2C recurring revenue streams.
Can you do both jobs at the same time?
The good news is that it doesn’t need to be one or the other. Publishers’ content can be daisy-chained together in different ways that answer these different user needs. Same content, different presentation layer, different user journeys, different jobs done.
Product design can hammer home the particular job to be done: giving an overview of what’s important at any given time, or creating a compelling experience around inter-connectedness of stories and encourage readers to consume the next episode, find out more, unlock new understandings, get smarter.
And while product design is vital, other areas also need to lean in to realise the potential here. Cross-functional teams need to work together to achieve a shared aim. Content commissioning and formats need to be reconsidered, the power of the brand needs to be used to hammer home the utility and the job to be done. All have a role to play to re-bundle the news to maximise utility to the user, and increase loyalty. Increased loyalty means more users, reduced churn, and a stronger brand.
Of course, individual stories are still vital. But successful digital news products need to offer more than a series of one-off stories. Understand this, build a product around user needs, and you’re starting to re-bundle the news.
This article was originally published on Medium.