The NEW News: Why Publishing Must Embrace Tech More Than Ever

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[ED NOTE: Several years ago I was contracted by the Globe and Mail to help them improve their online commenting, and raise the tone and the manner in which readers participated online. Since then I have kept a keen eye on the media publishing biz, as I believe that a strong and independent fourth estate is crucial to a healthy, functioning democracy. I feel an obligation to help institutions like the Globe remain profitable, so professional journalists can continue to be paid, and we can reap the benefits of insightful analysis.]

 One of the ways that modern websites reap profits is through video advertising: sponsors and advertisers pay higher CPMs, and outlets from the Huffington Post to the NYTimes are increasingly embedding video (with pre-roll interstitial ads) into their copy.

Here are a couple of observations on improving traffic to video, and the technology changes that news media will need to be prepared for:

Content is increasingly contextual (and portable). As is clear in this article about the NYTimes, more and more readers bypass the home page and go straight to the article, linked to or shared from a friend or other site. While this doesn’t mean ignoring the home page, it does mean that the article – the “atomic unit” of publishing – rises in importance. How readers consume the content, and on what device, is crucial for monetization.

To drive video views, the video needs to be a prominent part of every article. In the past, this might have meant a small call-out window in an sidebar, but with mobile, it means a large video window within or at the end of the article. The subject is of course imperative in deciding placement, but the more the video is related to the article, the more views you will get. Of the top 10 articles on HuffPo recently, all had video, and four had it in the TOP slot – not after the article (for e.g. see Pistorius).

The follow-on and holy grail of monetization is to have the ad related in some way to the content and / or relevant to the individual consuming it. Most large media outlets have sufficient data on their readers to be inserting contextual ads, but the sales of those spots are simply not there yet.

Alas, one of the greatest impediments for viewers currently is that the same ad is being run over and over again. More digital publishers need to investigate instituting limits per viewer, and switching up ads per IP session, to avoid the hugely negative effect of repetition.

Design matters. The web is awash in exciting new approaches, led in particular by Quartz (qz.com) and Vox.com. These simple, clean lines with large-format enticing video is influencing the larger outlets, as is evidenced by the new Guardian layout. [Quartz is also experimenting with a new annotation capability which is direct descendent of the startup that I was product manager for in 1999, called ThirdVoice]. Mobile design will continue to exert its influence, with home pages becoming less busy, and the articles featuring well chosen, contextual graphics and video.

Thought. The early Internet focused on text-based communication, in direct contrast to society’s embrace of video via cable TV.  Now, as the web becomes more video-centric, and devices make it increasingly easy to capture and send video, what impact will this have on the news media, and overall, on written communication?

In fact, the graphics in fivethirtyeight.com and qz.com are so good they portend a future of moving graphical visualization where the line between data and video ceases to exist (for e.g. see this visualization of drone strikes in Pakistan or watch the embedded video in the NYTimes special on the Avalanche at Tunnel Creek).

Explanatory journalism meets video. With the wealth of data visualization capabilities at hand, it is no surprise that there are a number of new efforts launching (including most recently, the NYTime’s Upshot), to showcase how technology can support complex information dissemination. We’ve all had the problem of reading (or avoiding) a particular news thread because you feel that you didn’t get in at the beginning, and have no idea what it’s all about. If there were a link that explains “everything you need to know about bit coin” (or whatever) at the beginning of the thread, that would be helpful. But as James Ball of the Guardian points out (via Mathew Ingram), what is needed here is some good marketing first: who is the target market and will they read it? Furthermore, the visualizations open up a number of interesting questions for advertisers: in the absence of pre-roll, and/or standards for ad-insertion, how will this be monetized?

Autoplay is coming. Facebook launched the ability for videos to begin playing automatically in the mobile interface first, followed shortly by the web interface. To get audio, you must click on the video. Full-motion graphics are compelling – full-stop. Publishers have (and will continue to) avoid this user experience because they suspect it will annoy customers. But as a person who has clicked on a number of videos despite myself, I can say that they are here to stay. Media outlets need to investigate the best UX (is there a middle ground where video begins to play with mouse roll-over?). The long and the short of it is that people will be desensitized to this more and more and the Internet will begin to look more like a multi-panelled TV-browsing environment. The news media needs to be prepared for this change.

These are interesting times for news publishers. More than ever, they need to stay in lock step with technological change.

MichaelThe NEW News: Why Publishing Must Embrace Tech More Than Ever

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