WAN-IFRA Webinar: Here come the chatbots and more strategic insights

Last Thursday, I hosted a webinar focusing on the chatbots and conversational interfaces section of the report that I did for the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at Oxford, Beyond the Article: Frontiers of Editorial and Commercial Innovation.

In the webinar, I gave an overview of the strategic motivations that publishers – including Rappler of the Philippines, Nyt, the youth section of Helsingin Sanomat of Finland, and Quartz of the US – had for launching chatbots and developing conversational apps. I also looked at how they developed these projects and what business models they were using to support their journalism.

I’ll just review their strategic motivations briefly here:

    • Rappler launched a Facebook chatbot for three reasons: One, audiences had shifted rapidly from Twitter to Facebook over the last year in the Philippines. Two, they wanted to use the chatbot to both increase discovery of their content for Facebook audiences, and three, they also wanted to better communicate their editorial features – straight news, analysis and comment – to readers.
    • Helsingin Sanomat’s youth-focused Nyt noticed in 2014 that Facebook was no longer helping them reach teens and, based on research that showed that 80 percent of their target audience used WhatsApp, they launched an experiment on the messaging platform. The experiment was successful but unsustainable, so they developed their own conversational app.
    • When Quartz launched four years ago, the mobile-focused news service did not launch with an app because they found that app usage fell off quickly. However, with the rising importance of notifications, they wanted to get onto the lockscreen of their users. Inspired by Lark, a conversational fitness coaching app, they launched a conversational news app.

Is WhatsApp going to develop tools for news companies?

One of the questions that came up during the webinar is whether WhatsApp was developing editorial tools to make its service manageable for news groups using the service to broadcast updates to users. I had heard rumours, but nothing firm. After the webinar, I did a quick search, and I found a Reuters report in early March that said that WhatsApp was trialling tools for businesses, and had launched a pilot with Y Combinator. Neither WhatsApp nor Y Combinator confirmed the trial, but one of Y Combinator’s companies provided details.

However, this trial was couched in terms of WhatsApp going in search of a business model, rather than helping news organisations. (I was in Asia in March, and Chinese messaging platform WeChat does have editorial tools. It’s really worth looking at what the Chinese messaging and weibo, Twitter-esque platforms, are doing. They have developed a far richer experience than Twitter or WhatsApp.) In the end, WhatsApp’s trial seems much more focused on helping businesses connect with their customers, rather than serving the needs of editorial organisations. Moreover, as a paid service, it doesn’t really address one of Nyt’s primary issues with WhatsApp: they couldn’t drive users from WhatsApp to their site, felt unsure about advertising on the platform, and so couldn’t really monetise that attention.

Moreover, Facebook, WhatsApp’s owner, seems much more focused on Messenger as a platform for editorial organisations. I do wonder how long Facebook will see value in having two messaging platforms.

Strategic insights beyond the report

Apart from the webinar, my good friend Damian Radcliffe summarised not only some questions he asked me about the report but also comments that I made to The Media Briefing in a podcast last month.

I’ll highlight some of the top level observations from Damian. What really struck me in the research for the report is that media companies are starting to embrace product thinking. Bar one of the examples, every case study in the report highlighted a strategic challenge or opportunity as the basis for these projects.

I want to emphasise a point that Damian highlighted from my conversation with Chris Sutcliffe and Esther Kezia of The Media Briefing for the podcast: Innovation requires rationalisation. The most successful media groups I work with are working hard to figure out what they do and, just as importantly, what they stop doing. Focus is critical to successful execution. I told Chris and Esther:

Often the resources of an organisation are fully committed, and this is especially true for news organisations going through cuts. To free up resources for innovation, those groups must figure out what they stop doing.

Quartz exemplifies this. Last year, they decided to quit producing a high-end tech conference, not because it wasn’t successful but because it wasn’t successful enough. They are a start-up operating as part of a legacy media company, Atlantic Media, and as a start-up, they are focused on their highest growth areas. This is a critical lesson for media companies. They have to focus on areas where they can find growth, and they need to be fully focused on those areas.

If you haven’t read it already, you can download the report from the Reuters Institute. And if you have any questions including enquiries about speaking opportunities or consulting engagements, feel free to get in touch in the comments below, or via Twitter, LinkedIn or email.

Join me for a webinar about my recent Reuters Institute report on news innovation

Since I first said it at Hacks/Hackers London last summer, I’ve become fond of saying, “If you don’t have revenue, then you don’t have a product.”

When Dr. Rasmus Kleis Nielsen, the research director at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at Oxford, started to talking to me about writing a report about journalism innovation, I mentioned my comment about revenue and products, and he asked, “Can we put that on the front page?”

Rasmus wanted to look at digitally native innovation at news organisations, and we used projects that went “Beyond the Article” as a lens to focus the project. Rasmus and I also wanted to focus not just on the coolness of innovation but also the business: How were companies managing it, and more importantly how were they monetising it.

We eventually settled on three areas to focus on:

  • Radically distributed publishing.
  • Chatbots and conversational interfaces.
  • Visual journalism and VR.

The report was supposed to be 5,000 words, and it topped out at about 11,400. To be honest, I could have written a book. There is a lot of innovation going on right now in journalism. But I think we’ve given a good sample of projects and innovation.

If you want to read a brief introduction focusing on the chabots and conversational interfaces and apps section, here is post I wrote for WAN-IFRA. For a broader overview, here is a summary that I wrote for the Nieman Lab at Harvard. If listening is more your style, I also did a podcast on the report with Chris and Esther at the Media Briefing.

Next week, 30 March at 3-4 p.m. CEST, 2-3 p.m. BST or 9-10 a.m. EDT, I’ll be doing a webinar for WAN-IFRA focusing on the chatbots and conversational interfaces section. Register here to join. I’ll do a presentation, but we’ll have plenty of time for you to ask questions. See you there!

Outlining the formula for Josh Topolsky’s Outline at #SXSW

There are a lot of lessons here for media companies, whether legacy businesses or start-ups, from The Outline. You might not have heard of The Outline, but it has pedigree. It’s founder Josh Topolsky has form with The Verge and Bloomberg. Now, he wants to launch the next-gen New Yorker or the New Yorker for millennials, as Shan Wang reported in Nieman Lab.

Simplifying their formula even further from their slide at SXSW, I would say that the key lessons are:

  • Collaborative working relationship with edit/dev/rev team.
  • Focused on a “specific, finite, meaningful audience”. And a laser focus on that audience.
  • Ad experiences as distinctive as its content.

I don’t think that everyone needs to build their own editorial tech or ad tech. That’s something that a figure like Topolsky can do at launch, but it isn’t something that every media start-up or even legacy group can or should do. Obviously, the technology focus can deliver a distinctive editorial and commercial product, but I think knowing that you’re trying to do is a necessary prerequisite to build or choose the tech.

But that’s a niggle. Overall, this tight set of bullet points is a good starting place for media companies in the 21st Century. It’s not a rigid recipe, but it’s a great starting point for companies looking for a strong digital launch.

Direct to consumer reason for collapse in national print ads in US and UK

Newspapers came under renewed pressure in 2016 as print advertising dropped by double digits, often in a quarter. Gannett saw a drop in national print advertising by 35.1 percent in the third quarter of 2016, but still managed overall to eke out only a 14.8 percent drop in overall print advertising. Ouch. I worked at Gannett, and I was lucky to have great commercial managers. Why did this happen? The trends in the US and the UK are the same, and Roy Greenslade of The Guardian has just published an excerpt from a former MD of the Mail newspapers about why this collapse is happening.

Turning to display, the category which traditionally held up well was retail, which is still the largest category. The reason was simple. It worked to the extent it was measureable.

But this model is under pressure because of the growth of databases which enable advertisers to target audiences and email their offers directly to them.

Zitter looks at the market from the national level in the UK and says that to win back advertisers, they need to maintain a direct relationship with them to the largest extent possible and not simply rely on programmatic exchanges. That makes sense, but with the sharp decline in revenue, newspaper groups are not just losing editorial headcount but sales staff as well. Rough seas ahead.