The Guardian: Burning platform is burning

After The Guardian and The Observer announced its ‘digital-first’ strategy the other week, which I, like Kevin, see as a burning platform admission, Alan Rusbridger went on Radio 4’s Media Show (MP3) to talk about the situation. Listening to the interview with half an ear open, one would hear a very calm, measured response from Rusbridger that would seem to make an awful lot of sense. But listening more closely, I heard a lot of statements that worry me, because they don’t seem to jibe with reality at all.

The Media Show’s Steve Hewlett started off by asking whether there really is a cash crisis at the Guardian, and Rusbridger replied:

It was a kind of, sort of, pre-crisis moment so we don’t want to get to that crisis. We were saying that if we did nothing and continued as we were, it wouldn’t look too good. We actually wouldn’t run out of money because we’ve got lots of investments in other things, but we would run out of the cash reserves that we have.

For a long time, The Guardian Media Group’s cash cow was actually Autotrader, of which they sold 49.9% in 2007 for £674m. At the time, the Independent reported:

Carolyn McCall, the chief executive of GMG, said: “The basis of all our investment is creating a sound financial basis for The Guardian. It’s all about the long-term security and independence of The Guardian. It’s a great position to be in.”

GMG is owned by the Scott Trust, a not-for-profit organisation set up to safeguard The Guardian “in perpetuity”.

Ms McCall said the money would be spent “very wisely and carefully over a very long period of time”, suggesting perhaps 50 or 60 years.

But “wise” and “careful” are not words that one could use to describe the next big deal GMG did, which was to buy the debt-laden Emap in 2008 with private equity firm Apax re-valuing the deal less than two years later:

GMG and Apax bought Emap for £1bn in 2008 but the business has been squeezed by the recession and weakened by a high debt burden which costs £50m a year in interest payments.

[…]

Apax has written its investment in Emap down to zero and, while GMG has not yet followed suit, it is expected to review its valuation in the next few months.

Emap has £700m of borrowings and GMG had to inject “an undisclosed amount of new cash” in Jan 2010. GMG has now written off about half of its investment in Emap, but they can’t write off the whole lot like Apex did because that would blow a hole in its balance sheet and no one wants to torpedo their own ship.

Furthermore, from Oct 2010:

Emap, the magazine, data and exhibitions business, has reported a 4% year-on-year fall in operating profit to £52m in the first half of 2010.

The company, which also reported a 4% fall in revenue to £135.5m in the first six months, said the results were “primarily due to uncertainty in the UK public sector”.

Emap’s profits continue to fall:

Emap has reported a significant fall in pre-tax profits in 2010, as government spending cuts hit revenues in its magazine publishing and conferences division.

The business-to-business publisher, which owns titles including Retail Week and events such as Cannes Lions, reported pre-tax profits of £27m for the 12 months to 31 December, according to accounts made available on Friday.

This is not a recipe for success: Emap will now struggle to cover the interest payments on its debt, and any profits from Autotrader are “ring-fenced to repay debts“. Whilst GMG has money in other investments, it’s not clear whether they have already had to raid those funds to keep going, or even whether there’s enough liquidity there for those investments to be useful.

So whilst Rusbridger is right that GMG has investments in other things, that’s not necessarily a reason to be relaxed about its finances. In 2009, The Guardian was burning £100,000 a day and reported an operating loss of £36.8m. In June’s announcement, their operating loss is stated at £33m, a reduction of just £3.8m.

“So it’s not a crisis,” Rusbridger continued, “but the point of the talk was to say that we have to do things before we get to a crisis.”

If the above doesn’t look like a crisis, then I don’t know what does. I have a lot of friends still at The Guardian, and the mood on the ground amongst many of them is that the sense of urgency one might expect to feel internally is entirely missing.

Hewlett later brought up the decline in advertising revenue, the fact that circulation is down 12% year on year, and the above mentioned cash losses of £33m. Rusbridger responded:

The big picture for the whole of the press, the whole of the market is going away at about 8%, and the Guardian is completely in line. Classified advertising has largely gone, and I don’t think that will come back and as circulations decline across the market, of course advertisers say, “Well, we want to pay you less,” and you just don’t want to get into that spiral of decline that we’ve seen in a lot of American newspapers where they then respond by viciously cutting back editorial costs, and then you have something that’s less readable and you’re in some sort of death spiral.

Everyone knows that classified have tanked, but during a recession recruitment advertising also tanks. The problem is, many of The Guardian’s pull-out sections, such as media, tech or public sector, are/were reliant on recruitment ads. Now, you’d think that with a subject like tech, where The Guardian had an excellent reputation and a great editorial team (and I say that not just because I used to freelance for the tech section), there would be plenty of opportunity to widen out the advertising from recruitment to display ads, sponsorships, events, etc. But that’s not what happened.

In 2009, The Guardian wiped out the tech section’s freelance budget and in December of that year they stopped printing tech as a standalone section. Commercial seemed to have no Plan B for the collapse of the recruitment ad market and instead of looking for one, the tech section was radically reduced. Towards the end of 2009 and through the first few months of 2010, The Guardian offered some very attractive voluntary redundancy packages and the majority of the tech section staff applied and were granted redundancy. (Disclosure: Kevin accepted voluntary redundancy from the Guardian at the end of March 2010.)

We know that focused verticals do work in digital — just look at GigaOm, TalkingPointsMemo, Engadget or AllThingsD (a sub-brand of the Wall Street Journal). They’re are doing pretty well, because they are developing key niches and are able to aggregate focused audiences who are primed for ads, but those ads have to be the right sort. General ads aren’t going to fund specialised sections, but if commercial won’t get their heads round what the right sort of ads are and then go out and get them, there’s no hope. Ads are, of course, only part of the revenue equation, but the same holds true for events, sponsorship and premium content.

This is exactly the same discussion I had with Computer Weekly, and it’s a fundamental problem that news outlets need to deal with.

The story is much the same as the Media Guardian, where arguably they had an even more bankable brand. And even with new ventures like Guardian Local, where they created great new products in three different cities and yet couldn’t capitalise on the skill of their journalists or the audiences they built.

In short, this is exactly the sort of editorial self-immolation that Rusbridger says he wants to avoid. But if you can’t capitalise on smart editorial staff and a passionate audience, what are you going to capitalise on?

Hewlett went on to ask Rusbridger about the announcement that sparked all this off: “How is digital first different to what you do now?”

Print is tremendously consuming of resource and time and energy and also the way that you think about things. So if you come in on the morning and your main concentration is on this huge thing that you’ve got to produce at the end of the day then that is going to dominate your thinking. The thing where all papers are exposed is in the innovation and the resources that we need for digital and the blunt truth is that we don’t have enough developers, we don’t have enough people who know about mobile, who know about Flash and data and multimeida so we need to get more of those and we need to spend more of our day thinking about those forms of our journalism.

Two points to make about this: Firstly, the attitude amongst some printies at The Guardian still leaves a lot to be desired. I saw in response to Kevin’s previous post a comment on a non-journalism forum somewhere on the internet from someone who said they worked as a print journalist on The Guardian. I’m not interested in pointing out who this person is, but I am going to paraphrase their stated position:

The website isn’t the newspaper. The website might be popular but it’s about being fast, about being the first to get a story up, and the standard of writing is pretty poor. In the newspaper, though, the writing is much better, probably the best in the industry.

Rusbridger needs to address the print-first attitudes, because print-first thinking results in print-first doing. He had an opportunity to shift towards digital thinking when The Guardian reworked its CMS, but instead of a digital-first system the one they ended up spending £18m on a new web CMS but with a workflow that is still print-first. Even now, even with The Guardian’s great web presence, they still have problems doing basic things like adding URLs to stories.

As for stocking up on developers and journalists with digital skills, well, The Guardian used to have some great digital journalists, but many of them have now gone. The former desk editors of Guardian.co.uk like Deborah Summers (politics), the people who either did digital journalism on the ground, like Kevin, or the people higher up the food chain who had a pretty good handle on how digital was affecting the news landscape, like Emily Bell, have moved on. From top to bottom, the digital folk have either taken redundancy, been pushed out or edged aside.

Furthermore, with lots of the digital talent and the experience they had developed gone and a culture that is still defined by print, the chances for those who remain, and those who have yet to join, to progress into senior managerial positions decreases. The Guardian, as all other news organisations, needs people who truly understand digital in senior positions, but without a pool of talent to promote, they just aren’t going to get that. Indeed, I’d say The Guardian has suffered a significant digital brain-drain and it’s going to take 10 to 15 years for digital folk now to penetrate the higher levels of management.

Rusbridger continued:

We need to get more developers in, so we need all of these people with digital skills, and we’re losing money so we need to reduce the cost base, so yes, we will need to lose some people and we’ll try and do it in a voluntary way, but we need to end up employing fewer people than we have at the moment.

At this point, it’s worth noting that The Guardian has had at least three waves of cuts over the last four years. This will be its fourth round, with more than 300 positions cut, and yet it still only managed to reduce its losses by £3.6m a year?

The final part of this interview I want to address is The Guardian’s new foray into American waters. This is their third attempt to crack America and I find the reasoning quite bizarre. Rusbridger once more:

The UK market is too small, really, we can’t grow very much more here, it’s a fairly mature market. Meanwhile, there is a huge appetite for what we’re doing in America, where now a third of our readers are, and so far we’ve done it with virtually no marketing and a tiny staff, so we think it’s not a ‘nice to have’ but essential that we cater for that market.

Firstly, the idea that the UK market is saturated is strange. We know that general news is hard to monetise, but niche markets can do pretty well, yet in terms of products produced by The Guardian’s key editorial teams, they have barely scratched the surface. As I mentioned earlier, there’s no paid tech product of which I am aware, despite the fact that this is an area where The Guardian could do really well.

Common news business models fall into some pretty discrete categories:

  • Eyeballs: You aggregate an audience and sell access to that audience to advertisers and sponsors.
  • Information: You provide information that people can use to make money or make decisions.
  • Access: You provide access to data, people, networks, etc. which allow people to make money or make decisions.

The tech industry is really very good at exploiting all three of those basic business models but with much of the activity focused on the US, The Guardian could have used its brand to prise that UK market wide open. It didn’t. Media markets are also quite geographically specific, and again, the Guardian could have dominated that market, but didn’t. So the idea that the UK market is so mature that there’s no room for expansion here is a nonsense.

Secondly, the idea that the US market is easier because it is bigger would be a terrible premise for an expensive expansion. There may be a market there, but the monetisation should come first, before the new office and staff. As it is, by opening an office and moving a few people across the Atlantic and hiring 20 to 30 reporters and editors, The Guardian pushes its break-even point much further away than it needs to. The stakes will be high in an endeavour not well augured by its forebears.

The Guardian already tried Guardian America, with a site focused on American content with American ads, and that closed in October 2009 due to “continuing changes in the distribution patterns of web content”. Why will this new venture be more successful? And what will the business model be? As American news outlets know, making money of general news over there is just as hard, if not harder, than it is here, so The Guardian will need an innovative niche strategy. ‘America’ is not a niche, not over there, anyway. And ‘Europe for Americans’ is likely to be equally tough thing to turn into a product. They are also launching the project in New York, already at the centre of a New York Times, Wall Street Journal and Huffington Post battle. Do they have the resources, much less the stomach, for such an epic media battle?

I have fond memories of The Guardian as the paper I always wanted to read, the paper I always wanted to write for, not to mention the paper that got me my first ever job. Indeed, The Guardian also gave me my first major freelance commission outside of the music press and I would have been happy to write a lot more for them had circumstances allowed. I don’t want to see it fail, and I don’t want to poke it with sharp sticks for the sake of it. But I am worried that Rusbridger is a visionary lacking in business sense, clarity and a firm grip on reality. If The Guardian is to survive, it needs someone who can lead it with a clear, commercial head. I’m not convinced Rusbridger is that person.

Africa Gathering London: Putting the social in media

On Monday, I spoke at Africa Gathering London which looked at how new media was revolutionising Africa. I usually do a presentation, but I only spoke for 10 minutes and thought the presentation might get in the way of the points I was trying to make. Here’s the talk, obviously not as delivered and a bit expanded. I still haven’t mastered the art of live blogging myself.

Journalism: More networked, more distributed

Journalism is becoming more networked, not only in how it’s distributed but also in how it’s created.

Since I left The Guardian about a year ago, I’ve done quite a bit of work with Al Jazeera, training more than 250 journalists across Al Jazeera English, Arabic and Turk on how to social, digital and mobile journalism. I started with Al Jazeera English last November and early December, and I’m told that they’ve put the training to good use. (That was a bit of a joke.) Riyaad Minty, the head of social media at Al Jazeera, has a great formula that sums up how Al Jazeera approaches the new realities of networked journalism:

(information – noise) + content = accurate reporting

Throughout the Arab Spring, Al Jazeera has used social media both to distribute its journalism but also as a source for their journalism. As we’ve seen in Syria and Libya, the story of the Arab Spring would be almost impossible to tell without the help of social media. Al Jazeera has developed a sophisticated way to engage with and evaluate social media.

  1. They have built a network of contacts through social media. When they realised that Libya might be the next story in the Arab Spring, the social media team worked to build up a network of contacts there. When their reporters were kicked out of the country, they still had eyes and ears on the ground. In Syria, they have used a closed Facebook group to vet and keep in contact with sources.
  2. They also have a UGC platform of their own Sharek. It allows them to build up a history and profile of the people who send in submissions. They also take in submissions via mobile phone that allow them to get contact information so that they can easily follow up with the people submitting the images or video.
  3. They not only take in content from social media, but they also use social tools to report and distribute their journalism: AudioBoo, Twitter, Flickr and YouTube. AudioBoo is a tool that allows you to easily record audio on your iPhone or Android smartphone and upload it directly to the internet.
  4. Al Jazeera also licences some of its content via Creative Commons. Creative Commons is an alternative to traditional copyright. Traditional copyright which says that for people to use your music, images or text only by paying to licence it, Creative Commons gives content creators flexibility in how they want their content used. For instance, you can licence your content using an attribution licence that means that people are free to reuse and remix your content as long as they give you credit. Al Jazeera has its own Creative Commons repository to distribute the content that they licence. It’s been a great way for Al Jazeera content to get a wider viewing, for instance their coverage of the Israeli attacks in Gaza in 2009.

The process is about seeking, finding and amplifying the right voices. Just as with traditional sources, not all social media sources are created equal, and as Riyaad says, if we amplify every voice, it just becomes noise.

Journalism is increasingly becoming networked, distributed and participatory. We need your help to help us filter out the noise. This spring during the conflict in Côte d’Ivoire, someone came up to an Al Jazeera correspondent in the field and gave them a video that claimed to show atrocities being carried out. Unfortunately, the video was actually of ‘witch burnings’ in Kenya in 2009.

 

Communication by any means necessary

This morning, someone mentioned that we need to use social media to motivate people, but I think we need to consider what is motivating people to use social media.

One thing I want to stress is that social media is not about technology. It’s about something much older. It is about the fundamental human need to communicate. Often when you hear journalists parody what they see as banal chatter on social media, they mistake communication for publication. Most people aren’t posting on social media to become famous writers, but they are writing for the 15 people they are famous for. Sometimes, they are caught up in a news event, but I often refer to this as random acts of journalism. It’s the modern form of amateur video that we started seeing in the 1980s with the rise of the video camera. Now, with mobile phones, there are cameras and video cameras almost everywhere. The possibility of catching a chance event are higher than ever before.

More than this, what I’m constantly amazed by in the my coverage is the great lengths that people will go to and the creativity that they demonstrate in communicating despite enormous risk and persistent barriers from authorities.

Who has heard of the strange create the Grass Mud Horse? Grass Mud Horse refers to coded slang that internet users there write to poke fun at the official system of censorship as The Great Firewall. The Grass Mud Horse is close to the characters that when translated say something very rude about your mother. Internet users also use a strange date, May 35, which refers to 4 June, the anniversary of the 1989 crackdown on student protesters at Beijing’s Tiananmen Square.

When I was working with Al Jazeera in March and late April, they told me how some of the videos were getting out of Syria. They weren’t be posted on the internet. Syrians were burning the videos onto CDs, walking to the border and throwing the CDs into Jordan.

People want to communicate. I was part of the launch team for World Have Your Say, the sister programme of Africa Have Your Say, and we had passionate listeners around the world. One of them was Abdelilah Boukili, who worked in the Ministry of Education in Morocco. He started a blog just to capture all of the comments that he made on World Have Your Say.

 

Old school rules: socialising the media you have

There has been a lot of talk today about social media as if it is only Twitter and Facebook, and often the response has been that this is representative of only a small sections of voices in Africa and old, but valid, concerns about creating a digital divide. I also think that when we talk about social media, we need to think about how we can create social experience using whatever media is available to people.

One of my favourite quotes about media is from Arthur Miller that I believe he said in an interview with The Observer:
‘A GOOD newspaper, I suppose, is a nation talking to itself.”

 

It’s about building a social experience, not about getting jiggy with the technology. The world’s largest circulation English language newspaper isn’t in the US, UK or Australia. It’s in India, Newspapers in Asia, Africa and Latin America are seeing double digit growth. There are huge opportunities in socialising ‘old media’.

As I said, I worked on World Have Your Say. People around the world joined the discussion in the easiest and most affordable ways available to them. We felt a thrill when a ship’s captain in the Mulucca Straits called us via satellite phone to take part in the discussion. What we found over time is that people in the US, where I’m from, often emailed us. It was easy and inexpensive for them. People in the UK would ring us because the call wasn’t expensive, and they were in our time zone. If we ever did a show that touched on a subject in Africa, we would be inundated with text messages.

Often, we would use quite traditional technology to get voices in the conversation. We would send producers out with broadcasting kit into Kenya, for instance, to hear from people there.

Last year I was working in Moldova, the poorest country in Europe, doing digital media training with journalists and NGOs. When I was there, the Government was holding a celebration  to promote ties to the EU with the idea of possibly joining the union. In the square in Chinsinau, a public broadcaster had a huge public message board. It wasn’t a digital messaging board, it was a place where people could write their messages with pens and markers.

The message board in Chisinau Moldova.

Let’s look to Poland. Gazeta Wyborcza is a national daily newspaper in Poland. Fifty percent of Polish internet users are younger than 25, so that affects the type of information that they will look for. Older readers are not so fast in adopting he internet, an editor there told us. They worked to engage their readers whether they were online or reading in print. They asked people about healthcare in Poland. You could have your say on the website, but you could also answer questions and give your views via a form printed in the newspaper.

After joining the EU, Poland €70 billion to spend. The question was how should this money be spent. Asked the question in the newspaper across 21 regions, and used the local newspapers and journalists to write a front page commentary “Seven sins of my city”. They asked people to list the worst things about their cities. It was quite a shocking experience, because most local editors believe they have to write nicely about their city.

They organised local debates but promoted them nationally. The result was amazing – 70,000 letters, emails and calls on this topic. They asked readers for feedback, and they got it! Local TV and radio stations organised news shows about it, despite not being related to Gazeta.

People want to communicate. They want their voices heard. It’s often said that FM radio is to Africa what satellite television is to the Middle East. When we think about social media, there is a lot of ways that we can engage people socially regardless of the technology.

The Guardian needs an intervention

The Guardian and its Sunday title, The Observer have just announced a “digital-first” strategy. However, this is not a triumphant announcement. This is a burning platform admission.

Guardian News & Media, the parent company for both newspapers, lost £33m on a cash basis for the year ending 31 March, only slightly less than it’s £34.4m loss for the previous year. Guardian Media Group chief executive Andrew Miller warned that the group could run out of money in 3-5 years if things don’t change. I heard sobering burn rate figures when I was at The Guardian. I covered the dot.com boom and heard start-ups talk cash on hand, but I never expected to hear this from a major media company.

Some things leapt out at me: They reported £47m in digital revenues out of a total of £198m revenues. Digital made just shy of 24% of total revenue. That’s good going, and most newspapers would kill for that percentage of digital revenues. (Apart from the FT, which is making a killing from digital: 30% or revenue from digital now and projected to reach 50% of revenue by 2013.)

This came out from the presentation to Guardian staff:

Unaudited results for the year ending 31 March showed that revenues at Guardian News & Media, the immediate parent of the newspapers and guardian.co.uk, fell to £198m last year compared with £221m the year before, a fall in revenues that reflected a sharp fall in classified advertising. Recruitment advertising has fallen by £41m in the past four years.

The Guardian is seen as one of the most innovative newspapers in the world. It was why I enthusiastically joined them in 2006. They announced they were going web-first in June 2006, but that didn’t and doesn’t change the fact that the newspaper is burning through cash. To future of journalism folks, The Guardian is indicative of challenges facing the industry, but so far it’s not showing the way forward in solving those challenges.

Feel free to give The Guardian credit for being innovative, but everyone in the journalism community has to be more honest and realistic about its business challenges. It’s in the same sinking boat as a lot of other newspapers.

Guardian Editor Alan Rusbridger is saying that not only will they publish first to the web but that they will do less in print. The Guardian’s article says there will be no job cuts, though they have to find £25m in savings. Yet Mathew Ingram at GigaOm quotes Alan as saying there will be editorial job cuts.

Mathew also quotes Alan as saying that they have identified at least ten different revenue streams. That’s comforting. But it speaks volumes that The Guardian’s own article doesn’t mention new revenue, and Alan only mentioned existing digital revenue streams to Mathew.

The Guardian needs an intervention. Digital first will not be enough to save it. It needs to remember that although they are supported by a trust, that is not a licence to completely ignore business realities. Here is my bit of tough love:

1. Building a sustainable business is not evil

The Guardian needs to realise that making money to support journalism is no sin. There is a lot of moral space between being a sustainable journalism enterprise and being a voracious media mogul like Rupert Murdoch. I’d love to see The Guardian demonstrate how to create a financially sustainable journalism business, but it will have to challenge its own anti-commercial culture.

2. Editorial innovation alone is not enough

The Guardian is innovative, but it also shows that technical and editorial innovation are not enough on their own to guarantee a sustainable journalism business. Digital first without a business focus will still leave it in dire straits. If The Guardian is going to devote 80% of its resources to digital, as is implied by Dan Sabagh’s article, it has got to develop new revenue streams to support its digital first strategy.

3. ‘Open’ without a business model is an empty ideology

I love the open web. I think The Times hard paywall is foolish. However, the ideology of open from The Guardian lacks pragmatism. The Rupert v Rusbridger battle makes a good media ding-bong, but neither positions are proving able to solve the problems that face newspapers. (Yes, I’ve seen Guardian digital strategist Matt McAlister’s presentation on generative media networks. Hopefully, some of that strategy will be part of these 10 revenue streams. At the moment, I remain unconvinced.)

4. You’ve got a golden brand. Capitalise on it.

At the risk of sounding critical, I joke with people that The Guardian has the brand of Apple but the business focus of Twitter. Guardian readers are some of the most loyal in the world. When The Guardian recently cut short its well regarded local project, readers offered money to help it continue. Most newspapers would love to have that affection and loyalty. If The Guardian can’t capitalise on its loyal audience, incompetence will be the only explanation.

A friend of mine, who had taken a buyout from a US newspaper, said to me after visiting The Guardian a few years ago:

The Guardian seems like a great place to work when the times are good, but it doesn’t seem capable of making the tough decisions when the times are tough.

The Guardian has time to make some relatively easy decisions to ensure its future, but it needs to get serious, not just about digital but about its business. The Guardian’s often lauded as the future of journalism, but without a sound business model, it doesn’t have a future.

Direct visits: A referral data black hole

Facebook drives more traffic than Twitter” ran the headline in May, after a Pew study seemed to show that Twitter just wasn’t as good for traffic numbers as people had thought. But there were problems with the study’s methodology, as many people, including Steve Buttry said:

The PEJ report acknowledges that the Nielsen Co., the source of all the data studied, relies “mainly on home-based traffic rather than work-based,” without adding that most use of news sites comes during the workday.

and

The study uses strongly dismissive language about Twitter’s contribution to traffic to news sites. But it never notes that many – probably most – Twitter users come from TweetDeck, HootSuite, mobile apps or some other source than Twitter.com. Twitter “barely registers as a referring source,” the report concludes, ignoring or ignorant of the fact that the data counted only traffic from Twitter.com and did not count most visits from Twitter users.

As the web evolves, so the tools that we use to measure and assess activity need to evolve, but this hasn’t really happened. We might have managed to ditch the misleading idea of ‘hits’, but web traffic measurement is still immature, with many of the tools remaining basic and unevolved. But this problem is only going to get worse, as Steve’s second point hints at.

As I mentioned in this post, earlier this year I did some work looking at referrer logs for a client, OldWeather.org, a citizen science project that is transcribing weather and other data from old ships logs. One of the things that I noticed was how messy Google Analytics’ data is when it comes to finding out which social networks people have visited from. Many social networks have multiple possible URLs which show up in the stats as separate referrers. For example, Facebook has:

  • facebook.com
  • m.facebook.com
  • touch.facebook.com

And Twitter has:

  • twitter.com
  • mobile.twitter.com

So in order to get a better picture of activity from Facebook and Twitter, we need to add the numbers for these subdomains together. But that alone doesn’t provide the full picture. A list compiled by Twitstat.com in August of last year showed that only 13.9% of its users were using the Twitter.com website, with another ~1% using Twitter’s mobile website. That means around 85% of Twitter users are not going to show up in the twitter.com referrals because they haven’t come from twitter.com or mobile.twitter.com.

It is possible to get some other hints about Twitter traffic as some web-based clients do provide referral data, e.g. twittergadget.com, brizzly.com, hootsuite.com or seesmic.com. But the big problem is that much of the traffic from Twitter clients will simply show up in your stats as direct visits, essentially becoming completely invisible. And when direct visits make up 40% of your traffic, that’s a huge black hole in your data.

It used to be assumed that direct visits were people who had your website bookmarked in their browser or who were typing your URL directly into their browser’s address bar. The advent of desktop Twitter clients has undermined this assumption completely, and we need to update our thinking about what a ‘direct visit’ is.

This obfuscation of traffic origins is only going to get worse as clients provide access to other tools. Tweetdeck, for example, can no longer be assumed to be a Twitter-only client, because it also allows you to access your LinkedIn, Facebook, MySpace, Google Buzz and Foursquare accounts. So even if you can spot that a referral has come via Tweetdeck, you have no idea whether the user clicked on a link from their Twitter stream, or via Facebook, LinkedIn, etc.

This makes understanding the success of your social media strategy and, in particular, understanding which tools/networks are performing most strongly, nigh on impossible. What if 20% of your traffic is coming from invisible Twitter clients and only 1% comes from Twitter.com? Because the majority of your Twitter traffic is hidden as direct traffic you might end up sensibly but wrongly focusing on the 5% that has come via Facebook.com, thus reworking your strategy to put more effort into Facebook despite the fact it is actually performing poorly in comparison to Twitter.

I recommend to all my clients that they keep an eye on their statistics and that if a tool isn’t working out well for them, that they should ditch it and move on to another. There are so many social networks around that you just can’t be everywhere, you must prioritise your efforts and focus on the networks where you are most likely to reach your target audience. But we need to have clarity in the stats in order to do this.

The scale of this problem is really only becoming clear to me as I type this. For sites with low direct traffic, a bit of fuzziness in the stats isn’t a big deal, but for sites with a lot of direct traffic – and I see some sites with over 40% direct traffic – this is a serious issue. You could potentially have a single referring source making up a huge part of your total traffic, and you’d never know. And as more services provide APIs that can feed more desktop clients, which themselves provide more functionality than the original service itself, the growth of wrongly attributed ‘direct visits’ is only going to accelerate.

Without meaningful numbers, we’re back to the bad old days of gut feeling about whether one strategy is working better than another. I already see people making huge assumptions about how well Facebook is going to work for them, based on the faulty logic that everyone’s in Facebook, ergo by being in Facebook they will reach everyone.

Now, more than ever, we need reliable web stats so that we can make informed decisions, but these numbers are turning out to be like ghosts: our brains see what they want to see, not what is actually there. Even established research institutions like Pew are suffering pareidolia, seeing a phantom Facebook in their flawed numbers.

Ken Doctor digs into the economics of HTML5

Ken Doctor who writes the excellent Newsonomics blog says of the FT’s HTML5 web app:

We first heard of HTML5 as an alternative to Adobe’s Flash as Apple excluded Flash from its products. HTML 5, though, has proven to be a strong foundation for next-generation digital product development (“The Newsonomics of Apps and HTML5?). HTML5 is also the basis for web apps, and it is web apps — those browser-based apps the FT is trumpeting today — that are now providing tech and business competition to native apps.

via FT Declares Independence (from Apple) Day | Newsonomics.

Ken continues on to dig into the FT’s digital business and why they might be in a unique position with respect to other publishes due to their decade-long strategic development of their digital business.

When people and clients ask to me about good models for digital news operations, I first point out that having good digital content offerings isn’t enough. You can have amazing, world-beating editorial, but if it isn’t supported by a sustainable digital business, that’s not a model to emulate.

Housekeeping: New sharing options?

One of my favourite browser plug-ins is Shareaholic, and they have a WordPress plug-in called SexyBookmarks. We’ve been thinking about adding some more sharing and recommendation options to Strange Attractor. Let us know what you think.

  • Does it slow down the page load for you?
  • Do you like the options?
  • Are there other sharing options you’d like us to include?
  • For our RSS readers, do you like the sharing options in the feed?

Thanks in advance for your feedback.

The FT and NPR: HTML5 as part of a multi-platform strategy

I had heard that the FT and Apple were struggling to come to an agreement on digital subscriptions, so it came as no surprise to me that the FT has launched an HTML5 web app. Some folks have added sneer quotes around app, but I’m not going to. The HTML5 version of the FT’s app looks, behaves and has even more functionality than their native iPad app.

Robert Andrew of paidContent: UK has a great interview with Rob Grimshaw, The Financial Times’ online managing director, on the issues that separate the two companies. The subscription issues are well known, and it’s not just Apple’s 30% take that has publishers pissed off. Publishers are also uncomfortable letting Apple get between them, their customers and customer data. I’m impressed with the maturity that the FT has demonstrated here. Rather than play up the conflict and engage in an all too typical media industry drama queen spat, the FT used the potential impasse to explore what would be possible with HTML5, the next version of the web mark-up standard. Grimshaw said:

It’s not just Apple versus FT – there is more to it than that. We started to look at HTML middle of last year when we realised how complicated it would be to develop applications for all these different platforms.

The FT believes that it hasn’t had to compromise. I gave the app a spin this morning on our first gen iPad. The execution is extremely polished, walking you through every step from adding it to your home screen to giving the app increased offline storage space. The app is not only identical to the native app experience, it also has a few extras. The native app allows you to choose a live or a downloaded version. The web app automatically caches the content on load. Unlike the native app, the web app also supports the FT’s video content offline. That’s a real bonus – I often read the FT on the iPad on flights and missed the video content. (I actually prefer the iPad version to print. When I don’t travel with the iPad and get the paper, I often struggle not to punch my neighbour when wrestling with the broadsheet. I have no such issue with the iPad.)

I will agree with some comments online today that said it is a little sluggish on the first gen iPad. On the iPad 2 and Xoom, dual-core tablets with better graphics, I would expect the web app to fly. On Suw’s now creaky iPhone 3G, the app gently let us know that the device was too slow before elegantly redirecting us to the FT’s excellent mobile website. Nice. It puts most other UK mobile newspaper sites to shame, though for my money, the New York Times still has the best mobile site – fast, clean and easy to use. For comparison, I’d also recommend that you check out Firstpost.com, a site that Suw and I helped Network 18 of India launch in May.  The site uses WordPress and launched with a great mobile version through the use of the Mobile Detector plug-in, which can detect more than 5000 mobile devices and serve and experience relevant to the device.

The FT head of mobile, Steve Pinches, has an explanation about the work that went into the FT HTML5 app. He echoes Grimshaw’s point about development costs:

developing multiple ‘native’ apps for various products is logistically and financially unmanageable. By having one core codebase, we can roll the FT app onto multiple platforms at once.

For another example of what’s possible with HTML5 and cross-device coding, check out NPR’s app for Chrome.  It looks exactly like the US public radio broadcaster’s iPad app, but it runs in Google’s Chrome web browser. NPR explained how it was done:

Like to get your geek on? Well, you’ll be happy to know that NPR for Chrome leverages the power of HTML5. Using a technology called Sproutcore, this web app has the potential to work in other modern browsers, on tablets, and even be repurposed for other app stores.

Smart. Ben Ayers, formerly of ITV, and I had little discussion this morning about how HTML5 might allow these apps to run not just on smartphones, tablets and computer web browsers but also on connected TVs.

[blackbirdpie url=”http://twitter.com/#!/benayers/status/78009292824907776″]

Leaving Google TV to one side for a moment, LG’s new smart TV platform uses webkit, which underpins many browsers including Apple’s Safari and Google’s Chrome. From an interface standpoint, I’m not going to suggest an interface for a mobile phone would appropriate for the “ten-foot” experience of TV, but device detection and CSS can help serve up an appropriate interface.

As HTML5 matures over the next few years, this will be the standard that enables the next wave of cross-platform innovation. The combination of APIs, CSS and HTML5 could make the painful process of developing apps for multiple platforms and multiple screen sizes a thing of the past. In the meantime, it’s great to see what HTML5 is capable of.

News organisation web stats: Break out bounce

Frédéric Filloux looks at the metered paid content systems that the FT an the New York Times have in place in his most recent post. I have yet to be sold on how the New York Times is trying to segment their readership based on platform, but I think they are doing the right thing in terms of trying to get their most loyal readers to help support their journalism. I also like how they are trying to reward their most loyal readers with extras, such as their behind the scenes report on how they covered the mission that killed Osama bin Laden.

Frédéric touches on the issue of loyalty in his post.

One the dirtiest little secrets of the online media business is the actual number of truly loyal readers — as opposed to fly-bys. No one really wants to know (let alone let anyone else know). Using a broad brush, about half of the audience is composed of casual users dropping by less than 3 times a month, or sent by search engines; 25% come more than 10 times a month.

Spot on, and I think there is a lot of evidence to support his assertion that this has contributed to an erosion in advertising prices. Advertisers know that not all unique users are created equal. If a user views a single page during a visit, or even worse, is on a site less than 5 seconds, they might be counted as a unique user or visitor, but they are next to meaningless in terms of engagement with content and completely meaningless to an advertiser.

It’s quite clear that raw audience numbers do not a sustainable digital content business make. If that were the case, digital would be contributing significantly more to the bottom line than the 15% average that US newspapers are seeing. If this was the case, The Daily Mail would be making a mint off of its newly found digital success. The Mail has not only rushed ahead of its online competitors in the UK, but in April, it became the second most popular English-language ‘newspaper’ site in the world. (Quotes around newspaper because I’m not sure how the Huffington Post is considered a newspaper site, and if you were to include other news sites such as the BBC not to mention Yahoo News, that league table would look a lot different.) However, the Mail is squeezing paltry sums out of that audience, about 2p per visitor across Mail Online and metro.co.uk. (Rob Andrews at paidContent also points out in the same piece that DMGT makes most of its digital income, some £44m, from a separate digital division that operates travel, jobs and motoring ad services.)

The move from monthly uniques to average daily uniques has eliminated some double-counting from the stats, but it still doesn’t break out these fly-by visitors. The industry has to move to more honest and realistic metrics. In the UK, newspapers no longer report bulk print sales. I’d argue that it’s time to at the very least break out ‘bounce’, single-page, less than 5 second visitors (or however the industry wants to transparently measure it). If the industry really wanted to come clean, they’d just leave bounce out of the stats entirely. It’s meaningless traffic, the internet version of channel surfers. Loyalty is the new coin of the digital realm, and I’d wager that if we focus on that, it might even bring in a bit more coin.