Monthly Archives: January 2015

What Andrew Sullivan taught us about paywalls and independent journalism

andrew sullivan

In a video-recorded interview with the Nieman Foundation in 2013, Andrew Sullivan recounted how, in 2000, he received the “light bulb idea” to start his own blog. He was in England, traveling from London to Oxford, and while at the train station he happened to see a stand with copies of the Evening Standard, which is an afternoon paper. “And I just realized that journalism has always produced material around the clock. Why don’t I just start writing at different times and provide the readers with the kind of journalistic service that the London papers are doing?”

So began an era. Over the next decade and a half, Sullivan would gradually build a massive audience, helped in part by having his blog syndicated on major news websites like Time, The Atlantic, and the Daily Beast. In 2013, he announced that he and a small editorial team would launch a standalone, independent news site, generating revenue by way of subscriptions. His theory was that he had enough dedicated readers who would be willing to pay to read his content, and he was correct. The site generated about a $1 million a year in revenue, enough to sustain him and his staff.

Then, this week, Sullivan shocked the media world by announcing he would cease daily blogging, citing the enormous pressure of producing round-the-clock content and a desire to write longform essays and books. The move produced no shortage of think pieces not only about Sullivan’s impact on the media and journalism, but whether or not his model proved that independent journalism can produce a sustainable business. While I tend to agree with those who do think there are valuable lessons to be drawn from his experiment, I think it should be done with several caveats. Sullivan’s endeavor, while successful, was in many ways unique and could not necessarily be emulated by someone starting out in journalism today.

So here are some lessons we can draw from Sullivan’s two-year stint as an entrepreneurial blogger:

Establishing an online brand takes time

Andrew Sullivan didn’t start his blog from scratch and then suddenly begin raking in money. Not only had he been blogging for 14 years, but he had been an established journalist for years before that, at one point serving as an editor at The New Republic. And during those 14 years he was blogging he hosted his blog on the websites of major journalistic institutions, which not only endowed him with more legitimacy but also helped in attracting readers. There are very few writers on the web who have had that kind of prolonged exposure, and so the launch of any new website is unlikely to be met with an instant audience, much less one willing to pay to read your content.

Cut out as many middlemen as possible

Part of the reason that Sullivan’s venture was successful was because it had little overhead, and he knew from the very beginning that he would need to cut out as many middlemen as possible if he wanted it to work. Generating a million dollars a year in revenue sounds impressive, but that number gets chipped away at pretty quickly the more people you need to hire. Sullivan wasn’t bogged down by the institutional costs that plague many legacy media outlets — he basically just needed a computer and somewhere to host his website , and all other overhead went to his editorial staff. He didn’t have to hire an ad sales team or pay for a printing press or rent trucks to deliver papers to newsstands. I’m not even sure that he needed to rent office space; I’m guessing most of his staff worked out of their own homes.

Paywalls can work, but…

Yes, Sullivan and a handful of other news outlets have made digital paywalls work, but it continues to be a tricky endeavor. It’s now commonly accepted that if you’re going to have a paywall, it needs to be a leaky paywall, one that allows visitors to read a certain amount of content before they need to pay up. And even with this strategy there seems to be a ceiling. The New York Times, which has one of the most successful online paywalls, has begun to plateau at around 900,000 subscribers. Yes, that’s impressive, but that means nearly everyone else is likely to see subscription numbers far south of that. Even at his most successful, Sullivan was only able to amass 30,000 or so paying subscribers.

Also, while it’s easy to get people to try out a subscription, getting them to renew is much harder. Sullivan saw about an 83 percent renewal rate. It seems paywalls are a sort of novelty where people are willing to pay up to try it out, but when it comes to renewing they’re more likely to assess whether they got their money’s worth the prior year.

Leaky paywall or not, it’s still pretty damn hard to get people to pay for text-based news content online.

An advertising model is also hard

Unless you’re willing to create the kind of clickbait content that generates millions of pageviews, achieving the kind of scale needed in order to make enough money on ads is near impossible for a small, independent outlet. Sullivan decided early on that he wasn’t interested in producing this kind of content and so chose to forgo advertising completely. Even if you do achieve web traffic scale, there’s no guarantee that you’ll have the ads to populate your site, especially if you’re not willing to hire an ad sales team (which creates additional overhead).

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The content churn can be draining

Even without the viral aggregation, Sullivan’s output was draining. In  his post announcing his quitting, he specifically cited the pressure of producing daily content and how this discouraged deeper thinking and longform writing. Independent news outlets typically have small staffs and there’s a lot of pressure to constantly produce new content so it’s waiting for your readers when they return every day. The fewer staffers you have, the more pressure on each one to carry his or her weight.

Speaking of staffers, I think it’s important to address something about Andrew Sullivan’s success that may not have been immediately obvious for his more casual readers. Because of the way his site is structured — his name in the domain and an illustration of him at the top — it would be reasonable to conclude that any particular post you were reading was written by him. But starting sometime during his days at the Atlantic, Sullivan began using interns to produce unbylined content for his blog, a move that some people (including myself) found a little shady. To be fair, these days he credits his staff in the masthead and will sometimes reference them in posts, but for the most part it can be difficult to discern whether a post was written by him or someone else. The reason I bring this up is that Sullivan has created an exaggerated perception of what one person can accomplish on his own, mostly because a lot of what he accomplished wasn’t done so on his own.

Which is to say that his experiment would have likely turned out much different if he was just a lone blogger. Many of you who are perhaps thinking about quitting your journalism jobs to run your own standalone websites should keep this in mind — even one of the most popular bloggers in the world who benefited from widespread media coverage when he decided to go out on his own needed a staff in order to produce a sustainable business model. I’m not writing this to discourage your dreams of journalistic entrepreneurism, but rather to state one obvious but important truth: Not all of us can be Andrew Sullivan, so we should take any “lessons” from his experience with that in mind.

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Understanding Snapchat’s severe disadvantage

snapchat

It’s a good time to be a shareholder of Snapchat equity. Nearly every piece of news we read about the private company indicates that its value has nowhere to go but up. Some predict it could have as many as 200 million monthly active users. It’s incredibly popular with younger users, including the much-coveted millennial demographic. In 2013 it rebuffed a $3 billion takeover bid from Facebook, a decision that was vindicated by its recent $10 – $20 billion valuation. All signs point to it becoming a major rival to nearly every major social media network, from Facebook to Twitter to Instagram.

Yet I’ve been thoroughly unimpressed by two of its recent ventures, both of which are attempts to transform the company from VC-backed startup to money-making behemoth. The first is its roll-out of “my story” ads for brands, and the second was the announcement this week of partnerships with several major media companies to deliver their content to Snapchat’s users. Both efforts were undermined by what’s ironically credited as one of Snapchat’s main appeals to users: its lack of data collection.

Even if you’ve never used Snapchat before, it’s usually the one fact you know about it: photos and videos sent through it are deleted within seconds after they’re seen by whomever they were sent to. Not only deleted from the phone, but deleted from Snapchat’s servers completely. This has made it impossible for Snapchat to collect the kind of data that make companies like Facebook and Google so valuable — data that can be used in the distribution of hyper-targeted ads. Almost since the company’s inception we’ve seen tech journalists point out the difficulties this presents in terms of monetization, and with the launch of these two new features, we’re seeing those difficulties born out.

Let’s start with the “Discover” feature that allows you to browse news content. Though news organizations have long been able to run and broadcast from their Snapshat accounts, Discover is a partnership with 10 major media companies to deliver a rich media experience to users (I’ve played around with it, the aesthetics really are pleasing). But in an era when most news aggregation apps are employing the use of machine learning to try to predict what news you want to read, Discover, because it can’t collect any data, is not really customizable. In the wake of the announcement, Rebecca Searles published a Medium post predicting that “Snapchat is going to beat Facebook at news.” Why is it going to beat Facebook?

What does seem like a game-changer (as far as social media and news is concerned) is that with Discover, news orgs like CNN get to retain some semblance of a Front Page again. Instead of users seeing news that is filtered by “friends,” likes, comments, and shares, users see a series of videos and cards curated by an editor. An editor who is trained and skilled at knowing what news matters and what news doesn’t.

For a moment while reading that passage I wondered if had been transferred back to 2005, because that’s the last time anyone could make that kind of argument with a straight face. If there’s anything we’ve learned in the last decade, it’s that the expertly-curated front page has lost and the customizable news feed won. Assuming that users are vying to hand over their browsing choices back to a small subset of professional editors is to ignore every instance of newspapers being gutted at the expense of data-rich technology companies, companies that are siphoning off advertising revenue and redirecting it to their gargantuan, algorithm-centric platforms.

At least the Discover tool allows you to choose which media outlet you want to browse, thereby giving at least some level of customization (ESPN is likely to have far different content offerings compared to Comedy Central). But Snapchat’s “my story” ads are even more of a blunt force instrument. To purchase one, a company needs to pay a minimum of $750,000, and that’s because the ad is blasted out to every single user that’s opted in to the service. As Travis Bernard detailed at TechCrunch:

So you just spent $750,000 to run an ad on Snapchat for 24 hours. What did you get out of it? According to the AdWeek report, the reporting capabilities of Snapchat are “limited.” There are no age breakouts and Snapchat can’t even tell brands how many women versus men saw an ad.

The lack of detailed analytics makes Snapchat exactly like television advertising, except the price tag is even higher than most prime-time television advertising. ESPN’s Monday Night Football is one of the most expensive places for a brand to advertise, and ESPN only asks for an average of $408,000. Last year, Monday Night Football’s viewership averaged 9.6 million households.

“So what?” you say. “Maybe Snapchat can just service Fortune 500 companies with massive marketing budgets.” The problem is that that leaves a huge market that Snapchat can’t touch, a market that Facebook, Twitter, and Google are aggressively competing for. According to the Small Business Administration, there are currently 28.2 million small businesses in the U.S., and it doesn’t take a major leap of logic to conclude that almost all of them couldn’t afford a $750,000 Snapchat ad. Even if those 28.2 million businesses could only afford an average $1,000 a year in advertising, that’s $28 billion that Snapchat can’t compete for.

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The ultimate irony is that Snapchat’s popularity is directly contributing to its weakness, because as its audience grows it prices out more advertising clients. This isn’t the first time something like this has happened. In 1936, Time, Inc launched LIFE, a magazine that relied heavily on photography for visual storytelling. According to Alan Brinkley’s biography of Henry Luce, the anticipation for the first issue was so immense that it sold out immediately and Luce was accused of lowering the print run to increase demand and buzz. It quickly rose to become the most popular magazine in existence, selling at one point 13.5 million copies a week.  But in the 1960s the magazine began to struggle financially, and part of the reason was that its high circulation necessitated incredibly high ad rates, but many advertisers realized they could spend the same amount of money advertising on television, a much richer form of media that was quickly spreading to U.S. households. LIFE was also hindered by the fact it was a general interest magazine when companies were looking to advertise in niche publications (the 1960s versions of Facebook and Twitter targeting). “Despite the exceptional efforts of a number of talented publishers and editors, the publishing formula for a monthly, general interest magazine was just not sustainable,” its editor-in-chief said when the magazine announced its closure in 2000.

That’s what Snapchat is, a general interest magazine, a LIFE for the modern era. Its scale, impressive as it is, is not good enough by itself. If it wants to truly capitalize on its 200 million users, then it needs to figure out how to chop that audience up into niche fragments and offer those fragments to both low and high end advertisers. Until it does, it’ll be nothing more than a blunt instrument in a land ruled by scalpels.

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Image via Mashable

The social network that’s gaining in popularity among journalists

andrew golis

Andrew Golis, GM of This

 

At first, Nicole Zhu thought the invite sitting in her email inbox was spam. It was for a platform called This, and it had been sent to Zhu, a designer for Vox Media’s product team, from her sister, who also happens to work in media. “She was like, ‘Are you on This?’” Zhu recalled in a recent phone interview. “And I was like, ‘What is This?’ So she sent me an invite, and she sent me some article link about what it was. I just started using it to try it out and ended up really liking it, so I invited a couple of my friends to it too.”

The concept behind This is deceptively simple, and if you’re the kind of person it’s meant to appeal to its allure should be immediately obvious: It’s a link-sharing network where every user is only allowed to share one link per day. That’s it. There are no bells and whistles. There isn’t even a mobile app yet. Yet in the past two months since its soft launch it’s quickly catapulted to the top of the list of sites I visit daily, and I’m not alone. Some of the most prominent journalists in media, from The Atlantic’s Ta-Nehisi Coates to Slate’s David Plotz to MSNBC’s Chris Hayes, are among its early adopters, and thousands more are clamoring for invites once they become available.

Though the site wasn’t created to specifically service journalists, many of its earliest users work in media, most likely because the initial invites were sent out to Andrew Golis’s professional circle of friends and colleagues. And This also happens to solve a problem faced by the very people — journalists — who spend all their time staring at content feeds all day: media overload.

Golis, who was hired as an entrepreneur in residence at The Atlantic about a year and a half ago, began forming the initial ideas behind This sometime in late 2013. “I just wished that I could get this email from Ta-Nehisi Coates every night that just said ‘this’ with a link,” he said. “That kind of stuck in my brain, and we said, ‘Oh why don’t we build a whole site based on that idea?”

Soon after Golis joined The Atlantic, Gabriel Snyder, the editor of The Wire, stepped down, and so Golis quickly took over as a kind of general manager of the site. But as soon as The Atlantic hired a new editor for The Wire (which would eventually go on to shut down), Golis was able to start working with a development team on an early version of This. “We built a half prototype that we launched in late June,” he said. “And we onboarded about 300 people to kind of test it and see if this makes sense.” This version was fairly rudimentary; users couldn’t follow each other or engage with the links other than by clicking on them. “It was literally to test out whether it would be a fun thing to share one thing a day.”

A soft-launch version of the platform debuted in November, but if you weren’t on Golis’s initial distribution list, you needed to score an invite from someone already on it if you wanted to join. After reading a piece in PandoDaily that explained its core concept, I immediately grasped its appeal and hunted down Golis’s email address so I could obtain an invite. While I’ve always loved Twitter and Facebook as tools for surfacing good content, I’ve often been frustrated by the amount of noise you have to wade through on those networks. As someone who doesn’t watch televised sports, I’ve found Twitter to be unbearable to read on big game nights, and it can often be redundant whenever there’s a piece of breaking news that everyone in my feed feels the need to tweet out.

As soon as you join This and begin following other users, you’re immediately struck not only by how few posts there are — you can easily peruse all the posts from the people you follow in a few minutes — but how high-quality the linked-to content is. “What I really liked about This is there’s an end to that stream,” said Zhu. “Because people only share a link a day, you know the quality is going to be higher, and you know it’ll be worth your while.” And because the site’s main focus is sending you to content outside of it, there’s less emphasis on the celebrity of those who use it. “I feel like on Twitter it’s everybody follow this person because they’re really big in this field and I want to hear what they say. On This, it’s more about the content itself rather than the person who’s sharing it.”

Daniel Victor, a staff editor for the New York Times, noticed right away the absence of what he called “commodity news” on This. Because you’re only allowed one link per day, you’re not going to waste it on some breaking news item that you know everyone already saw elsewhere. “For me, This is a way to kind of signify that something is actually meaningful,” he said. In some ways, we’re seeing a kind of arms race as news organizations rush to aggregate every viral video or news item, and it’s quickly clogging up the social media streams of their readers. “More and more the problem is going to be that the noise gets frustrating for readers, and they’re going to seek out a way to get a greater signal without having to deal with all that crap. So this is one way out of that that could potentially be exciting.”

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Golis confirmed that he’s seen “almost no breaking news on the site.” Instead, it’s becoming what he calls a “magazine experience.” “It’s the place where late at night you say, ‘OK, I want to look at something nice, I want to look at something beautiful, where’s my first stop?’ By removing the breaking news from that experience, you get not just a higher quality but a different set of media.”

Of course many of those late-night wine drinkers won’t want to lean back on their couches with their laptops, but rather will whip out their phones and tablets, and right now This, while not exactly anathema to mobile, has very limited use outside of the desktop. Not only does it not have a mobile app, but sharing links on mobile is nearly impossible. Unlike Facebook and Twitter, both of which provide a status bar you can write in and paste links to, This requires you to drag a button to your browser’s bookmarks section. When you’re reading an article you want to share on This, you click on that button and an interstitial screen pops up allowing you to choose a thumbnail image, the headline, the author’s name, and a few words to describe the content. “I have a lot of friends that I got to sign up, but they couldn’t figure out how to get the bookmarklet going, and then they sort of just gave up,” said Zhu. “So I think that onboarding process and the time it takes to figure out how it works should come down.”

I pointed out to Golis that this approach seemed a little anachronistic at a time when nearly every new internet startup launches with a mobile-first platform. “All the decisions about how to approach it were premised on what is the most flexible and inexpensive way to test the idea,” he said. “There are a few problems that go with launching something as an app. One is you live and die by the Apple App Store. Secondly, it’s very hard to originate sharing inside of a mobile app. There’s tons of resharing inside mobile apps, but if you look at Tumblr, Pinterest and Twitter, a lot of the original sharing has to start somewhere else, because it’s so hard to copy a link, leave the app, go into another app, and then paste it.”

There’s also the nightly newsletter, which serves as an easy way to access and digest the most interesting content shared on This. It’s hand-curated by Golis; sometimes it consists of the most-shared links on This (he’ll often provide shout-outs to those who shared a link, linking back to their profile), other times it’s based on his own personal tastes. “Eventually what we’ll do is make that email a custom product for people,” he said. “So in addition to the editor’s picks there will be a nightly email with links shared by the people you follow. I’m not naive about the fact that people caring what I think is interesting doesn’t scale beyond a certain point because I’m one guy with certain interests, and those interests won’t be shared by everyone.”

But for now, with the current close-knit community, the system seems to be working. I’ve found no shortage of content on the site when I log on, which means new users aren’t just signing up to test it out and then never coming back. Golis said the site currently has around 4,800 users — not exactly Facebook numbers, but then again he’s only been slowly handing out invites. And it does seem that those who are on the site have an outsized influence compared to the general public. “At one point I did a back of the envelope calculation of the total Twitter followers that the then-2500 members of the site had, and it was like over 30 million.”

As for what lies ahead, Golis plans to continue tweaking the design and, yes, eventually releasing a mobile app version. He’ll also be courting investors; though The Atlantic currently owns This, the plan all along was for him to go and raise money in order to scale the platform. The question is whether there’s a mass market for what it offers or if it’ll always remain a niche product for journalists and other content creators. I asked Golis to guess at a potential audience size.

“We don’t know what the number is. I think it is probably not 4 billion people. I have meetings with VCs who basically think mass [reach] and dumb is the only model, and that just feels disheartening and wrong to me. It feels to me like we’re in this moment where there is a lot of mass quality — there’s a lot of stuff that is just fantastically good that reaches millions of people and there are a lot of people who want to find the best content and are consuming really good media right now. Who knows how to put an exact number on it, but we have really big ambitions to prove there are millions of people who would like to find extremely high quality media.”

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Image via Greg Peverill-Conti

Why media companies get away with paying journalists so little

PH/Bradlee

There’s a common phrase you hear while working in the journalism industry: “Going to the dark side.” It’s employed whenever a news reporter takes a job working in marketing or PR, and it’s based on the assumption that this person gave up the noble pursuit of truth so that he or she could get a nice pay bump. If you decide to pursue a career in journalism, it’s pretty much hammered into you from day one that you should expect grueling hours and little pay. And while working those grueling hours, you’ll likely have to deal with PR people, many of whom are former journalists who love to start their conversations with you by reminiscing about their gumshoe days.

Though I’ve never completely left journalism, I’ve often been pulled to the dark side. When I left my job as a newspaper reporter to work at a digital marketing firm, I saw an immediate 50 percent bump in pay. And within a year of taking that new job, I more than doubled my salary. If I had remained in newspaper journalism, there’s no conceivable way I could have seen that sharp of a pay increase that quickly.

This pay dynamic has been so widely accepted that it’s rare that anyone questions the actual reasons behind it. While it’s understandable if someone leaves a non-profit or a government position to take a private-sector job that she should expect a pay raise, why should a person who’s working for one private corporation receive so much less compensation than a person with equal skills working for another private corporation?

This disparity is pretty easy to explain: those working in PR and marketing are much more closely connected to the revenue side of a business, and so it’s much easier for them to discern their worth to a company. Having worked for a few marketing and PR agencies, I’ve often been required to regularly fill out time sheets which tracked my billable hours for each client I worked for. I also knew what the firm billed to the client for my time. Even in cases where we weren’t billing by the hour, I knew what the monthly retainer was, so if we were charging a client $40,000 a month and I was one of three people working on that account, I knew I was producing roughly $13,000 a month in value for the firm. If I worked on an average of three accounts at a time, then some easy back-of-the-envelope math would tell me that I was responsible for $468,000 a year in revenue for my company.

I was also closely tied to the new business pipeline. Every time we had a new prospective client, I was responsible for conducting research and developing a communications plan, and once I reached a certain stage in my career I was also expected to pitch this plan to the potential client.

Compare this to newspaper journalism: I only had a very vague knowledge of what it cost to run an ad in our newspaper. I certainly wasn’t kept up-to-date on the day-to-day goings-on in the advertising department. Several years later, when I worked as an editor at a major national magazine (I briefly left the dark side for about two years), I was never told what our average CPMs were and was given very little access to the business side of the company despite having a good bit of interest in that subject.

Many news companies pride themselves on having a strict separation between their business and editorial divisions; it allows them to maintain editorial integrity and independence, or so they say. But this partitioning places journalists at a distinct disadvantage by keeping them completely in the dark when it comes to revenue. It can be argued that the journalism forms the very backbone of a media company, and the business side would be unable to generate revenue without the editorial staff, but the current setup allows the journalists to be viewed as little more than factory workers, assembling content against which their business counterparts can sell ads.

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This is what I think NYU professor Jay Rosen was getting at when he wrote a post explaining “when to quit your journalism job.” In it, he argues that “if you work in any kind of editorial organization, it is your job to understand the business model. If you feel you can’t do that, you should quit.” While I don’t necessarily agree with his prescription — most people don’t have the luxury to just up and quit their jobs — I do agree that reporters are doing themselves an unnecessary disservice by convincing themselves they’re above worrying about the revenue generation that funds their work.

This separation also pushes them in directions away from their core competencies. As Hamilton Nolan detailed in a Gawker essay titled “Against Editors,” reporters who want to advance their careers and escape a life of penury are often forced to take tracks that don’t always necessarily play to their strengths.

Here is the traditional career track for someone employed in journalism: first, you are a writer. If you hang on, and don’t wash out, and manage not to get laid off, and don’t alienate too many people, at some point you will be promoted to an editor position. It is really a two-step career journey, in the writing world. Writing, then editing. You don’t have to accept a promotion to an editing position of course. You don’t have to send your kids to college and pay a mortgage, necessarily. If you want to get regular promotions and raises, you will, for the most part, accept the fact that your path takes you away from writing and into editing, in some form. The number of pure writing positions that offer salaries as high as top editing positions is vanishingly small. Most well-paid writers are celebrities in the writing world. That is how few of them there are.

As Nolan goes on to point out, being a good writer doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll be a good editor, and vice versa. So you have talented reporters who suddenly find themselves editing copy when they’re not really qualified to do so, and in order to justify their higher salary, they must edit with gusto in such a way that doesn’t necessarily improve the original draft. Nearly every reporter has been forced to accept edits that they, being much closer to the source material, know are wrong. I recently wrote a freelance feature article for a major national magazine. I was astonished by how many levels of edits it received and the number of editors who reviewed the piece. In one absurd instance, an editor asked me why I had included a certain passage that a previous editor had forced me to add in. Then she promptly removed that passage.

All this is not to say that there aren’t downfalls when journalists become too closely involved on the business end. We saw that when a former Vice editor leaked emails from his superiors in which they forced him to suppress negative reporting on Vice’s advertisers. But to distance yourself too far from the revenue generation is to place yourself in a weakened position where you can’t make an informed argument for your worth. Once that worth is realized and you’re able to use it as leverage for a higher salary, suddenly the dark side — where you’ll spend the remainder of your days writing press releases or bland marketing copy — becomes much less alluring.

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Why it’s so difficult to get podcasts to go viral

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It was bound to happen. After countless articles about how podcasts are “booming” and going “mainstream,” it was only a matter of time before brands and corporations, always eager to join the party, would roll out their own podcasts as a form of marketing. With the success of Serial, arguably the first standalone podcast to launch “watercooler” conversation, it’s natural for a brand like MailChimp, which received so much free publicity because of its catchy ad at the beginning of Serial episodes, to wonder why it shouldn’t bypass the gatekeepers completely and launch its own podcast focused on email marketing.

While I’m not aware of any plans MailChimp has to record its own podcasts, we’re certainly going to see more and more brands dipping their toes into the water. As Digiday’s Tanya Dua reports, some of the largest advertising and marketing agencies are debuting podcasts; right now they’re a form of marketing for the agencies themselves, but it’s probable that the move is an attempt get better acquainted with the medium so they can soon begin recommending it to clients. A company called Pagatim, based in Oregon, is focused entirely on launching and marketing podcasts for brands. “Our audio programming works to engage your customers’ imagination with a consistent offering of unique and memorable content,” it states on its “about” page.

But before companies like Nike or Doritos decide to debut their own versions of This American Life, they should recognize that gaining an audience for a podcast can be a brutal, uphill climb, primarily because users aren’t primed to share them the same way they share other sorts of content. Go to your Facebook feed and look at the most recent 20 posts shared by your friends. Chances are the content shared comes in the form of images, words, or video. If there is any audio shared to your feed, it’s likely music, not the kind usually found in podcasts.

This is a problem that has plagued public radio, arguably one of the largest producers of podcasts. Eric Athas, a senior digital news specialist at NPR, wrote a recent article for Nieman Lab detailing his team’s experiments in attempting to ameliorate this problem. “Why doesn’t audio go viral?” he asks. “How come people share images, videos and text, but not sound?”

For the past year, he’s sought to answer these questions and identify what aspects of audio could be tweaked to make it more shareable. He identified four types of content that performed particularly well: audio explainers, storytelling, snappy reviews, and “whoa sounds.” Here’s how he explains that last one:

A Whoa Sound should make you react that way — whoa. And many people did when they shared a Whoa Sound on Facebook or Twitter. This category captures the fascinating sound of a place, a person, wildlife, or something else. It creates a unique listening experience that wouldn’t work visually. It’s a cellist playing a duet with her brain (27,100 listens). It’s the eerie silence of climate change (26,000 listens). The strange sound hidden inside a hummingbird’s chirp (75,500 listens)

While these are certainly important insights, there’s another strategy that’s been employed in recent months that has been, I think, tremendously successful at propelling new podcasts into the stratosphere: syndication on an already-established, popular podcast.

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Two of the most recent widely-discussed podcasts, Serial and Alex Blumberg’s Startup, were launched in this way. Both had early episodes syndicated on This American Life (Startup also had an episode played on the incredibly popular Planet Money podcast), and both saw their subscription numbers skyrocket as a result. After venture capitalist Chris Sacca decided to invest in Blumberg’s new podcasting company, Blumberg asked Sacca what made him pull the trigger. Sacca’s response:

I do think you have one unfair advantage. That is you got to piggyback on one of the most successful shows in the history of radio. And as a result, right off the bat, you are in the top three podcasts on iTunes. To come right out of the gate like that is unprecedented. And Ira Glass, I hope he’s on your holiday list, I hope you sent him a fruitcake or something. To get involved in a company where right at the seed stage of investing, you already have the distribution of what would be reflective of a really successful media company, that’s how we wrapped our heads around investing in  your company.

Blumberg and Serial may have stumbled into this form of podcast marketing, but NPR has quickly adopted it into its distribution strategy. As Justin Ellis documented for Nieman Lab, the public radio company has embarked on an all-out blitz of promotion for its new Invisibilia podcast. Not only were its first two episodes syndicated on Radio Lab and This American Life, but it’s also been excerpted in other NPR shows, and nearly every NPR podcast I listen to begins by encouraging me to go and subscribe to this new podcast.

So if this is the best way to generate a quick ascension into podcast popularity, brands seeking to enter this medium might be facing an uphill climb, one that’s much steeper than what they encounter when promoting video, text, and image content. While I do agree that the podcast as a form of listening is growing in popularity, it may be a better investment for a brand to advertise on an already-existing podcast rather than launch one from scratch. And if a company does decide to produce its own episodes, it should do so with lowered expectations. Ira Glass can only promote so many new voices, and chances are yours won’t be one of them.

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Are audiobooks benefiting from the current podcast boom?

audiobook

Did you hear the news? Podcasts, once a niche product, are now “booming.” Due partially to the success of Serial, the This American Life spin-off podcast reinvestigating a 1999 murder in Baltimore, the medium has now made its way into the “cultural mainstream.” Yes, journalists have been prone to hyperbole when touting a podcast explosion, and there’s ample evidence they were already tremendously popular before the debut of Serial, but it does seem that they’ve entered our everyday conversation, and it’s not uncommon now to discuss a podcast with friends the same way you may otherwise talk about a new episode of a popular television show.

If you are a consistent listener of podcasts as I am, then you’ve likely noticed that a constant sponsor of many of the most popular shows has been Audible.com, the largest outlet for purchasing and listening to audiobooks, as well as the world’s largest producer of audiobooks. This makes total sense when you think about it. According to data from podcasting ad platform Midroll, podcast listeners are affluent and well-educated, and they’ve already made a habit of downloading audio files and listening to them during their commutes and/or free time. This is an audience primed for conversion from free audio podcasts to paid-for audiobooks.

So are audiobooks, like podcasts, seeing an explosion in growth? And if they are, is the mainstream success of podcasts helping that growth? I’ll spoil the answer to the first question: Yes. The answer to the second is more difficult to tease out.

According to a survey conducted by the Audio Publishers Association, a trade industry group, not only are we seeing a rise in the number of audiobooks published every year (35,713, more than double the previous year’s 16.039), but “net sales in dollars are up 12% over the prior year’s revenues,” bringing revenue to $1.2 billion. In 1997 the entire industry only generated $480 million. Digital downloads make up 70 percent of all podcasts sold and the overwhelming majority of audiobook purchases, 80 percent, were of fiction titles.

Amanda D’Acierno, the publisher at Penguin Random House Audio, confirmed in a phone interview that what we’re seeing is, indeed, a huge expansion in the audiobook market. “It’s been absolutely huge growth. year after year,” she said. “Especially the past six or seven years as we’ve all become accustomed to having a smartphone in our pockets and being able to listen that way. When I joined this division 11 years ago, it was rare that I would meet people who would listen to audiobooks. It was not uncommon to meet people who never listened to audiobooks or didn’t even know what an audiobook was. I don’t think I’ve gotten that question in the last three or four years: what is an audiobook?’”

The audiobook industry emerged in the 1950s, first with LPs and then graduating to cassette tapes and later CDs. For a long time it was very much an ancillary, small portion of the overall book market. Because of the high costs of producing audiobooks and the requirement of multiples tapes or CDs, they’ve historically been much more expensive than hardbacks and were primarily sold to libraries, where it was more practical for consumers to borrow them. Also, because of the limited capacity of cassettes and CDs, listening to an audiobook could sometimes be a clunky experience. If you were listening to a CD in your car and then wanted to pick up where you left off in your kitchen, you’d have to awkwardly fast forward through a chapter until you found your place again.

Though audiobooks are still far outsold by their print counterparts, they’re becoming less and less of a niche market. Penguin Random House has 12 recording studios and producers on both the West and East coasts, and D’Acierno said that each year she publishes about 10 percent more audiobooks than the year prior. Currently, the company produces between 700 and 800 titles annually, about a fourth of what it publishes on the print side. I had assumed that it automatically owns the audio rights of any book it publishes, but it’s not uncommon for either a Penguin Random House author to sell his audio rights elsewhere or for Penguin Random House to purchase the audio rights for a book put out by another publisher.”About  80 percent of my adult Penguin Random House list is published [in print] here at Random House,” she said. On the children’s books side, roughly half of her audiobook inventory was published in print by non-Random House companies.

So why is there so much growing interest in audiobooks? “The iPod did amazing things for the audio business,” said D’Acierno. Not only did it expand the market of portable listening devices, but companies like Audible, no longer bogged down with the expensive production of multiple CDs, drove down the prices so they’re much more affordable. As for the role podcasts play? “Serial is certainly capturing so many listeners right now, and it definitely helps with awareness,” she said. “Audible is very, very smart to promote their services on podcasts, because once you as a consumer become aware of the spoken word and how easy it is to download and how much of a pleasure listening to a story makes your commute every day, then we definitely have our converts.”

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Matthew Thornton, Audible’s senior director of communications, had a reverse thesis for the chicken or egg scenario — that podcasts were influenced, in part, by the rising popularity of audiobooks. “Audible was doing podcasts before podcasts,”  he wrote to me in an email. He pointed to original programming in the early aughts with Robin Williams, Ricky Gervais’s podcast as a paid product, Susie Bright’s weekly show, as well as recurring New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and other magazine and radio content. In a follow-up phone interview, he explained how Audible has been expanding the market for audio listening on your phone, in many ways paving the way for the success of podcasts like Serial. “Serial has been huge,” he said. “I would assume that it’s brought some people who were not listening to content before to [regularly downloading audio], but we’ve been experiencing this kind of growth for years.”

What seems apparent is that audiobook listeners, once they’re converted to the medium, become fervent consumers of content. The average Audible customer downloads more than 17 titles per year; the average American reads 12 books per year. The overwhelming majority of Audible listeners take part in its subscription offering. On its lowest-tier plan, users pay $14.95 per month for 12 “credits” a year (a credit is usually equal to one audiobook download). And because Audible is now owned by Amazon, it was able to launch Whispersync for Voice, a technology that keeps your place across formats and devices so if you purchase a Kindle book and the corresponding Audible audiobook, you can switch back and forth between reading and listening and never lose your place. If you’re reading on your couch and then leave to drive to the grocery store, the audiobook version picks up where you left off in the ebook.

Audiobooks have become so popular, in fact, that Audible has begun to commission original works — audiobooks that don’t have print counterparts. As detailed recently in the New York Times, the bestselling crime writer Jeffery Deaver wrote an audio drama specifically for Audible. “You have this massive opportunity when you don’t have to fight for people’s eyes,” Audible chief executive Donald Katz told the Times. “It’s time for us to move from sourcing content that can produce fantastic audio, on to imagining what the aesthetic of this new medium should be from the ground up.”

It’s not difficult to imagine those same words coming out of the mouth of someone at This American Life or a producer from one of the dozens of other high-quality podcasts currently running. It seems that asking whether podcasting caused a boom in audiobook sales or vice versa is perhaps the wrong way of looking at it. Maybe instead we should ask whether the two forms are merging, and when we’ll see one medium cross over into the other. After all, what is Serial but a 12-chapter non-fiction crime book? Perhaps it’s time for Serial host Sarah Koenig to start shopping for a literary agent.

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Should YouTube launch more robust social networking features?

youtube

As anyone who has logged on to Facebook in the last few months can attest, its native video player has become ubiquitous. So ubiquitous that people are beginning to take it seriously as a competitor against YouTube. And it should be taken seriously. As detailed by a new study from SocialBakers, more people are now sharing native Facebook videos than YouTube videos on Facebook.

facebook video

Given that Facebook is one of the largest traffic referrers on the internet, it’s effectively choking off a key point of distribution from YouTube. This is no accident on Facebook’s part. As John Herman argues cynically-but-accurately at The Awl, Facebook “views links to outside pages as a problem to be solved, and that it sees Facebook-hosted video as an example of the solution.”

So how did Facebook, in a matter of just a few months, become a serious challenger to YouTube’s dominance — a dominance that it maintained for more than half a decade? A key to understanding this sudden upset can be found in a Medium post from Jason Calacanis that doesn’t even mention Facebook video. Instead, he argues that Twitter’s future video product, which hasn’t even launched yet, will quickly be adopted by its users and will finally prove Twitter’s dominance as the real-time pulse of the internet. There were two paragraph in particular that brilliantly exposed YouTube’s key weakness:

Most celebrities, influencers, journalists, business leaders, and world leaders do not have YouTube channels. If they happen to have a YouTube channel they probably never log into it personally, and they probably update infrequently. In other words, the most powerful folks in the world are not active on YouTube.

The most important people in the world — the influencers referenced above — are personally hyperactive on Twitter. When given the ability to upload videos natively from their phone — and have them play in the Twitter stream — they will experience the tsunami of attention that YouTube stars have been addicted to for the last five years.

He’s right. Most celebrities either don’t have an account on YouTube, or if they do they’re not the ones who run and operate it. But nearly every celebrity has and runs his or her own Twitter account. It’s not just celebrities either. A very sizable portion of a YouTube video’s viewers watch the video because it’s either linked to from an outside source or embedded somewhere. They’re not logging into YouTube to subscribe and watch videos in their feed. Why? Well, there’s little utility to YouTube if you’re not a video creator. Basically your options are to subscribe to video channels, upload your own videos, or comment on videos. It’s very limited in functionality.

Twitter and Facebook, on the other hand, have the crucial benefit of being the natural newsfeeds for hundreds of millions of people. Their video tools then simply become natural extensions of those newsfeeds, a means for capturing more of their users and keeping them on-platform. Why would Justin Bieber, with his 59 million Twitter followers, try to send them away to another website when he can keep them on Twitter and sharing his video through that platform? It eliminates the inefficiencies.

So that all being said, how should YouTube respond? It seems evident that the only way to battle these other social networks is to become more of a social network itself. Yes, it already has some social networking qualities, but like I mentioned earlier they’re of little use to you if you’re not a video creator. What if YouTube were to modify its ecosystem so that, in addition to videos, you could also begin publishing text and photos to the platform? Suddenly, it gains utility beyond just video, and becomes a destination for users to take the time to actually log in to the platform rather than watching a few videos and leaving.

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Of course I’m being a little flippant about what would actually be a gargantuan task. If there’s one thing we know about YouTube’s hardcore users, it’s that they’re by now incredibly wary of any major changes that are made to the platform. They revolted en masse when YouTube tried to force them to connect their YouTube accounts to their Google+ accounts, and Google finally gave up on forced integration between the two.

You could also argue that Google Hangouts On Air is an innovative tool that weaves video into Google’s Google+ platform, but that only caters to a specific kind of video: webcam video chats between two or more people.

Google as a company is not one to rest on its laurels and allow other companies to disrupt it, so I have no doubt that it’s already developing new features to battle Facebook, but it must do so while preparing for a full-on onslaught not only from Facebook, but Twitter and Tumblr as well, both of which are launching enhanced video capabilities and have millions of young users they hope will start uploading video natively. It seems clear that the future of online video no longer centers on who has the best video platform, but who controls the feed where users congregate. And YouTube is woefully behind on that front.

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How my blog reached its first 100,000 views

simon blogging 2

Back in August I quit my job at a communications firm with two goals in mind: Could I launch a website completely from scratch and build a sizable monthly audience? And once I built that audience, could I monetize it to the extent needed so I would never have to return to a traditional day job? Though I’m still a ways away from where I hope to be, I did pass an important milestone a few days ago: my articles reached 100,000 total views. Sure, lots of websites out there receive more traffic than this in a single day, but most of them either have large editorial staffs or have been around much longer than five months. And while I hope to reach a point sometime soon when I’m regularly generating 100,000+ visits a month to my content, I wanted to pause and analyze how I reached this milestone and outline some of the lessons I learned along the way.

Publish consistently

One of the brutal truths you learn while writing on the internet is that no matter how great your content, there’s no guarantee it will be seen by anyone. Especially when you’re first launching your website you have to accept that a good portion of your articles will fail to take off. A few days after I started writing full-time, I published one of my most-researched articles to date, but because it was placed on my site when I had virtually no audience, it’s only generated a grand total of 150 pageviews. So in order to overcome this hurdle, you want to begin consistently publishing content so that any new readers you do pull in will have fresh content every time they visit. You want to build momentum, so with each new article you increase your chances of it being seen by the right people who will then go on to share it to their social media streams. I’ve made it my goal to publish something every single weekday, and though most weeks I end up only publishing four pieces of content, the percentage of my articles that generate impressive traffic has increased significantly.

Site optimization

Getting people to visit your website is only half the battle. Your efforts are wasted if you’re not inspiring a sizable percentage of them to share and/or subscribe to your content. You need to optimize your site so there are calls to action. For instance, while I was building the social media strategy at US News & World Report, I noticed that a very high ratio of those who were sharing our content on Twitter were using the Twitter share buttons. Because it’s easy to control the text that’s automatically generated when you hit that button, you can modify it so that every time your content is tweeted it also includes your Twitter handle. This leads to a sharp increase in followers:

twitter optimization

There are lots of little tricks like this that can drastically increase the time spent on your site, the number of articles consumed in a single visit, the number of shares your content receives, and the number of subscribers who will come back for more.

Diversify your referral streams

Five years ago you gained a new reader when they either bookmarked your site, subscribed to your RSS feed, or signed up for your email newsletter. Now there are over a dozen major platforms that have millions of users. I was fortunate that when I launched this blog I had already built up a sizable, high quality following on Twitter, which has made it much easier to seed my content within the tech and media community. But starting in August I started looking to beef up my presences on other platforms. Though I’ve been on Facebook since its early days, I hadn’t put much effort into building out a professional audience, and for the longest time I struggled with whether to focus on building a presence on a separate page or encourage people to follow my public updates on my main profile. A few days ago I finally decided that the emphasis needed to be placed on my professional page, and so I removed the follow buttons for my personal profile from my blog.

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When trying to write daily content for a blog, you realize quickly that you only have so much leftover time to invest in other platforms, so it’s important to choose which networks can produce the highest ROI for your content. Though I’ve long been interested in trying out Pinterest, I recognize its network is better for cooking, design, and travel blogs than tech and media news. In the end, I decided to invest my efforts in Facebook, Twitter, Google+, LinkedIn and email. I also reprint one article a week at Medium (more on that in a minute).

Quality vs quantity

When I launched my blog, I initially decided that I would publish several aggregated posts a day with very light commentary and then work on longer, well-researched articles that I would post once every few days. But pretty early on I determined this wasn’t the direction I wanted to go. The aggregation posts were sometimes good for short bursts of traffic but I got the sense that it wasn’t high value traffic, the kind that enhanced my personal brand and led to more followers. So about a month in I scrapped that idea, and rather than publishing several posts a day, I would write one longer column per day, a column that strove to look at an issue from a different angle. My decision was vindicated pretty quickly when I saw several of these pieces gain traction. It turned out that my punditry skills were just as strong as my reporting skills.

Original research

Speaking of reporting, one of the best ways to generate a readership online is to publish original information that can’t be found anywhere else. Luckily, I have years of experience as a journalist; I started my career a newspaper reporter and have written for several major outlets ranging from US News & World Report to The Atlantic. At least once a week I publish an article for which I interviewed multiple people. Not only does this result in articles containing never-before-seen information, but my interview subjects often share my articles to their influential networks.

Syndication

For the first two months or so, I was dead set on only publishing content exclusively to simonowens.net. The thinking was that I could maximize personal brand recognition if every reader who landed on one of my articles did so on a website that prominently featured my name and photo. But because my website was so new, I was writing extremely high quality articles that came nowhere near realizing their full potential. After interviewing blogger James Clear about his success through syndicating his content to other outlets, I decided to go that route. I began by cross-posting my Monday columns to LinkedIn and my Friday columns to Medium. Though not every post took off, some saw explosive viewership. One post at LinkedIn was chosen for LinkedIn Pulse and received over 50,000 views. A column I posted to Medium last week generated 4,000 views.

In addition to this, I also reached out to my contacts at places like Daily Dot, PBS’ MediaShift, and Harvard University’s Nieman Lab and worked out deals where they could reprint my content.

There were several benefits to this strategy. Because my articles were plugged into much larger networks, my content and byline reached much wider audiences. This usually led to a sharp spike in new followers whenever a piece of content took off. The success of my LinkedIn posts has resulted in hundreds of new subscribers on that influential platform. It also led to emails from potential sources who had seen my content on these platforms. A Nieman Lab reprinting of an article of mine led to an email out of the blue from someone who ended up being a source for one of my most successful articles.

Of course there are downsides as well. Only a small percentage of those who discover your content on these other outlets will even notice your byline. And because they’re more established, they’ll usually outshine you in terms of SEO. For instance, if you Google “James Clear” and “Simon Owens,” you’ll find the reprint of my article at PBS.org. The simonowens.net version is almost impossible to find on Google.

Revisit your archives

This is one I need to improve on. There’s this assumption that once you publish a piece of content you can just share it once and everyone who follows you will see it. But the reality is that only a tiny percentage of your followers will see any given piece of content you share on social media, and though you should be careful to space out your promotions of the same piece of content, you can get away with sharing it several times in order to reach more people. Also, as you begin to accumulate new followers over a period of months, there will be a bunch of people who have signed up to read your content who would have never been exposed to your past articles. Some of my biggest traffic days have come after I shared a piece of content a third or fourth time. Back in August I wrote an article about Reddit’s public dialogues with the world’s top scientists. The piece did pretty well, generating about 2,000 views. But a few weeks ago I noticed someone share the article on Twitter so I decided to retweet him. My retweet was seen and retweeted by one of my most influential followers, and the article just exploded from there, generating an additional 8,000 views. And to think, it was all because I retweeted out an article that I had assumed was long past its expiration date. Vox tried an experiment recently where it began updating and sharing articles that were more than two months old, and it saw half a million visitors as a result.

Be patient

I have to admit, I’ve experienced many dark days since launching the blog, days when I published articles I had spent weeks researching only for them to completely flop. These were days when I was absolutely convinced that no matter how hard I tried and how much quality content I put out, there was just too much noise on the web for me to break through with a single-author blog. Luckily I’ve had friends and family there to talk me off the ledge, to remind me of the days when my content did extremely well and assure me that they would increase in frequency. That increase has definitely begun to occur, but I know I’m nowhere near where I eventually want to be, and there will be plenty more days in the near future when I get discouraged. If there’s one thing I’ve learned over all these years creating and promoting content on the internet, it’s that building an audience, one that returns to your blog over and over again, takes time, and so you have to be patient. As long as you’re creating great content and exploring all best practices for marketing that content, it will get noticed. And as it gets noticed, slowly but surely people will recognize you as an original voice and sign up for more. So while it’s helpful to pause and reflect on the first 100,000 views, my energy now is to focus on reaching that next 100,000 that much quicker.

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No, BuzzFeed isn’t “beating” the New York Times

jonah-peretti

BuzzFeed founder Jonah Peretti

It becomes all too easy, when discussing BuzzFeed, to oversimplify its mission and contribution to journalism. Because it sprang to life as a purveyor of GIFs and humorous lists, perfecting the form such that it reaped huge web traffic rewards, it lent itself to dismissive characterizations as mere clickbait fodder, even as it evolved into a more complicated and serious endeavor.

So it’s understandable if some people’s hackles get raised whenever an editor at a traditional news outlet takes an offhand swipe at BuzzFeed. Back in May, an internal “innovations report” produced at the New York Times leaked to the public, and in it we found a scathing rundown of the paper’s failures to adopt to the digital age. In the wake of that report, the Times hired Alex MacCallum, an early Huffington Post editor and an executive on the business side of the Times, to head an audience development team. This week she granted an interview to Digiday’s Lucia Moses, and when she was asked about the Times’s competition with BuzzFeed, she had this to say:

“The whole mission of BuzzFeed is to get people to share,” she said. “That is not the mission of The New York Times. The mission of The New York Times is about the best journalism in the world and giving people accurate, timely information. I don’t think that BuzzFeed is competing in that space. I wouldn’t discount them as competition at all. But the Times should be there when people search for a big news event.”

This quote produced ire in certain circles of the internet. NYU journalism professor Jay Rosen noted that “nothing brings out lazy assumptions and half-thought ideas in legacy media like some people’s offhand statements about Buzzfeed.” But perhaps nobody was more irked by it than Mathew Ingram. In a column for Gigaom, he said that MacCallum’s comments “set off alarm bells,” and he argued that BuzzFeed and New York Times are certainly in the same business, even if the Times doesn’t want to admit it. “It was easier to dismiss [BuzzFeed] when it was a tiny thing run by nerds, but it has close to 1,000 staff around the world — including journalists doing serious news and political coverage in a number of foreign bureaus — and a theoretical market value of close to $1 billion. It’s not just a bunch of listicles and cat photos any more.”

I agree with him on many of these points, but where I draw the line is his assertion that the Times and BuzzFeed are in the exact same business, and in terms of competition, “BuzzFeed is winning.” This claim seems to be based on the fact BuzzFeed receives more shares — and by extension web traffic — than the Grey Lady. But saying that BuzzFeed is beating the New York Times because it receives more traffic is like saying Android is beating Apple because there are more Android phones on the market.

While there certainly is overlap in the venn diagram when you compare BuzzFeed and the Times’s market, that overlap is far from 100 percent. First, we must start with the obvious. The New York Times dwarfs BuzzFeed in revenue. BuzzFeed hit $100 million in revenue in 2014. The New York Times produced triple that number in just its last quarter.

When you examine how the Times generated that revenue, you begin to understand the different constituencies it serves and why it must be more nuanced in its approach to social sharing than BuzzFeed. While BuzzFeed primarily makes money from its native advertising, the Times has several revenue streams, ranging from print display advertising, classifieds advertising, print subscriptions, online display advertising, digital subscriptions, and a new native advertising product.

When you’re trying to sell premium, paid-for products which kick in and start demanding money after your 10th visit to the website, you’re then incentivized to maximize information ROI for each of those 10 visits so that by the 11th visit the consumer is convinced of its value enough to shell out lots of cash — up to $455 a year. While BuzzFeed can afford to produce posts explaining the Egyptian revolution with Jurassic Park gifs, and entertain lots of people while doing so, I doubt those people, when they hit a 10-post limit, would pay hundreds of dollars a year in order to continue accessing it.

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I would argue, also, that those 875,000 digital subscribers are worth many times their number in web visits to BuzzFeed — not only are they producing more direct revenue, but there’s also an argument that you can sell advertising to them at a higher premium. This is why comparing website traffic between BuzzFeed and the New York Times is largely apples to oranges. Currently, those subscribers generate $100 million a year in revenue, as much as BuzzFeed pulls in via all its revenue streams.

In some ways, you could also say that the Times is catching up to BuzzFeed at its own game. Despite BuzzFeed having a significant head start on the native advertising front, the New York Times is quickly beefing up its sponsored content studio, and native advertising is one of its quickest-growing divisions, contributing to a 16.5 percent increase in digital advertising revenue.

Don’t get me wrong, BuzzFeed and the New York Times are certainly in competition for a lot of the same readers and journalistic talent, and it would be foolish for the Times to dismiss BuzzFeed and ignore any encroachments it makes on its business, but at the same time I can certainly see where MacCallum is coming from in that her mission isn’t entirely in alignment with BuzzFeed’s. She must perform a delicate balancing act, ensuring that the paper of record continues to cater to its premium customers while also making it more accessible — and by extension shareable — to millions of casual web readers. Given that the New York Times saw a 20 percent increase in traffic in just two months after forming the audience development team, I’d wager she’s performing that balancing act quite nicely.

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What Twitter can learn from Reddit

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If Twitter CEO Dick Costolo had to name his chief frustration, I bet it’d be investors’ unwillingness to look beyond the logged-in user. Wall Street analysts have hammered the company because its growth of monthly logged-in users has stalled while Instagram, with its 300 million users, sped past. Costolo has insisted that this number is, while not meaningless, at least very misleading, because it masks the overall reach of Twitter. “There’s also the hundreds of millions of people who come to Twitter and don’t log in,” he’s said. “And beyond that, there’s the world of a syndicated audience. That audience we reach across the entirety of the web.” What he means is that there are millions of users who don’t log in but perhaps visit the Twitter streams of their favorite celebrities, or they see tweets embedded in an article, or they’re watching television programming where the hosts are reading tweets live on the air. Twitter co-founder Ev Williams put it even more succinctly:

If you think about the impact Twitter has on the world versus Instagram, it’s pretty significant. It’s at least apples to oranges. Twitter is what we wanted it to be. It’s this realtime information network where everything in the world that happens on Twitter—important stuff breaks on Twitter and world leaders have conversations on Twitter. If that’s happening, I frankly don’t give a shit if Instagram has more people looking at pretty pictures.

If Costolo’s view is that these logged-out users are extremely valuable, a view I’m sympathetic to,  then what puzzles me is why Twitter doesn’t do more to cater to these users. To understand what I mean by this, let’s look at another social network that has a high number of logged-out, casual users: Reddit.

Now I don’t know exactly how many Reddit users log in in a given month, but I do know, based on stats it makes publicly available, that on any given day about 3.2 million users log in. For the sake of argument, let’s say that three times that number, roughly 10 million, log in at least once a month. According to Reddit’s official stats, it’s visited by 174 million unique visitors a month. That would mean that 94 percent of the people who visit Reddit every month never log in.

Reddit is extremely valuable as a tool for casual users, and to understand why, here’s a screengrab of its front page when you’re not logged in:

reddit

Now here’s what I see when I visit Twitter.com as a logged-out user:

twitterNotice the difference? A user who visits Reddit is immediately pulled in and able to extract utility from that visit. Someone who visits Twitter is prompted to sign up for a tool without any initial indication of its value.

I would consider myself a pretty involved Reddit user, one who regularly logs in, subscribes to subreddits, and even occasionally comments and submits posts. But I wasn’t always that way. For a long time I visited Reddit without ever logging in, perusing its front page for interesting links to click on. Then eventually I started clicking through to its comments and, while there, learned about interesting subreddits that I would need an account in order to subscribe to. Through its default subreddits, I was led down a rabbit hole that resulted in me obsessively reloading the Serial podcast subreddit and diving deep into comment threads.

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What if, instead of seeing a log-in page when you visit Twitter.com, you instead encounter a stream of “default” Twitter users. Twitter’s staff could either establish a list of 200 or so news organizations, celebrities, and interesting accounts, or it could hire an editorial team (or enlist a company like Storyful) to curate the most interesting content. Suddenly, Twitter.com becomes the go-to place for the real-time web, an alternative to Google News or any other web destination where users go for a distillation for news. And once Twitter has managed to hook these more casual visitors, they start to realize, ever so slowly, that they are only scratching the surface and can discover even more interesting content if they create an account and follow those users. And once they’re logged in, they realize how easy it is to create content and to opine on the content they’re reading.

In fact, Twitter may have already realized this missed opportunity. According to AdAge, it’s planning some kind of revamped homepage:

Among the pitches at CES was an improved home-page for logged-out users that would include paid products, according to executives Twitter pitched last week. To address flagging engagement, Twitter recently introduced a slate of features, including an “instant timeline,” to attract more users. The website shown last week included a series of tiles featuring Twitter content, both images and text, clustered by subject matter, like entertainment and sports.

Without seeing screenshots of this revamped homepage, it’s difficult to tell how robust such a product will be, but the news does indicate that Twitter, if it wants to convince investors of its utility beyond logged-in users, knows it needs to provide a venue for those logged-out users to congregate. If it does, then it has the opportunity to become the true homepage of the internet, and its significance as arguably the most important social network will be even more readily apparent.

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