When I was first a reporter in a radio newsroom in Spain in the late nineties, typewriters and reel-to-reel tape machines were still the norm. A few decades later, a single person in front of a touch screen can run a whole radio station like a one-man band. But even more than they have affected the profession, technology, digital publishing, and emerging media platforms have complicated the business of journalism beyond recognition.
The strategies developed by traditional and digital media serve as a model—in some cases to survive the digital transformation and in others to disrupt the news market. The way I see it, however, brands don’t need to stick to a single template. The structure of a brand newsroom or a content team is more agile than that of a media newsroom, their needs more diverse, and their stories more varied than news stories. It stands to reason that they would cherry pick the best ideas for every circumstance.
There is one condition. Content hubs have to be digital publications capable of creating value by themselves. If they are able to do that, companies can personalize their digital publishing as much as they want, and that’s why they need to know their options. Here’s how Lydia Polgreen, who in December succeeded Ariana Huffington as head of the renamed HuffPost, is revitalizing the digital news company.
A Redesign in Search of Tabloid Roots
To date, the Huffington Post has seventeen editions globally, and more than half of its monthly unique users are international. That’s reason enough for global brand publishers to keep an eye on the ideas the digital newspaper is putting in place to regain some of the 30 million monthly users lost over the past two years while still keeping it true to its tabloid-inspired origins.
1. The Splash
As Julia Beizer, HuffPost’s head of product, told NiemanLab, “When we sat down to think about what we wanted the site to look like, we did all the things we usually do—looked at user data, analyzed traffic patterns. But we also asked ourselves, what do we think makes us who we are? The answer was: our splash.”
The HuffPost’s most popular splashes, with their punchy short headlines, work well both in the webpage and across platforms.
The concept refers to the way a newspaper splatters a story or picture on the page to make it noticeable, much like a tabloid’s front-page stories. Marketers should be aware that this carries all the qualities commonly associated with the tabloid press: popular in style, with eye-catching layout, big headlines, plenty of images, and a focus on sensational stories. Splashes don’t provide much actual content; they only work as a hook to get visitors interested.
Beizer describes splashes as “funny, immediate, bold, [and] of the moment.” In brand publishing, they can get a lot of shares and serve to visually connect the company’s homepage and its activity across different distribution platforms. Splashes could be especially useful in a real brand newsroom—that is, a team with the ability to react in real time and with confidence that their readership is familiar and comfortable with the format.
2. The Readers’ Participation
Beizer previously served as the director of mobile product at The Washington Post, where Amazon founder Jeff Bezos encouraged a spirit of radical experimentation after he bought the newspaper in 2013.
Beizer has instilled some of the same values and passion into the HuffPost. In January 2016 she told NiemanLab that “what’s interesting about the brand is that […] it has a really active voice. I want to extend that sensibility throughout our products. That’s a big challenge—how to make news articles feel as active as the writing on the page is.” In October they launched Action Button as part of a collaboration with the technology company Speakable, fellow news outlets Vice and the Guardian, and a group of nonprofits including Amnesty International, CARE, and UNHCR (the UN Refugee Agency).
The Action Button enables the audience to act on the stories they care about by signing a petition, taking a poll, donating to an NGO, or emailing a policymaker. A tool like this can give marketers a great starting point for advancing a more customer-focused culture. Often the readers of brand content, much like the readers of newspapers, feel compelled to respond to a story but are frustrated when leaving a comment doesn’t take them as far as they would like to go. They want the active voice that Julia Beizer talks about, and something like the Action Button makes it possible for those interested to change headlines instead of being passive consumers and spectators.
3. Third and Foremost—the Story
Editor-in-chief Lydia Polgreen took charge of The Huffington Post after a fifteen-year career with The New York Times. Her experience in two very different media settings gave her insight as to how to reach an audience outside those who are willing to pay for their news. In her view, there seems to be nothing better than finding a story that resonates with them. When asked how she wanted to approach Obama voters who became Trump voters, people who are in her own words “passive consumers of news,” Polgreen considered her own experience.
“Did you read de Tocqueville in college? So de Tocqueville talks about how what makes American democracy possible is this idea of ever-expanding opportunity and optimism. And the fact that our optimism is built on the premise that you could in one generation go from—take my story. My mother was born a daughter of a coffee farmer in Ethiopia. One generation and here I am running this big news organization, right?”
Choose the right story in order to reach the audience you’re aiming for. Digital publishers can certainly take that away from journalism, but they have to gain the reader’s trust first. In order for stories to be effective, storytellers need credibility.
Building Trust and Authority in the Era of Fake News
Post-election studies have shattered many commonly-held beliefs about fake news.
The BBC reported that fact-checking websites are noticing a rise in anti-Trump, “left-wing fake news,” but their evidence is merely their own experience. CBS, on their side, took a more technical approach and asked the Internet advertising company Trade Desk to investigate for them using specialist software. They were surprised to find that liberal fake news readers are more likely than the general population to be affluent and college-educated, and on the conservative side are more likely to be among the top 20 percent of income earners.
But regardless of demographics, everyone agrees that most fake news sites just care about generating clicks. So how can readers protect themselves against unscrupulous broadcasters and their own appetite for bias-confirming stories? Brooke Binkowski from Snopes, the same fact-checking website that the HuffPost uses for trustworthiness ratings, told the BBC’s Trending team, “[A]sk yourself, by reading the headline, what emotions do I feel? Am I really angry, scared, frustrated, do I want to share this to tell everybody what’s going on? If the answer to any of these questions is yes, then check your sources.”
Corporate publishers definitely care about clicks and they often appeal to emotions, so many are certainly wondering if it’s possible to be both trustworthy and popular at the same time.
The HuffPost answer is called The Flipside.
Headlines for The Flipside are a reflection of the previous two hours of Twitter feeds from fourteen publications. They are displayed in an interactive graphic designed using Snopes.com trustworthiness rankings and the 2016 Public Opinion Quarterly study for ideological rankings. Readers can explore different topics and tap the bubbles to see headlines from each publisher.
Content marketers can surely see here all the possibilities of curated headlines or news stories as they relate to their field of activity or to the interests of their audience. Being able to display different points of view on a topic that matters to customers shows expertise and will certainly help to build authority and engagement.
How to Plan a Strategy Using Journalistic Models
Brand publishers can afford to be more flexible than a news organization, as their company’s primary business is not information. This can be seen in the distribution alternatives available to firms.
Content distribution no longer relies solely on corporate websites. Distributed content is consumed on Facebook’s Instant Articles, on Snapchat’s Stories stream, on LinkedIn’s long-form posts, through Twitter Cards, and in numerous other ways. It means that digital publishing no longer has control over distribution, but it also means that content ends up finding the public anyway—if brands choose the right strategy.
A recent report from the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University shows the different ways that organizations like The New York Times and The Huffington Post use the platforms available to them. While the former utilizes more networked posts, aimed to draw in readers willing to pay for their news, the HuffPost prefers native content that maximizes their reach, since they don’t depend on subscriptions.
This is what I mean by flexibility. A business may find that the tabloid format of the HuffPost suits its content best, but if the goal is to link back to a main site, then The New York Times distribution choices are certainly a better fit—and it’s no problem to adopt them. Whatever combination digital publishers decide to use, they must strive to keep their content recognizable, wherever it appears.
Brand journalism can be every bit as innovative as traditional journalism, and there is nothing wrong with taking hints from media companies from time to time. The greatest discovery for marketers, anyway, is the realization that they too can inform and entertain their audience—instead of walking in front of the screen when the movie has started.
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Featured image attribution: Jon Ottosson
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