How Quartz achieved a 90 percent renewal rate for branded content

Publishers’ branded-content campaigns have painfully low renewal rates. One way Quartz has managed to buck that trend is by giving technology insights and research to agencies and brands.

To formalize this approach, Quartz launched the Quartz Innovation Lab in January, where creative staffers spend a certain portion of their time working on projects like this about every six weeks.

The results have helped the creative services team, Quartz Creative, build deeper relationships with existing clients including HPE, sometimes leading to projects that didn’t involve any of Quartz’s media or its owned and operated properties. The Lab is part of an approach to help brands and agencies that’s led to a renewal rate of 90 percent for branded content, nearly three times higher than the industry average, per MediaRadar data. Since Quartz launched five years ago, it has executed over 540 campaigns for more than 150 brands, according to a company spokesperson.

“Content isn’t the thing that advertisers need every single time,” said Joy Robins, Quartz’s svp of global revenue and strategy. “When an agency is looking for something ownable, really specific to a larger theme or brand challenge, we start that.”

It also helps being open to clients’ suggestions. For example, Quartz overhauled the Quartz Index, a product that sprang out of a request for proposal from the financial services firm Blackrock, when Blackrock wanted to renew that product.

But broadly, Quartz is getting its high renewal rate by helping agencies and brands stay on top of technological advances. That can mean doing more than branded content, such as building a chatbot, called Hugo, for HPE.

Competition for branded-content budgets has never been more competitive. The number of publishers offering branded content swelled from 15 in 2013 to more than 600 last year, according to MediaRadar. That buyer’s market has helped keep renewal rates for branded-content programs down around 33 percent last year, according to MediaRadar.

Quartz focuses its research projects, which it calls sprints, on topics it expects clients will be interested in, or that already interests an agency it’s worked with before. Helping those agencies, which brands typically hire to help them think about emerging platforms, businesses or technologies, helps Quartz get to the table first, said Zazie Lucke, Quartz’s vp of marketing.

Over time, the expectation is that these research projects will lead Quartz to strike more retainer-like relationships with brands or agencies, as sophisticated publishers’ content studios are seeking to make revenue flow more consistent.

Robins said Quartz isn’t trying to become a full-service agency, though, because it sees its research and tools as a benefit to agencies.

Jeff Malmad, a managing director at Mindshare North America who worked with Quartz on a panel presentation at CES that came from an Innovation Lab, said that while he keeps numerous publishers close at hand when thinking about branded-content programs for his clients, few third parties deliver actionable information like Innovation Lab’s insights. Asked how many publishers or brands deliver insights that actually go directly into work for clients, Malmad said, “They’re few and far between.”

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How Hearst is experimenting in commerce and content

For the past 18 months, Hearst has been building a site that is helping it figure out the ins and outs of affiliate commerce.

Best Products, already one of the largest digital-native sites in Hearst’s portfolio, has become the private publisher’s laboratory to test multiple affiliate commerce strategies at once, publishing content that focuses on everything from products (“Stylish White Sneakers You Can Kick It In During the Summer”) to local travel experiences (“The Best Lobster Rolls in NYC That Taste Like the Real Deal”) to branded content designed to help both brands and retailers.

“It represents the end of the spear for learning about affiliate across the portfolio,” said Troy Young, Hearst’s global head of digital. “It helps us understand the lower funnel dimension of our business that we can apply everywhere. Content marketing has been broadly embraced by the industry, but the most sophisticated clients are saying, ‘Now what?’”

“The ‘now what’ in advertising in banners was a click,” Young continued. “The ‘now what’ in content marketing is moving people down the funnel.”

Best Products isn’t Hearst’s first venture into commerce content. Harper’s Bazaar launched a digital storefront five years ago, the sites for Elle and Esquire dabble in affiliate commerce and its digital-native site Delish sells cooking products.

But Best Products is the site where all of Hearst’s new initiatives for commerce come from. Per Young, Best Products has helped Hearst figure out the details that make commerce-focused posts as efficient as possible. That includes everything from where to put a buy button to what price order to arrange a list of products in to optimize reading or conversion to how to optimize the financial yield of a post by moving between different retailers.

“Anything the platform needs to do ought to become available across the platform,” Young said.

A post that does well on Best Products with a certain audience can easily be syndicated to another Hearst title’s site, thanks to the shared content management system. On Prime Day, for example, which many publishers focused on this year, Best Products articles were syndicated across Hearst’s network.

The site, which is now profitable, has grown into the third-largest site in Hearst Digital Media’s portfolio. Its revenues are up more than 230 percent year over year, though the company declined to share specific numbers.

For now, the site’s biggest strengths are fashion and tech products, according to Brian Madden, Hearst’s chief of audience development. But it’s experimenting in more categories; it recently began creating content focused on travel, software and subscriptions, a growing area of interest for commerce-focused publishers.

Like many commerce-focused publishers, Best Products is mostly search-driven. Eighty-five percent of its desktop traffic comes from search, according to a SimilarWeb analysis. But it’s also determined to make other social channels part of its brand. Best Products is closing in on 1 million Facebook fans, thanks to a content strategy geared more toward interesting and fun products than ones people might be in the process of looking for through a search platform like Google.That means posts like this one about dolphin plants, but it also means grabbing high-performing content from a variety of other publishers, not just Hearst titles like Good Housekeeping but also ostensible competitors, including Insider, LADbible and Viral Thread.

It’s also experimenting with Facebook to distribute localized content for cities including New York, Los Angeles and Boston.

“The publisher of the future will have expertise in three places,” Young said. “It will have a database of content, a database of people, a database of products. We’re really good at a global database of content. A database of products is what Best Products is for.”

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How publishers are capitalizing on Prime Day

Prime Day is quickly becoming one of the most wonderful times of the year for shoppers, and commerce-focused publishers have made their biggest effort yet to get a piece of those sales.

The one-day sales event, which Amazon launched in 2015 as a kind of birthday celebration, offers Amazon Prime members a chance to buy deeply discounted goods across a number of categories. For publishers that make money from affiliate fees, it’s a potential gold mine: JPMorgan Chase analysts expect it to drive $1 billion in revenue over a 30-hour period, beginning Monday night at 9 p.m.

Last year, the first time Hearst participated in Prime Day, it dipped a toe in the water, letting a few staffers at its e-commerce publication, Best Products, create Prime Day-specific content. This year, staffers at five other titles, including Good Housekeeping and the digital-native title Delish, are producing original content for the day. That content will be syndicated across other Hearst titles via its CMS, though Hearst hasn’t yet decided which titles will share which posts.

“A few years from now, we think people will be saying ‘Happy Prime Day’ as much as they say ‘Merry Christmas,’” said Brian Madden, the chief of audience development at Hearst.

Prime Day might be growing quickly, but it’s not yet mainstream. As a result, many publishers, including Forbes, The Wirecutter, The Telegraph and New York Media’s The Strategist, have already published SEO-friendly preview coverage of the day, explaining what Prime Day is, how to participate and so on.

Those SEO-friendly posts are an easy way to grab traffic, but there’s another incentive to create them: Amazon affiliates get $3 for every person they drive to sign up for a 30-day free trial of Amazon Prime.

With so many publishers creating content they hope will drive readers to shop on Amazon, it becomes important to spread their deals to the widest possible audience.

Reviewed, the product reviews site USA Today Network owns, has already produced more than a dozen Prime-specific stories that it intends to syndicate across the entire USA Today Network through Tuesday, July 11; all those pieces will be clearly marked as coming from Reviewed. The staff at Reviewed and across the USA Today Network have been coordinating and planning for Prime Day for the past three months, according to Reviewed vp Chris Lloyd.

“Last year, we didn’t have any clue that it was going to be as big as it was,” said Lloyd, who noted that the revenues Reviewed earned during 2016 Prime Day were comparable to the revenues it drove on Cyber Monday and Black Friday, though he declined to share specific dollar figures. “Prime Day is massive for us.”

While most publishers pursuing commerce revenues are heavily dependent on search, many of them have built out additional channels to grow their audiences, including email newsletters and presences on social channels. Those will all be used on Prime Day.

Refinery29, which has already published some preview stories around Prime Day, will use Snapchat’s newly launched link feature to promote its Prime Day coverage inside Discover. Clique Media Group’s Byrdie, WhoWhatWear and MyDomaine, which all started covering Prime Day in 2015, have all lined up Prime Day-specific content for Instagram, Pinterest and Snapchat.

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How Gay Times is growing its e-commerce business

For many publishers, e-commerce is a way of diversifying revenue streams in the face of dwindling ad sales. For Gay Times, e-commerce has helped it avoid folding: It’s the title’s fastest-growing revenue stream and has initiated more commercial partnerships with retailers.

In March, CEO James Frost bought Gay Times from parent company Millivres Prowler for £250,000 ($318,000). Frost has since invested an additional £500,000 ($636,000) to help bring the 35-year-old print title up to speed with competitors like Attitude, while keeping his eye on the bottom line.

“Every touch point is an opportunity to sell something,” he said, explaining that as part of the transition, the site has split out new verticals in money, fitness, travel and video, making it a more suitable environment for advertisers and e-commerce. “It’s a stable of brand extensions,” he added. “I want to make the brand pervasive.”

The team is small, with 13 full-time staff, three of whom are new commercial hires, including commercial director Christopher Kenna. Early results are encouraging: Frost said Gay Times’ commercial revenue doubled last month. As it stands, one-third of its revenue comes from print subscriptions and newsstands, and one-third is from ads and commercial sales. Events and e-commerce supply the rest.

In six months, e-commerce has grown from zero to one-fifth of the publisher’s total revenue. Frost predicts it will provide one-third of Gay Times’ revenue by year’s end, buoyed by launching commerce capabilities in the U.S. and a dedicated shopping app that will debut in the next few months. Gay Times sells over 2 million items, ranging from technology to sportswear to luxury home items, aggregated into feeds from about a hundred different merchants, including John Lewis, Asos and Topshop, shown as a searchable catalog. Users are directed to the retailer’s site to carry out sales.

By year’s end, Frost predicts Gay Times will facilitate £1 million ($1.27 million) a month in e-commerce sales. Last month, it sold about £700,000 ($891,000) in goods.

Gay Times has white-labeled the tech platform from shopping platform Octer, a company in which Frost also invests, which takes the strain off the small publisher, but also means it hands over half of its 5 percent commission from merchants to Octer.

Rarely do publishers handle the operational side of e-commerce, opting instead for affiliate link models and revenue shares with retailers, although players like BuzzFeed have acquired companies to manufacture and ship products.

For Gay Times, the most popular line items are clothes; items from retailer Asos made up £270,000 ($344,000) of last month’s sales. This encouraged the commercial team to approach Asos for a campaign for New York City Pride at the end of June. For the campaign, Gay Times has recruited seven creators, each one with an artistic background (including art, music and tattooing), from its own social platforms. (Gay Times has 1.5 million Facebook followers.) During the Pride March, the creators will each host their own 30-minute live stream talking about their lives in the context of Pride and New York. The videos will be co-branded with Asos and will overlay the retailer’s shop-the-look feature.

“This shows the way we have changed the position of our portfolio,” said Frost, adding it’s a far cry from selling pages in a magazine.

Gay Times also sends a weekly shopping newsletter to 50,000 people featuring five of the most-read style guides of the week. These are created by a dedicated member of the four-person editorial team and include tips like three wears to make black work this summer or 10 sportswear pieces that work in and out of the gym, with the items presented for purchase below the article.

The title is venturing into vacations, too. Half of the 19 spots are already booked for the first trip, a cruise in Croatia during October. Gay Times gets 10 percent of the commission from these trips, and the rest goes to partner Focus Travel. “We drive the itineraries of the holidays using our experience,” said Frost. “Otherwise, why bother booking with us?”

Frost said the jury is still out on how successful selling trips will be at driving revenue. It has already tried — and failed — to sell a three-day wine-tasting tour in Italy, which cost around £1,500 ($1,900). “I think it was too rich for people’s appetites,” he said. “We have to be able to scale it. If something doesn’t work, we’ll move on.”

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Newsonomics: In Norway, a newspaper’s digital video startup is now generating more revenue than print

— Yes, there’s even a Trump Bump in Oslo.

Take 56 million, the number of views VGTV has gotten so far on its “satirical masterpiece” of “tupéfabrikk”, the company’s discovery of Donald Trump’s secret wig field in Tromsø, Norway’s Arctic Circle city. But that bump is just a collateral benefit of VGTV’s innovation engine.

In the three and a half years since its founding, VGTV has become a global model, with its leaders speaking at numerous media forums.

This spring, the latest spun-off Schibsted division passed an important milestone: VGTV, the video operation of the leading Norwegian daily VG, now produces more monthly revenue than does VG’s seven-day print product. VG, like many dailies, is losing double digit percentages of print revenue each year, but that revenue loss is being made up by the video operation. Of course, the new money is not nearly as profitable as the old — but for Schibsted, it’s all about the all-in bet on the longer-term digital future.

“What I hear [from journalists at conferences] is that people get inspired…that we are optimistic of the fact that we think we are going to manage to monetize video,” explains Helje Solberg, VGTV’s CEO and editor. Solberg moved over to VGTV more than three years ago, after serving for nine years as VG’s executive managing editor.

In 2016, VGTV pulled in 83 million Norwegian kroner, or about $10 million in total revenue. Into early 2017, it’s now seeing a steep ramp in growth, with a 51 percent increase year over year in the first quarter.

It’s not simply a maturing of the market — it’s audience growth. Year over year, VGTV grew audience 29 percent, accounting for 420,000 daily unique users in the first quarter. It can count more than 25 million video streams started per month, or almost a million a day.

That’s a good number given the sparsely populated northern terrain — Norway’s only got 5 million people.

Given that small, well-read population, why do so many publishers buttonhole Solberg at media events?

First and foremost, it’s the unique story of Schibsted’s serial and widening innovation. Schibsted is the biggest publisher most other publishers have never heard about. Based in Oslo, with strong newspaper publishing positions in both its home country and Sweden, Schibsted has become a Top 10 global company in revenue among legacy news providers, with operations in 30 countries and three continents, employing almost 7,000 people. As one executive of the now hyper-innovative Washington Post recently told me: “We like Schibsted. Some smart people there.”

Today, Schibsted’s media houses (publishing) contribute about 25 percent of its overall revenues, with the company’s marketplace/classifieds business and “growth” divisions still generating good growth. (We’ve chronicled Schibsted here at the Lab for years.)

It’s the innovation at Schibsted’s media houses that compels attention — for its early impact, its restructuring, and its results, with VGTV only the latest installment. The most recent critical result: Schibsted’s Norwegian news businesses now show small growth. In the first quarter, revenues were up 4 percent, with earnings (EBITDA) up 8 percent.

Overall, for VG (a popular Oslo daily, which operates alongside Aftenposten, Schibsted’s “quality” daily), the numbers show that investments in innovation are paying off. In the first quarter, VG saw 27 percent growth in digital subscribers (to 108,000) and a 28 percent growth in digital advertising, a good amount of that attributable to VGTV. Another good print-to-digital crossover number: Operating expenses were down 7 percent.

As it crosses over, the video strategy fits well with Schibsted’s vision of a next-generation platform vision. That plan emphasizes a signed-in engagement that seeks to compete against the always-signed-in world of Facebook.

For innovation watchers, the short story of the Schibsted model is clear: Transforming the news business means separate and reintegrate, separate and reintegrate. That’s what Schibsted did in 1999 when, ahead of its peers, it funded a separate — and competitive to print for audience — digital operation. Later, it did the same with mobile.

Then, in late October 2013, it applied the successful model once again, to video and VGTV. Both “digital” and “mobile” have been folded back into the VG mothership. Solberg says she expects that VGTV will be soon as well. Once innovation is well enough established, resourced, and acculturated, it folds back into a bigger, smarter, and now digital savvy newsroom and company.

Today, VGTV includes a staff of 65. They remain organizationally separate from VG, though the operation is housed in the VG offices and works often as if the two are one — which is the point.

When I first wrote about VGTV three years ago, then-VG CEO and editor Torry Pedersen told me of this and other Schibsted forays: “Make sure you lose money for at least three years.” In fact, VGTV first became profitable in April, a few months past its three-year anniversary, says Solberg, though she doesn’t expect 2017 to be in the black overall.

It’s telling that both Solberg and Pedersen have held both top editorial and business-side titles simultaneously. The Schibsted model seems to recognize and promote shapers, and some of those shapers should come from the editorial side of the business as well. Earlier this year, Pedersen, well known and respected in the broader media world, became head of Schibsted’s media house businesses in Norway overall.

Live news, and the challenge of a Facebook-like integrated experience

In those three years, Solberg, a long-time VG news executive, has learned lots about what works and what doesn’t in digital video. She’s now intent on better integrating the VGTV experience into VG’s wider news delivery, and wants to apply lessons from its Snapchat and Facebook tests.

She’s had to make ongoing decisions about the kinds of video VGTV emphasizes. The site offers a lively mix — its offerings translate fairly well with Google Translate — of news, interviews, and popular culture. News and sports lead viewing time, with a variety of other programming, created and licensed, filling out the picture.

Given VG’s overall pre-eminence as a breaking news site, VGTV prizes its advances in live programming. “In the terrorist attack in Belgium last year, it was the first time we documented a major breaking news story with live images before still images,” she says. “Now, that happens again and again. On U.S. election day, more people followed our live coverage than read the most-read article on VG.no.”

For global coverage, VGTV uses both wire services and its own correspondents, transmitting live images from the news spot. Its anchors also host news programs.

“We don’t necessarily go live every day,” says Solberg. “It’s very important for us to go live if there is news that we have to report. All we need to go live is a journalist and an iPhone. The technology works with us. It’s easier and easier to go live.” By the numbers, viewers responded, with “live” viewing more than quadrupling in 2016 over 2015.

At this point, somewhat surprisingly, more viewers watch VGTV on their desktops than on mobile, though in April, mobile topped desktop. Why is desktop so strong? Solberg believes getting the mobile user experience right is one of her greatest challenges. A prime goal: “integrated native video.”

“We need to integrate video much better into the news journey. I used to say that you have peer-based video, [where] users go to the platform to watch video, [and] push-based video. Users go to the platforms again to get updated. Both are served video seamlessly like Facebook. For us, the big question is: Is it possible to challenge the peer-based platforms such as YouTube, that established play channels on time spent? We think we need a different approach. Facebook did some smart moves — it’s muted, it goes very fast, it has no ads interrupting the content — while we have a click-to-play model and interrupting ads.”

So, Solberg’s team studies Facebook, and its new partner, Snapchat. VGTV began producing VG’s first-in-Norway Snapchat Discover channel in January. “Snapchat is a good place to learn and experiment what makes a good video on the mobile phone. We really like it as a place to publish stories. It’s also a good carrier of advertising. It remains to be seen, however, how easy or how difficult this will be to monetize. It’s still an investment case for us. The test period for six months was sold out within two weeks.”

Steady, above-web digital ad rates

In its short history, VGTV has managed to gain healthy ad rate for its video ads — a CPM of 180 kroner, or a little more than $20. That’s better than VG’s average non-video digital ad yield, says Solberg.

Digital video ads come out of digital ad budgets, she says, so in this arena, VG is up against Facebook and Google. Together, the two dominate Nordic digital advertising, with a two-thirds share of the market.

At this point, 15-second pre-rolls predominate, but VGTV is experimenting with shorter forms less than 10 seconds.

“It is possible to tell a story, even in six seconds,” she says. Storytelling is key: It’s noteworthy that, along with VGTV’s increased ad revenues, it’s branded content that has also helped make up for print losses. Initiatives such as The New York Times’ T Brand Studio have found that combination of branded storytelling and video, the virtuous mating of two post-display ad formats.

Solberg hopes to find other ad rhythms that work, just as VGTV is doing editorially. “We saw two years ago most of the clips were, like, two and a half to three minutes. Now they are less — about one minute. But the time spent on VGTV has increased. So we make shorter news videos, but people spend more time with us. We also have a higher completion rate,” says Solberg. “We make the short videos and then we make the longer videos and documentaries and programs.”

“It’s possible to tell a smart story in 43 seconds,” says the former political journalist. She shows me one video — a quick-moving, graphics-centric piece, one that indeed tells its story well in less than a minute.

Very short, or longer and explanatory. The web isn’t a medium medium.

One goal: The digital news leadership

For long-time print journalists like Solberg and Pedersen, “TV” learnings have opened unexpected doors. Yet, all the efforts remain focused on a singular goal, which Solberg puts simply: “If VG is to keep and strengthen our No. 1 position as Norway’s largest online news site, we need to succeed with video.”

As it strategizes, VG also makes interesting use of old-fashioned linear TV. VGTV runs several channels on cable and satellite and gets payments from companies for carriage. Solberg is quite clear that Oslo’s two major TV news providers — commercial TV 2, and public broadcaster NRK — will remain the near-term linear TV choice of consumers. As strong as VG is for breaking digital news, consumers haven’t transferred that habit to old-fashioned TV. “What we learned was that, when there is big news happening, people go to VG, digitally, and to established TV channels. That didn’t turn out — that people would also watch us on linear TV,” says Solberg.

How likely is that to change? “I don’t think that’s possible to change,” acknowledges Solberg. “We have said from the very beginning with the linear TV channel, that everything we do has to gain us digitally. Our core strategy is digital.”

And that strategy includes ad revenue that is now “broadcast,” even if current VGTV revenues largely are bought out of the digital bucket.

“Traditional TV is still very strong in Norway,” says Solberg. “Norwegians like TV and watch almost three hours a day on linear TV. I think it’s just a matter of time before this shift [to digital video] in consumption will pay off.”

Put it all together and linear TV is a means to VG’s digital end. Those cable and satellite distribution payments represent the majority of linear TV revenue, with advertising a secondary source there.

After testing news on linear TV, VGTV now runs largely documentaries on the channel around the clock. “It’s about six to eight documentaries a day,” says Solberg. “Some news — a news loop and a sports loop.”

Intriguingly, it is these same documentaries — about 20 were produced last year — that have now moved behind a digital paywall. Documentaries such as “Stuck,” a series on human trafficking, used to be largely free via the web; now they support that significant digital subscription growth. And yet they remain free on VGTV’s linear channel. Consumer confusion? Not really — just a different distribution channel.

As VG and Schibsted’s other dailies in Norway and Stockholm work through the possible delivery channels of 2020, they have to deal with the economics of 2017. How well is that big overall strategy going — the establishment of VG, a brand established out of the ashes of World War II, as a digital brand of today and tomorrow.

In 2017’s first quarter, digital revenues — including VGTV’s — totaled 48 percent of all VG income. That’s close to a real crossover, and the highest percentage of any daily-based operation of which I’ve heard.

Amazon jumps into investigative journalism with Berkeley partnership

By John Temple

Documentary film deal between streaming video service and UC’s Investigative Reporting Program tests a new model for producing and distributing public interest reporting.

We know a few things.

Investigative journalism can be hugely important. It also can be hugely expensive.

And when it touches on unaccountable power, it needs institutional backup.

So how to support it? How to make it possible for our country to have more of it?

Our answer, at the Investigative Reporting Program (IRP) at UC Berkeley, is a novel one. We’ve set up a nonprofit company to produce, distribute and monetize the stories developed by our staff and students. And that new company, Investigative Reporting Productions, Inc. (INC), has signed what’s known as a “first look” deal with Amazon Prime Video, which is paying for the right to consider our stories before any other outlet sees them and then develop them.

Ever since the collapse of the advertising model that at one time made producers of news profitable, philanthropy has been the most obvious answer to the question of how to support investigative reporting. We see encouraging examples of that — ProPublica, the Center for Investigative Reporting, the Center for Public Integrity and others, including the IRP, a specialized institute within Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism sustained almost entirely by donors. Most try to sell their journalism in the marketplace, usually at prices well below the cost of production, or simply give it away.

But it’s hard to believe philanthropy is a sustainable model for the long term, with the possible exception of a small number of organizations. We’ve seen a huge and encouraging surge of demand and financial support for investigative reporting from the public in response to the election of President Donald Trump and his attacks on the press. But how long will that last?

Which brings me to the role of universities, and their journalism schools. I believe there’s a still largely untapped opportunity for journalism programs to play a more significant role in providing quality information to their communities and the nation. If they would pursue investigative journalism and act more often as news organizations, they could fulfill the mission of the university to conduct original research, educate the next generation and spread knowledge. At the same time, they could teach students the highest standards of the craft by giving them opportunities to work on stories alongside professionals.

We have seen that happen here at Berkeley with my colleague Lowell Bergman’s “teaching hospital” approach, where students, postgraduate fellows and staff contribute to large-scale investigative efforts for broadcast, print and web. Lowell is an extraordinary reporter and gifted storyteller. He’s received what seems like every award in print and broadcast journalism, but is probably best known because Al Pacino played him in the Academy Award-nominated feature film “The Insider,” which dramatized his 60 Minutes investigation of the tobacco industry. Award-winning projects the IRP has produced under his direction have appeared on Frontline and Univision, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, NPR and Reveal from the Center for Investigative Reporting, in the pages of The New York Times and Washington Post, The Atlantic and The Los Angeles Times.

Lowell Bergman, Director of IRP at UC Berkeley

Working with Lowell over the past year — after a career outside the academy, in leadership roles at The Washington Post, First Look Media and the late-Rocky Mountain News, among others — I’ve seen that a university provides a lot of the necessary institutional infrastructure for investigative reporting. Young journalists, aka students, hungry to do meaningful work. Faculty with the experience to do it. Supportive alumni and donors. A rich intellectual environment that can be tapped for diverse expertise.

Our team of professional journalists, postgraduate fellows and students is already working on a wide range of challenging stories, in the United States and internationally. Topics include labor trafficking, climate change, juvenile justice, the military’s failure to protect the lives of U.S. servicemen and women, local corruption, the accountability of public employees and the student loan crisis.

This teaching hospital model can fill the void now that newspapers and broadcasters no longer provide on the job training for the next generation of reporters, editors and producers.

But something is still missing from this equation. Major public research universities are not built to operate as production companies, as news organizations. Their policies and procedures aren’t designed to support nimble decision making. They are, to put it kindly, complicated bureaucracies designed for a different purpose. And while the funding from public sources has dramatically decreased, the restrictions on these institutions allowing them to operate in the marketplace have not.

Until now, the way the IRP dealt with that was to use private companies to produce its documentaries, to separate them entirely from the university. But there were a number of problems with that approach. In the end, PBS and other outlets wound up with all the rights, even when a substantial amount of the research and reporting was paid for by the IRP and its donors. That meant the university didn’t get any revenue from rights and wasn’t necessarily able to produce future works based on the reporting of its own staff and students. If an outlet decided to kill a story, the IRP had essentially no recourse. Its work was lost. At the same time in my view, the university was subsidizing other organizations. Of course, there were benefits, too. Much of the cost of the IRP’s work was covered by partners. And those partners gave the work public exposure.

But new opportunities have emerged with the rise of streaming video services and the resulting demand for quality nonfiction programming. While the financial terms of our agreement are confidential, it’s widely known that documentaries can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, and it’s safe to say funding is one important reason we’re joining up with Amazon. And while we’re already discussing projects with Amazon, we’re not precluded from publishing with print, web, cable or broadcast news organizations.

Setting up our new production company will allow us to create significant new revenue streams to support the IRP’s work. And we hope it will allow us to do stories that legacy media organizations often shy away from.

The affiliation agreement, gives the company the right to license the intellectual property generated by the IRP’s staff. In turn, the work, which will adhere to the highest standards, will carry the imprimatur of the university, helping to ensure the public of its reliability. The affiliation agreement is an unprecedented step by the university. Its new Chancellor, Carol Christ, has publicly voiced her support, hailing it as a way of helping to ensure the future viability of the IRP itself and the opportunity for students to have a richer educational experience.

We’re not sure where this will lead. We just announced both the agreement with the university and the deal with Amazon. But we do know that today, the university is about to enter the world of exploring high-stakes stories and delivering them to the public. We also know that our agreement with Amazon gives our work the possibility of reaching a bigger and broader audience while creating a new revenue stream for public interest journalism and higher education.

— J.T.

Our contributor, John Temple is managing editor of the Investigative Reporting Program and an associate adjunct professor of investigative reporting at UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism.


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Business Insider now has a 40-person research group and 7,500 subscribers

Back in 2013, Business Insider started its fledgling research unit, BI Intelligence, as a way to get direct revenue from readers. Over three years later, BI has grown its research group to 40 people, with 7,500 subscribers for $2,500 memberships, and it’s adding its own proprietary research panel, BI Insiders, a 15,000-person research panel, to the mix.

BI will query that panel about everything from the Amazon Echo Look to mobile payments, and BI will use it to expand research efforts into more areas. It’s also why BI is hiking the cost of the subscription from $2,500 to $3,000. (Institutional, enterprise-level accounts cost quite a bit more, up to $150,000.)

“They are the early indicator if a new tech will take off or a new behavior will be adopted,” said Andrew Sollinger, the vice president in charge of subscriptions at Business Insider, of the BI Insiders panel.

While Sollinger and the rest of the team are eager to point out their panel contains early-adopting, affluent millennials, it’s a varied bunch: 61 percent of them are Gen Xers and 4 percent are baby boomers, with the rest being that all-important demographic.

To gather these panelists, who, Sollinger said, are unpaid, BI started by trawling through the most engaged segment of its reader base back in the third quarter of 2016. People who were reading more than five BI stories per month were sent a notification asking if they’d like to participate in the Insiders program. Those that completed the survey and met the necessary income, age and technology interest requirements were pooled into segments. Its members are polled twice per month, though the frequency sometimes increases if something especially newsworthy happens.

BI Intelligence research focuses on six somewhat interconnected fields, including digital media, payments, fintech, the internet of things, e-commerce, apps and platforms. While the researchers have topics and editorial plans, the Intelligence team will occasionally use the Insiders panel to get rapid reaction and insights into topics that appear in the news.

A recent example of this is The Digital Trust Report, which was launched in response to a spate of stories about advertisers suddenly worrying about the brand safety of platforms like Facebook and YouTube. Peng used the Insiders panel to get a sense of the extent to which its panelists trusted platforms like YouTube and Facebook but also other platforms that were less a part of the discussion, like LinkedIn.

While some of that information appeared in stories published on the ad-supported side of BI, the lion’s share of it wound up as insights available only to subscribers and in a standalone report that was ready in under a week.

“People talk about breaking news,” Peng said. “We’re able to break data.”

Growing these sorts of revenue streams is a priority as Business Insider starts to run out of the raw audience growth runway it’s sped down over the past few years. It had 54 million unique visitors in March, according to comScore data.

These services, along with a growing native advertising and creative services team, have all contributed to healthy growth: BI’s revenues were up 50 percent year over year in the first quarter of 2017, according to an earnings report Axel Springer released earlier this month.

Research is a popular add-on for publishers. U.S. media intelligence and research will be a $3.2 billion market this year, according to research released on Wednesday by Burton-Taylor. Condé Nast has held panels like the Condé Girls for years, and Vice announced earlier this month it was partnering with Kantar Lightspeed to build a 30,000-person panel that the publisher and its ad partners could query for audience research. Even smaller publishers like Fatherly are building panels that they can use not only to get feedback on their own product development but on product categories that advertisers are involved in.

The post Business Insider now has a 40-person research group and 7,500 subscribers appeared first on Digiday.

The Sun’s business model bet: bookmaking

Faced with finding new ways to make money, The Sun built its own bookmakers last August, just in time for the start of the football season.

Within six months, Sun Bets had amassed hundreds of thousands of customers, bringing in revenue for News UK, although the publisher was unable to provide specific numbers ahead of Sun Bets’ first annual financial results. A third of these were pooled from Dream Team, The Sun’s fantasy football unit and fertile ground for prospective customers.

“We had been doing a lot of work on The Sun around the potential for new business models and revenue streams based on what the audience were interested in,” said Kate Bird, chief marketing officer at The Sun. “They are wildly familiar with betting. It was a natural synergy.”

Although gambling is a highly competitive space — there are hundreds of different bookmakers in the U.K. — The Sun Bets content team has a formula: Pick a talking point, make a video around it and then back it up with a bet. For Cheltenham Festival, a five-day horse racing event in March, it produced 11 original videos in this vein. The best performing in terms of views was one in which former Olympic runner Dwain Chambers challenged a racehorse in a 100-meter sprint. The one-minute video has had 320,000 views and 600 shares on Facebook. The final frame pushes viewers to place a bet. “We’re creating that market for it,” Bird said.

The last frame of one video The Sun produced around the Cheltenham Festival prompts viewers to place a bet.

Together, these 11 videos had half a million views, with the majority of views coming from Facebook, although the videos were released on The Sun’s platforms as well, according to Bird. Determining what content leads to more people placing bets is tricky, as the betting market is influenced by numerous factors. At the moment, it varies whether a video view on Facebook or on The Sun’s own platform is more likely to lead to a bet. The Sun wouldn’t share how many more customers it brought in over Cheltenham but that it was a “highly significant increase” in its average weekly run rate, Bird said.

With this venture, The Sun joins Sky, which launched Sky Bets in 2001, as media companies that offer betting products. But The Sun has a long history with betting: In print and online, it has Favourite, which publishes betting tips. It launched Sun Bingo online in 2006, and the news brand has been a sponsor of Cheltenham Festival for the last five years.

Outside of horse racing, The Sun Bets content team applies this strategy to football, too, and through articles as well as videos. Dream Team has 1 million people playing fantasy football, who join at the beginning of the football season and keep returning for its duration. It’s a free game, with options to pay to upgrade for additional features.

“Dream Team was the base we wanted to attract,” Bird said. “They are a younger, male, online audience, who are already playing with us.” Also part of the appeal is that The Sun has information on Dream Team players’ teams of choice, so it can tailor content and bets to them. This audience belongs to the demographic less likely to listen to traditional marketing messages, Bird added. “Hard-sell marketing isn’t as effective as it once was; it’s much more effective tying in content to make it relevant to the user.”

Some of the most popular videos Dream Team has created include this video from January, in which a Manchester United fan and a Liverpool fan participate in a dating game show. The video was released days ahead of the match between the two teams and amassed 10 million views and 30,000 shares on Facebook.

Sun Bets content and marketing team has 10 staffers, and several from the content side work on Dream Team, too. The betting platform was built by Australian gambling company Tabcorp, which The Sun is still working with to improve user experience.

“The Sun becomes a one-stop shop; we have the ratings, tips and commentary content to guide you, the fantasy football game to play and then we give you the opportunity for you to bet,” said Bird. “We help inform and educate. Our journalists are racing experts. Customers come to The Sun for this content; it’s a powerful position.”

The post The Sun’s business model bet: bookmaking appeared first on Digiday.

How Time Out has grown e-commerce revenue by 45 percent in a year

Time Out has dabbled in affiliate relations with booking engines for years, but in 2016 it launched more events and rolled out a custom e-commerce platform. The result: Last year, Time Out’s e-commerce revenue reached £4.7 million ($6.1 million), an increase of 45 percent year over year. This came from 300,000 transactions, a year-over-year increase of 21 percent. Time Out Group, which includes the digital business and Time Out Markets, pulled in annual revenues of £37.1 million ($47.9 million).

“E-commerce is a small but growing revenue stream, but you can scale it globally,” said Christine Petersen, Time Out Digital’s CEO. “As a 50-year-old business, we are already global, but we are working to stitch the pieces together.”

Time Out runs e-commerce in London, Paris, New York, Chicago and Los Angeles, but the group has a presence in 108 cities. Traditionally, Time Out’s e-commerce model has paired restaurant and event reviews written by its journalists with feeds from companies like OpenTable and Encore Tickets, so people can easily carry out a purchase, with Time Out taking a cut.

For instance, Time Out was the first to announce the transfer of actor Andrew Scott’s “Hamlet” to the West End. It was the show’s first vendor and had tickets exclusively for 24 hours. The show was one of its best performers in ticket sales, according to the company, although it was unable to provide specific figures.

Beyond this, a key contributor to the growth in e-commerce revenue has been building out Time Out Live events. In 2016, Time Out arranged and sold tickets in London and in cities across the U.S. for 250 Live events (up from the 180 in 2015), which over 80,000 people attended. In the U.K., silent discos at unusual buildings, like The Shard or the Natural History Museum, always sell out. “It’s about offering quirky, insightful viewpoints of that city,” said Petersen.

Time Out is one of a number of publishers that are developing some form of e-commerce strategy that plays to their strengths. For instance, Dennis, publisher of auto magazines like Auto Express and Land Rover Monthly, is selling cars online. BuzzFeed, after acquiring Product Labs, has expanded its product line to ship scented candles and cosmetics, taking inspiration from Facebook comments. Time Out’s reputation as a city guide puts it in a good position to convert readers into buyers.

In June, Time Out began trading publicly, raising £84 million ($108 million) to grow the business. Part of this was invested into improving its custom e-commerce platform, which was built by events company YPlan, acquired by Time Out in October 2016. This allows readers to carry out transactions on Time Out’s pages, rather than linking through to outside sites. The company is just beginning to use this data to understand the behavior of what makes people carry out a purchase, Petersen said.

Time Out has a team within Time Out Digital that works on e-commerce, but the company was unable to share the head count for competitive reasons.

Increasingly, matching up content with e-commerce links is becoming more automated. Time Out’s custom Match Maker tool matches Time Out content with feeds from a dozen or so e-commerce partners, whether that’s shows, restaurants, attractions or hotels. “We’re always looking for a way for the consumer to transact,” said Petersen.

For the last year, it’s pushed further into hotel bookings using list-type articles like “The best hotels in NYC” and “The 100 best hotels in London,” which has meant that the company is getting higher value per transaction.

“We’ll never get rid of the independence of the editorial team,” said Petersen, “but I want them to lend their creative flare to a headline or email copy. We have that tension internally — that’s fine; I actually want that.”

Broadly speaking, the Time Out audience is broken into three groups: a third from the local city, a third from the greater metropolitan area and a third from completely outside the metropolitan area.

“These people are logical candidates for a hotel,” said Petersen. “From quantitative analysis, we have found that 95 percent of our audience does something as a result of connecting with our brand, (whether that is online or in print); that’s a phenomenal upside for commerce.”

Image courtesy of Justinc, via the Creative Commons Act.

The post How Time Out has grown e-commerce revenue by 45 percent in a year appeared first on Digiday.

VoiceLabs lets Alexa developers make money with sponsored messages


The next time you listen to the news on an Amazon Alexa you might hear an ad for Wendy’s Baconator.

Voice computing analytics company VoiceLabs today announced the launch of Sponsored Messages, a service for Alexa developers to monetize their skills with advertisements.

The first Sponsored Messages advertisers include ESPN, Wendy’s, and Progressive Insurance. To hear what an ad sounds like, try the San Francisco for Local News flash briefing in the Alexa Skills Store.

The advertising plan sits on top of the VoiceLabs analytics platform. To start advertising, developers must request to join. Once they’re in, they just check a box that asks if they’d like to monetize, then choose which ads to run, VoiceLabs CEO Adam Marchick told VentureBeat in a phone interview.

The fledgling ad network is possible due to a recent change in policy for Alexa skills developers. Last month, as people took Google to task for ‘Beauty and the Beast’ and Burger King ads, Amazon declared that Alexa skills developers aren’t allowed to include advertising.

Since then, the policy has changed to allow ads in flash briefings, streaming music, and streaming radio. Roughly 3,000 of the 13,000 skills in the Alexa Skills Store fit this description, Marchick said. The cadence on how often an advertisement plays is determined by the skill creator.

“Once they [an Alexa skill user] gets a first ad, they might not get another ad for 30 sessions, all configurable by the developer,” Marchick said.

With more than 13,000 skills, Alexa clearly has the largest voice app ecosystem right now, but Marchick said he wants the ad network to make its way to other third party voice app ecosystems emerging around Cortana and Google Assistant. By comparison, about two dozen Cortana skills made their debut Wednesday, while Google Assistant has more than 200 actions.

Amazon began to allow developers to learn the location of users earlier this year, so VoiceLabs ads can be targeted by location, but more permissions are required from Amazon in order to target specific demographics, Marchick said.

“We can’t do what Amazon doesn’t enable and Amazon doesn’t enable identity so we can’t do that specific level of targeting,” he said.

VoiceLabs is currently used by more than 1,000 developers creating Google Assistant actions and Alexa skills.

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