Subscription publishers (still) have platform problems

Platforms played integral roles in helping publishers scale audiences. Now, they’re helping with publishers’ subscription ambitions, with new product features and programs to educate publishers just starting to pursue consumer revenue.

While publishers are heartened by these steps, many are wary. Not only do platforms have a history of changing their minds about how their products work, they are also limited in their ability to help publishers’ subscription efforts. Here is a rundown of what the platforms have done and the gripes that publishers still have with them. Continue reading “Subscription publishers (still) have platform problems”

The Telegraph finds success with Apple News

Since the Telegraph adapted its paywall model last November, the publisher has become more serious about distributing content to third-party platforms. This is particularly true of Apple News. Since January, Apple News has had the publisher sell ads in Apple News in the U.K.

The Telegraph publishes all content to Apple News. Since April, it has been using Apple News to drive subscriptions to the 20 percent of its content that is premium. The publisher wouldn’t disclose how many subscribers Apple News has driven. The Telegraph’s Apple News channel gets 5 million unique monthly visitors and delivers 70 million monthly ad impressions, according to the publisher. For comparison, CNN said its Apple News content had 36.5 million unique readers last year. Continue reading “The Telegraph finds success with Apple News”

For Axios, Apple News beats Google AMP and Facebook Instant Articles

For politics and business publisher Axios, Apple beats Google and Facebook when it comes to platforms for a simple reason: It’s easier to monetize.

Axios isn’t interested in standard display, so Apple News is the first platform to which it publishes directly because Apple allowed it to launch a native ad unit that works similarly to the kinds of custom ads Axios has on its site. Apple News is the only platform Axios is using for distribution; the publisher is forgoing Facebook Instant Articles and Google AMP.

As seen in the video below, users can now continuously scroll through Axios articles on Apple News, and sponsored posts are inserted after every third editorial article, just like they are on the publisher’s website. At a time when premium publishers like the Guardian and The New York Times have pulled out of Facebook Instant Articles due to its inability to help them monetize content, Apple is showing it is open to creating custom units to appease publishers. Apple did not reply to interview requests.

“Every publisher that runs on platforms has to adapt their style to the platform,” said Roy Schwartz, president and co-founder of Axios. “But here, Apple News is accommodating our style, and that is pretty unheard of for a platform.”

With Apple News, Apple is in the unlikely position of being a trailing player, as most publishers are squarely focused on Facebook and Google as their main platform priorities. That’s made Apple more amenable to needs of publishers to actually make money off content — not just promising them solutions down the line.

“The future of being a platform,” Schwartz said, “is giving publishers a way of replicating their unique experience on the platform.”

Axios launched its website in January and started pushing content through Apple News in February. Depending on the day, Axios publishes about 25 to 50 percent of its content on Apple News. Schwartz declined to share how much traffic Axios gets from Apple News. Axios had about 4 million unique visitors to its website in May, and about 90 percent of this traffic came from mobile, according to comScore.

Prior to today, Axios didn’t monetize its content on Apple News because the platform only allowed banner ads, and Axios didn’t want to use banner ads on Apple News since it doesn’t use banner ads on its website. Although Axios wasn’t monetizing its Apple News content for about five months, it came onto the platform because it knew Apple, unlike other platforms, would work with it to develop native ads that would mimic the ads on Axios’s own website, Schwartz said.

Axios hasn’t adopted AMP or IA because, unlike on Apple News, Axios is unable to recreate its scrolling experience on those platforms while monetizing the content with sponsored posts in between editorial articles, Schwartz said. Facebook and Google declined interview requests.

Axios sells the native ads directly as daily or weekly sponsorships, and Axios keeps all the revenue from the ads. Eventually, Axios may allow Apple to sell the inventory itself on a CPM basis and split the revenue, Schwartz said. Koch Industries is the only advertiser using the units this week, but two other brands, which Schwartz declined to name, will use the units within the next month.

The post For Axios, Apple News beats Google AMP and Facebook Instant Articles appeared first on Digiday.

Publishers renew focus on search optimization — and find new tricks

Publishers are putting renewed effort into Google search, and with it, SEO tricks.

Variations on the “What time does the Super Bowl start” trick of answering a question people are searching for might be passé. But other tactics are taking their place. Tactics like  stuffing headlines with keywords and passing off old stories as new may have lost favor with Google. But that leaves publishers to try to figure out what Google wants today and optimize to those preferences. They’re also keen to land the coveted spots in its carousel that sits at the top of Google’s mobile search results, a feature it introduced with Accelerated Mobile Pages.

One popular tactic among publishers is social swaps. It’s widely accepted that Google considers a post to have more authority if other sites link to it. Health and lifestyle publisher Rodale, whose titles include Men’s Health and Runner’s World, has begun putting links in its stories to other like-minded sites as part of a larger SEO push. “If we’re slow in search, we’ll link to a PureWow and they’ll do the same for us,” said Beth Buehler, Rodale COO.

Google has also driven publishers like Rodale to migrate their sites to the https protocol since the search engine said it would prioritize https sites, which are supposed to protect consumers’ privacy. It’s already paid off, according to Buehler: In the January-April period, Rodale’s search traffic increased 32 percent over the year-earlier period. Many publishers also have stripped down their pages to be compliant with Accelerated Mobile Pages, Google’s effort to speed up the mobile web.

“People are still gaming the system,” said Kelly Maloni, head of product at New York magazine.

Behind all this is the reality that it’s getting harder for publishers to get people to come back to their sites. Platforms are less reliable sources of traffic. Facebook and Apple News are encouraging publishers to post their articles so they’re read directly in those closed platforms rather than on the publishers’ sites. Google is displaying more information inside Google itself.

“They’re trying to make their platforms stickier, so there’s less of a reason for people to go to your site,” said Eric Gillin, a digital gm at Condé Nast. “It’s just harder out there.”

Time spent is another area publishers are paying attention to. In the past, New York magazine might have chopped a big article into multiple pieces so it would have more stories to drive traffic to. No more. The current thinking is that Google will reward stories that get more time spent with them. “Now we’re saying, a longer piece can do better,” Maloni said. This is a common tactic in the SEO-driven food category, where it’s taken the form of longer recipe posts, Gillin said. “If before they had 12 recipes, you’ll see them do 25,” he said.

Publishers of news and evergreen content both see big opportunities to gain from search. Google’s algorithm may be as mysterious as ever, but publishers feel like they more control than they do with Facebook because they can see how their strategy is working in real-time.

The Guardian US gets 31 percent of its traffic from search, more than twice the percent it gets from social, and accordingly, it spends more time on search. Its two-person SEO team puts almost everything it publishes through an SEO check (on average 40 stories a day), and gets heavily involved in big or ongoing stories, tweaking, or “rolling,” the headline.

“That can keep us in strong positioning in search, particularly in that organic carousel,” said Ross Maghielse, audience engagement editor at The Guardian US.

For evergreen content, publishers troll for higher search results by removing dates from their urls (or, controversially, on their stories, as if to suggest the content is new). New York magazine created dateless urls in its CMS that it uses for certain articles like its popular annual Best of New York feature, but it does maintain dates on the articles themselves.

Still, if publishers think they have more visibility into what’s working in search, that doesn’t necessarily mean search is easier to game. The publishing landscape isn’t what it used to be when The Huffington Post honed the Super Bowl trick. Other publishers have caught up. And publishers just aren’t chasing scale at all costs as much anymore, so ploys that just get fly-by traffic no longer align with publishers’ business goals.

“The Huffington Post can’t just dominate search the way they used to, which makes it a more competitive landscape,” Maghielse said.

And Google is getting stricter anyway. “They’ve shown they’re not going to put up with the gaming, so there’s no sense in trying to keep up with it,” Buehler said. “So if you’re smart, it’s not a great use of energy to try to game it.”

The post Publishers renew focus on search optimization — and find new tricks appeared first on Digiday.

Publishers suffer in spar between social giants

As competition among social media companies heats up, publishers are being taken for granted. In the past two years, social media platforms rolled out a range of products designed to hook publishers. Snapchat Discover, Facebook Instant Articles, Apple News, Twitter Moments, and Google AMP all provide a space to publish content directly within platforms. Publishers, which have been losing advertising dollars to companies like Google and Facebook for years, are adopting these tools in the hopes of reaching more readers and pulling in revenue.

Read full story

Facebook Instant Articles: ‘The effort-to-revenue ratio wasn’t there’

Welcome to the newly rebranded Digiday+. We’ve changed our identity from Pulse to better reflect the value proposition of our membership program. What’s on offer is Digiday and more — exclusive content, original research and intimate events.

Facebook Instant Articles in the spotlight
I’m spending this week and next in Europe, starting with our Digiday Programmatic Summit in Ireland, moving to London and then to Berlin for our first Digiday Brand Summit Europe. In the first two days of our event here, I asked some European publishers how they’re finding Facebook Instant Articles, particularly after our own Jess Davies broke news on Friday that the Guardian is throwing in the towel on IA and Apple News, saying both don’t fit its strategy. The general consensus on IA: a shrug.

One large scale publisher told me IA is “incremental” audience and barely incremental revenue. Their view: It doesn’t do much but doesn’t hurt much, either. IA is simply not a priority to this publisher. Another big digital publisher told me that he’s pulled back on the amount of content published to IA after an initial six-month test. The test showed that there’s simply not enough revenue opportunities in IA to justify putting more content on the platform, a sentiment we’ve heard in our reporting.

The big question this publisher has is: Why? Facebook could easily solve this issue, in his view, by adding more options around video and better ads. Another publisher said Facebook must open up to non-Facebook demand sources. In a world of header bidding, managing multiple demand sources to drive up yield, IA is simply far behind. “The effort-to-revenue ratio simply wasn’t there,” one publisher told me. “I’m most surprised they haven’t fixed it already.”

Sign of the content apocalypse
Lauren Dick, head of emerging platforms at Mail Online, said at the Digiday Programmatic Summit Europe that the Daily Mail digital brand puts out 1,200 articles a day and 800 videos. The typical reporter is responsible for 20 articles a day. Who said scale is dead?

The YouTube ad boycott aftermath
News coverage tends to go from white-hot intensity to benign neglect of unfolding stories. Take the YouTube ad boycott. Many focused on the bandied-about figure that Google was set to lose $700 million from the brand-safety “crisis” set off by reports that big brands had appeared next to extremist content on YouTube.

One of the brands swept up in furor: InterContinental Hotels. The brand was featured in the Times expose that shined a light on this long-running issue of bad ad placements, often a result of automated advertising platforms. The immediate result: ICH paused all advertising on YouTube and Google Display Network. (It didn’t pause search, of course, because search is too important.) The move came after what ICH estimated to be 25 impressions served as pre-rolls before “some crazy guy saying crazy things,” ICH director of digital marketing for Europe Fabrizio Di Martino told me.

But this is not a long-term issue, Di Martino said. It is working with Google right now on safeguards and expects to be back up and running in the coming months. “The message from Google is, they want to fix it,” he said. “They just need time to do it.”

The Guardian fights back — and the Digiday+ Slack channel

The Guardian has emerged as an outspoken critic of both the duopoly and the status quo in digital media. I’m visiting Hamish Nicklin, the Guardian’s CRO, to record an episode of the Digiday Podcast. We’re going to discuss why the publisher pulled out of IA and Apple News, as well as its move to stop advertising on Google after it too got caught up in appearing next to extremist content. Look for it next week. Also next week look for an email inviting you to the launch of our new Digiday+ members-only Slack channel for off-the-record conversation about industry topics. We’ll host editorial Q&As and more. We believe this is a nice step in building the Digiday+ community. Please join in!

The post Facebook Instant Articles: ‘The effort-to-revenue ratio wasn’t there’ appeared first on Digiday.

How Apple can fix news

Two months ago, Tim Cook railed against the rise of “mind-killing” fake news and pledged Apple News’s support in the battle against it. And so far, Apple News has done an admirable job of curtailing false news. But it’s done a lousy job of elevating good journalism.

Here’s why that’s an issue: Starting with iOS 10, Apple News comes as a preinstalled widget on the iPhone. Because few people customize their widgets, Apple News enjoys undue influence in shaping daily news perception.

With that power, Apple has had the opportunity to usher-in a new standard for digital journalism. Instead, it has eschewed bold strokes for mediocrity and sensationalism.

Here are the two key mistakes Apple is making:

1. Too much randomness

The Apple News widget displays two headlines in each of two categories: “Top Stories” and “Trending Stories.”

The logic behind this separation appears sound: Every media outlet has a top and trending list, right?

But at a single media outlet, editors choose top stories and readers choose trending stories. The lines are clear. Apple News isn’t a single media outlet; it’s an aggregator that algorithmically scours the field. Meaning, for a top story to make the cut, it’s probably trending among its peers, and for a trending story to make the cut, it has to be on top. The lines are mish-mashed.

Sometimes, the same story appears both under the “Top” heading and the “Trending” heading. Other times, a fluff story appears under “Top” and a story of material importance appears under “Trending.”

I bring up the poor category distinction not because it’s particularly harmful but to underscore the chaos that Apple introduced into its widget design. It gave its product privileged placement but left to chance the quality and social responsibility that that placement demands.

Let’s assume Apple will improve on its categories. Perhaps it will only feature lighter stories under “Trending.” Well, that raises a question: Why should the important stories share equal real estate with the popular stories? Especially in this age when so many stories trend for the wrong reasons — because they appeal to our baser instincts, because their parent is a master of social media, or because they went through 100 headline iterations.

Apple should remove “Trending” altogether, or at least rethink the split.

“I would probably emphasize top news with at least a 2 to 1 ratio,” said digital culture guru Douglas Rushkoff, when I asked him about this recently. “It would be nice to lose trending stories altogether, but people feel disconnected without them; they need to see headlines about Taylor Swift or scandals in order to feel relevant.”

With such a change, Apple would lose empty clicks in the process, but who cares? As Rushkoff pointed out, “Apple’s competitive advantage is their business model: they are not delivering eyeballs to advertisers or data miners, they are delivering news to customers.”

In a CNN interview, Apple SVP Eddie Cue said as much.

“We benefit by creating a great application on our devices. And we think this is a really, really important application for the world,” said Cue.

In an age when clickbait dominates social media, wouldn’t it be more important for iPhone owners — and society — for Apple to highlight substance over buzz?

2. Extreme perspectives

We all love editorials, obviously, but if you could pick four headlines from every media outlet in the world to represent the most important news of the day, how often would an editorial make the cut? How about a comically spun editorial from a hard-skew outlet? Probably not very often. Yet the Apple News widget promotes sensationalist editorials every day.

Apple showcases extreme stories from both sides of the spectrum. Like boxers in a ring, one day Fox News uppercuts and the next day HuffPost counter punches. Meanwhile, Apple holds the mic as the prime time promoter.

“Stories with extreme perspectives are bifurcating our society,” said Rushkoff, “and Apple can use human beings to curate the news people actually need rather than the clickbait that simply gets our attention for no good reason. They already use humans to curate playlists for music and apps.”

As a discerning moderator, Apple could feature editorials with balanced, nuanced analysis and penalize the rest.

Apple could also curtail or rewrite clickbait headlines, cutting phrases like “you’ll never believe what…” or replacing “Trump absolutely crushed liberal reporter…” with “Trump criticized Times reporter…” Rewriting headlines sounds dramatic, but Techmeme, a gold standard in news aggregation, has been doing it since 2013.

Rewriting headlines would solve another problem: that many headlines as-written are too long for the widget. It’s common for long widget headlines to end abruptly in an ellipse, obfuscating their meaning. This helps no one: readers get confused and publishers receive less engaged clicks.

Right now, media outlets are incentivized to run clickbait headlines. The upside is unlimited and the penalties are non-existent. Apple can change the paradigm.

A silver lining: no personalization

One thing Apple is getting right, though, according to Rushkoff, is the lack of personalization options for its News widget.

The first time a distrusted media outlet appeared in my widget, I dove into the depths of Apple News and emerged with a dozen sources added and blacklisted. Wiping the water from my eyes, I looked up at the scoreboard only to see that it hadn’t changed.

It turns out that while you can customize Apple News to jelly, those changes don’t carry over into its widget. And the widget doesn’t appear to take your reading activity into account (I tested this with three iPhone devices).

While I found this lack of customization personally frustrating, especially in lieu of the problems discussed earlier, Rushkoff sees it as necessary. He praised Apple’s decision to show everyone the same headlines and contrasted that decision with Facebook and Google’s take on the news, which hides too much. “At least with a newspaper, you knew the stories you were ignoring,” said Rushkoff, “they stayed in your awareness.” With Apple’s News widget, that’s true again.

How could Apple improve its news widget?

The short answer is “obsessive human curation.” The long answer is:

  • Obsessive human curation
  • Rethink the “Top Stories” and “Trending Stories” distinction and ratio
  • Prioritize thoughtful editorials over spin
  • Penalize clickbait headlines or rewrite them
  • Hide or rewrite headlines that are too long for the widget
  • Add more media outlets, especially smaller outlets

Living up to the name

So far, I’ve referred to Apple News as “Apple News.” That’s the official designation on the App Store, but not what the app calls itself. Underneath its pink icon and headlining its widget is one word: “News.”

Apple names a lot of its apps in the shorthand, like “Calculator,” “Weather,” and “Watch,” but “News” is a loaded word. It represents an ideal in a sea of coverage tarnished with a human point-of-view.

I bring this up not to criticize Apple for falling short of “News” — everyone does — but to give it a loftier target. With a thoughtful, socially responsible approach, this little widget can set the standard for the news. And that’ll benefit everyone, most of all Apple itself.

Adam Ghahramani is an independent product and marketing producer based in New York and a frequent contributor to VentureBeat. Find him at or make friends on Twitter (@adamagb).

The Guardian pulls out of Facebook’s Instant Articles and Apple News

Publishers aren’t happy with the deal platforms are cutting them. Now, the Guardian has dropped both Facebook’s fast-loading Instant Article format and removed its content from Apple News.

The publisher had gone all-in on Instant Articles, running every single Guardian article via the format for the last year. It was one of first U.K. media owners to adopt the Facebook format, alongside BBC News in the spring of 2015. The Guardian was also among the first publishers to join the Apple News app when it launched in the U.K. in October 2015. It ran all its articles in the app.

A Guardian News and Media spokesperson confirmed the removal, and issued the following statement to Digiday: “We have run extensive trials on Facebook Instant Articles and Apple News to assess how they fit with our editorial and commercial objectives. Having evaluated these trials, we have decided to stop publishing in those formats on both platforms. Our primary objective is to bring audiences to the trusted environment of the Guardian to support building deeper relationships with our readers, and growing membership and contributions to fund our world-class journalism.”

The publisher ceased running content through both Apple News and Instant Articles today. The move is a clear sign of displeasure in how these platform-publishing initiatives have treated the business needs of the Guardian. Many publishers have complained the money they make off visits to IA pages, for example, do not measure up to what they get on their own sites.

The Guardian isn’t the only publisher that has lately cooled on Instant Articles, with several publishers are running far fewer articles within that format, according to analysis by NewsWhip. BBC News, National Geographic and The Wall Street Journal barely seem to be using Instant Articles either. The New York Times has pulled out altogether.

Plenty of publishers remain on IA, of course, but the loss of marquee publishers like The New York Times and the Guardian is not exactly a great sign of health. Other publishers are likely to take a hard look at where their interests intersect with Facebook’s. The same goes for Apple News, although signs point to many publishers seeing promise there.

The draw of Instant Articles was that they load much faster than the Facebook links that take readers back to most publishers’ own sites. Engagement is also supposedly higher on those articles than regular Facebook links. But Instant Articles keep people within the Facebook app, rather than sending readers through to a publisher’s own sites, where they can monetize them more effectively, and have better control of reader data.

The Guardian, under pressure to cut costs and boost revenue, is pushing forwards with its paying membership scheme, and for it to keep building that successfully it must prioritize driving readers back to its own site, where it can ask them to donate or become a paying member, as well as serve advertising.

It has notched up 200,000 paying members, and over 100,000 one-off donations in the past year. The goal: to reach 1 million paying subscribers by 2019. Although the Guardian hasn’t confirmed the specific revenue made, 200,000 members paying the minimum price tier of £5 a month (£60/$76 a year), would equate to £1 million ($1.3 million) a month, £12 million ($15 million) a year. If the million paying supporters paid the minimum membership of £60 ($77) a year, that would create £60 million ($77 million) in revenue.

The post The Guardian pulls out of Facebook’s Instant Articles and Apple News appeared first on Digiday.

In the duopoly’s shadow, Apple News is finding favor with some publishers

If publishers are down on Facebook Instant Articles, they’re increasingly effusive about Apple News as a platform partner.

Apple News, a pre-installed app on Apple phones and tablets, has long been the distant No. 3 in platform publishing initiatives. Introduced in 2015, Apple News didn’t elicit the kind of excitement Facebook got with IA and Google with its Accelerated Mobile Pages. But in recent months, Apple began sending more traffic publishers’ way and letting them sell subscriptions on the news aggregation app. Kunal Gupta, CEO of branded content platform Polar, which works with premium publishers, estimates that for those publishers that are benefiting big, Apple News is supplying 10-15 percent of their mobile traffic.

Platforms have been an uneven source of actual ad revenue to publishers, and Apple News has barely sent publishers any revenue at all. But for publishers that sell subscriptions, Apple News inspires hope because that business is becoming increasingly important as they face more competition for digital ad revenue.

“They’re getting frustrated with the lack of monetization options on [Facebook Instant Articles] and see Apple News as a direct opportunity to gain subscribers which has inherent value,” said Sachin Kamdar, CEO of digital audience analytics firm Parsely.

One optimistic publisher is the USA Today Network, which recently began publishing to Apple News. “We’re having a number of good conversations with Apple,” said Michael Kuntz, svp of digital revenue for the publisher. “Unlike AMP or Facebook instant, we’re talking about incremental audience growth. This isn’t replacing a story we’d have across the web or another platform. This is a chance to reach an entirely new audience.”

Meanwhile, publishers like Mic and The Washington Post have seen that when they invest time and energy in Apple News, Apple returns the favor.

While Facebook might reward stories that have a high propensity for being shared, Cory Haik, publisher of millennial publisher Mic, said service pieces and articles on complex subjects have done well on Apple News and helped grow traffic tenfold in the past six months.

“It’s quickly become one of our most important sources of traffic,” she said. “When we talk about search traffic, we’re always talking about Apple News.”

Mic has one person who spends “a ton” of time on Apple News and a half-dozen others that are “hyper aware” of it. The product head has a standing weekly call with Apple News, “which is a very unique thing,” Haik said. Facebook has taken heat for letting fake news and other questionable content in its news feed. By some accounts, Apple News doesn’t have a partnerships staff on the scale of Facebook or Google’s, but the editorial team it does have is hands-on, regularly updating the app’s story selection and responding quickly to publishers’ pitches via email and Slack.

In the platform panoply, Apple is an unlikely publisher friend. It has a poor track record of helping publishers’ apps get discovered in its mobile app store, and its strong anti-advertising and customer privacy stance runs counter to publishers’ interests.

This year, though, Apple handed over its ad sales effort to NBCUniversal, in a departure from other platforms that have their own internal ad sales teams. Apple News has begun to test some ad sales this way, and is inspiring hope that having an experienced media seller handling that part of the business will bode better for publishers than Apple’s own halfhearted efforts of years past. With NBCU, publishers have a sales partner that knows their business and can relate to their interests. On the Apple side, Apple News in November named a publishing vet, ex-Wenner Media’s David Kang, as senior director of Apple News monetization and strategy.

It was long overdue, but Apple also has finally started having comScore count publishers’ traffic, which is an important prerequisite for them to sell advertising against Apple News traffic.

Apple has a vested interest in keeping publishers happy, of course; like all the big platforms, it needs publishers’ content to some extent if it’s going to keep users in its ecosystem.

Still, Apple News has its shortcomings, especially for publishers that can’t afford to wait for their platform distribution to pay off in revenue. It’s behind other platforms in giving publishers data on how their stories are performing. NBCU’s ad sales haven’t born much fruit yet. In theory, publishers can sell advertising themselves into Apple News, but it’s hard to do so because Apple News hasn’t integrated the DFP server that’s used by most publishers, so they have to use a separate workflow. People who talk to Apple say they’re optimistic the company will fix this in the coming months, though. Apple and NBCU haven’t responded to requests for comment.

While the jury’s still out as to how well Apple or any platform will make money for publishers over time, Kuntz said, Apple has the advantage of learning from the mistakes Facebook made when working with publishers. “Apple is very much committed to approaching this differently from the standpoint of understanding that monetization needs to be part of the equation,” he said.

The post In the duopoly’s shadow, Apple News is finding favor with some publishers appeared first on Digiday.

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