How the Guardian’s Instagram strategy is winning new readers

Like many publishers, the Guardian is using Instagram to cultivate a loyal, young audience that doesn’t visit its main digital products.

The publisher has steadily grown its following and has nearly 860,000 Instagram followers to date, up 57 percent from a year ago. More interesting yet, 60 percent of those who follow links to the Guardian’s site are new to the Guardian, according to the publisher. The plan is to encourage those followers to become regular readers of the Guardian’s site and apps and, in time, possibly even paying members. Continue reading “How the Guardian’s Instagram strategy is winning new readers”

‘Our relationship with Facebook is difficult’: The Guardian’s David Pemsel says the platform doesn’t value quality

This article appears in the latest issue of Digiday magazine, a quarterly publication that is part of Digiday+. Members of Digiday+ get access to exclusive content, original research and member events throughout the year. Learn more here

David Pemsel, CEO of Guardian News and Media, is concerned about Facebook but bullish on the ability of philanthropic contributions to fund publishing. Below is our conversation, which has been lightly edited and condensed. Continue reading “‘Our relationship with Facebook is difficult’: The Guardian’s David Pemsel says the platform doesn’t value quality”

The Guardian remains committed to VR, despite limited commercial opportunities

The Guardian is remaining committed to virtual reality even though it’s unclear when it will become a moneymaker.

At the beginning of October, the publisher — which has experimented with VR for over a year — brought its nine different VR experiences into its Guardian VR app and sent out 100,000 Google Cardboard headsets to make its VR content more accessible.

“There’s a real enthusiasm and genuine excitement around the whole organization, including senior-level staff, about how VR can be part of our journalism here,” said Fran Panetta, executive editor of VR at the Guardian.

But for the commercial side, VR remains mostly a journalistic experiment rather than a big source of revenue. Distribution is VR’s biggest hurdle: For many publishers, the low number of people buying headsets doesn’t justify the cost of production, and low reach doesn’t encourage branded-content partnerships.

“Compared to the U.S., the scale in the U.K. market for VR is still catching up,” said Adam Foley, the Guardian’s commercial strategy director. “VR is still a young technology, but as it develops, we are confident the demand will grow.” All the Guardian’s VR pieces follow a first-person narrative on topics the publisher covers in other formats. For example, in “Limbo,” the viewer experiences what it’s like to seek asylum in Europe, while “Arctic 360” shows how humans cause ice caps to melt. To date, all of the Guardian’s VR films are under 10 minutes.

Right now, Google is funding VR for the Guardian, like it does for The New York Times. The problem is those subsidies nearly always run out, leaving publishers with VR teams to support through advertising and small audiences to boot for something that’s not yet mainstream.

“The Guardian is showing the brand community and viewers that it’s looking at journalism in new ways, finding new hooks,” said Mark Holden, global strategy director at Starcom. “It may be in a financially challenging place but still wants to engage viewers with the brand.”

Brands are being more selective about their VR investments than a year ago, Holden said. With limited distribution from publishers, brands can produce VR on their own rather than rely on people to download a publisher app, which can be costly and difficult.

The Guardian is under pressure to find a viable commercial model. In July, its parent company reported narrowed losses of £45 million ($59.3 million) in the previous financial year. The Guardian’s turnaround plan calls for a 20 percent cost reduction over three years. This week, The Guardian Media Group announced plans for a £42 million ($55.4 million) venture fund for new business lines.

The Guardian’s most recent VR piece, “The Party,” where the viewer experiences a birthday party through the perspective of a 15-year-old girl with autism, took the publisher’s VR team of five — from areas including editorial, digital, design and commercial — six months to develop, shorter than the nine months its first VR project required. The Guardian interviewed 10 women who either have autism or have experienced it through others, as well as researchers from the University of Cambridge and the National Autistic Society for “The Party,” Panetta said.

One consideration is whether to use scripted or real dialogue, Panetta said. The Guardian likes to incorporate real interviews, but putting people in someone else’s shoes often requires scripted dialogue. Working out how to impart information has also been a challenge — people don’t want to absorb facts in VR experiences. One way the publisher did this in “First Impressions,” an experience about the first year of life, was changing the film color gradually to show that humans start seeing the colors red and green before blues and yellows.

Panetta said it’s important that the Guardian controls the environment in which people experience its VR content. For instance, it refrained from uploading the full version of “6×9,” a piece where the viewer experiences solitary confinement, on YouTube because the immersive feel doesn’t translate well without a headset. Instead, an abridged version exists. “6×9” has had half a million views on YouTube; in comparison, the Guardian’s other VR films have each had up to 50,000 views. The publisher was unwilling to share numbers on how many people use its app. The app is No. 13 in news apps for the U.K. on iOS, according to App Annie.

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Development of the live blog at the Guardian | Developer blog

The live blog is one of the Guardian’s signature digital formats. We look at its history and influence on the tools we build

The Guardian has been at the forefront of developing live blogs, starting with blogging sport events in the late 1990s. Now, it provides live online coverage of a wide range of news stories and events.

As a software developer in the editorial tools team, I am interested in understanding how the live blog came into being, because it could help us think about how similar innovations could come about in the future. I’ve been talking to people working in editorial, product and engineering who were involved with different stages of developing the live blog.

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The Wall Street Journal tested live push notifications, with some help from the Guardian’s Mobile Lab

When the Bureau of Labor Statistics released its jobs report at the beginning of the month, news organizations unleashed their push notifications.

On Friday morning, the Wall Street Journal tested live mobile push alerts for their jobs coverage, working closely with the Guardian Mobile Innovation Lab, which has been for the past year tirelessly testing a range of ideas for distributing news that make the most of people’s phone-reading preferences.

Readers who arrived at the Journal’s mobile site or its Android or iOS apps were able to read its live coverage of the jobs numbers for July — but were also alerted with preview push notifications on updates as they read the existing analysis on the page (readers could dismiss and keep reading, or jump to the update from the push alert).

Journal developers built the infrastructure for the live notifications, and its markets team reported on the event and sent the pushes. The Mobile Innovation Lab provided guidance — based on learnings from its own past experiments and user testing — throughout the process, from evaluating design prototypes for the alerts to crafting an effective survey for users who encountered the Journal’s experiment.

The Journal has its own internal live coverage tool, built ahead of the Iowa Caucuses coverage in time for last year’s elections, but hadn’t dealt with live push notifications, according to Jennifer Hicks, deputy managing editor of digital at the Journal.

“We had a highlights feature where we could pin key posts, but we couldn’t notify readers within the live reading experience,” she said.

The Guardian’s Mobile Innovation Lab had been hosting some get-togethers and roundtables with various news organizations after the November 2016 election around news notifications, and the Journal expressed interest in trying out an experiment with the Lab. Work on this project started in June.

“There were lots of experiments the Guardian group was doing, so we talked about what we could bite off and pull off in a short amount of time,” Hicks said. “For us, it was also an opportunity to change our culture and talk directly to readers about testing a new feature.” (The Journal and Mobile Lab teams had a joint Slack channel going morning of the live notifications project for potential troubleshooting in implementation.)

The Journal plans to use the live notifications feature in future live coverage (with tweaks as necessary), according to Journal mobile editor Phil Izzo: “From jobs reports to the Olympics to terrorist attacks, we use live coverage a lot, and that’s one of the reasons we really wanted to build this out, since we knew there were so many use cases for it,” he said.

Both the Guardian and Journal teams emphasized the project’s experimental nature; it’s the first partnership of this kind for both organizations. The Lab is welcoming similar partnerships with other interested outlets.

“In the Lab we’re working for the industry and not just for ourselves — if we were to experiment in silence for two years and not share tips and tricks that we’ve experimented with, that wouldn’t be fulfilling the mission of the Lab,” Sarah Schmalbach, the Lab’s senior product manager, said. “We have been flexing our notifications muscle, then when we felt more confident in what we’d learned, we began to host events to ask other organizations what they were doing, where we’d then make a point to say, please come talk to us if there’s anything we can do to help, any data we can provide. Maybe we can launch something together.”

“We really relied on Sarah and [Mobile Innovation Lab editor] Sasha Koren to provide expertise in terms of, how do you talk to your audience directly, how do you conduct a real-time experiment, how do you offer a survey to audiences that gets you useful and actionable feedback,” Hicks said. “We had a lot of guidance on how to set up an experiment, which is not something we’ve done regularly at the Journal.”

Data points the Journal will evaluate for this jobs report experiment center around engagement, and include time spent on the live coverage, whether readers dismissed the notifications or clicked into the post, and bounce rate during the live event.

“Another thing we’re thinking about is, does this tell us anything about experimentation at the Journal?” Izzo said. “Did we make the job reports live blog better, because we put more attention to it, and should we push to do more things like this in the newsroom in general?”

How the Guardian is using article surveys to inform editorial decisions

The Guardian has introduced a tool at the bottom of article pages so readers can vote for topics they want more detail on.

For an article about the Conservative Party’s manifesto on social care, the Guardian offered three questions it could answer for readers. The options: how much the average person would have to pay for social care under the Conservative proposals, whether there was a problem with the social care funding or if it is fair to call the Conservative social care plans a “death tax.” Later, articles on the same topic featured a 100-word snippet on how much the average person would have to pay for social care, the question that received the most votes. The data from the tool, simply called Reader Questions, is fed back to editors to shape future coverage.

“The data teaches us we shouldn’t make assumptions about reader levels of knowledge,” said Chris Moran, the Guardian’s strategic projects editor. “Editors are now treating a story that they might know inside and out much more objectively.”

Another example: Readers of articles covering the ongoing civil unrest in Venezuela were repeatedly asking why the country is in crisis. Now, articles covering the news there contain a box of text detailing the economic and social background leading to the unrest. Readers can vote on whether the snippet was useful. Perhaps unsurprisingly because the boxes contain information readers requested, they are getting 97 percent positive response rate.

The Guardian started the project in March, adding the tool to one article a day that was published from the foreign desk. According to the publisher, each question has thousands of reader responses, amounting to 9 percent of people on average who see the question. In some cases, this rises to 20 percent, but three weeks ago, this dropped to 3 percent. “We thought something had gone wrong with the tool,” said Moran, “but the data was telling us the article had done a good job in answering the question.”

The data is fed into Ophan, the Guardian’s analytics tool, and incorporated into the right text format for an article later that day. According to the publisher, 80 percent of all the questions asked since the project began are from regular readers, which the Guardian defines as readers that have been in contact with the Guardian at least seven times in total, with no more of a gap of seven days in between each visit.

This reader response data is examined in isolation, so the publisher can’t see whether these people are already Guardian members, for instance, but Moran isn’t concerned with this. “The regular bucket is a proxy for people who go on to form a deeper relationship with us,” he said.

Since April, it has expanded Reader Questions to three more desks: the sports desk; the business desk; and the environment, tech, and science desk. Ideally, each day each desk would add the tool to one article. Within four months, the Guardian hopes to roll it out across all the news desks in the organization, approximately seven. It’s also looking to roll it out to the newsrooms in the U.S. and Australia, too.

Example of a Reader Question

“The three months working with the foreign desk has really fleshed out this process,” said Nathan Good, the Guardian’s product manager, adding this was a collaborative effort across multiple departments. “We know the types of questions to ask, what the data looks like and how people can access it; now, we’re working on the different vehicles for answering the questions.”

The Guardian decides the questions to ask and the articles they appear on during its morning editorial meetings. As well as editorial intuition, the Guardian mines the comments section to see whether there are themes in what people are querying. There have been a few kinks: One question, which was by far the top one that people wanted more information on, was Donald Trump’s Syria strategy. But no one, including the Guardian, had the answer.

“The key journalistic ambition of the organization over the next year is to explain ourselves to our readers as best we can,” said Moran. “We’ve started off with small specific news cases, but we’re building something more expandable. Ultimately, these won’t just be 100-word snippets, but the basis of articles.”

Images courtesy of the Guardian

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How we integrated off-platform at the Guardian

Publishing to a new different platform than your website is sometime necessary but could be scary. Discover how we adapted our editorial and analytics tools to better understand our audience and the potential of some of the new publishing platforms.

What is the next platform? Since news organisation have transformed to digital first, software does continue to eat the world meaning new technology platforms appears quickly trying to become the new mainstream medias.

Those platforms where users will read content, or be notified that a new content is available, are called “off-platform” in opposition to the news organisations own websites, referred as “on-platform”.

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How our userhelp team became more digitally focused

Embedding our userhelp team within development helped us gain a much better relationship with our readers.

The Guardian digital’s userhelp team, based in our London office, is the first point of contact for users requiring assistance with the Guardian website and native apps. The variety of queries that have poured into the Userhelp inbox has varied enormously over time, mirroring the fast pace of technological change that has occurred over the past few years.

As mobile web browsing overtakes desktop for the first time, the focus of the questions sent in to userhelp has shifted accordingly. Users ask for more help to access content on their mobile devices, and maintain accessibility while on the move. A user is as likely to be asking about offline downloads while they read the Guardian app on their commute, as they are to ask about the whereabouts of that day’s crossword on their desktop computer.

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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.

Amid cutbacks, The Guardian pushes further into long-form documentaries

Even as it trims costs to stem the tide of losses, The Guardian has increased the number of long-form documentaries it releases from one a month to one a week.

Last week, Guardian Documentaries launched “Erica: Man Made,” a 15-minute film about an autonomous robot and the creators behind it. Over the weekend, it racked up 270,000 views on Facebook and over 100,000 views on YouTube, which includes views from The Guardian’s own site as the publisher is using a re-skinned YouTube player here. This month, Guardian Documentaries will release “The Fight,” which follows disability-rights activists in Bolivia, and “The Sprinters Factory,” which features the top young female athletes training in Jamaica.

“They speak globally to people,” said Charlie Phillips, head of Guardian Documentaries. “There’s so much information about these zeitgeist-y topics but never in enough depth. Online audiences increasingly want really well-made video; they notice cracks a lot more than a couple of years ago.”

As of two weeks ago, there were only two full-time employees on the Documentaries team, which is separate to The Guardian’s in-house video team. Guardian Documentaries commission the videos — currently there are 12 films in different stages of production — and pulls on contractors and freelancers to complete the works.

Previous films include this on people who aggressively comment online, on the use of guns in America, racism within a Brazilian beauty pageant, and people who practice living on Mars. Guardian Documentaries prioritizes topics that the publisher hasn’t covered in other mediums, so it’s unlikely to do a documentary on refugees in Calais, for instance, a topic extensively covered in text articles and shorter-form video.

The foray into films is not yet a real moneymaker — there are no commercials — but it’s not a huge resource drain either. For now, the publisher is partnering with not-for-profit arts organization, The Sundance Institute, to co-fund this slate of videos.

“The ideal stage for filmmakers to come to us is late development or early production,” said Phillips. “They know what the film will be, they can demonstrate access, and they can show me some footage. It needs to be early enough that we can work to get the right direction and ask the questions we want them to, and we can be supportive in an executive role.”

More publishers are playing in the documentary space. In the U.K., Time Inc. announced at the beginning of this year it will be creating more documentaries for TV. The New York Times and The Washington Post are also producing documentaries.  The Economist is also putting out longer videos. Many more publishers have flooded the zone on short-form Facebook videos. But long-form videos come with some measure of prestige, if not a clear path to driving business. Elsewhere, The Guardian is tightening its belt: In the U.S., the publisher plans to cut costs by 20 percent.

Documentaries aren’t completely new territory for The Guardian, which started experimenting with longer-form video in 2014. Over the course of 18 months, it released around 45 different documentaries of various lengths and at a much faster rate. During July and August 2016, it went through a brief hiatus, during which it commissioned more projects and lined up institutions like Sundance and the Bertha Foundation to help The Guardian co-fund projects, relaunching the Documentaries division in September.

“The organization now has the confidence that people want to watch documentaries,” said Phillips. As such, The Guardian is treating each film release in April as its own event and putting more marketing behind it, with banner ads on and shorter teasers on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.

Online video is at its most effective at either end of the spectrum. Phillips said that documentaries of eight or nine minutes fall in the “uncomfortable” middle space. “People don’t know whether to watch them on their phone on the bus, or at home in their chair in the evening.” Now the documentaries have settled on the 20-minute mark.

The goal is to have people come to The Guardian site to watch the films, where the publisher hopes they will sign up to its paying membership scheme.

“It’s important that we have a decent back catalog,” said Phillips. “We can show we’ve been doing this for a while.”

The post Amid cutbacks, The Guardian pushes further into long-form documentaries appeared first on Digiday.

Guardian: Empowering editorial teams to improve page performance

Monitoring and alerting on page weight to enable content producers to have an impact on page performance.

A lot has been written recently about the relation between page performance and user engagement. DoubleClick have shown that more than 53% of mobile users will leave a page if it takes more than 3 seconds to load. In addition the average size of a webpage is increasing, with the latest figures from showing an average page weight of just under 2.5 MB. Google Accelerated Mobile Pages and Facebook Instant articles have both arisen as an attempt to respond to these issues within their respective ecosystems.

Tests on Guardian content confirm that there is a significant relation between page size and time taken for a page to load. This shows that if you can manage your page size, then it becomes easier to manage your performance, and thus prevent performance-related loss of engagement.

Normal practice for monitoring page performance is to select a small number of test pages and measure them regularly using a tool like SpeedCurve to look for variations. This standard approach is effective for monitoring changes in the codebase, but only for those selected pages.

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