The Future of News and how we can apply this to broader content strategy

After attending a lecture at General Assembly on the Future of News, I thought it would benefit SEO consultants, publishers and writers alike to look at some of the ideas and assess how they could be interpreted to benefit broader content creation. This also ties in with a Distilled-level interest in how search is evolving. If you’re interested, take another look at Will Critchlow’s theories about the Future of Search for a quick recap.

As consultants, the idea that we all need to produce good quality content is not new. By using the nuggets of wisdom gleaned from the news lecture, in conjunction with Reuters Institute's Digital News Report, a familiar dilemma - how to keep producing compelling, engaging content to keep people on your site - is cast in a new light. The lecture also illuminated the new responsibilities of writers, with this improved understanding of a writer’s place in the distribution of content, consultants will be better places to pick their writers and ensure that they understand their responsibilities.

Using the news industry as a starting point, here’s how I would start a digital project:

Find appropriate writers - their social networks matter

Beyond writing talent and experience, it is now critical to factor in social following and influence as writers are now a key part of the distribution of the content. In the glory days of print media, your distribution was a man and a van; now writers are expected to play their part too by sharing, liking, +1-ing and responding to comments.

Distribution - old school The old method of news distribution: one man and a van

This, in itself, is not revelatory advice; however, after digging into this in more detail it became clear that now editors are not afraid to get specific: a Conde Nast TV journalist contact I spoke to has social media specifics in her contract regarding her existing social networks (at least 8 tweets pushing each episode, at least 10% of direct twitter questions must have a response and popular discussions within the comments merit their own video response). Another journalist I spoke to was offered a book deal based upon the number of his Twitter followers alone. (I put that bit in to cheer up the writers).

Whilst we are here, it is important to have a basic understanding of Author Rank and how it affects writers and, potentially, the search results. The subject is too vast to explain in full in this post, for a more thorough understanding, please start with Eric Enge’s helpful post.

In short, Google, via Google+ has developed a way of determining an expert’s knowledge in a subject based in part on the number of shares and +1s the writer’s work generates. This is Author Rank and it allows any writer with a Google+ profile and a portfolio to link all of their published content to their Google+ profile and thus build up their own Author Rank (providing it is of a high enough quality). The advantage of a high Author Rank, in theory, is a higher position in the search results and a central ‘hub’ for publishers and consultants to find and track writers.

Your writers’ must be relevant and active on these networks (Google+, Twitter, LinkedIn and Facebook) as their social weight is now a key component of your distribution. Expect it and harness it.

Format and function matter. Experiment!

News publishers of all sizes (eg Fast Company, BBC) have been experimenting with the Live Blog** format. ** This article type has many names, I’ve seen live news pages, live blogs, tracking articles, slow live blogs.

A basic definition of a live blog, as discussed at the Future of News lecture:

On one URL, an article is posted and more content is added repeatedly in either chronological or reverse chronological order. Video and comments are almost always featured on the page to supplement the copy.

As it is now acknowledged that longform journalism is far from dead, the live blog comes into its own as it lends itself to longer articles and has certain advantages:

i) Headline A/B testing.

By keeping the same URL and updating the content every couple of days, it is possible to experiment with the the headlines and assess the impact on traffic, CTR, and time on page via Google Analytics. Taking this one stage further, Slate is experimenting with automating the process of changing their headlines to make them more appealing on twitter.

ii) Content Evolution.

As the piece is updated, comments from the readers can lead to new angles for the life of the article and beyond. Similarly, if the subject creates a buzz or seems popular, this might mean there is scope to develop this into a longer series of articles. The key point is that your readers are telling you directly what they want to read.

iii) Community.

The commenters and followers of this growing story (encourage them to subscribe for updates) form an ad hoc network. This group can be part of outreach for future projects that touch on a similar subject or as the story evolves.

iv) Engagement.

Fast Company reported a 42% rise in time on site with the live blog format.

Remember, experimentation is key and newsworthy in itself, think back on all the hype the New York Times’ Snowfall generated.

How will readers find this content?

(All stats from Reuters Institute)

This differs country-to-country so it makes sense to factor it into your content promotion if you are aiming for an international market.

As English-speakers, we inevitably focus on the UK and the US markets but the chart below from Reuters is useful for anyone promoting their content on an international scale.

Reuters chart - how we find news by country Reuters Institute - how we find news by country

In terms of differences between the US and UK:

i) In the UK, users are more likely to find news directly via a branded site than the US (34% UK to 20% for the US)

Institutions like the BBC reign supreme in the UK (Source: Reuters Institute, page 54)  but the US feels comparatively less brand loyalty perhaps because there are more competitors at a broadly similar level, Yahoo, Fox, CNN and NBC.

What this might mean for content broadly - US users are more open-minded about content from an unknown source. This is good news for newer companies or those moving into content when they might not traditionally be known for this. Opportunity!

ii) US users are nearly twice as likely to find and share news content on a social network than UK users. ( 30% US to 17% UK)

For all content types, social networks should be part of the distribution and promotion, particularly in the US. Within social networks, remember Google+ and LinkedIn are also powerful tools with niche communities of their own. LinkedIn, whilst not popular for sharing news in the UK,  is particularly effective for B2B and industry content marketing.

The Reuters Institute's Digital News Report only has this level of detail for the UK however the results below demonstrate Facebook's dominance.

Popularity of Social Networks in the UK Popularity of Social Networks in the UK


4) Track comments and engagement but factor in significant differences in the level of participation across countries.

In terms of news content, the key differences between the US and the UK is that US users are twice (or more!) likely to do the following (Source: Reuters Institute)

  • Share a news story via a social network (US 22%; UK 11%)

  • Share a news story via email (US 23%; UK 10%)

  • Rate or like a news story (US 14%; UK 6%)

  • Comment on a news story on a social network (US 21%; UK 10%)

  • Comment on a news story on a news website (US 16%; UK 7%)

  • Vote in an online poll via a news site or social network (US 30%: UK 11%)

So when the time comes to measure engagement the figures above suggest a 2:1 ratio for US versus UK engagement. Factor this in when analysing the success of campaigns. This post from Convince and Convert covers the basics of engagement metrics.

Reuters - Participation in the news - by country Participation in the news - by country

5) Maximise post publication revenue opportunities (for publishers!)

Publishers are experimenting with repurposing their content for ebooks. Grouping content by subject, theme, date or period and selling these on a one-off payment model for a low dollar amount. It is a clever, efficient way to make your content more profitable. Several publishers, including Fast Company, are even developing software to automate ebook production.

Businesses may not be able to charge for their content, but there are still opportunities to reformat content for ebooks and tablets and embed CTAs links within it to encourage further sales. It will also enhance the buyer’s relationship with the brand. This is applicable for any brand with any sort of cult following or a high-end luxury brand that tends to specialize in one-off purchases. eg high-end cars, yachts, couture and fine art.

Quick Recap:

1) Harness your writers’ social influence, get specific.

2) Experiment with formats that encourage engagement.

3) Research how your target country finds content.

4) Research how your target country participates with content and factor this in when analysing a project’s success.

5) Repurpose your content in new formats, whether for revenue or branding opportunities.

Going forward

Starting a publishing project with this short checklist in mind will be a good starting point; however, this is only enough to get the doors open. To keep them open, publishers and others commissioning content will need to think about:

1) The challenge of continually developing new revenue streams. Paywalls, ad revenue and ebooks can only get you so far. Keep an eye of what other people are doing, how they are innovating, what formats they are using and how their ad products are evolving.

2) As the amount of content increases, it will become increasingly important to provide filters for readers to help them manage the flood of information. The Huffington Post does this well with their email roundup every other day of key information within a given subject.

By looking to the news industry, which usually operates at scale, other publishers can keep track of the tactics and methods used and adapt them for their own purposes.

The ‘Future of News’ is a huge subject, there is much more that can be said about the generation divide and how this affects news sourcing habits as well as how this varies from country-to-country. Likewise, the rise of tablet and mobile usage, as opposed to the rise of paywalls, presents an interesting situation for the news industry at large and may resonate beyond the publishing sphere.

Please shout in the comments if you have observed anything novel in your news reading or wish to know more.

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