The Elephants' Ears Are Burning: Lessons from the Digital Innovators' Summit 2017

The Digital Innovators’ Summit, organised by FIPP and VDZ, brings together the key thinkers in digital publishing to give delegates a global view of market trends. Team PPA headed to Berlin for a sneak glimpse into the future. . .

Innovation Is All About People

In recent years, technology has represented the major threat to publishers’ legacy business models. At the same time, it is technology that has offered up the answers and solutions, promising riches in a brave new world.

Described neatly and simply as a “constant stream of shiny new things” by one publisher in a survey carried out by Lucy Küng of the Reuters Institute at the University of Oxford, the influx of software and platforms in this ever-expanding lumascape continue to challenge the industry.

But there are signs of change. Signs that publishers are learning to manage how they interact with such a distracting and bewildering array of opportunities and threats, and signs that excitement is now tempered by a stronger focus on how these technologies can actually augment the relationship with end users.

Jay Lauf, Publisher of Quartz, (pictured above) summed it up in his opening keynote: “All too often when we talk about innovation we talk about the technology and the capability of those technologies. All too often what we’re neglecting are the people, the audiences, without whom we don’t have businesses.”

Sell The Story

“The internet turned Editors into marketers who are responsible for their content.” So said Gerrit Klein, CEO of Germany’s Ebner Publishing Group, in a statement that won’t win him many friends among the graduates of journalism’s Old School.

But, says Klein, for content to be successful in the competitive and noisy digital space, there needs to be a new approach that starts before any words or pictures are created. Authors must be “crystal clear” on the persona of the audience they are writing for, they must understand the goal for each piece of content (reach? conversion? visibility?), identify the influencers within the group it is targeted at, and understand how to “atomise” it into smaller chunks appropriate for the various channels across which it will be distributed at different times.

And this intelligent, structured, precision-targeted approach is just the start. Success for digital content is increasingly measured through audience engagement rather than numbers alone, and Editors are becoming more aware of securing that engagement by opening up to readers and bringing them closer to the process - either making them feel more a part of the story or, in the case of user-generated content (UGC), actually contributing to the story itself.

Jeremy Gilbert, Director of Strategic Initiatives at the Washington Post, described how the title is doing this with the backing of owner Jeff Bezos: “Journalists need to take the story on, engage with readers - that’s where the next story is coming from. The simple chain is broken of story, write, post.” To illustrate the point, Gilbert points to reporter David Farenthold’s huge growth in Twitter followers as he took this approach into his coverage of the 2016 US Presidential Election.

At Times Insider, part of The New York Times, there is a similar focus on giving the reader access to the story behind the story - the metadata behind the content. As Director Francesca Donner said: “We want to show how the sausage is made – within reason”. Through its stories, podcasts, events, and digital chats, Times Insider is generating a more emotional connection with its audience through intimate, immersive content. In addition, the brand’s email newsletters, said Donner, eschew the link farm approach in favour of a welcoming “Hello Insiders”, and encouragement to get in touch with any feedback, which make it feel all the more "human".

Not only does this approach conform to the wider trend for transparency, but Donner said it also helps establish what’s unique about Times Insider, and underlines that journalism, done well, is both expensive and difficult. Furthermore, in an era of fake news, it provides reassurance to readers that journalists are professionals who sometimes make mistakes but can be trusted to fix them. “The news business is built on trust, so how exactly do we show that trust to people?” she said.

Profit = Great Content – Bad UX

Quartz Publisher Jay Lauf’s argument for a “relentless focus on the user” went much further than just a plea to avoid technology for technology’s sake. He went on to highlight the damage caused by certain examples of “perverse behaviour” across advertising and editorial. Too many brands, he argued, have littered sites with ad spots or been drawn into the clickbait game in an effort to secure revenues, and these decisions combine to denigrate the overall experience and, in turn, erode the trust of users.

Quartz, with the caveat of being a start-up with no legacy to protect, has made a stand, refusing to run pre-roll ads, for example, in the belief that “a fairer price” will be paid for “better, more valuable advertising”. It is a belief borne out by some impressive figures that claim click-through rates (CTR) four times above average, 42% completion on video ads, and 95% repeat business among its 212 advertising clients. Now in its fourth year, Quartz also reports that it is profitable on revenues of $30m.

Geoff Ramsay, Chairman of research firm eMarketer, said that spend on native advertising continues to grow as publishers concentrate on giving advertisers access to engaged, quality audiences while giving audiences access to a higher quality, "premium" content or experience. He said with "premium" environments there are figures to suggest a halo effect of 67% brand lift for advertisers. Conversely, the growing negativity around programmatically-served ads means that there is a shift from open to more targeted, direct exchanges.

Ultimately, said Ramsay, marketers don’t want to be surprised: “If the marketer has transparency about where their ad is seen, they’re a lot more comfortable, and that trust is absolutely critical,” he said. For those unconvinced by the carrot of revenues, there is always the stick of ad blocking, with eMarketer forecasting the level of users blocking ads will hit 27.5% by end of this year and use as high as 42.9% among millennials.


“Do you remember the talking car?” asked Tobias Hellwig, Editorial Developer at SPIEGEL Tech Lab, instantly reminding the audience in Berlin that long before Alexa and Siri, characters such as Knight Rider’s KITT and Space Odyssey’s HAL were the heroes of artificial intelligence (AI).

But fiction is rapidly becoming fact, and Amazon’s Max Amordeluso took the opportunity to share with the assembled publishers the fact that its Echo and Echo Dot devices have already generated 34,000 five-star reviews among consumers who are engaging through this voice user interface (VUI) on average 16 times a day. Amordeluso was clear in his encouragement for publishers – as Der Spiegel has done - to explore the rapidly-emerging opportunities around a technology they view as the front door to the connected home of the future. “If you do this right,” he said, “it’s very close to magic”.

AI, particularly in the form of chatbots, was widely touted at the Digital Innovators’ Summit as one of the big areas of tech to watch. It is a technology that consumers are increasingly familiar with - or perhaps even overfamiliar, as evidenced by the 25% of users of the Xiaoice chatbot in China and Japan who have told "her" that they love her.

Messaging apps was the other area of tech flagged for publishers’ attention, having come right to the fore as a now-familiar channel that can facilitate direct relationships between brands and their audiences. John Wilpers, co-author of FIPP’s Innovation in Magazine Media report, stated that the top four messaging apps (two of which are owned by Facebook) have now passed the top four social media sites in popularity, with an average user-time of 30 minutes per session and 4bn users between them.

Interest in Augmented Reality (AR) also continues to gather pace, particularly given the mass-market breakthrough of Pokémon Go in 2016, but limited applications in the world of publishing mean it is yet to fulfil its billing as the “next big thing”. Virtual Reality (VR), Wilpers said, remained a “niche” opportunity in its purest sense, given the costs associated with the technology and the limited take-up. He pointed to 360 video as a more affordable way for publishers to break into this space.

The Elephants’ Ears Are Burning

The sheer dominance of the "GAFA" Gang of Four (Google, Amazon, Facebook, Apple) is so vast that it casts a shadow over almost every conversation where the worlds of tech and publishing intersect.

Berlin was no exception. In sessions where they weren’t referenced directly, these companies were the elephants in the room; in the sessions where they were mentioned, their sizeable ears will have been burning brightly. Various PowerPoint slides underlined their scale, counting them among the top ten global companies by market capitalisation or the fact that seven of the eight most downloaded apps are owned by either Facebook or Google.

In the face of such scale, publishers have struck up content partnerships but Andrew Losowsky of The Coral Project at Mozilla pointed out that any benefits should not be confused with the plain truth that: “Facebook’s goal is to keep you on Facebook and that’s not in your favour.”

Losowsky argued strongly for publishers to maximise the engagement that their journalism is already generating among "super-users", such as those who comment on stories. He also highlighted the importance of publishers doing more to exploit their unique strengths: being transparent about how you are using data, for example, will encourage people to engage more, and brings the trust that might open new opportunities and revenue streams.

The same might not be the case with a Silicon Valley giant. “People don’t trust Facebook with their data. No matter how much people go on the platform, they still don’t trust it with their data,” he said.

Content: Art And Science

Described by WIRED as “the upstart that’s owning social news”, NowThis creates content that engages millions of millennials every month. It is far from a traditional news organisation – it doesn’t even have a homepage (and thinks the word “sounds old”) – but the success of NowThis is a lesson in the science of content.

The company’s President, Athan Stephanopoulos, explained that its data and insight team are equally, if not more, focussed on content that does not perform well in terms of completion rates and attention rates. Interrogating content in this way to understand what works is critical, said Stephanopoulos, as “successful content gets pushed higher by the algorithm”. And, of course, successful content means more users and better insight, and that in turn means more successful content etc., etc.

Such a tech-driven approach can appear at odds with the journalistic tradition. Lucy Küng of the Reuters Institute presented a Venn diagram based on research into how the two worlds overlap: the more arts-based publishing world at one extreme and the computer-scientists at the other. Küng said the companies who are taking up the middle ground, having navigated the required cultural change, are “springboarding” towards growth, while acknowledging that it remains a difficult transition for so-called "legacy" media companies.

For all the necessary innovation and change, however, in a post-truth, fake news world there is also a renewed appetite for the editorial skills and journalistic values that "legacy" media has been founded upon. Samantha Barry, Senior Director of Social News at CNN, talked of a newsroom that “followed the news cycle of the day across all platforms” rather than following a pre-planned content schedule; Jenni Sargent, Managing Director of First Draft News, talked of the need for trained social-media-savvy journalists in every newsroom, skilled in filtering out misinformation and disinformation; and Rachael Kennedy, a Senior Journalist at Storyful, gave examples of how it is still possible to decipher the facts in a world of increasing digital fiction. Amen to all that.

For all the details on the 2017 Digital Innovators' Summit, including photos and presentation downloads, click here.


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