Guest Post: 4 Predictions for 2014: The Ascendance of Users and More

December 18th, 2013 by Phillip Smith

Phillip Smith is a digital publishing consultant who focuses on news innovation, specifically "the technology and ideas that are shaping how users interact with journalism online." You can find him on Twitter and at www.phillipadsmith.com

Phillip Smith Chartbeat

When I created my first Chartbeat account back on March 23, 2010, I didn't anticipate that just a few short years later I'd be asked to host a talk at Chartbeat's NYC HQ to explore how publishers are going "Beyond the Click" to get to actual engagement.

I also didn't anticipate the impact of that event on my thinking about the nexus of publishers, the technology companies working in the publishing space, advertisers and media buyers, and -- most importantly -- the engaged users.

At the conclusion of the event I had a good hunch that this loose collection of ideas and initiatives, which fall under the heading of "new metrics for publishers" -- happening very openly at companies like Chartbeat and Disqus, but also unfolding in newsrooms around the world -- was likely to be a key theme in 2014, along with unprecedented technology innovation in newsrooms, the disruption of the existing advertising models,  and the changing demands of users.

Phillip Smith Chartbeat

Publishers take center stage on the Web

If you take it as face value, recent research tell us that roughly 78% of adult internet users in the U.S. go online to "get news." Add to that some of the other main reasons that people go online -- e.g., "to look for information about a service or product they are thinking of buying" or "to find information on a hobby or interest" -- and you’ll find that online publishers are often providing that information too.

This puts publishers in a very enviable position, I would propose, as the producers, purveyors, curators, and gatekeepers of much of the Internet's most sought-after commodity: fresh, timely, contextual, and relatively-objective information. One by one, publishers appear to have navigated their ships’ course to adapt to the changing landscape. They are focusing attention on a new, quickly evolving role as the central marketplace of information, attention, and engagement.

Newsrooms as software innovation labs

More interesting still is the relatively new trend of publishers investing in digital staff that are not stuck in the outdated role of "IT." Working at a distance from those folks that are managing the servers and infrastructure, these new "news apps" and "good Internet" teams are embracing experimentation. They are pushing the envelope of what users have come to expect as "content" and "information." The outcome is new forms of journalism and storytelling that invite the user to be more engaged, whether through data, interactivity, or awe.

One side effect of these investments is a quickly-maturing technical acumen in newsrooms and a wealth of contributions back to the open-source software community -- the same community that helped to make much of the innovation possible in the first place. A natural feedback loop is born: more technical innovation and open-source contributions by newsrooms lures more talented developers away from other sectors, and more talented developers often means more innovation in those same newsrooms.

Another upside of this publisher-driven innovation, is the pressure it exerts on the ecosystem of technology vendors they collaborate with, compelling those same vendors to evolve their products more rapidly and to open up new ways for programmers to work with their products.

Disruption of the display advertising model

Pressure is also being exerted on many of the players in the traditional online display advertising space, in many parts due to the experiments that online publishers are undertaking. For example, just one factor out of several -- the increased consumption of online content on mobile devices -- has meant that forward-thinking publishers have all but eliminated traditional display ad formats from their now "mobile first"  Web properties; the lonely "big box” display ad is almost all that remains in many recently launched "responsive" sites that aim to provide an all-in-one experience for readers arriving from phones, tablets, laptops, or desktops. The Boston Globe, GlobalNews.ca, and NPR are good examples.

Other pressures, like low reader engagement with display advertising, and the complicated web of ad-delivery networks, slow ad-serving technologies, and the increasing practice of “programmatic buying” that sidesteps the publisher’s sales team, have lead to a wave of publishers experimenting with new ad formats that fall under the term "native advertising"  (or "sponsored content"), where the distinction between advertising and content blurs considerably. However, almost overnight, publishers have bootstrapped their own solutions to two challenges: ad formats that adapt well to the mobile reading experience, as well as, in many cases, increasing reader engagement. Some recent numbers suggest that as many as 3/4 of online publishers in the U.S. are now offering native advertising.

These shifts away from timidly accepting what technology vendors have to offer, or what advertising agencies are pitching, and toward producing in-house solutions to the challenge of increasing their readers' satisfaction and engagement exemplify publishers pushing the envelope at a time when they've come to see the role they play as one of the convening places on the modern Web.

Users start to pay for content, but want privacy too

At the other end of these shifts, however, are some established technology companies making quick moves to address these new challenges head-on with their existing products. For example, Chartbeat's push to create a new metric for publishers, "Engaged Time" is one great example (and they didn't ask me to say that!). Thought leadership is coming from all directions, and it is often touching on this intersection of publishers, advertising, and users.

There is, generally speaking, a surge of analytics and “big data” technology coming onto the market that is aimed at helping online publishers make sense of their mountain of accumulated "user data." A focus of many of these new analytics platforms is to help publishers understand their audience better, as well as which content performs the best, and publishers are increasingly in the position of making tough decisions about which visits matter to them most when they decide where to invest their editorial budget.

One voice is still often missing, however, or perhaps it is one billion voices: the end-user, the news consumer, the reader, the individuals who use the Web. This coming year, I predict, is going to be about the unfolding story of a new contract between readers, publishers, technology platforms, and advertisers.

 The continued, and relatively successful, introduction of pay walls at mainstream news sites, experimental subscription strategies at the heart of a new bread of entrepreneurial journalism initiatives, and the continued success of "crowd funding" to help support expensive types of journalism all point in one direction: publishers will rely less on "selling users to advertisers" as the exclusive strategy for financial sustainablity.

At the same time, however, users are growing leery from the ongoing revelations of the invasions of their privacy by the companies they once thought were infallible, and thus many are growing more reluctant to unwittingly hand over their information. Practices like programatic ad buying, which make online tracking more directly evident to end-users, and efforts like Mozilla’s Lightbeam for Firefox, which shine a light on how much data is being shared, and with whom, will continue to push users to ask for more privacy from publisher, advertisers, and platforms.

The dynamics at play above -- publishers, technology platforms, advertisers, and users -- and the tensions being exerted as each one tries to optimize their online experience -- whether it’s sharable content, ad delivery, better metrics, or more privacy -- is why I’m predicting that “the ascendance of publishers and users” will be a key narrative of the Web in 2014.

What do you predict will happen in online publishing in 2014? Do you agree with Phillip's predictions? Share your ideas in the Comments below.

  • Ethan

    Very interesting stuff, and useful for media types, thanks. The rise of sponsored content is disturbing, considering it probably replaces, among media consumers, actual unbiased news, leaving people increasingly ignorant and less and less able to participate effectively in democracy through informed understanding of our societies, governments and environments…