For the first eighteen months out of college, I was lucky enough to live and work in Hong Kong. Food, local customs, and celebrating holidays were the obvious areas that were so different to life in the US. And not to mention bargaining, which I came to see as a competitive sport.
Food was probably the easiest entry to the culture, and one of my favorite things about living in the region. Two months after ditching a university meal plan, I was ordering xiao long bao (soup dumplings) and shao siu bao (BBQ pork buns) alongside my colleagues. Through food, I learned important customs. Pour the entire table tea and yourself last. When fish is served in banquet-style, you offer the meat on the cheek to the dinner guest or most senior person present.
Four years later, I’m back in New York and I’m reminded more than ever about my time there. I joined Chartbeat this spring and spend a lot of my day researching and speaking with online publishers across the world about audience behavior. I’ve been exposed to varying media trends – from discussing how visitors consume a site’s content on different devices (desktop vs mobile) to the bright future for budding publishers in Latin America. Yet I still find China to have one of the most fascinating media landscapes. Both vast in number of users, and regions it touches, the internet in China has been rapidly evolving in the past decade with use patterns not yet seen in the rest of world. All things considered, years later, I’m still trying to grasp the makeup. So while I haven’t craved an egg tart in months (think creme brulee custard in warm pie crust), and sadly can’t remember the last time I’ve treated myself to Peking Duck (I’ll need to work on that), I’m often thinking back to the cool things in media I saw, read or heard about from my co-workers.I thought it’d be fun to share some of the media trends (from changes in journalism as a practice to social media across the board) that I saw when I was in China and continue to read about today:
Social Media as hard news.
Half of China’s 1.1 billion inhabitants are online, and they rely on friends to get their news. China has the world’s most active social-media population, by leaps and bounds. 91% of Chinese respondents in a McKinsey survey said they visited a social-media site in the last six months, in comparison to 67% in the United States(1). Microblogging, or “weibo” in Chinese, has become extremely popular in the last few years and refers to social chat sites and platform sharing like the US equivalent, Twitter (Twitter is actually blocked in China).
Not surprising, Sina Weibo (weibo.com) is the seventh most visited site in China, providing news on an array of topics(2). One in every two Chinese netizens reported in 2012 that they owned a weibo account(3). Weibos are a major source of commentary and in some instances, a vehicle for free speech. After the 2011 high-speed Wenzhou train collision in which nearly 40 people died, online posting via Weibo played a key role in breaking the news and serving as a platform for netizens to express frustration with their government(4).
Celebrity bloggers hold a key to unlocking consumer behavior.
Many famous Chinese – from pop stars to notable scholars, journalists to business tycoons – have formed substantial internet followings. Netizens across China check in daily with these larger-than-life personalities. Followers want to know everything about their favorite celebrities: what they’re eating, wearing and beauty products they’re using. As much as the internet has become an important political forum in China, it is an even more powerful entertainment medium. For more, here’s a good exposé from IBM following a netizen who opens up on the correlation between his purchasing decisions and what his favorite celebrities are saying online:
A female singer that I am ‘following’ in Weibo loves sharing her new cosmetics with us. She tries new products like lipsticks and eyeliners from different brands and makes comparisons. From her blog posts, I can learn which brand has a better product. – blogger, viviansiu
New media has opened the door to instant celebrity.
Just in the last few weeks, we saw the downfall of famous blogger Xue Charles Bi-Chuen in a classic Icarian tale. Hailed on Sina Weibo as an “online crusader for justice,”(5) the venture capitalist turned celebrity blogger was arrested in August along prostitution charges. With tens of thousands of followers (sometimes hundreds), these bloggers hold extreme power (Xue even referred to himself as “the king of the internet” before his September 15th fall of grace). But I find it interesting that people from more humble beginnings have also reached to the same level of influence.
In February, The New York Times reported on a story already widely trending in the region. Zhu Ruifeng, an ex-migrant worker without a university education, was able to climb the internet ranks after exposing a high-ranking Chinese official; Zhu leaked a video that showed the official escapading with a much younger woman. It’s important to note that for Chinese journalists legitimacy is gained through state-issued credentials. Since creating his blog in 2006, Zhu says he has exposed nearly 100 government officials. Although he is a modern day ambulance chaser, I admire his belief in the new process. He says, “We used to say that when you have a problem, go to the police, now we say when you have a problem, go to the netizens”(6).Rather than turn this into a discussion on internet censorship, I hope to highlight the creative media that are emerging in China and Hong Kong. The country’s ever-growing economy has made room for greater diversity in media coverage and expression, and experts say the increasing Chinese demand for information won’t be letting up anytime soon. Demand equals opportunity, and there is incredible opportunity for anyone moving to digital: publishers (both old print and new), writers, bloggers, photographers, and with that related fields like public relations and advertising.But I imagine microblogging is only the tip of the iceberg. As more of China becomes wired, how are people changing the way they report, express, and ultimately connect with each other? [Tweet this] What changes as technologies become cheaper and easily accessible? Will microblogging’s popularity keep on or will it be replaced by something new? What did I miss here? Would love to hear from you. Right in below in the comments section, or you can reach me via Twitter and Email.Works Cited
- “Social media is exploding worldwide, and China is leading the way”, http://www.mckinseychina.com/2012/04/25/chinas-social-media-boom/
- “Reality Check for the Chinese Microblog Space: A Random Sampling Approach”, http://www.plosone.org/article/info%3Adoi%2F10.1371%2Fjournal.pone.0058356
- “Chinese anger over alleged cover-up of high-speed rail crash”, http://www.theguardian.com/world/2011/jul/25/chinese-rail-crash-cover-up-claims
- “Like a king on the Internet” — celebrity blogger Xue’s story, http://news.xinhuanet.com/english/indepth/2013-09/15/c_132722397.htm
- “Chinese Blogger Thrives as Muckraker”, http://www.nytimes.com/2013/02/06/world/asia/chinese-blogger-thrives-in-role-of-muckraker.html?pagewanted=all
“Content is king” has been a long standing proclamation by large and small publishers alike. With brands rapidly turning to content marketing as the Next Big Thing, the familiar phrase has made its way back in the mainstream.
Why content is so important is pretty easy to understand: Consumer experiences can’t survive without quality content. Generating content at scale is the trickier part, with publishers (and brands and new guys on the block like Contently) all experimenting in news ways of creating high-quality content in high volumes.
What makes things more complicated is that with these new methods of acquiring and creating content – from contract resources to part-time bloggers to acquisitions – come very different methods and systems for creating, storing, and distributing content.
As a publisher attempting to aggregate and distribute content in consistent, measurable, and clear ways, the challenge is immense. So how do you begin to tackle it?
Let’s start with the platform decision.
This sounds easy right? Just throw up a free WordPress blog, pick some awesome plugins, snag yourself a template, and start publishing. That’s often a fine path, actually. But what about deep customizations, connections to other systems internal and external, and the ability to create the new ad innovations or the paywall idea you had? The Atlantic, through some dramatic customizations, was actually able to create a pretty cool site qz.com that’s been used as a prime example of new presentations that are responsive and allow for a continuous reading experience built on top of WordPress.
Sooner or later you’ll want to do more than what a standard out of-the-box platform gets you. Executing on those bright ideas can often lead you down the road of looking at a large, expensive commercial system that requires a team of engineers, consultants, and trainers to get in place, which is usually an awful idea. On top of all that, your content creators want to share Instagram pictures, include tweets, as well as mix in videos from Vine and YouTube. You’ll find many of the large publishers sites are using custom solutions. Buzzfeed for example credits much of its recent velocity of growth in part to the fact that they have built all solutions in-house from CMS to ad serving, creating ideal inter-operability. This has translated into flexibility at all layers.Many new platforms are emerging to attempt to solve these problems while the old standby platforms are finding the happy medium between flexibility and standardization.
One of the most promising solutions is the latest beta version of the Django CMS. This team is thinking about what a CMS platform should really provide in all the right ways. Most interestingly, they are allowing for the concept they call “frontend editing” so your content creators are working directly on the site when creating content instead of within an editor and then publishing. This is a great example of how to increase speed of content creation and allow for more creative layout.
But platform selection is just one step. It doesn’t fix the content-creation process itself.
Everyone’s talking about “mobile-first” content creation.
But just because it’s all the rage doesn’t mean we have the tools that allow for the creation of mobile content on these platforms. Since the majority of content is created on desktops, most platforms don’t even have the ability to preview it on a mobile device prior to publishing – and we’ve all seen how bad content can look on a mobile device when it’s pushed without regard for how it’s going to be consumed.
Think about how great a piece of content could be if it was created in the native format where it would eventually be consumed. Wouldn’t the content creator make different decisions based on what was initially viewable or how long the post would take to read? Or maybe even where the placement of the video or photo would be within the article?This is in part why social platforms like Twitter and Facebook have excelled on mobile, they have lowered the barrier and created the simplest way possible to create a piece of content. Existing blogging platforms like WordPress and Tumblr have solid mobile apps to help get you there too, but the mid-tier platforms haven’t yet cracked the code for enabling their content to be created via the mini-computers we all carry around in our pockets.
And then there’s the aggregation across all your platforms.
Many new tools have emerged to help with both aggregating and presenting distributed content across all these disparate platforms while the core content management platforms catch up. For example, Storify collects and packages media and content from around the web. You then drop a simple module inline on your site to display this new collection of content. This is a great interim step to collect content but makes for much more difficult distributed control of the package and has potential rights issues. CNBC recently used Storify to collect and “live blog” Google’s Chrome event. They collected tweets, photos, and videos from around the web in a curated module for everyone to quickly digest the highlights of the event.Or if you need to pull everything from one place and distribute in one easy way, maybe Contentful, an emerging platform focused on this new form of “create once distribute everywhere” approach, is your best bet to create your content with control around the experience.
Let’s not forget: Design matters. A lot.
Your core audience has expectations around design, layout, and experience. How those differ depends on who you’re trying to reach but regardless they should be a key factor when selecting the right tools.
For example would creating a new collection in Medium and posting within that site effectively get your message across with a simple and clean single template approach? Medium gives your readers an complicated experience that’s focused around quality written content accessible from any platform – and let’s you select a single photo to accompany it. The major difference with Medium is that the content is organized around collections with the only identifier being author. For example the collection “on-management” is centered around high-quality content on this topic regardless of the author. Quality wins on Medium and part of your strategy has to be around building recognition for your writers for medium to be an effective outlet.As we look to new consumption platforms we need to remember that our tools need to evolve at the same pace. (For more thoughts on the pace of content creation, newsroom culture, and new newsroom tools, check out Chartbeat CEO Tony Haile’s piece in paidContent). The publishers of the future will win with this in mind as creating quality content will require new adaptive presentations across new platforms we haven’t even thought of yet as well as advancements in distribution channels.
I have a pretty incredible job.
I spend my working hours reaching out to and talking with interesting people (editors, executives, audience development folks, social media people) at publishing and media companies around the world. My day is never boring and If I do my job well, I walk away from every conversation with distinct perspective on this amazing, dramatically-transforming industry. It’s fascinating to see this change through the eyes of the people on the other side of the conversation and it can be incredibly eye-opening.
After hundreds of conversations and interactions over the past year, I’ve developed a special affinity for Small and Medium-sized Publishers (SMPs.) When I talk to SMPs, their challenges and opportunities feel different. By the sheer nature of their size, everything feels much more acute. Their challenges and opportunities rest on the shoulders of a few. They have people wearing so many different hats it feels like a one man performance of Riverdance. Whether it’s simply the law of small numbers when it comes to their teams, or the nature of their content and coverage (local and regional news or niche topics and themes), everything feels more personal with these organizations.
Unfortunately, although these are some the hardest working, most unrelenting people I’ve ever worked with, their industry has been anything but smooth sailing in past few years:
Higher losses than gains: In 2011, print losses were greater than the digital gains by 10 to 1
Cutting to profitability: Net margins – after interest, taxes and special charges – are razor-thin. And most papers achieved profitability, in any, largely through cutting
- Uncertain business models: Of a random sample of 1,400 SMP’s (Circulation < 25K), 50 percent thought an online pay model wouldn’t have much of an impact.
Which makes what I have been seeing and what I am about to say seem a bit crazy. What’s my point-of-view on SMPs, you ask? Bullish and optimistic! Like every NFL fan before week 1 (except maybe a Browns fan), every college graduate entertaining the world, every daily affirmation enthusiast, I’m feeling good. Why? Because I see such an energy, willingness, capability, and desire to adapt and transform that frankly, I’d be crazy to think any other way. In fact, I’m beginning to see the tide turn before my eyes. Strong trends. Building momentum. All emerging from my interactions with SMPs. Strategies that were once experiments by a few publishers on the fringe now serve as models and examples of best practices. More and more SMPs are embarking upon their own journey to today’s golden age of journalism.For those looking for some ideas, I’d like to share three of the most popular themes and trends I associate with successful SMPs. In the spirit of keeping it simple, I’m borrowing from a model you may be familiar with: stop (what successful SMPs stop doing), start (what successful SMPs start doing), and continue (what successful SMPs continue, even accelerate, doing.)
STOP: Stop missing opportunities when they present themselves. Momentum may not exist on a newspaper, but it does exist in digital. For SMPs, big opportunities are fewer and farther between, so the cost associated with missing one is that much more pronounced. But they have one huge advantage: they can be far more nimble and reactive than their larger counterparts. Seize every opportunity the moment they arise by creating a culture that focuses on opportunities and a structure that enables (decentralize data and decision-making) not encumbers.
START: Start being smart and efficient with your resources. As Nieman Journalism’s, Justin Ellis said, SMP’s “margin for success is significantly different than their larger counterparts, but the stakes are just as high, if not higher.” Where a large publication might be able to afford to swing and miss, you can’t. Figure out how to be efficient and cloak yourself in it. It’s what makes you successful between those aforementioned moments of brilliance and massive opportunity. For SMPs, success means having a repeatable strategy for the day-to-day that not only maximizes reward, but minimizes risk.
CONTINUE: Continue doing what’s working, and focus on doing more of it. Almost every site (of the hundreds I review each week) has something magnetic about them; something special that keeps their readers coming back day after day. Dan Gilbert, CEO of Deseret News, says it best: “when you are a click away from something better, you have to be differentiated…You can’t do everything. So I am getting out of anything I’m not the best at.” If Tom Brady is manning your helm, you’re wise to throw the ball, if Adrian Peterson is in your backfield, time to hand it off, and if you create a type of content that is blowing your readers’ socks off? Concentrate on that and create a whole lot more.
As an SMP, you have to figure out what you do that is better than anybody else and embrace it, because that is how you keep your audience happy and coming back for more. You have to do it better and more efficiently than your competitors on a daily basis, because your business model and economic factors demand it. And you have to make sure you remain informed and opportunistic enough to capitalize on amazing when it happens, because the risk of missing an opportunity is that much more painful.Many people are beginning to bet again on the SMP, however there’s been no better vote of confidence for this group than Warren Buffett’s $344MM investment in 28 daily newspapers over the past 2 years.
“Newspapers continue to reign supreme, however, in the delivery of local news. If you want to know what’s going on in your town – whether the news is about the mayor or taxes or high school football – there is no substitute for a local newspaper that is doing its job. A reader’s eyes may glaze over after they take in a couple of paragraphs about Canadian tariffs or political developments in Pakistan; a story about the reader himself or his neighbors will be read to the end. Wherever there is a pervasive sense of community, a paper that serves the special informational needs of that community will remain indispensable to a significant portion of its residents.” 
If you’re an SMP and that doesn’t jack you up and give you goosebumps, you might want to consider getting a new day job. The white knight is in your corner! And for what (little?) it’s worth, so am I.If you’ve taken the time to read this far, first and foremost, thanks! This post was an opportunity to share what I hear and what I’ve learned. But more importantly, I’d love to hear your thoughts and comments on the post, or on the challenges and opportunities facing SMPs based on your experiences. Looking forward to having my eyes opened even wider. Would love to hear what you have to say – you can reach me via Twitter, Email or in the Comments section below.Works Cited
We’re all about helping publishers focus on creating and monetizing engaging content, and a big part of my job and the Chartcorps team’s job is helping them build their digital offerings as an expansion of their traditional print business. Thus, Neil Thurman’s study Newspaper Consumption in the Digital Age caught my attention. The report compares print and digital consumption of 12 UK-based newspapers, in terms of both circulation and time spent reading.
Among its findings was that in 2011 digital contributed only 3% of the total time spent reading these papers by their domestic audience (up to 7% for some of the papers), with their international audience contributing a sizeable additional 25.2 minutes for every hour spent reading by the domestic audience. The study also looked at trends from 2007-2011, finding that despite an increase in readership there wasn’t a related increase in reading time.
While this research brings interesting comparisons, it’s worth keeping in mind that the data has some major inherent limitations – all of which Thurman does address in the report.
Chief among them: the data for print reading time comes from reader surveys, while digital reading time uses Nielsen metrics for time on page – the former being subject to the inaccuracy of reader recall, while the latter doesn’t accurately measure true reading time (just clicks, page loads, and estimated time). And, as the two are very different measures, it’s tough to compare them or be fully confident in what insights to take back. Additionally, because of its methods, the Nielsen data also likely has an under-recording of reading at work or on shared computers, and does not include mobile app usage.
The reliance on surveys for that print data is unfortunate but necessary, as that’s the most clear way of getting data on normal offline reading. On the digital side, though, we have the power to really quantify reader behavior. It’s one of the biggest advantages to digital. And because we now have the technology to accurately measure user behavior in-browser to understand true reading time, I’m banking on this being a big part of the available pool of digital metrics in the future.
Despite the limitations of the data, the study does emphasize the problem facing digital teams in terms of holding their audience’s attention – a particularly scarce resource given the plethora of options available. But it also shows there’s major room for growth and development of digital audiences, particularly as many newsrooms are now shifting to a digital-first strategy. And, for that to work, it’s important to understand your readers and present them with engaging content that matches what they’re looking for.