A trade journal of a still-emerging field, written by Adam Tinworth.

Posts tagged attention

I drew a bunch of dots to explain why social media is broken

I missed this back in January when it was first published, but it’s so worth your time:

The savviest digital media companies know they’re in an arms race (this 2013 count, even before the first two dramatically expanded, put Business Insider at 300, BuzzFeed at 373 and The Huffington Post at 1,200 pieces published a day). And “Audience Development” (essentially: Strategic Sorting Learner) has become one of the hottest jobs in media.

And the reasoning behind all this is well explained – in graphics.

The big news is out. The Times, already an outlier amongst UK newspapers in having a hard paywall, is changing its model again. Not the paywall – this is not a retreat from paid as its stablemate The Sun has done. No, this is a retreat from the treadmill of breaking news.

What. The. Hell.

At least – that’s the reaction I imagine from many journalists. Breaking news is at the very heart of journalism, surely?

Well, that’s the thing. With a few exceptions for major, major stories, I think the profession cares much more about “breaking news” than the audience do. Indeed, I think it’s safe to say that journalists care more about “news” as a concept than the average person on the street does. That’s why the “abandoning breaking news” angle has been latched onto so strongly – because that’s the journalists’ obsession.

I don’t think that’s what this is really about. This is about adjusting our obsessions in light of reader needs. And that’s exactly what a paid product should be doing.

Time for news

New look digital Times

Now, full disclosure time: I did some workshops for senior Times and Sunday Times staff in the build-up to this change (and it’s bloody lovely to be able to talk about it at last), so I have some insights into the thinking behind it – but this is very much a personal take, based on several months of thinking through the implications of what the team were planning.

This change isn’t a grand theory conjured out of the air – instead it’s based on detailed analysis of how people are actually using the website and apps. And, surprise, surprise, it shows that people aren’t obsessively checking the website for news.

This, once you realise it, is common sense. Most people are not in a position where spending their days cruising news sites for information is routine. They have times in the day when information is most critical to them, and other times when they have the luxury to sit back and read things. The rest of the time? They’re working or playing or looking after their family. The work Neil and I did with the Financial Times a few years back highlighted some very, very clear patterns in when their subscribers were using the site. Similar patterns exist for The Times.

So, what we’re seeing here is not a retreat from breaking news as such, but more a reshaping of how they report news around the readers’ needs – especially around time. That’s important because time is the big factor that people keep ignoring. The boom in content – and content availability – that the Internet has brought, and mobile has exacerbated, has not been matched by a boom in available reading time. That, as standard digital journalism theory states, leads to an attention crisis, where readers’ attention is the scarce resource, not content. One solution to that is the trawler model, whereby you put out masses of content in the hopes that enough relevant readers will be caught in the net – and that’s been the approach taken by most news organisations. And that’s why we’re approaching what you might call peak content.

The Times is taking the other path – the one less traveled. The Economist has been exploring it, and now they have company on the narrow road of focused, curated packages of information. In essence their offer is “here’s a manageable amount of content at a time that suits you”.

The charm of completion

And what’s interesting about a contained package of content? Completion. You can finish it – and feel satisfied. You’re not overwhelmed by it. The Internet is an endless treadmill of information. You can never finish it – and never have been able to since the first few months of the web’s life, when it was running off Sir Tim Berners Lee’s desk. Your Facebook feed scrolls endlessly. Your Twitter timeline has no end. And so, with these services you can never really have the feeling of having completed something – of feeling informed.

Other organisations have poked at this idea. For example, the Quartz morning e-mail is a classic pitch for psychological completion. You can get through that e-mail on your commute and feel informed before you get to your desk. This revamp of the venerable newspaper’s digital offering is putting the idea at the centre of their offer.

Coming up at 5pm on The Times

The Times is releasing content in four drops through the day:

  • Midnight – your morning edition
  • 9am – a markets and business centric drop – brief yourself at your desk
  • Noon – lunchtime reading
  • 5pm – ready for the commute home and the evening.

They’re all clearly aligned around consumer need and availability. And they free Times journalists from rushing to get content out now. It gives them an ability to concentrate on getting the more measured and analytical view, while everyone else is rushing around to do the breaking news story. And that’s going to be the success/failure axis of this process. Can they do that well enough to continue to justify the cost of subscribing in an over-saturated market?

That’s question one. The second question is: can they get their subscribers into the habit of checking the site or the apps at these times?

A brave experiment

If there’s one issue the whole industry is sticking its head in the sand over – it’s the over-supply of news. We have far too much of it, and too much of it is repetitious without bringing anything new to the table. There’s certainly room in the market for a number of high volume, high speed, low depth news outlets. But it won’t be a large number of them, as it’s a hard, vicious and expensive game to play in, with high staff costs, intense pressure and a deep reliance on an ever shifting advertising market.

We need other models of news. Journalism isn’t going to be transported into the digital era on the back of a single business model. The crew at The Times and The Sunday Times are to be commended for trying something different – something that has the potential to mix the best of digital and print thinking in a whole new way.

It will certainly be interesting to watch…


I’ve just finished* running a workshop on analytics for journalists at news:rewired this afternoon.

Here’s a selection of links I promised the attendees to allow them to explore some of the issues contained in the presentation in more detail:

And let this fine five minute rant from The Guardian‘s Chris Moran be a lesson to you all:

The Presentation

*Actually, a lie – I wrote this at midnight the night before, and scheduled the post…

Khoi Vihn, designer and former New York Times staffer, as part of his lukewarm response to the new New York Times magazine:

It’s also true that part of my objection owes to the fact that I find the magazine format less than enthralling these days. With few exceptions, it’s my experience that magazines generally can’t justify why all of a given issue’s content is bundled together, why I need to bother with the obvious filler that so often consumes the “front of the book,” and why so many long format stories are as long as they are.

It’s an interesting perspective. I think his comments certainly hold true – at least for generalist magazines, like newspaper supplement magazines tend to be. Niche magazines have a greater reason to exist, and have a clearer focus, meaning that all sections of it tend to have at least some appeal.

Now is not a good time to be in the generalist magazine business.

Maria Popova

Here’s a fascinating interview with Maria Popova, curator of the truly excellent Brain Pickings blog.

Some choice highlights:

I can’t speak for others, but I’ve found in myself a tendency to retreat deeper and deeper into my existing interests as a form of self-defense against the abundance of demands for my time and attention. Again, it takes a certain discipline not to do that and to continually expand one’s ideological comfort zone, as it does not to scatter oneself too chaotically across a multitude of diversion.

And, on journalism, this:

Every nonfiction writer is essentially a curator of ideas – whether this means the selection of academic and clinical studies to be cited in a Malcolm Gladwell-style pop psychology book or the snippets of articles highlighted and contextualized in a day’s worth of Andrew Sullivan’s blog. At their best, journalists – writers, editors, “curators”, or whatever we choose to label them – help people figure out what matters in the world and why. The label under which they do it is irrelevant.

One of the most thought-provoking interviews I’ve read in a while.

Photo by Ryan Lash for TED conferences, and used under a Creative Commons licence

Interesting analysis of how Kindle Singles, and other short ebooks might be the future:

The greatest aspect of Kindle Singles is, of course, their short length. The first one I read was a Single about media and I remember thinking how a typical business book editor would have asked the author to turn this 30-page gem into a bloated 300-page mess. It happens all the time and it’s a function of both physical shelf presence and perceived value. In the ebook world there’s suddenly no physical bookshelf an individual title has to have a spine presence on. Now we just need to stop equating “shorter” with “cheaper”…more on that in a moment.

And, indeed there is. I’d actually be prepared to pay as much for a short book as a long one, as long as the density of information was right. Attention is at a premium, and books that respect that are valuable to me.

Doug at #B2BHuddle.jpg

Doug Kessler, creative director and co-founder, Velocity Partners

This is a hot time to be in B2B – but most people don’t know that. This is a great time to be thinking about the future of content marketing, and we’ve all come a long way. But this is a good time to stop, take a break and get a sense of where this beast is going.

Why should you care about the future? Some of you are at the bottom of the curve, looking at all you have to learn, some of you are at the top, doing cutting edge work. Why worry about the future when there’s so much to worry about in the present?

What is Content Marketing? It’s packaging up your expertise to help your prospects do their jobs better. 

“Skate where the puck’s going to be”.

— Wayne Gretsky

That’s why the future matters. I don’t want you to be the guy running down the hall in six months saying “Eureka! I’ve discovered white papers.” They’re dead.

The trend for content marketing is a hockey stick. It’s exploding. You’ll double your output this year. So will your competitors. Everyone’s doing it – this is the megatrend. Everyone’s doing it – search, social, digital agencies. And that’s why we published the thing called Crap – why the single biggest threat to content marketing is content marketing. It went B2B viral. 220,000 views – that’s insane. We touched a nerve. A lot of people are thinking about this. (The attitude, energy and naughty word in the title probably helped.) We weren’t the first to use SlideShare as a medium in itself, but that’s what we did. It’s meant to be self-consumed. It was written as a SlideShare presentation, for that experience.

There are two ways to stand out:

  1. What you say – we hit on something that mattered
  2. How you say it – SlideShare

These are the two things we help clients with. The first is the most important. You have to be inside your market and understand what is hot right now. We’re going to look at the second – how you say it. And we’ll use the Five Beyonds.

1. Beyond Gutenberg

We’ve been in the digital world for years. We haven’t done a print project in years, but people get stuck in print thinking: eBooks, White Papers and so on. But most of our consumption is on tablets and other screens. SlideShare is made for the screen. We’re slowly letting go of the handrail of print thinking. And it is a handrail. We know how to communicate this way. Scrolling Sites – every last drop by Water Wise for example. It’s a charming, light screen-based way to tell a story. As new things come along, figure out what stories they’re good for telling. Tablet apps are another example – Together for the WWF.

2. Beyond Search

Up until now everyone has been sacrificing their first born to the Gods of Google. As content increases, search will fail us – there’s just too much of the content. Even terrific content will end up on page 3. The first page is too limited a resource. If we’re dependent on Google, we’ll all end up suffering. How do we replace that? Community? SEOMoz is an example of that. A good piece on content marketing got 1000s of shares – because it’s a great community. Build a community, and you’ll become more self-sufficient. 

3. Beyond One-Size-Fits-All Content

We put out an eBook – and everyone gets the same one. But we know loads about the people coming to our sites. The beginnings of this are doing some segmentation. But then you have five eBooks. Where do you put them? Well, how about dynamically assemble the content? Adverts are doing this. There’s no ad waiting for you, just a database which assembles an ad. Let’s do that with content. Web content systems can do this, but we need to let go of print thinking. 

4. Beyond Teaching

Content tends to teach right now. It just gives people information. The step beyond is using content to do people’s job. The Citrix Project Accelerator addresses the huge demand on their consulting resources. They harnesses knowledge from their consultants, and built a tool that allowed customers to run the virtualisation journey on their own. It makes the project manager’s job easy. They made a mistake, though. They used content marketing to promote this – and ran ads. The ads outperformed – because this is content. They just needed to get out of the way and let people know it exists. They produced a Content Marketing Strategy checklists that is a way of generating your won strategy.

5. Beyond the Faceless Brand

Social Media has been around a long time – and it’s all about people. Faces are beginning to be attached to companies. We’re seeing the rise of the B2B rock stars – personal content brands that associate with company brands. It’s good because it can power your brand – and bad because they can leave… Google is rewarding this with author profiles and rel=author

It’s all part of the rise in authenticity. Marketing used to be largely bullshit. Now, people are seeing things because the company is porous. You can’t be the only voice of the company people here. So you need to change what you do before you can talk about it. The Simon Sinek TED talk is worth watching. 

They ran into some bad SEOs early on, who enthused about keyword-packed content. They hated how it appeared, so they wrote for people rather than spiders – and that has been great in the age of the Panda update. 

Underneath this all is another beyond. The culture change necessary to make things work underlies this. So:

Beyond yesterday’s culture

The ones who are succeeding are the one who are good at taking the rest of the company along with them. This touchy-feely stuff around culture is more important than much of the hard stuff. Marketeers are the best people to lead this, and not doing it feels like an abdication of responsibility. 

The best way to predict the future is to create it 

-Abraham Lincoln


Beware personalisation at #B2BHuddle.jpg

Questions and Answers

How far can personalisation go? Should you expose the mechanism? It can be spooky if you don’t. People resist personalisation for the creepy factor, and the suspicion that if the personalisation is wrong, and you’re missing something. In the end, you’re working stages to a segmentation of one. Fuse Meeting followed him all around the web – as did his clients. He wanted to opt out, but he couldn’t opt out of just one bit of personalisation. 

Can you use retargeting to bring people to their content? If you retarget, you have to frequency cap. Fuse was showing me things 80 or 90 times, and paying all the time, They should have stopped by 20. It can be used, but it needs to be used intelligently from ROI and sensitivity perspective. 

If people are brands, then business need to recruit differently, right? Yes, businesses need people that have social profile and fit the brand. We love people who are blogging and acting as a good social citizen. People who are jerks online won’t get hired even if they’re great at their jobs. 

What’s the relationship between CRM and social CRM? Social CRM is core to this. CRM that isn’t social is stone age. You’re going to ignore what they’re saying on social channels? That’s insane. It’s light and lose, but you should be tracking it. It can be creepy, but it’ll be malpractice not to plug it into your CRM. 

Can you over-personalise? Yes. Serendipity is a huge power. Smart personalisation will throw in wildcards. Let’s keep some serendipity in there. And let people choose the less personalised route. If they want to be in browse mode, they should be able to. 

Could the cost of personalised content slow down the rush towards crap? It will be an inhibitor – but it won’t be anything compared to the tidal wave. Tools will make it cheaper – marketers have a way of ruining everything. What will slow the tide is when content stops working. That will be a bigger break on the wave. Cost of production is always driven down. 

The wave of crap at #B2BHuddle.jpg

Don Brown:

Publishers do have lots of content, but a) there are lots of publishers (including online-only ones who have never put ink on paper in their lives) and b) there are lots of websites built purely to be packed with content to attract searching readers. (hint, they’re not called ’content farms’ for nothing). You’re competing against the other publishers for subscription and product revenues, and competing against the whole internet for advertising money (oh, and as Paul Conley explains, a lot of your advertisers are now using ‘content’ to go direct to consumers themselves). Someone will always be able to produce ‘content’ cheaper than you and get the eyeballs on it more cheaply than you can, and these ‘someones’ will be – and are – driving down the CPMs that volume advertisers will pay. (Chasing this revenue leads to what Breunig calls the ‘content crunch’, a downward spiral of cheaper content and lower revenues.)

A neat summary of the battle for attention and its casualties.

It’s interesting to note that all of the full time jobs I’ve been in discussions about – and the vast majority of contracting work, too – have been around organisations producing content to talk to their customers and partners direct, and not in the journalism business. I think that shows where the growth is right now…