From Technology

Extrapolating Facebook’s New Content Strategy

Facebook announced yesterday that it plans to start hosting news sites’ content on its platform. While the article does its best to subdue the inevitable media freakout, it’s hard not to dig into what this means for the future of media companies and their platform “frenemies”.

What is Facebook trying to do?

Ignore the PR speak about improving the user experience, Facebook is angling to become a portal for all content on the web. This isn’t news though, we’ve already seen a few indicators that this is where they’re headed:

  • Video – Not only did they enable auto-play for native video, the news feed algorithm heavily weights these videos. It’s a not-so-indirect way of incentivizing publishers to host their video on Facebook.
  • Paper – It’s a bit more tangential, but Paper is Facebook’s sandbox to test out editorial concepts.
  • Internet.org – This is an awesome initiative to bring connectivity to the rest of the world. I wrote more about it earlier this year, but the opportunity for growth as the world comes online is huge for any company. Facebook launched the app last year, and it’s now available in India, the Philippines, certain countries in Africa, and more. It provides mobile users free access to selected websites. The key is that these services can only be accessed via the Internet.org Android or web app, which puts Facebook in an interesting position as it brings new users online.

What‘s the 10,000 foot view?

Facebook’s strategy represents a shift from content primarily living on individual media apps or sites, to that same content finding a home on distribution platforms. Again, this isn’t totally new.
YouTube is an obvious example?—?a lot of publishers face the conflict of hosting video on their own platform to own revenue vs. hosting video on YouTube where there’s scale, but revenue is shared.

SnapChat is also interesting. Discover houses content within the app, with no opportunity to link out. Additionally, some media brands are creating content specifically for SnapChat.

As usage continues to exponentially shift to mobile, and mobile users continue to spend the majority of their time on a core set of apps, it becomes harder for brands to break in unless they partner with those apps.

What does this mean for media?

Companies like BuzzFeed and Vox are already optimizing their content for distribution platforms. Their content looks great anywhere, their content creation process enables editors to easily distribute, and they‘re empowered to make smart decisions based on data. Most media companies are still playing catch-up to these digital-first brands that operate more like technology companies.

Of course, the real question is how Facebook’s strategy impacts various business models, and which publishers are best poised to handle a possibly momentous shift. For the purposes of this post, I’ll focus on four revenue streams, with the understanding that there are other opportunities (i.e. conferences) that contribute.

  • Display Advertising – I won’t repeat the numerous think pieces on why display ads are a dying breed. But if content shifts to live on platforms like Facebook or SnapChat, that death may come sooner than we think. Display ads only generate revenue with scale on a publisher’s own site or app.
  • Paywall – There’s a reason everyone is anxious to hear what the NY Times will do with Facebook’s plan. Opening up content to Facebook’s platform could destroy the paywall model. Like display ads, the paywall is entirely dependent on users consuming content on a publisher’s platform.
  • Branded Content – Branded content is an opportunity for advertisers to visually align themselves with a media brand, often a specific story. Ford could buy a storytelling piece on Vice, and have their branding prominently displayed on the story and site. It’s palatable to advertisers since they want to be associated with great journalism and a great media brand. That appeal is easily lost when the content lives on a different platform, since it’d be visually standardized, with little differentiation between media brands.
  • Sponsored Content – This is possibly the only revenue opportunity that translates to other platforms, and it’s the reason why BuzzFeed, Vox, and Vice are focusing efforts on native advertising. It doesn’t matter if users watch a BuzzFeed video on their site, on Facebook, or on YouTube. The advertiser is so integrated into the content that the ad opportunity is the same regardless of platform.

We don’t have details on revenue sharing with Facebook’s plan, but if YouTube is any indicator, it’s a scary road ahead for media companies. Companies that embrace sponsored content are in the best position to take advantage, but all should tread carefully.

What’s the Future?

Below are extrapolations assuming all the above is true?—?that content consumption will drastically shift to platforms like Facebook, and publishers will primarily become creators of raw content. Extrapolation is fun so I took a shot at what the media landscape could look like down the line.

News will be owned by platforms that can deliver it best.

Facebook, Twitter, or even apps like Breaking News can process and push pure news out more efficiently than traditional media companies. They also have the technology to support fast, personalized, and localized news.

Media companies will organize around content types and verticals instead of brands.

Big media brands won’t be able to sustain today’s scaled operations in a new world of revenue sharing. Instead, companies will scale down and become hyper-focused around producing specific types of content, like investigative journalism or local sports.

Platforms like Facebook will face the editorial challenge of delivering diverse content that’s “good for you”.

Part of the power of a brand like the NYTimes is the editorial oversight that comes with it. Users trust that when they visit the Times, they’ll find content they were interested in reading about, and content they should be reading about. If content becomes detached from these brands, consumption becomes self-selecting. Users will only read content from people they’ve chosen to follow, and ultimately miss out on serendipitious discovery.

If platforms own the delivery of content, they will also be responsible for the curation of it. Facebook has worked hard to adjust their algorithm to deliver “good” content, but it won’t even scratch the surface of what needs to happen. It wouldn’t be surprising if Facebook or Twitter built an editorial staff to take on this responsibility.

Individual creators will be more empowered.

Stratechery by Ben Thompson is a must-read for me with every new post. Thompson wrote a great piece on Blogging’s Bright Future, where he touches on new opportunities for individuals to build financially sustainable blogs. Revenue sharing with Facebook would be yet another opportunity for individual writers to create a sustainable business without worrying about scale.

Ultimately there’s simply too much unknown to really know where this is headed. Maybe enough brands will balk to kill this new strategy. Or maybe the “frenemy” relationship will remain intact and it’ll simply be another distribution opportunity. Either way, it’d be a serious mistake for media companies to brush Facebook’s strategy aside without taking a hard look at what it means for their future relationship with platforms.

More than half the world has a mobile phone. Let’s build for them.

I love visiting my extended family in Colorado. I get to watch my cousins grow up, hug my grandparents, and hike a fourteener to work off the massive amount of home-cooked food consumption. On my last trip there I discovered another benefit – testing my products on three generations of users.

I could sit and watch my teenage cousins on their iPhones for hours. They have crazy high expectations for speed and efficiency, and I watched them abandon three apps in a row when they hit a loading spinner longer than a few seconds. And Marissa Mayer’s two tap rule? It’s a thing. If core functionality wasn’t immediately obvious or easy to access, they’d shake their heads and move on, usually to Snapchat.

Doing the same with grandparents is even more captivating. I heard a story from a friend recently about an elderly woman in her family who uses her iPad daily to go on Facebook, Skype with relatives, and send emails. But a totally foreign word to her is “Internet”. Yes, Internet. It sounds crazy, but when you stop and think, it makes total sense! In her own words, she “opens her iPad and presses the Facebook button”. The concept of the Internet and what powers that button is irrelevant to something that’s become just another part of her routine.

I bring all this up because those of us building products (designers, product managers, developers, UX designers, etc.) tend to optimize for an ideal user, and trust that the rest of our user base will follow the tech-savvy millenials, assuming it’s all learned behavior anyway. And in the US at least, that strategy has generally served us well.

But what happens when that methodology extends globally, to users who have adopted technology at an entirely different pace with different devices and different connectivity? Maybe it’s a strategy that scales regardless of surrounding factors, or maybe we’ll unearth an entirely different approach to meet global needs. Regardless, it’s a fascinating road ahead.

The immediate question a lot of global companies are facing is how best to optimize their products for users with poor connection or low-end phones. That beautiful, responsive, javascript-heavy site might look pretty wonky for someone accessing it in India on their Nokia 110. Or it might take a minute to load for a user in Nigeria on a 2G network. Facebook and Google are leading the way with initiatives like internet.org, and some global sites have pared down experiences for feature phones. As more companies scale to emerging markets, it’ll be intriguing to see how these strategies evolve in parallel to improvements in connectivity and functionality.

But even more interesting are the non-technological factors that could represent fundamental differences in the way people interact with digital products. Differences that can’t necessarily be overcome by simply providing faster connections or high-end devices. I can’t even begin to scratch the surface on all the possible factors, but these are some that come to mind:

  • Literacy – As products reach developing countries, the challenge of designing for illiterate users who may use voice commands, play music, take photos, etc. is a real one. Of course, there is also wonderful opportunity to increase literacy rates with educational apps.
  • Language – This is an obvious challenge when trying to scale, especially for news organizations. But product designers will also need to understands the nuances of various languages and how they affect the core interface.
  • Mobile Only – We hear a lot of “mobile first” strategies as usage dramatically shifts away from computers. Yet some markets are mobile only, which means the majority of users are interacting with digital products for the first time on mobile. The A16z podcast did a great episode on Myanmar’s 0–60 adoption of smartphones. Will we see any fundamental differences in behavior for these mobile only users?
  • Culture – Are there other cultural factors that might demand a localized product? This is a bit of a catch-all, but I’m curious to learn more about differences in user interaction that display uniqueness of cultures.

Ultimately product creators will face a lot of these challenges as they tap into emerging markets. As the world’s population comes online at an exponential pace, it’ll be fascinating to see how we evolve the way we build digital products.

Nerding Out with News Nerds

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A few months ago I went to an awesome event called SNDMakes, hosted by the Society for News Design in Boston. It was so awesome it made being in Boston for Jets-Pats on a Thursday night worth the pain and suffering. Well, almost.

SNDMakes is truly unique – it’s part conference, part discussion, part ideation, part hackathon, and all genius. It brings together the greatest minds at the intersection of technology and media – designers, editors, developers, journalists, product managers – and charges them with tackling some of the most pressing questions in the industry. For this iteration of SNDMakes we posed the question “How might we improve the content creation process?”, and spent the next three days discussing, brainstorming, and finally breaking out into groups and prototyping ideas.

My team built PrePost – a tool to preview your content across social media and other platforms before it’s published. (shoutout to my awesome team – Kawandeep, Chris, Nathan, and Fink!) I was blown away by the ideas built in such a short amount of time, check out these write-ups and videos to see what went down:

In case you couldn’t tell by now, I loved everything about SNDMakes. Here are some of my takeaways from a great weekend:

  • 1. We all face the same challenges.

    It’s easy to complain and assume that other companies have it all figured out. In reality, we all have similar challenges as we try to push the media + technology landscape forward. SNDMakes had representatives from the NY Times, Vox Media, Washington Post, Slate, Knight Lab, ESPN and many more, and on day one we all started to realize we were speaking the same language. Whether it’s covering breaking news, presenting an evolving story over time, or optimizing the creation process, we articulated problems that sounded pretty familiar.

  • 2. We can learn a lot from each other.

    This sounds suspiciously warm and fuzzy, but it’s true! It’s an exciting time for media companies as we push the boundaries of how technology can revolutionize journalism. The industry (and, more importantly, consumers) has a lot to gain from shared knowledge.

  • 3. Great minds build great things.

    The best investment a media company can make right now is in hiring digital innovators. Whether that’s technologists, designers, product managers, journalists, and beyond – it’s the best and only way to move forward. Listening to the discussions at SNDMakes and seeing the prototypes built in 24 hours was a true testament to what can happen when you bring smart people together.

  • 4. The content creation process needs help.

    This inspired an article I wrote for Nieman Lab’s 2015 predictions for the future of journalism. Content creation often plays second fiddle to the user-facing experience, and that needs to change. Media companies need to realize that editors and writers are their most important users.

  • 5. We need more events like SNDMakes.

    SNDMakes is a truly unique event that brings smart people together and lets the magic happen. More conferences, events, and meetups should take a page from what the SND team has done. Thankfully it sounds like there’ll be many more SNDMakes to come next year!

Gadget Geek Fatigue

I was a little girl who loved sports and gadgets. Thanks to a computer scientist dad and a feminist mother, my sister and I went to basketball camp instead of Girl Scouts, and played with Lego Mindstorms instead of Barbies. Our grandfather, also an engineer, contributed to our tomboyish upbringing via his obsession with any new piece of technology. Instead of the zoo or playground, he’d take me on a monthly grandfather-granddaughter excursion to…(drum roll please)…Best Buy! We’d roam the aisles and try out any random gadgets we could find, until we each picked out something new to buy. I’d come home beaming with the latest calculator or digital pocket organizer in hand, and spend hours in my room learning all its features.

Sometimes I miss that innocent excitement for the next coolest thing. At that age I never cared what the long-term benefits were for the Casio Digital Diary in my hand, or if it would work in tandem with the closetful of devices I had back home. In a pre-cloud era, it simply didn’t matter.

In today’s saturated technology market, I find myself constantly assessing products in the context of their ecosystem. I own a Macbook, iPad, and iPhone and the seamless experience of transitioning between Apple devices has me locked into their products. The same goes for Google – my online identity is so tied to Google via Gmail, Google+, Maps, and more, that I’ll immediately switch to using any new Google product so I can tie more of my experience to a central entity. I love Evernote, but I’m moving to Google Keep the second it comes to iOS.

The idea of creating yet another identity from scratch feels cumbersome – setting up a profile, choosing preferences, and downloading apps. It’s why we prefer signing into sites with Facebook, Twitter, or Google instead of using custom registration. But it also brings a wariness of new devices that don’t fit into our current ecosystems. It’s why I won’t consider buying a Samsung Galaxy Gear (other than the negative reviews), when I could wait for an Apple watch that syncs with my laptop, tablet, and phone. It’s also why I prefer my Apple TV over a smart TV, even if some of them have better apps. While it’s great to approach purchases from a holistic perspective, I sometimes yearn for a time when I didn’t care about the permanence of that shiny new gadget and just bought the damn thing!

The Power of Nostalgia

I was in the middle of a much-needed emotional break from yesterday’s Denver-Dallas shootout (my fantasy matchup had five Broncos players between the two of us), when this Samsung Galaxy Gear commercial froze me mid-laundry folding. As it cycled through my childhood via sound bites from the Power Rangers, Inspector Gadget, and Star Trek, I was completely hooked. Maybe I’m just a sentimental 90s kid, evidenced by the multiple episodes of TaleSpin I watched on YouTube this weekend, but I thought Samsung’s appeal to our nostalgic side was pure genius.

It got me thinking about the power of nostalgia, and the role it plays in today’s obsession with the “now”. Twitter, push notifications, wearable technology – we constantly strive for the instantaneous. But at the same time, we place that much more value in looking back and memorializing our lives. One of my favorite apps is Timehop, a daily time capsule that shows your day today 1 year ago, 2 years ago, etc. My Timehop today showed me a restaurant I checked into on Foursquare last year, a couple self-loathing posts I wrote about the Jets on Twitter four years ago, and a charity event I helped organize in college seven years ago. I love kicking off my morning with some quality reminiscing time, and reading the yearly emotional rollercoaster of a Jets fan is always masochistically amusing.

Of course, I couldn’t use Timehop without services like Foursquare that chronicle my life on a daily basis. Quantified self apps are slowly entering the mainstream – Moves, Chronos, and even Google Now record every second of our day, leveraging the data to understand our lifestyle patterns.

This massive amount of data is yet another way for us to document our lives, motivated by the same reasons we take pictures on vacation or write blog posts and journals about our travels. In ten years I can look back on my day today and know that I walked 8,500 steps, ate at my favorite Singaporean restaurant with friends, and cheered on the USA national team at Jack Demsey’s. As we become increasingly intent on chronicling our lives instantaneously, we feed our nostalgic side even more, so our future selves can see exactly how awesome it was to be our 2013 selves!