Monday 5 December 2016

News on Social: Whose story is it anyway?

Published 22/05/2016 | 02:30

Stock photo: Getty/NurPhoto
Stock photo: Getty/NurPhoto

Good news! Social media is helping digital publishers get readers to consume more content. Three quarters of consumers access more information from publishers who appear on social media. What's more, this social content consumption is additive, meaning it has no impact on existing reading habits on sites and apps.

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So says a new study by Digital Content Next, the US cousin of OPA Europe. It's a trade association for premium publishers ranging from the New York Times and Disney Interactive to Fusion and Atlantic Media.

But then there's the bad news. The 2016 DCN Content Distribution Impact Research also found that 43pc of respondents didn't know which publisher was behind the stories they were reading when they find them on social channels.

The report also found that brand recall was different depending on editorial output. Readers were more likely to recall the specific publisher if they were reading national news and sports stories. Some 61pc of news and sports readers remembered the publisher. Lifestyle stories, however, came bottom of the pile for brand recall, with only 52pc of readers recalling which publication was behind what they were reading.

This was US only research, covering Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat and Instagram. And only those aged 12 to 54 with a home internet connection were surveyed. So there's a chance that this research doesn't adequately reflect the fundamental changes that the shift to mobile is causing.

So what's a publisher to do? Well, some publishers have adopted the "if you can't beat 'em join 'em" model, while others are taking a more cautious approach. The different attitudes to Facebook's Instant Articles exemplify different approaches.

The Atlantic and Slate, which both focus on politics, tech and business news, publish 85pc and 70pc of their Facebook posts as instant articles respectively. The Guardian is currently publishing opinion pieces as instant articles, with plans to expand on this. Both the Washington Post and Millennial news outlet Mic now publish all their Facebook posts as instant articles. Mind you, Mic is soon to begin testing subscriptions to its video content, and the Washington Post has had a paywall for some time.

The Economist is another publisher that has dipped its toes in many distribution channels. It's planning to publish a handful of daily items as instant articles. But these will be designed as teasers to drive subscriptions. It takes the same approach with Japanese messaging app, Line, and Tumblr where infographics and other sharable and informative titbits are spread.

So the smart money seems to be on using social channels as a lure to return readers to publisher-owned platforms where they can have an unmediated relationship with the media they enjoy.

But perhaps even media outlets which are most efficient at funnelling readers back to their sites and driving brand awareness are still missing a trick. Facebook, Google, Amazon and others have far more engineering manpower when it comes to digital distribution. But they've also owned the conversation to date and framed it around users' need for speed.

But just because Google says speed is important, it doesn't mean that publishers need to drop everything and churn out lowest common denominator stories at break-neck pace. Any publisher targeting an audience, hooked on the dopamine rush of stumbling onto the next Kardashian story is in for a bruising experience.

While quick, frictionless delivery is certainly important, media outlets have utterly failed to counter the need for speed with arguments on the importance of trust. A healthy ecosystem of trusted outlets for important information is a common good that's vital for a properly functioning democracy. Sure, it's a dull and worthy point, but when you're involved in a PR war, making a dull and worthy point is better than making no points at all.

On first reading of the 2016 DCN Content Distribution Impact Research it would be easy to conclude that the solution for individual media outlets is to focus on stronger branding to ensure recognition and recall among an increasingly social and mobile audience. But on further reflection, perhaps this report doesn't highlight a branding issue for individual digital news outlets, but a branding issue for digital news media as a whole.

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