Tuesday 19 February 2019

Steve Dempsey: 'Publishers not too posh to push'

News outlets ‘want readers to look at the alert, understand what was happened, put their phones back in their pockets and get on with their day’
News outlets ‘want readers to look at the alert, understand what was happened, put their phones back in their pockets and get on with their day’
Steve Dempsey

Steve Dempsey

When your phone buzzes with a push notification from a news app, what do you do? Read and instantly forget? Open the report and read with interest? Or pass it off as more noise from a constantly-buzzing device?

Media outlets have been trying for some time to figure out how best to use push notifications to serve and retain readers. According to a new report, digital newsrooms are beginning to treat push notifications as a platform that's every bit as important as other brand and distribution channels, like homepages and email newsletters.

The annual study from the Tow Centre for Digital Journalism at Columbia University monitored two weeks of push notifications from 30 US news outlets.

This was followed up with a detailed case study of one of the biggest stories in American politics: coverage of US President Donald Trump's family-separation policy.

The topline stats show that pushes are on the up. The weekly average across all outlets increased year on year by 16pc to 26 per app per week in 2018.

The Wall Street Journal was the most prolific pusher, averaging 71.5 alerts per week. And pushes are getting longer as well as more numerous: the average number of characters per news alert has increased year on year by over 30pc.

The big news from the previous year's report was the rise of emojis in push notifications. And this less starchy approach is continuing.

Newsrooms are taking a less formal, more conversational voice in their alerts. Language no longer needs to be short and direct. Adjectives have increased. And the content of news alerts is changing too. Notifications increasingly feature analysis and first-hand accounts.

"You could be forgiven for thinking that alerts haven't evolved a great deal because in terms of appearance they really haven't," says Pete Brown, the report's author. "But the thinking around them has come on in leaps and bounds.

"I love that publishers are using them to show readers stuff they think want to see as well as stuff they think they need to see," Brown says.

"Push is now being treated as a platform in its own right. At The New York Times they say push deserves to have all of the intention and critical thinking as the front page of the newspaper and the homepage."

How does the changing approach to push notifications relate to the rise of paywalls and subscription business models? After all, traditional business models are in decline, display advertising in its current guise isn't going to keep the lights on and social platforms aren't going to prop up the publishing business model. So how is sending out potentially spammy messages to users going to help?

"Getting people to pay for journalism is not easy," Brown says. "What news organisations have figured out is that developing strong relationships with their audiences is absolutely key to converting them into paying supporters.

"Push alerts play a vital role in that because they provide one of the most direct routes to readers. They're a vital conduit for establishing and developing that relationship between news organisation and reader. It's an incredible intimate relationship.

"News alerts sit alongside messages from their friends and family on a reader's home screen. They allow news outlets to go directly to their audiences, to give them information they both want and need, and, crucially, they are uninhibited by the whims of opaque algorithms dictating whether or not they get seen."

So, not only do news alerts need to impart information, they also need to be on-brand. As a result, crafting the perfect push has become a hot topic. "Many outlets have Slack channels and the like where numerous people workshop language for their alerts," Brown says.

"For a lot of publishers, speed is less important than you might expect. Mobile editors will say they'd rather spend time crafting the best alert they can and be a few minutes slower than their rivals because, unlike news junkies and their bosses, most news consumers are not getting alerts from multiple apps and comparing the times they arrived.

"They just want a good, engaging, interesting alert about something that interests them."

More progressive mobile editors are conscious that alerts can interrupt readers' busy lives, and just want to give them the news at the lock-screen level.

Whether they open the story or not is immaterial.

"They want their readers to be able to look at the alert, understand what was happened, put their phones back in their pockets and get on with their day," says Brown.

"It's the sort of water cooler approach wherein an alert alone provides enough news for the reader to be able to start a conversation. Some will even tell you that if readers have to click through to the full story in order to understand it, then they've failed at their job."

But there's a downside. The technical limitations of iOS and Android dictate the use of push notifications.

"Apple and Google really hold all of the cards in this respect," Brown says.

"Even when publishers aren't being forced to adapt to the ever-changing algorithms, they remain subservient to the tech giants in other ways.

"A lot of publishers would be making more use of photos in their alerts if Apple didn't insist on making them so small and useless."

The research also features some cautionary tales. CNN Moneystream, which sent out the most pushes a year ago, has become an automated feed of news due to layoffs, and Millenial news outlet Mic also changed tack on pushes.

It had been trying to include videos in news alerts, which would be watched on the lock screen without ever needing to open Mic's app. But the audience didn't get it.

"That suggests they were just unable to break that habit of tapping on alerts," Brown says.

"I think those norms and habits will only change when Apple and Google make changes at the level of the operating system that force people to adapt."

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