Search Results for: "brand content"

Lessons from a good vertical: Skift.com

 

For digital media companies, creating good verticals that breed small but valuable audiences has become essential. On that subject, here are my takeaways following a conversation with Rafat Ali, founder and CEO of Skift.com. In 20 months, Rafat’s company has become a reference in the travel intelligence business. 

There is no excuse for not trying to build a vertical digital service (web site & mobile app) for a strong media company shifting to digital. As long as you have a powerful (not to be confused with profuse) newsroom coupled with a well-structured contents system, trying a foray in a specific domain is worth considering. As an example, see Atlantic Media, one of the most innovative media brands, as it deploys a series of verticals nested in its Government Executive Media Group. These units all generate small but extremely valuable and loyal audiences — and enviable revenue per user (more on the Atlantic in a future Monday Note).

Building a vertical is a mere matter of implementation, you might say. But a look below the surface shows how such process demands much more than merely putting a small group of good writers in a digital stable, and asking them to gather news on a specific subject.

That’s why Skift.com drew my attention. In less than twenty months, manned by only 9 people crammed in an mid-town Manhattan office, Skift.com has become a strong voice and a reference in the travel industry: airlines, booking systems, hotels, tour operators – and all the the sector’s disruptors.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

I met Rafat Ali five years ago in Hyderabad, India; we were both of speaking at the same conference. Rafat was about to exit his first and remarkable startup, PaidContent.org (a terrible name he now laughs off), one of the first blogs decoding the media industry’s transformation. After building it from scratch and spending eight exhausting years producing and editing stories, Rafat sold it to the Guardian for a reported $30m – right before the 2008 crisis. (Last year, PaidContent was acquired by GigaOm).

After a short transition, Rafat was free to go. So did he. In 2010, at the age of 36, he left for a two-year series of trips to Oman, Iceland, Burma, India (where he has family), radiating from his bases in New York and London. At last out of PaidContent’s trenches, he took the time to read a hundred books during his journeys. Following @rafat on Twitter, you could feel his excitement, and also his growing interest in the travel sector.

‘You have to remember, it was 2010, the iPad had just been launched, everyone was thinking about what to build on it’, said Rafat. His first idea was to re-invent the travel guide book for the iPad. But he soon realized how crappy the whole travel industry’s information ecosystem was: ‘I was blown away.’ While the transactional part of the travel business had been completely broken apart by a massive, unprecedented disintermediation — benefiting the customer, trade information remained frozen in the past, with its sets of professional printed publications perpetuating a jargon-filled verbiage offering little or no actionable intelligence, nor useful data

Nature (and digital business) abhors vacuum, so does Rafat Ali, who decided to fill the void. When asked to define Skift in a nutshell, he said this: ‘In late 2011, we wanted to build the Bloomberg News of travel’. (When it comes to business information, this is quite a goal. Never aim low, I can’t agree more.) Rafat’s wanted to build something based on a few concepts: rely heavily on data, capitalize on the open-web, use APIs aggressively (to connect with third party data sets), aim at professionals, consultants, experts, and — last but not the least — prosumers who often know more than merchants. (Read Rafat’s post on the “Mediata” Startups).

The other key to Skift’s concept — which means shift in Danish — was tearing apart the silo culture that plagued the travel industry for decades: ‘You have airlines, airports, cruises, hotels, technology… All of these silos have collapsed in global interconnected megatrends, and we knew we could make our voice heard across all…’, explained Rafat while pointing at this graph:

SkiftCircularGraphic-b
Graph ©
Skift.com

As far as editorial is concerned, Rafat believes journalistic content is needed to create addiction, daily use, while-data related products generate usefulness, stickiness, loyalty and, ultimately, monetization. Content-wise, at the beginning, the site was built on four “legs”: aggregation (collecting headlines); curation (with a tweet-length phrase to describe a story); licensed content (full articles brought from news providers); and originally produced articles. Today, Skift is down to two items: 40% of articles are licensed (mostly Newscred) and 60% are original content — about 15-20 short business stories (produced by a staff of three…)

Business-wise, Skift positioned itself primarily as a B2B company, then secondarily as B2B-2C. Its traffic is still modest (1m UVs/mo), but growing fast; so does its newsletter business, expected to reach 75,000 subscribers by year end. No mobile apps in sight as the mobile web works well for Skift: mobile users account for 35% of web traffic and 50% of newsletters readings.

Skift sells few but high yield ads, to the point that Rafat is about to create a tiny studio to create bespoke brand contents. (Maintaining the mandatory Chinese wall could be tricky in such a small structure.)

But Skift’s true gem is its industry dashboards and data collection system, a well-structured tree that leads to scores of statistics and rankings. Inside, you’ll learn that AirBnB — whose valuation is now higher than Hyatt — has a Skift Score (a combination of indicators) roughly twice the “bookings & tools” industry average. Or that Dutch airline KLM scores way better than the hippest Virgin Atlantic. Or that Hertz masters the social ecosystem way better than the trendy Über.

Using data analytics, Skift produces reports — short and updated twice a month (as opposed to quarterly “bibles” prone to quick obsolescence.) ‘We will focus mainly on marketing, strategy and technology to produce competitive intelligence’, said Skift’s CEO. Rafat’s intense focus on doing few things but doing them well extends to the obligatory conference business: Skift intends to do just a single event about the Future of Travel, in a similar fashion to Quartz’sThe Next Billion conference (see the #qznextbillion hashtag for a list of tweets linking to videos). In both cases, these events are built on strong editorial concepts, ‘We want to make a conference about leadership instead of a vendors-to-vendors type…’ said Rafat.

What’s next for Skift? First, an off-site staff meeting in Iceland. Actually, Rafat Ali is considering a global franchise set in Reykjavik. Less anecdotal, Skift founder wants to apply his news and contents formula beyond the travel industry to what he feels are interconnected sectors — at least in discretionary spending — namely food & beverage and retail sectors.

One final note. Looking at the state of travel information, I can’t help but discern a complete failure of traditional, legacy journalism. Too cozy with the main players and their corrupting PR machines, too filled-up with press junkets and freebies, the mainstream media coverage of this $6.5 trillion/260 million jobs sector has become mostly illegible. This leaves a large open field to new players.

frederic.filloux@mondaynote.com

 

News Media Revenue Matrix: The Bird’s Eye View

 

Publishers struggle with newer and more complex business models. Some appear stronger than others but, above all, a broad palette is a must. It is a means to capture emerging opportunities and to compensate for the drying up of older revenue sources.

Today, I submit the following revenue matrix for a modern, content-rich news outlet. As I see it, in the news business “modernity” mean this:

A proven ability to produce original content in abundance and under multiple forms: news reporting, investigation, analysis, data journalism, long form (for ebook publishing), enterprise-like journalism, live feeds; all of the above in the form of text, images, graphics and videos.

A cultural mindset to produce contents for the platform with the best fit: a news story for a newspaper, an interactive piece on the web, live coverage for mobile. The collective publishing mindset should no longer allow first- and second-class news products. Every piece of newsroom output must be designed as a contribution to a cascading revenue system in which each element empowers every other one.

– A newsroom equipped with the best tools money can buy or — even better — build. These include a powerful Content Management System (CMS) aimed at dispatching production to every platform. The CMS must be connected to a semantic analysis system that makes all pieces of information — from a feature story to the transcript of a video — compatible with the semantic web’s standardized grammar. In order to extract more value from a piece of content, the CMS must also connect to multiple databases. For example, the name of an obscure city must be able to generate a map – through the Geonames base; a Board Director must be tied to a high value database of business leaders such as The Official Board; the name of a company must lead to open-source corporations listings.

Mastering the semantic web is indissociable from acquiring information gathering capabilities such as aggregation and filtering (see a previous Monday Note: Building a business news aggrefilter ). Such feature is a prerequisite to building high-margin products as well as exploiting the social media echo chamber. After collecting contents through RSS feeds, the combination of semantic news analysis matched against the taxonomy of, say, Twitter, will yield a trove of information on what audiences like or dislike — not only for a news media but also for its competitors. It is a complex and expensive endeavor but, in the long run, it will be worth every penny.

– And more importantly, a global editorial thinking. Too often, newsroom management suffers form what l’ll call “mono-product bias”, focusing on what is seen as noble — namely print. At a very minimum, modern editorship must embrace a widespread digital strategy. But it also must envision a sustainable game plan for a complete lineup of ancillary products that also deserve editorial coherence and strength.

Having said that, let’s have a look at the following matrix. No rocket science here, I simply made a list of 14 products that many news outlets already operate. I then tried to assess the outlook for each revenue stream. (My original idea was to assign a estimated ARPU for each cell, but there are too many parameters to be taken into account).
Click to enlarge the table:

310 table revenue

Now, let’s focus on specific products and revenue streams.

Daily Print Edition. I’m very bearish on print. Granted, it still brings the most substantial chunk of revenue – but also most of the losses. And prospects are bleak: copy sales, subscriptions, even ad sales deteriorate fast. Some light can come from ads – when they are components of customized campaigns. Daily newspapers need to be vastly simplified in order to free up resources for the wide array of other revenue streams — especially digital. I’m a big supporter of Financial Times’ Lionel Barber “Memo on reshaping the newspaper for digital age“.

Weekend editions will do better than dailies for several reasons. First, their function — long formats, portfolios, reading habits — makes them better armed against the digital tsunami that devoured news. Second, they remain a great vector for pricey advertising: on some anglo-saxon markets, weekend editions accounts for half of the print ad revenue. The New York Times understood that well as its full digital access + weekend edition bundle is a hit among customers.

Advertising revenue stream. Let’s face it, traditional ads ormats, print or digital, are dying. The conjunction of programmatic buying and ad saturation/tracking/targeting will seal their fate for good. The best outlook seems to be for customized operations and brand contents (or combinations of the two). They can spread on every platforms, including on mobile where, so far, users massively reject ads. In addition, these customized operations carry high value (huge CPMs or hefty flat fees.)

Event & Conferences. The segment is crowded and success depends on a subtile combination of attendance fees vs sponsorship, but also of editorial content. A conference is indeed a full editorial vector that needs to be treated with the same care as any other publication, i.e, with a precise angle, great casting and first class moderation that favors intellectual density over speakers flogging cheap sales pitches. News media are well positioned to deploy an efficient promotion for a content-rich, sustainable, conference system.

Intelligence & Surveys. Attractive as they might sound, these products require a great deal of expertise to make a difference. Very few media can fulfill the promise and justify the high price that goes along with such offerings.

Training and MOOCs represent an interesting potential diversification for some business publications. They carry several advantages: by addressing a young readership, MOOCs can create an early attachment to the brand; the level of risk is low as long as the media company limits itself to being a distributor (quality MOOCs production is very expensive). For a business publication, such activities represent a great way to increase its penetration in the corporate world where the need for training is limitless.

Premium Subscriptions. Some large, diversified media companies are already considering complex subscription packages for a small number of high-yield clients. In addition to print and full digital access, such packages could include access to conferences & events, MOOCs, market intelligence, and other publications. Testing the concept is a low-risk proposition.

The Business to Business segment remains the province of specialized publications. But the potential is there for general-audience media: corporations are hungry for information. The era of the bulky corporate intranet that no one watches is gone; today, for their staff, companies want apps for mobile and tablets that will save time while being precisely targeted and well-designed. Not an easy market – but  a very solvent one.

Sketchy and questionable as it is, the above matrix also illustrates the complexity of designing and selling such a wide range of products to individuals or corporations. Only a small number of news organizations will have the staff, skills and resolve to address such a broad range of opportunities.

frederic.filloux@mondaynote.com

@filloux

What’s the Fuss About Native Ads?

 

In the search for new advertising models, Native Ads are booming. The ensuing Web vs. Native controversy is a festival of fake naïveté and misplaced indignation. 

Native Advertising is the politically correct term for Advertorial, period. Or rather, it’s an upgrade, the digital version of an old practice dating back to the era of typewriters and lead printing presses. Everyone who’s been in the publishing business long enough has in mind the tug-of-war with the sales department who always wants its ads to to appear next to an editorial content that will provide good “context”. This makes the whole “new” debate about Native Ads quite amusing. The magazine sector (more than newspapers), always referred to “clean” and “tainted” sections. (The latter kept expanding over the years). In consumer and lifestyle sections, editorial content produced by the newsroom is often tailored to fit surrounding ads (or to flatter a brand that will buy legit placements).

The digital era pushes the trend several steps further. Today, legacy media brands such as Forbes, Atlantic Media, or the Washington Post have joined the Native Ads bandwagon. Forbes even became the poster child for that business, thanks to the completely assumed approach carried out by its chief product officer Lewis DVorkin (see his insightful blog and also this panel at the recent Paid Content Live conference.) Advertising is not the only way DVorkin has revamped Forbes. Last week, Les Echos (the business daily that’s part of the media group I work for) ran an interesting piece about it titled “The Old Press in a Startup mode” (La vielle presse en mode start-up). It details the decisive — and successful — moves by the century-old media house: a downsized newsroom, external contributors (by the thousand, and mostly unpaid) who produce a huge stream of 400 to 500 pieces a day. “In some cases”, wrote Lucie Robequain, Les Echos’s New York correspondent, “the boundary between journalism and advertorial can be thin…” To which Lewis DVorkin retorts: “Frankly, do you think a newspaper that conveys corporate voices is more noble? At Forbes, at least, we are transparent: We know which company the contributor works for and we expose potentials conflicts of interests in the first graph…” Maybe. But screening a thousand contributors sounds a bit challenging to me… And Forbes evidently exposed itself as part of the “sold” blogosphere. Les Echos’ piece also quotes Joshua Benton from Harvard’s Nieman Journalism Lab who finds the bulk of Forbes production to be, on average, not as good as it was earlier, but concedes the top 10% is actually better…

As for Native Advertising, two years ago, Forbes industrialized the concept by creating BrandVoice. Here is the official definition:

Forbes BrandVoice allows marketers to connect directly with the Forbes audience by enabling them to create content – and participate in the conversation – on the Forbes digital publishing platform. Each BrandVoice is written, edited and produced by the marketer.

Practically, Forbes lets marketers use the site’s Content Management System (CMS) to create their content at will. The commercial deal — from what we can learn — involves volumes and placements that cause the rate to vary between $50,000 to $100,000 per month. The package can also include traditional banners that will send traffic back to the BrandVoice page.

At any given moment, there are about 16 brands running on Forbes’ “Voices”. This revenue stream was a significant contributor to the publisher’s financial performances. According to AdWeek (emphasis mine):

The company achieved its best financial performance in five years in 2012, according to a memo released this morning by Forbes Media CEO Mike Perlis. Digital ad revenue, which increased 19 percent year over year, accounted for half of the company’s total ad revenue for the year, said Perlis. Ten percent of total revenue came from advertisers who incorporated BrandVoice into their buys, and by the end of this year, that share is estimated to rise to 25 percent.

Things seemed pretty positive across other areas of Forbes’ business as well. Newsstand sales and ad pages were up 2 percent and 4 percent, respectively, amid industry-wide drops in both areas. The relatively new tablet app recently broke 200,000 downloads.

A closer look gives a slightly bleaker picture: According to latest data from the Magazine Publishers Association, between Q1 2013 and Q1 2012, Forbes Magazine (the print version only) lost 16% in ads revenues ($50m to $42m). By comparison, Fast Company scored +25%, Fortune +7%, but The Economist -27% and Bloomberg Business Week -30%. The titles compiled by the MPA are stable (+0.5%).

I almost never click on banners (except to see if they work as expected on the sites and apps I’m in charge of). Most of the time their design sucks, terribly so, and the underlying content is usually below grade. However, if the subject appeals to me, I will click on Native Ads or brand contents. I’ll read it like another story, knowing full well it’s a promotional material. The big difference between a crude ad and a content-based one is the storytelling dimension. Fact is: Every company has great stories to tell about its products, strategy or vision. And I don’t see why they shouldn’t be told  resorting to the same storytelling tools news media use. As long as it’s done properly, with a label explaining the contents’ origin, I don’t see the problem (for more on this question, read a previous Monday Note: The Insidious Power of Brand Content.) In my view, Forbes does blur the line a bit too much, but Atlantic’s business site Quartz is doing fine in that regard. With the required precautions, I’m certain Native Ads, or branded contents are a potent way to go, especially when considering the alarming state of other forms of digital ads. Click-through rates are much better (2%-5% vs. a fraction of a percentage for a dumb banner) and the connection to social medias works reasonably well.

For news media companies obsessed with their journalistic integrity (some still do…), the development of such new formats makes things more  complicated when it comes to decide what’s acceptable and what’s not. Ultimately, the editor should call the shots. Which brings us to the governance of media companies. For digital media, the pervasive advertising pressure is likely keep growing. Today, most rely on a Chief Revenue Officer to decide what’s best for the bottom line such as balancing circulation and advertising, arbitraging between a large audience/low yield or smaller audience/higher yield, for instance. But, in the end, only the editor must be held accountable for the contents’ quality and the credibility — which contribute to the commercial worthiness of the media. Especially in the digital field, editors should be shielded from the business pressure. Editors should be selected by CEOs and appointed by boards or better, boards of trustees. Independence will become increasingly scarce.

frederic.filloux@mondaynote.com

The Internet Split

 

Web sites will soon fall into two categories: high audience low yield, low audience higher yield. Such a divide will impact digital advertising.

This Autumn, whomever you talk to will tell you this: internet advertising yields are taking a dive. CPMs (cost per thousand page views), now down to single digits, keep falling. This you hear on both sides of the Atlantic. Economic conditions, concerns with the level of debt (both private and public), business-hostile tax policies (see Jean-Louis’ Monday Note on French Entrepreneurs Revolt), the upcoming fiscal cliff in the United States, the fragility of the Eurozone are all pointing in the same direction. Even Google’s cash machine is showing weakness.

In such times, advertising budgets are usually the first ones to get the ax. Slowing down an industrial production line can get complicated, but slashing an ad campaign can be done with a mouse click. In the Fall, when everyone struggles with next year’s projections, a marketing director is inevitably tempted to hit the delete key to embellish his/er spreadsheet (remember: we are all short-termists.)

According to ZenithOptimedia’s recent forecasts, Eurozone ad expenditures will end this year in the red: -3.1% overall. But all countries are not equal: Just to illustrate the reactivity of advertising expenditures to economic conditions, consider three regional economies badly impacted by Europe’s downturn:

Italy:       -6.5% in ad spending vs. 2011
Spain:       -12.2%
Portugal:    -12.2%

And just for the sake of it, let’s award a special prize to the Greek economy: its advertising expenditure will be down 33.2% this year and it will be off its 2007 peak by… 63%! This shows how the ad market reacts and amplifies an economic crisis. (For 2013, Zenith predicts +0.9% growth in the Eurozone, but has since it downgraded its entire Western Europe 2012 projections from +0.4% in June to -0.7% in September. As a result, no one seriously believes Zenith’s projection for upcoming year.)

For digital media, such a trend will be the underlying cause of three evolutions:
- A rise in paid-for-performance advertising
- A rise in alternate formats beyond traditional display — for better or worse
- And a split between volume-driven and quality-driven digital properties.
To an extent, the third trend is a consequence of the other two. Let’s give it a closer look.

First, this graph:

A quick disclaimer: To avoid offending anyone, note there is no scale, nor any proportions between media outlets. The point is to map out clusters among various brands, to see who sits where relatively to others.

On the top left part of the chart, high audience but low yield: The Guardian (£40-50m in revenue for a stunning 60+ million uniques visitors), Business Insider, The Huffington Post and TV networks web sites. However, they have different ways of gathering huge audiences: The Guardian does it thanks to its fantastic journalistic machine and its unabated investment in digital (read this interesting story in last summer’s GQ); as for the Huffington Post, it has elevated clicking-techniques to an art.

Business Insider has become a class in itself. In the last two or three years, it drifted from a good tech/business blog to a compilation of eye-grabbing-headlines (a rather profuse one: I counted more than 90 items on BI’s home page this weekend.) Having said that: it remains interesting reading, and its crew sometimes gets scoops. But the entire editing is built on grabbing attention. And it works beautifully, so to speak. Here are some examples of stories and how they score:

12 Long-Dead Brands That Are Ripe For Resurrection:
55,000 views
Stunning Images From The Best Wildlife Photo Competition Of The Year:
78,000 views
19 Chinese White Collar Criminals Who Were Handed The Death Sentence :
104,000 views
There Is Simply No Other Plane In The World Like Air Force One :
650,000+ views
These Pictures May Give You Nightmares About Canada’s Oil Sands :
1.17 million views

Buried deep inside this accumulation of SEO-dreams-come-true items, there are some serious stories, but their scores are paltry:

Here’s The Big Mystery With Google’s $8 Billion Mobile Business :
7000 views
Jeff Bezos: People Who Are Right Are People That Change Their Mind A Lot :
6400 views

Well, you get my point. Again, I’m not judging here. With incredibly hard work, Henry Blodget and his team have built a great franchise, and I’d wish more business sites would learn — just a little bit, say 5% — how to stage business news and catch readers. And to be fair with Business Insider, let’s underline that its must-read 139 slides about The State of the Internet, attracted nearly 5 million viewers in three weeks.

Coming back to the chart above: on the bottom left, web sites like Slate or Salon (there are many others) enjoy strong reputation, loyal readership… but — as unfair as it sounds — tiny ones. On the upper right corner, we have the exception(s), lead by the New York Times: high audience, high ARPU (about $160m-200m in advertising revenue, recently supplemented by a $60-100m in subscription revenue that didn’t exist 15 months earlier.)

Let’s wrap up with advertising formats. Bottom line: ad agencies and their clients will always seek to blur the distinction between editorial and commercial contents. In that respect, the future lies, again, in the Business Insider model, which pushes the envelope pretty far (in my own, probably conservative opinion.) On this weekend’s home page, you can see how BI morphs its editorial team into sales reps with this story : 15 Tips For Getting The Perfect Tailored Suit, an advertorial for a wannabe hip Manhattan tailor. The package looks entirely like news coverage and it comes into two stages. Linked to the We-Give-You-Great-Tips treatment, you get the full monty: The secret suit shop underneath Mazza’s swank Chelsea sports bar, complete with a 20 pics slide-show and a glowing profile of the owners. The two stories gathered more than… 100,000 views (including mine — note that I linked to the stories because I’m pretty sure you’ll click on it…) But it’s pocket change compared to the rather straightforward Here’s Why Peter Luger Is The Best Steakhouse In New York City which collected an amazing 244,000 views. (Business Insider wins on both ends: for the advertorial — Henry, please, don’t tell me you do that for free — and the ads surrounding it.)

With very few exceptions, the editorial independence of lifestyle and consumer sections is now long gone (this includes “respectable” legacy media.) But this obvious violation of the separation between Church and State is bound to percolate into more pernicious “brand content” (see this earlier Monday Note) for more serious subjects than food or clothing. That’s where the credibility issue will set in.

frederic.filloux@mondaynote.com

 

Quartz: Interesting… and uncertain

 

Atlantic’s new digital venture named Quartz is aimed at global business people. It innovates in many radical ways, but its business model remains dicey.

Two years ago, Atlantic Media’s president Justin Smith was interviewed by the New York Times. The piece focused on the digital strategy he successfully executed:

“We imagined ourselves as a Silicon Valley venture-backed startup whose mission was to attack and disrupt The Atlantic. In essence, we brainstormed the question: What would we do if the goal was to aggressively cannibalize ourselves?”

In most media companies, that kind of statement would have launched a volley of rotten tomatoes. Atlantic’s disruptive strategy gave birth to a new offspring: Quartz (URL: qz.com), launched a couple of weeks ago.

Quartz is a fairly light operation based in New York and headed by Kevin Delaney, a former managing editor at the WSJ.com. Its staff of 25 was pulled together from great brands in business journalism: Bloomberg, The Wall Street Journal, The Economist and the New York Times. According to the site’s official introduction, this is a team with a record of reporting in 119 countries and speaking 19 languages. Not exactly your regular gang of digital serfs or unpaid contributors that most digital pure players are built on.

This professional maturity, along with the backing of the Atlantic Media Company, a 155 years-old organization, might explain the set of rather radical options that makes Quartz so interesting.

Here are a few:

Priority on mobile use. Quartz is the first of its kind to deliberately reverse the old hierarchy: first, traditional web (for PC), and mobile interfaces, second. This is becoming a big digital publishing debate as many of us strongly believe we should go for mobile first and design our services accordingly (I fall in that category).

Quartz founders mentioned market research showing their main target — people on the road interested in global economy — uses 4.21 mobiles devices on average (I love those decimals…): one laptop, one iPad, and two (!) Blackberrys. (Based on multiple observations, I’d rather say, one BB and one iPhone.)

No native mobile app. Similarly, Quartz went for an open HTML5 design instead of apps. We went through this before in the Monday Note. Apps are mandatory for CPU intensive features such as heavy graphics, 3D rendering and games. For news, HTML5 — as messy as it is — does the job just fine. In addition, Quartz relies on “responsive design”, one that allows a web site to dynamically morph in response to the specific connected device (captures are not to scale):

Here is how it looks on a desktop screen:

… on an iPad in landscape mode:

 

…on an iPad in portrait mode:

on a small tablet:

..on an iPhone:

and on a small phone:

(I used Matt Kerlsey Responsive Design Test Site to capture Quartz renderings, it’s an excellent tool to see how your site will look like on various devices).

A river-like visual structure. Quartz is an endless flow of stories that automatically load one below the other as you scroll down. The layout is therefore pretty straightforward: no page-jumps, no complicated navigational tools, just a lateral column with the latest headlines and the main windows where articles concatenate. Again, the priority given to mobile use dictates design purity.

A lightweight technical setup. Quartz does not rely on a complex Content Management System for its production but on WordPress. In doing so, it shows the level of sophistication reached by what started as a simple blog platform. Undoubtedly, the Quartz design team invested significant resources in finding the best WP developers, and the result speaks for itself (despite a few bugs, sure to be short-lived…).

Editorial choices. Instead of the traditional news “beats” (national, foreign, economy, science…), Quartz went boldly for what it calls “obsessions”. This triggered a heated debate among media pundits: among others, read C.W. Anderson piece What happens when news organizations move from “beats” to “obsessions”? on the Nieman Journalism Lab.  Admittedly, the notion of “beats” sounds a bit old-fashioned. Those who have managed newsrooms know beats encourages fiefdoms, fence-building and bureaucracy… Editors love them because they’re much simpler to manage on a day-to-day basis; editorial meetings can therefore be conducted on the basis of a rigid organizational chart; it’s much easier to deal with a beat reporter or his/her desk chief than with some fuzzy “obsession” leader. At Quartz, current “Obsessions” appear in a discreet toolbar. They includes China Slowdown, The Next Crisis, Modern States, Digital, Money, Consumer Class, Startups, etc.

To me, this “obsessive” way of approaching news is way more modern than the traditional “beat” mode. First, it conveys the notion of adjustability to news cycles as “obsessions” can — should — vary. Second, it breeds creativity and transversal treatments among writers (most business publications are quite boring precisely due to their “silo culture”.) Third, digital journalism is intrinsically prone to “obsession”, i.e. strong choices, angles, decisions. For sure, facts are sacred, but they are everywhere: when reporting about the last alarming report from the World Bank, there is no need to repeat what lies just one click away — just sum up the main facts, and link back to the original source! Still, this shouldn’t preclude balanced treatment, fairness and everything in the basic ethics formulary. (Having said that, let’s be realistic: managing a news flow through “obsessions” is fine for  an editorial staff of 20, certainly not so for hundreds of writers.)

Quartz business side. Quartz is a free publication. No paywall, no subscription, nothing. Very few ads either. Again, it opted for a decisive model by getting rid of the dumb banner. And it’s a good thing: traditional display advertising kills designs, crappy targeting practices irritate readers and bring less and less money. (Most news sites are now down to single digital digits in CPM [Cost Per Thousand page views], and it will get worse as ad exchanges keep gaining power, buying remnant inventories by the bulk and reselling those for nothing.) Instead, Quartz started with four sponsors:  Chevron, Boeing, Credit Suisse and Cadillac, all showing quality brand contents. It’s obviously too early to assess this strategy. But Quartz business people opted for being extremely selective in their choice of sponsors (one car-maker, one bank, etc.), with rates negotiated accordingly.

Two, brands are displayed prominently with embedded contents instead of usual formats. Quartz is obviously shooting for very high CPMs. At the very least, they are right to try. I recently meet a European newspaper that extracts €60 to €100 CPMs by tailoring ads and making special ads placements for a small list of advertisers.

Again: such strategy is fine for a relatively small operation: as it is now, Quartz should not burn more than $3-4M a year. Betting on high CPMs is way more difficult for large websites — but niches can be extremely profitable. (For more on Quartz economics, read Ken Doctor’s piece also on Nieman.)

To sum up, three elements will be key to Quartz’ success. 

1 . Quickly build a large audience. Selected advertisers are not philanthropists; they want eyeballs, too. Because of its editorial choices, Quartz will never attract HuffPo-like audiences. To put things in perspective, the Economist gets about 7M uniques browsers a month (much less unique visitors) and has 632,000 readers on its app.

2 . Quartz bets on foreign audiences (already 60% of the total). Fine. But doing so is extremely challenging. Take The Guardian: 60 million uniques visitors per month — one third in the UK, another in the US, and the rest abroad — a formidable journalistic firepower, and a mere £40m in revenue (versus $160m in advertising alone for the NYTimes.com with half of the Guardian’s audience, that’s a 5 to 1 ratio per reader.)

3 . Practically, it means Quartz will have to deploy the most advanced techniques to qualify its audience: it will be doomed if it is unable to tell its advertisers (more than four we hope) it can identify a cluster of readers traveling to Dubai more than twice a year, or another high income group living in London and primarily interested in luxury goods and services (see a previous Monday Note on extracting reader’s value through Big Data)

4 . In the end, Quartz is likely to face a growth question: staying in a niche or broadening its reach (and its content, and increasing its staff) to satisfy the ad market. Once its audience levels off, it might have no other choice than finding a way to make its readers pay. It should not be a problem as it focuses on a rather solvent segment.

frederic.filloux@mondaynote.com

The Insidious Power of Brand Content

Dassault Systemes is one of the French industry’s greatest successes. Everyday, unbeknownst to most of us, we use products designed using DS software: cars, gadgets, buildings and even clothes. This €2bn company provides all the necessary tools for what has become known as Product Lifecycle Management: starting from the initial design, moving to the software that runs the manufacturing process, then to distribution logistics and, at the end of its life, disposing of the product.

Hence a simple question: What could be the axis of communication for such a company? The performance of its latest release of CAD software? Its simulation capabilities?

No. Dassault Systemes opted to communicate on an science-fiction iceberg-related project. The pitch: a French engineer — the old-fashion type, a dreamer who barely speaks English — envisions capturing an iceberg from a Greenland glacier and tugging it down to the thirsty Canary Islands. The DS mission (should it choose to really accept it): devise all the relevant techniques for the job, minimize melting, maximize fuel-efficiency. The result is a remarkable and quite entertaining documentary, a 56 minutes high-tech festival of solutions for this daunting task’s numerous challenges. I watched it in HD on my iPad, in exchange for my email address (the one I’m dedicating to marketers). It’s a huge, multimillion video production, with scores of the helicopters shots, superb views of Greenland and, of course, spectacular 3D imaging, the core DS business. The budget is so high and the project so ambitious, that the documentary was co-produced by several large European TV channels such as France Televisions and the German ZDF. Quite frankly, it fits the standard of public TV — for such a genre.

But this is neither journalism nor National Geographic film-making. It’s a Brand Content operation.

In advertising, Brand Content is the new black. You can’t bump into an ad exec without hearing about it. It’s the new grail, the replacement for the other formats that failed and the latest hope for an ailing industry. But there are side effects.

Let’s have a closer look.

1/ What defines Brand Content as opposed to traditional advertising?

In a good BC product, the brand can be almost absent. It’s the content that’s front and center. In France, advertisers often quote a series made by the French Bank BNP-Paribas titled “Mes Colocs” (My roommates). The title says it all. Launched two years ago, it featured 20 shorts episodes, later supplemented by… 30 bonus ones, all broadcast on YouTube and DailyMotion. Mes Colocs became such a success that two cable TV channels picked it up. The brand name does not appear — except in the opening credits. But, far from being a philanthropic operation, its performance was carefully monitored. BNP-Paribas’ goal was obvious: raising its awareness among young people. And it seems to have worked: the operation translated into a 1.6% increase in accounts opening and a rise of 6.5% in the number of loans granted to young adults (details in this promotional parody produced by the agency.)

This dissociation between brand and content is essential. An historical French brand has been rightly celebrated for being the first to do brand content decades before the term was coined: Michelin with its eponymous guides provided a genuine service without promoting its tires (read Jean-Louis’ Monday Note Why Apple Should Follow Michelin.)

The following opposition can be drawn between traditional advertising and content-based message :

2 / Why the hype ?

First of all, medias are increasingly fragmented. Advertisers and marketers have a hard time targeting the right audience. BC is a good way to let the audience build itself — for instance through virality. It is much more subtle than relying on the heavily (and easily) corrupted blogosphere.

Second, most digital formats are faltering. Display advertising is spiraling down due to well-known factors: unlimited inventories, poor creativity, excessive discounts, bulk purchasing, cannibalization by value killing ad networks, etc. Behavioral targeting is technically spectacular but people get irritated by invasive tracking techniques (see my previous take: Pro (Advertising) Choice.)

Three, marketers have matured. The caricatural advertorial grossly extolling a product is long gone.  Today’s contents are much smarter, they provide information (real or a respectable imitation), and good entertainment. Everything is increasingly well-crafted. Why? Because — and that is reason #4 for growth in BC — there is a lot of available talent out there. As news media shrink, advertising agencies find an abundance of writers, producers, film-makers all eager to work for much more money they could hope to get in their former jobs. Coming in with a fresh mindset, not (yet) brain-washed by marketing, they will do their job professionally, accepting “minor” constraints in exchange for great working conditions — no penny pinching when you do a web series for a global brand.

Five, compared to traditional advertising messages, Brand Content is cheap. As an example, see the making of a recent and highly conceptual Air France commercial shot in Morocco; the cost ran into seven figures. Now, imagine how many brand content products can be done with the same investment. Brand content allows an advertiser to place multiple bets at the same time.

3/ The risks. (Here comes the newsman’s point of view)

Brand content is the advertiser’s dream come true. The downfall of the print press has opened floodgates: publishers become less and less scrupulous in their blurring of the line between editorial and promotion — which is precisely what ad agencies always shoot for. Most women magazines, the luxury press, and now mainstream glossies allocate between 30% and 70% to such “tainted” editorial: nice “journalistic” treatment in exchange for favors on the advertising side. I’m not blaming publishers who do their best to save their business, I’m just stating the facts.

The consequence is obvious: readers are not informed as they should about products. Less and less so. (Although islands of integrity like Consumer Reports remain.) That is not good for the print media as it feeds the public’s distrust. While many publications lose what’s left of their credibility by being too cosy with their advertisers, brands are becoming increasingly savvy at producing quality contents that mimic traditional editorial. As brands tend to become full blown medias, the public will get confused. Sooner or later, it will be difficult to distinguish between a genuine, editorially-driven prime-time TV show and another one sponsored by an advertiser. Call it the ever shrinking journalism.

frederic.filloux@mondaynote.com