For customer-related technologies, the financial and intellectual backing of Jeff Bezos, and his Amazon experience can give The Post a huge competitive advantage. Here is what should be at the top of the to-do list.
Every digital manager must plan to tap into Amazon’s fantastic engineering firepower. (Even though Bezos bought the newspaper out of his own pocket, the first thing he’ll do — if he hasn’t already — will be drafting some of his techies as “advisors” to The Post.) The key point being: the influx of engineering brainpower must not be limited to the digital side of the house, or to the newspaper’s IT infrastructure. It should impact all activities: editorial, marketing, subscriptions and paid-for products. Let’s dive into details.
Turbo-boosting the editorial. Let’s start with the basics: What characterizes media outlets playing in The Washington Post’s league? It is their ability to line up top journalistic resources to cover stories that matter, in-depth, with multiple angles and treatment modes (text, features stories, photographs, graphics, multimedia storytelling, live blogging, opinions, etc.), while deploying the best expertise on topics covered. These are the five items that make the difference between the bulk of pure players and true legacy media.
In many ways, the above is anti-economic, it is loaded with inherent inefficiencies — dry holes, dead ends, waste of time on promising leads — that drive nuts “quant zealots” obsessed with KPI’s and productivity measurements. At this point, the difference between great newsroom managers (i.e. editors) and average ones lies in their ability to make some room for “managed inefficiencies”. An editor’s key, delicate duty is weighing the purpose of resource-intensive tasks such as flummoxing the competition, pursuing a worthy story, or launching a months-long journalistic project aimed at a Pulitzer prize. Unfortunately, weak leadership, balking at tough choices and yielding instead to a sorry attempt to spread an even level of (dis)satisfaction among constituencies causes inefficiencies to grow like weed.
The foremost goal of technology-enhanced news content is smartly weaving together all components of a topic. The idea is to keep the reader aboard by encouraging multiple levels of reading, with different angles for a subject, calls to essential archives or to other forms of journalism such as blogs or infographics. In this field, Amazon is light-years ahead of the news industry. By raising the number of editorial treatments seen by the reader, almost twenty years of Amazon’s e-commerce recommendation engine refinements will undoubtedly benefit The Post.
Another key item will be the level of news personalization. What should a Post reader see mostly? News that matters to him or her, or everything the paper’s staff collects? How to define mostly? Fully tailored contents based on past navigation? Stated preferences combined with the preserved serendipity that together make the core of news construction? This is a deeply involved problem — and the subject of a future Monday Note.
Reader profiling. All digital publishers dream of knowing exactly what reader sees what content, where, at what time of the day and on which vector: web, smartphone, tablet. The finer the granularity, the better. Slicing and dicing readership in segments of age, professions, residence, income, interests yields three types of uses:
- increasing news content stickiness by serving customized content as mentioned earlier
- smarter customized advertising, as opposed to dumbly drowning users into a flood of ads for months by using data collected during the shopping season. This practice, known as “retargeting”, is one of the internet “seven plagues” and the most potent repellent to advertising
- channelling the reader to the catalogue of ancillary products any news outlet should operate. For example: once a reader is identified (even anonymously) as working in the legal field, for a media group struggling to fill the last seats of its conference on privacy laws, why not show this loyal reader a one-time only, 50% discounted ticket, valid for 24 hours only? Simplistic as this example might seem, its large scale application is far from trivial: it requires super-accurate analytics, the deployment of “event engines” that will trigger the display of the right offer, at the right time, to the right segment of the population. Fortunately, this is the kind of work Amazon geeks are particularly good at.
For The Washington Post, the benefits are numerous. Research shows that serving the right ad to the right profile can raise its value by a factor of 1.5x to 2x. And the performance of ancillary products (conferences, business events, news-related ebooks or professional products, education packages, etc.) will become easier to measure.
Impact on paywall and subscription models. Paywall theory can be summarized as follows:
- deploying a wide range of tactics all aimed at significantly raising the number of news contents items (not necessarily articles) a reader watches every month. Let’s make no mistakes: the main dial is under the newsroom’s control, marketing wizardry won’t do the trick
- finding readers most likely to convert to a paid-for subscription and, week after week, serving them (I write serving, not bombarding) offers they can’t refuse: an extended test-period, or a news-related bonus that reflects the breadth of the company’s line of products.
As with most theories, practice is much harder. A paid-for system is a long-term, investment-intensive, staffing-critical effort. Two legacy media did it particularly well: The Financial Times and The New York Times. The former built a subscription base that now surpasses the paper’s; the latter added $100m a year in revenue that did not exist three years ago. Most paywall strategies underperform for two reasons: first, an error in predicting the editorial contents’ ability to retain readers beyond a free threshold of 10, 15, or 20 stories a month; second, a failure to build the data-driven infrastructure that is mandatory for any paid-for product. The Washington Post does relatively well with the first test. For the second, the backing of Amazon tech brains will give it the best chances to succeed.