A Crisis of Attention - Part II

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David Attenborough or Doctor Phil?

That was the question I posed at the end of A Crisis of Attention – Part I. In that post I explored the ways in which the war for our attention has escalated in the internet age, and the stakes are high – increasing triviality, or continued progress. This has caused serious problems for quality media. The loss of gatekeepers, the compounding effect of competition for attention and the feedback loop from digital products has made it easier to capture and hold our attention.

An ugly suspicion seems to have been confirmed: the easiest route to grabbing our attention is content that appeals to our Freudian selves and to extremes. With advertising as the dominant funding model for the internet, shallow sensationalism has become the norm for much of our digital ecosystem. “Whatever gets punters clicking” seems to be Facebook’s operating mantra (although they admittedly have been great at moving fast and breaking a lot of things).

Appealing to our better selvesI don’t think that it has to be this way though. The digital world can be designed to appeal to our best selves too. In fact, things may slowly be changing already; people are rapidly getting wise to the ways they’re being manipulated and new business models and products are appearing across the web. A few years ago, all articles seemed to suddenly have a click-bait headline and land you on a slide show that loaded 20 pages full of ads – but the world is moving on already. Under pressure from both the media and consumers, both Google and Facebook have declared that they are now punishing these types of titles and pages with an ad overload. Fake news is already seeing efforts to punish it in the same way.

In this post, I want to discuss the increasing evidence that content quality and putting users first not only still matters, but could be the dominant force shaping the future of media and publishing.

Last month, member-funded journalism platform The Correspondent held interviews with their paying subscribers on why they support the platform. The team at The Correspondent shared their research materials and summed up the results in 13 main points. It’s enticing reading.

De CorrespondentWhat stood out for me is that the people who pay for the platform value the depth of content and the user-friendly experience. The Correspondent “doesn’t bring you the weather (surface events) but the climate (the deeper forces at work)”. There are no hot takes or quick reactions to the news, just deeply researched articles that explain the relevant context. And the Correspondent aren’t alone – other organisations are treading the same path with success.

The Correspondent’s subscribers, or members as they prefer to call them, also appreciate the visual and interface design which they describe as calm, simple and with a human touch: “The fact that [our platform] isn't always grabbing for your attention is noticed and deeply appreciated.” And that, really, is the simple truth that will shape the future of media – users have had enough of being treated as if they don’t matter. They’re increasingly getting fed up with being the product, with being commodified and sold to advertisers by the millions.

The Correspondent is ad-free and their business, which will be expanding to the USA soon, is funded solely by about 60,000 members. However, most media platforms still rely on advertising for a significant portion of their revenues. Whether you have a site with a broad, transient audience or a niche, dedicated readership, brands and other advertisers are interested in buying their attention.

U.S. Ad Revenues (USD billions)
  2015 2016 Growth Share of Growth
Google $31.3 $37.6 $6.3 49%
Facebook $8.9 $14.1 $5.1 40%
Everyone else $19.4 $20.8 $1.4 11%
PWC/IAB $59.6 $72.5 $12.9  
Source: IAB/PWC

There’s no reason to believe that this is going to end any time soon. The digital advertising industry is growing, and the global amount spent is expected to hit $229.25bn this year and grow towards $335.5bn by 2020. This sounds like good news for a lot of media sites trying to pay the bills. The bad news is that nearly all that growth – around 90% - is going to the duopoly: Google and Facebook.

Publishers having to scrap over the remaining 10 percent of that growth have created many challenges for the industry. As Dotdash’s CEO Neil Vogel said in conversation with Digiday: “The rules of the internet are clearly made by a few parties that are interested in their own success, not ours.” He believes Google’s ad filter and Facebook’s new guidelines will benefit premium publishers. “But there is tremendous risk in Google and Facebook dictating the internet.” Roger McNamee, an early investor in both Google and Facebook agrees and published the confessional ‘I invested early in Google and Facebook and regret it. I helped create a monster.’

Some publishers are trying to take a stand against the dominance of the duopoly and are exploring alternatives, such as using independent ad tech providers, putting traditional rivalries aside to form their own programmatic ad sales networks or offering unified consumer logins.

What I get most excited about, however, is success stories based on making ads non-intrusive and helping the publishers deliver a better experience. This is fundamentally the same story as The Correspondent – the rewards of treating users as real people again. Some publishers, such as the female-focused LittleThings, are now taking a “less is more” approach when it comes to placing ads across their sites. Stripping out irritating ad formats and limiting the number of ads forced on visitors can actually result in more engaged consumers and ultimately increased ad revenue. Another initiative, called the News Quality Scoring Project (NQS), is focused on rewarding quality journalism on the web at scale by making sure all pages aren’t counted equally.

One minute video explaining the project

NQS’s goal is to develop a system able to automatically analyse different types of content, from generic news coverage to an in-depth investigative piece, whatever the format, and assign them a value. NQS is based on the capture and analysis of about 50 signals that convey the notion of quality. Higher-value pieces should carry a higher advertising value, and/or be part of premium subscription packages.

Time will tell whether the publisher alliances will hold and the other progressive initiatives in advertising take off. In a digital media world steered by big tech companies, a lot is still unclear. One thing that it crystal clear to me though is that there is a growing demand for quality content and better user experiences – perfectly exemplified by the Net Quality Scoring Project and the approach taken by LittleThings in the ad-driven world. Businesses like The Correspondent also show there’s an increasing willingness from consumers to put their credit card where their mouth is. Publishers can’t afford to underestimate what this means for their newsrooms, online offerings and business models. To flourish in the long run, they will need to pivot to user-driven products like subscription or double down on progressive advertising. And not tomorrow - now. Here’s why:

Past performance is no guarantee of future results

Since November 2016, Google and Facebook have driven around 80 percent of all identifiable external traffic to digital publishers. According to the Social Media Index, over 12% of the total traffic to news publishers last year came from Facebook. For much of the summer it was around 16%. These are the sorts of numbers which it could be tempting to base a business strategy on.

Ev Williams. Credit: Flickr/Christopher P. MichelHistorically, the cheapest way to earn a cent from this situation has been to create huge amounts of sensationalist content with clickbait titles, push it on social and watch the two billion active Facebook users hit programmatic ads crammed onto your pages. And despite the duopoly and the brand damage from a shoddy user experience, you might earn a lot of those cents. People click, so there must be a genuine demand, right? Sort of: as the founder of Medium, Ev Williams, said in an interview with The Guardian: “We’re still stuck in some very naive thinking, with the idea that people consuming media means that’s what they want – it’s like, well, we put junk food in front of them and they ate that, so that must be what they want.”

I believe audiences are already having a change of heart as they become more aware. Ev’s analogy with junk food is spot on. Take McDonalds, for example. In the nineties, you would have expected them to grow and grow, but now we’re in 2017, and earlier this year a report came out that traffic at their US restaurants, the most profitable market, has fallen more than 10 percent over the last four years. Those numbers are hard to ignore.

It’s equally hard to miss the movement for ‘a better web’. As well as Ev Williams, there are many others now taking a stand. Perhaps the best known is Tristan Harris, former Google design ethicist and co-founder of Time Well Spent. He recently did a TED Talk on how the big tech companies use manipulative tricks to capture our attention and what we as individuals can do about it. You can also check out ‘Mr Binge Breaker’ on Medium, on Bill Maher’s 60 minutes or read his in-depth interview with The Atlantic. Then there’s James Williams, the other co-founder of the Time Well Spent movement and a design ethicist at Oxford University, Jason Kint, the CEO of Digital Content Next and the witty Jack Marshall, a reporter at The Wall Street Journal, covering media and marketing. More and more people are standing up and saying that the way the web works isn’t working.

Planking - never againWith Facebook and Google’s steady year on year growth, it can seem like the only way for both giants to go is up. But remember McDonalds: what if we increasingly decide to make healthier choices? What if we stop getting our media through the duopoly? There are some signs that may already be starting to happen. Social trends can die as swiftly as they explode onto the scene. Anyone remember using Blackberry Messenger or Planking?

As we saw with The Correspondent, publishers are already seeing a situation where some more people actually want brainfood: content that’s sticky, not clicky. People increasingly want to spend time well, not spend more of it. In this new world, quality content and a great user experience are vital for a publisher to thrive. If it’s our shallowest self which is reflected to us every time we open Facebook, Instagram and YouTube, the best business opportunity around might be to begin to cater for our aspirational selves. We know from countless branding studies that aspirational brands can charge a premium on their products and services, so why shouldn’t that be true in the media and publishing space too. My guess is that there will be a flight to higher ground.

Premium works

Ernst-Jan Phauth, co-founder of The Correspondent wrote in one of his Medium articles: "Readers can tell whether a publication is investing in them or selling them out. When a publication invests in its readers, readers are willing to invest in it, by paying for a subscription."

The shift to the subscription economy is accelerating and undeniable. Companies like Spotify and Netflix have paved the way, and now there are more and more publishers reaping the benefits of deep, long-term subscriber relationships. The flagship for this movement is without a doubt The New York Times, which had 2.3 million paid digital-only subscriptions at the end of the second quarter of 2017, a spectacular 63.4 percent rise from a year earlier. CEO Mark Thompson recently referred to the world of digital advertising as a “nightmarish joke”. Other companies are following where The Times leads, towards a future where the reader, not the advertiser, is the real customer.

There’s an obvious reason why subscription models are attractive: hugely increased average revenue per user (ARPU). You pay $63 a year to become a member of The Correspondent, and the basic digital-only subscription for The New York Times is $84 a year. How do these amounts compare to other revenue models? The ARPU from the Times’ subscribers is 43x the ARPU from advertising on the Times, 7x the ARPU from all the Times’ non-subscription sources of revenue combined, and 140x higher than the ARPU of Buzzfeed. Of course, Buzzfeed has a bigger audience than the Times, and that can mitigate for the much lower ARPU, but Buzzfeed’s model isn’t replicable for quality media – the Times’ model is.

Average revenue per user per year - Monday Note

High subscription ARPUs mean a viable model for a site like The Correspondent that could never be achieved through ads alone. Subscription businesses are thriving – not just the New York Times and The Correspondent, but also other mainstream titles like The Guardian, The Times, and some publishers overseas are seeing even greater penetration.

A loyal subscriber base also makes your site a more attractive premium advertising proposition too. It isn’t that subscription is the only game in town, but what makes subscription work is respect for the user, and successful advertising will need to follow the same route. Companies like LittleThings are leading the way.

The willingness for people to pay for great content and experiences is growing. But you can’t start asking people to pay for an experience that doesn’t put them first. Bob Gilbreath, marketing writer and CEO of Ahalogy wrote in his piece on the rise of subscriptions: "A funny thing happens once you completely focus your business around making paying customers happy: Your product gets better." As a publisher you get more out of your happy customers as well.

High quality, differentiated content combined with transparent and empowering user experiences will shape the future of media. Are you in?

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