10 March 2016
“Gone are the days of digital having the audiences but not the revenue”. With these words Meredith Artley, Editor-in-Chief of CNN Digital, not only summarises the experience at her media organisation which is seeing a steady increase in digital revenue, she also seems to say that the digital challenge can be won.
News organisations have to experiment: that’s her main piece of advice. In the following interview, Meredith discusses how social media and chat apps — like Snapchat — platforms and new ways of distributing news — like Google AMP or Facebook’s Instant Articles — and wearables are not only opportunities to gain new audiences but also challenges can lead to new effective solutions.
At the upcoming GEN Summit, next June, you will talk about platforms and how publishers can experiment with them. What experiments done by CNN or other big news organisations do you consider “game changers” of tomorrow?
I love what we and others are doing on Snapchat. Some of our competitive set are doing interesting things on messaging apps like Line and Kik that we are watching closely. The possibilities with Google’s AMP and Facebook Instant Articles are exciting too. We are proud of our first steps on Apple News and Apple Watch. We have some cool innovations in partnership with Samsung. And “legacy social” continues to evolve – I’m thinking not just of the algorithm changes to Facebook and Twitter that keep us on our toes but also new features from Twitter Moments to Facebook Notify, and the new opportunities for video storytelling on those platforms. We’ve also been playing with virtual reality – we were the first organisation to live stream an event in VR back in October with the [presidential] debate. There’s a lot going on, and it’s an exciting time.
The art of digital storytelling, publishing and audience interaction has changed dramatically in the past year. Every day there are new ways to strengthen the trust CNN has with existing audiences around the world, as well as opportunities to gain new audiences.
Each one of these new platforms and features force a form of creative restraint for journalists, technologists and designers. We get to think about new formats, new techniques and new measures of success. With Snapchat, for example, we get to work with vertical visuals, sound and motion in ways we had never done before. With the Apple and Samsung watches, we get to think about alerting in a new, more personal light.
Photograph courtesy of CNN
Google’s Instant Articles competitor, Accelerated Mobile Pages, has launched and any publisher is able to use it. Will CNN be using AMP and why or why not? Do you think it is poised to take the lead from Facebook Instant Articles?
From the editor and publisher point of view, both AMP and Facebook’s Instant Articles are great options to explore and a sign of a competitive and vibrant ecosystem. I’ve noticed some strum und angst in our industry about the choices that publishers are forced to make. Control that is being forfeited. Traffic and revenue lost. Those are healthy conversations and considerations. But as publishers, we have an immense amount of control when it comes to deciding what stories to do, how to do them and for whom. We have a growing range of choices for distribution and revenue – those are powerful things that deserve the magic balance of being swift, thoughtful and not beholden to legacy practices and assumptions.
CNN is a launch partner with Google AMP and we are also publishing Facebook Instant Articles. We work closely with our partners to decide launch strategies, timing and workflow.
With each emerging opportunity, we ask questions like: Is it important to be a first mover or should we wait to see how this plays out? What does success look like? What internal skills and practices need to change for us to be successful with this new initiative?
At CNN, we believe that it’s good to be distributed in the multitude of places where audiences are, and that having a diversified portfolio is key. We don’t place all of our bets on any one platform. We have a strong core of owned and operated properties on the web and apps. We have a powerful social presence and we craft stories and events with those audiences in mind. And we have other off-platform partners, from Samsung to Apple to Roku to Amazon. And we have 24/7 globally distributed TV networks with CNN US and CNN International. That’s a great place to be. Our product team, led by Alex Wellen, is constantly helping us to prioritise and navigate this landscape.
Tell us more about CNN’s new strategy to grow on social platforms. Does the majority of your traffic already come from social media? If so, from which platforms specifically?
I’m immensely proud of CNN’s position as the most followed and fanned news organisation on the planet. The teams recently celebrated @CNNBRK breaking into the top 20 of all Twitter accounts in the world, (which led to some good newsroom jokes about our competitive set being not just the BBC and The New York Times, but also Shakira and Justin Bieber).
It’s not just about scale and "broadcasting" to mass audiences. A story we share on @CNNBRK must look and act different than what you see on our flagship Facebook accounts. Or our Instagram accounts. Or on our homepages. Or our air.
My pal who runs domestic newsgathering, Terence Burke, talks a lot about being “story first” – that’s a huge shift for an organisation that started as a cable television network. It means that the story is at the core, and the platforms emanate from that. It used to be the other way around, with TV-centric storytelling at the center and digital downstream from that. No more.
Our head of social news, Samantha Barry, shared some data recently that shows our engagement across our core social accounts has risen dramatically. We are at or near the top of the competitive set when it comes to almost all key sharing metrics. It didn’t use to be that way. So having scale and strong engagement is big deal for CNN.
Source: Shearable (courtesy of CNN), Jan. 2015 - Dec. 2015. Facebook metrics are for CNN Facebook flagship account. Twitter metrics are for @CNN and @CNNBRK accounts
What kind of mobile-centric projects are you developing these days? What type of changes are we going to see in the way CNN delivers news on mobile across its channels in the future?
We are increasingly programming specifically for our mobile site vs our mobile apps vs desktop vs a wide array of social platforms. For example, on mobile, we see that tablet audiences consume far more video than on mobile web or apps. So why not programme to that? We are also experimenting with made-for-mobile video – we are finding that video clips in the range of one minute perform well on a variety of mobile platforms. That made-for-mobile video is not just shorter in length, but also has on-screen graphics that help tell the story for users that are watching with the audio off. We have gone from a one-size-fits-all broadcast mentality to a story first, tailored approach that suits multiple screens and feeds.
Photograph courtesy of CNN
You’re already bringing a model to London in place in some of your US bureaux which leans on in-house tech to mine information and trends on the web. The term “digital war room” that you use to describe it is quite catchy. Can you tell us more about it and what it means exactly? What drove your decision to bring it to London?
The war room is the physical manifestation of our audience-centric approach. When you come to our newsrooms in Atlanta, New York and DC it’s one of the first things you see. Our teams have long had this data flowing onto their personal screens. But something happens when there’s a big wall of data out in the open. It creates conversation. People convene around it. They ask questions and make decisions. It’s the new water cooler.
So we want that in London. And Hong Kong. And Abu Dhabi. And any place where CNN has a handful of journalists doing work across multiple platforms. London is one of our largest bureaux that serves CNN audiences worldwide. We have talented multi-platform journalists there and more coming as we continue to grow. So the audience/data-centric mentality that the war room brings is something we want there.
This article from Digiday describes “Surge” (Social Unit of Reach, Growth and Engagement) as one of the in-house social tools you use at CNN to “determine how content should be repackaged for different social platforms; and spot topics likely to go viral”. How does it work?
“Surge” is something we are piloting in CNNMoney. It’s an attempt to create a more perfect metric. Unique users are not always a perfect measure. Neither are video streams. Page views have been imperfect – and gameable — for a long time. So Ed O’Keefe, VP of Money and Politics, asked his team to experiment with an algorithm that considers certain social engagement measures, referral traffic from outside sources, and internal data. That’s “Surge.”
Source: Comscore (courtesy of CNN), Mobile Metrics, Jan. 2014 - Jan. 2016. Represent domestic traffic only
All in all, have all your efforts in terms of digital strategy paid off so far, in terms of revenue and engagement?
Our digital revenue is stronger than it’s ever been and, as big boss Jeff Zucker says, it’s a “significant” contributor to CNN’s overall revenue. And it continues to grow. Gone are the days of digital having the audiences but not the revenue. And the audience growth is strong: CNN Digital, for example, has been number one in multiplatform views – across mobile and desktop — for the last ten months in a row. We’ve seen mobile consumption reach 80 % of our traffic on certain days. We are also number one in video – that’s streams, uniques and minutes, and CNN Politics, which we invested in heavily last year with a talented team led by Rachel Smolkin, has been the number one political news source for a year. Furthermore, CNN is the most followed and fanned news organisation.
And all of that success is down to an incredible global team of a few hundred digital journalists – and many hundreds of other journalists at CNN who don’t have "digital" in their job title who are doing work for digital audiences in a variety of ways. It’s not just about the journalists, but the developers, designers, product managers and many others who are helping this big organisation make this big shift.
Finally, what advice would you give to news organisations wanting to better adapt to social media and mobile first platforms?
Experiment. Know that in most cases, trying something on your own mobile sites/apps or on a new platform doesn’t mean you have to do it forever. Share successes and challenges openly and frequently along the way. And measure results, always.
Background Image Credits: Japanexperterna.se/Flickr (CC)