From the advance of AI and bots, to the explosion of mobile and apps, media companies must understand and evaluate a myriad of “hot” technologies. Business outcomes are linked to technology choices. Make the right choices, (and investments in the right platforms) and media companies can send traffic into the stratosphere. Miss a step, or a trend, and media companies can lose their shirt. Either way, the ability of media companies to determine their destiny as publishers is inexplicably intertwined with their willingness to experiment and innovate as technology companies.
Since Amazon founder Jeff Bezos bought the Washington Post in 2013, the publication has become a sandbox for digital ideas that span a wide spectrum. At one level, efforts to re-imagine old-school audio podcasts have won the company recognition as a top 10 podcast publisher, according to May 2017 data from podcast measurement company Podtrac. At the other end of the spectrum, experiments with Alexa and Snapchat are breaking new ground, and building new audiences
I catch up with David Merrell, Manager of Product Development at The Washington Post, to discuss how the company is harnessing audio content, exploring voice interfaces, and preparing for the opportunities and challenges of storytelling on new platforms.
Peggy Anne Salz: Podcasts are popular, with almost 20% of U.S. adults ages 18 to 49 listening to them at least once a month. It’s a trend the Washington Post embraced early. Now you have a string of podcasts, several of which hit 1+million downloads as early as a month after launching. Tell me about the chief factors you considered before making your move.
David Merrell: We saw that smartphones are ubiquitous and—because podcasts are now available in everyone’s pocket whenever they want—we saw the opportunity. We then reviewed the studies, did research with our own readers and made the decision to go this route. We saw a fit with our efforts to expand our audio offerings in general across voice platforms such as Alexa and Google Home. But we also knew this was not a core competency. Our traditional competencies in news and storytelling were not what we would need to have a big impact in podcasts since podcasts are not about breaking news. We had to look at storytelling beyond breaking news, and really bring the analysis piece of it, as well as our own perspectives, into the podcast.
Since taking the plunge, we’ve launched several podcasts. There’s the historic focus podcast called Presidential, which was a huge success last year with one episode focused on each president. Now history wasn’t what you could call a core Washington Post product, but we were able to take our expertise and apply current thoughts and questions to historic aspects of the country and create a very compelling podcast that counts more than 9 million listens since it launched in January 2016. We just launched a sequel to Presidential called Constitutional that looks at the history of the Constitution and applies this to current events. With our lineup, we recently cracked the ranks of the top 10 publishers in the U.S. for podcast listens, which given the size of our team and where we were just a year ago is pretty incredible.
Podcasts and traditional news and investigative journalism—both are forms of storytelling delivered by mobile and apps. Some publishers might have been concerned one product would cannibalize the other, but you obviously weren’t…
It is a concern that comes up a lot. But we balance. Our big focus, in terms of business growth, is on digital subscriptions. Sure, it would appear at first glance that podcasts do not drive that since they are also available on iTunes. But we have seen very impressive results from successful marketing campaigns where we will tell people, “This is part of the wide breadth of Washington Post content that your subscription supports.” We’ve also seen huge engagement with our podcasts by our subscribers. So, even though this is a product that is widely available, it’s also a product that is highly engaging – and Washington Post subscribers access and appreciate the content.
Is this important in your efforts to attract new audiences?
When we’re talking about getting in front of new audiences, audio is a component of that. But we’re not limited to one way to get to this goal. Take our presence on Snapchat Discover. It’s also allowing us to get in front of people who wouldn’t necessarily have seen the Washington Post otherwise. Like all traditional media, we have an older audience that is very engaged, like other newspapers, we have had trouble reaching a younger audience and showing them who we are and what we offer in a way they can understand and see value in. And that’s important because don’t have to just get in front of them; we have to demonstrate value and show them why they should make the Washington Post part of their daily lives. Podcasts offer a way to do that, but so does Snapchat.
The Washington Post also launched a Reddit public profile, so another example of being on a platform to reach new audiences and find what a new home for your content. How do you choose and pursue these opportunities, without spreading too thin?
In the case of audio and podcasts, we made up our mind early that it was a boat we wanted to make, not miss. We launched Presidential, and after we were convinced of the success we hired people for audio roles. That’s what’s fueled the explosion is bringing in people with audio experience to help with the recording, to help with the scripting, to give feedback to the folks, internally, who are recording the podcasts. Since then, we’ve hired a product manager, who is almost wholly-focused on audio, and especially on Alexa, and then another hire in the newsroom focused on conversational audio. Now we are at the point where we are figuring out how do we record for new platforms like Alexa and Google Home, and what can we do to create a really sticky voice UI experience?
Frankly, the answer is always part tech and part user experience. What’s your approach?
There are different pieces to our Alexa strategy. The biggest one, is what you just described: the user experience. Right now, it’s like you wake up in the morning, you go to your kitchen where your Alexa likely is, and you say, “Alexa, what’s news?” Alexa cycles through a list of sources that you choose when you first set up your device, and that’s called your flash briefing. Alexa plays the briefing and you hear short bits of news from each of those sources. We’ve determined that this is the the stickiest news experience on Alexa right now because it’s so simple and baked-in to the device itself. It’s one word: news. The user just says news and gets news.
But it’s also a huge learning curve—for us as well as the consumer. As it works right now, people need to install a skill, which you can think of as an app. But there’s no home screen on Echo to remind people to tap on a Washington Post icon. Instead, users have to remember to say, “Alexa, open the ‘Washington Post’” in order to get to our news on the platform. We’ve found that is really difficult. It’s a whole lot easier for people to remember to say, “What’s news?” and then go into their flash briefing.
So, how do you plan to change that behavior or introduce new habits?
We’ve found it starts with marketing. We have to direct people to install our skill, and that means promotions to get our skill in front of people. So, we either need to reach them in exactly the right moment to tell them to enable “Washington Post” on their device, or we need to market to them on other channels away from the device. In which case, the marketing has to also educate them to remember to say, “Alexa, open the ‘Washington Post’” when they are back in front of their Echo. It’s a hurdle for every company with a skill. To encourage habits and get people to remember, we have also introduced a news quiz feature that’s updated fairly frequently to get people to come back in so they can play. They can only access the news quiz by saying, ‘Alexa, open the ‘Washington Post.’
As you said, every company that has a skill, or plans a skill, will struggle with this. What is your advice about how should they approach this?
We have not figured it out, so we don’t have a magic bullet solution. But I would say that content companies should go through the process of building a skill as a way to find out if there is a fit and find what users will value. If you are a smaller newsroom, and you have fewer resources in both engineering and editorial, then I would start with a flash briefing. Direct and educate your audience to add that to their flash briefing lineup, and go on from there since that is really the most engaging way and easiest way to get news on the platform.
Specifically, which channels and formats work to move users from accessing news via mobile apps or whatever platform they are currently using to consider getting news from Alexa.
We are in the very early days of experimenting with that now. To start, use a survey to figure out how many of your users have Echo devices. Then also look at your engaged users and target them. For us it’s our subscribers because they are the “Washington Post” super fans likely to switch. If anyone’s going to remember to say, “Open the ‘Washington Post’” every day, it’s going to be people who are already subscribing to us. As far as the precise channel, we start with email.
The Washington Post is exploring a plethora of platforms and technologies. But it’s also a company that has the resources to do so. What is your advice to companies that can’t be early adopters, but can’t afford to be late to the party either?
First, let me tell you about our approach. We dive in and define a period of time when we’re in all the way. After that, we look at the data to determine if what we are doing is worth further investment, or if we need to pivot. We do this will all the platforms. We go all in with AR, we go all in to test new storytelling format in Facebook Instant Articles, and we did it to create content for Apple News. We do this because we feel like that’s the only way to get enough data. It tells us where these new platforms fit strategically for us, and, it’s not working, we use the data to see how it could work for us and how we could work with these large tech partners to move their roadmaps in a direction that we would want to travel.
The point is I think media companies should be experimenting all the time. The status quo is not going to sustain anyone’s publishing business for very long going forward. So, I would encourage everyone, no matter their size, to experiment. I think it’s the scale of the experimentation that matters, not the company. If you’re a smaller publisher, look at where your audience is. If you have a huge percentage of your audience coming from Facebook, then I think it makes a lot of sense to focus some energy on Facebook products such as Instant Articles.
But don’t just look at your audience; look internally at the skills sets you have. You know, it’s a very low technical bar to start a podcast. I’m not saying that anyone can do it – you need some setup and training – but many companies and even individuals have achieved and engaged huge audiences with podcasts. It’s really a matter of trying it, seeing what resonates, and doubling down on that. And that’s the ethos of experimentation. Doubling down on the success to grow that success is something that any newsroom of any size can tackle.
So, is the post-Bezos Washington Post a publisher or a tech company?
Both. We think of ourselves as a technology company and a publisher at the same time. Our Arc Publishing [software-as-a-service] business continues to expand its client base, and we’re now licensing our tools to other companies including Tronc, which has adopted Arc as its fundamental platform throughout its nine-city metro chain. And there are more clients in the pipeline. Now that isn’t a business for a traditional publisher, but it’s something that we do and that’s all technology that we develop.
I’d say, we defy classification. We are a journalism company, we are a storytelling company and we are a technology company. You know, next to where I sit is a quote on the wall from Jeff Bezos: “What’s dangerous is not to evolve.” And that’s what it feels like to be owned by Jeff: to be constantly evolving and realizing that staying static is not an option. Staying static is the most dangerous thing a publisher can do.