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June 17 2013

09:48

Monday Q&A: Designer David Wright, departing NPR for Twitter, has just one favor to ask

David Wright is an award-winning designer who, in his time at NPR, worked on everything from their mobile music platform to NPR’s homepage design. Wright has spent a lot of time sharing his design philosophy with the news world, trying to explain how he built what he built, but also trying to make news managers understand the importance of making design a priority early on.

But now, Wright is leaving the news world behind — sort of. He’ll be moving over to Twitter, to work with what he considers an all-star team of web platform designers. (He joins API whiz Daniel Jacobson, now at Netflix, as NPR talent to move to prominent positions in the technology world — not the most common path.) Though not entirely sure what projects he’ll be working on, Wright says he has a lot of big ideas for simplifying Twitter and making it a bigger part of a variety of websites. And while he won’t be working in a newsroom anymore, Wright predicts he’ll learn a lot about how people are sharing and consuming information that could, down the road, be of great value to publishers.

Days before his final departure, we chatted about building platforms for distribution of audio, narrowcasting, Twitter on steroids, and World War II-era telephone operators.

O’Donovan: So! Obviously, there’s a lot of exciting stuff going on for you. How does it feel to be packing up and heading out of NPR?
Wright: I think that I have not yet realized how hard it will be for me to walk out of this building on Friday afternoon.

There’s a lot of really amazing stuff going on here, and it’s bittersweet because I’ve been really excited about what we’ve done here, and I don’t know if I really realize what it will be like to leave some of this amazing work unfinished.

O’Donovan: What are some of the bigger projects that are hanging out there, that you’re passing on? How do you and with whom do you hope to see them completed?
Wright: Well, that they will be completed is not really a question. They will be. The big ones that are going on right now are — the most obvious one is we’re in the midst of a fully responsive redesign of NPR.org that we began last fall and are picking away at, section by section. We’ve recently launched the small screen version of a redesigned and rethought homepage, and soon we’ll be releasing that to more viewports and moving on to the rest of the important pages, not just NPR.org. So that’s exciting. And I think in many ways the team is moving at a breakneck pace and I’ll be excited when the whole site kind of is finally launched in this unified rethought visual vocabulary. It’s amazing work, I”m super proud of it and the team that’s in the trench right now.

The other one that’s cool is one we haven’t really launched publicly yet, but we’re thinking a lot about what a reimagined kind of radio experience would feel like — taking some of the best of on-demand pieces that we know and love from services like Rdio and Spotify and Pandora and thinking about how public radio fits into that picture. So a lot of experiments that we’re taking small steps with. It’ll make me sad to not really be as involved with those anymore.

O’Donovan: The last couple years, you’ve spoken a lot about how you think about design and the fact that it’s different from storytelling. Can you talk a little about how — and I know it’s obviously been a dynamic experience — how your philosophy there has changed over time and if there are any big elements of it that have changed since you started?
Wright: I think that obviously the more that I’ve worked with what has become here, over the time that I’ve worked at NPR, the product team has really become a — I thought we were pretty high performing when I got here, but the kind of talent that we’ve been able to add to the team, and the methods and the processes that we use to create digital products has become more and more refined over time. I think that it’s fair to say that any of my thoughts that I’ve shared publicly are certainly the synthesis of my ideas, but they’re so greatly informed by the amazing people that I’ve worked with here.

So I think as we’ve gotten better at making stuff, my thoughts and how we could refine the process has really gotten a bit more sharp. But I think what’s most fascinating, and maybe what I’m most proud of leaving this building, is to be able to look back and see what an important part design has been able to play in the making of products here. I think it’s easy for lots of people to recognize that it is an important ingredient, but sometimes it’s hard to get an organization to understand why that is, and I’m really fortunate to have had a lot of really willing people here at NPR who’ve heard that message and have really embraced it. I think that’s changed a lot as we’ve sort of matured on our own, and our own understanding of what makes good products, we’ve really been able to convince a lot of folks here that design is really at the core of helping us figure out what problems to solve and how to solve them and most importantly how to solve them well.

O’Donovan: One of the questions I had for you was: How do you explain to management or people who are really editorially focused the importance of design? You’ve said that it’s the number one problem journalism is facing. Do you still feel that way? And for people who are struggling to make that clear, how would you advise them?
Wright: I think without calling out any specific products that are out there, I think we can all say that we’ve used and experienced journalism on platforms and in different situations that were less than satisfying, and I think just being pretty unbiased about what we think makes a good experience and what we think makes a great experience and what we think makes a terrible experience. They’re easy cases to show. Do we want to be more like this, or do we want to be like this? Nobody argues with the fact that everybody wants to create a good experience, but I think the most important thing that we as design thinkers can do is help explain how design is not really something that is an option.

If you want to create a good product, it can’t be a condition — it has to be something that is an absolute. You must include it, in order to create efficiencies, in your process, and make things that are fantastic and meaningful to people and beautiful and useful. It’s really about calling out these examples and saying: Here’s a perfect case where work design was involved from the beginning and it made this product better. And whether you’re editorial, or you’re a manager or a coder or a designer, you can look at those and from a pretty unbiased point of view say, Yes, you’re right, that’s better because design was involved.

O’Donovan: So, and you can explain to me the extent to which this is accurate, but assuming that you’re taking a step away from designing for news, as you look farther down the road, for people who are still in it, what are the next major hurdles? If you were still working for NPR, what would be the next areas you wanted to tackle?
Wright: I think NPR is a bit of an interesting animal, only because the kind of content that we deal with is a little bit different given how audio-centric much of what we do is. But I think it’s going to be really interesting for organizations who are wrestling with really getting their content to appear how they want to on many different platforms. I think that’s crucial. If a news organization is really not thinking beyond — I’m stating the obvious here  — if a news organization is not thinking beyond the desktop browser, I think that’s going to become much more problematic in the next coming years.

We’ve been really good at building stories and trying to express what I like to call editorial intention in what viewport size on the desktop. We can go to any one of our home pages, anybody in the news business, you can go to a homepage when it’s a papal conclave story or a Boston marathon or an election night, we know those patterns and we’re good at them. We can reflect them well on the desktop.

I think we have a harder time thinking about how to take what editors can do, what news professionals do, how they express themselves in other places, and separating them from the desktop page. So figuring out ways — news professionals need to express hierarchy and importance of stories and that this one is louder than this one — figuring out ways to make sure that works everywhere, I think is going to be a really big challenge for a lot of organizations, but a very important one to solve.

O’Donovan: You said at one point, I think, that you expected to see NPR rather quickly have a larger audience on mobile than they did for desktop. How close are you to that?
Wright: I think, as far as numbers go, we’re not there yet. But a little bit of that is from the hip and it will be interesting to see if history agrees with my proclamation there. I think there are actually more and more organizations who are being, and I can’t really name any off the top of my head, that have definitely read anecdotally about how mobile traffic is something that is catching up for everyone a lot faster than anyone really would have thought. There’s really no surprise in that. I think that should really be expected. If anyone’s paying any attention to any of our competitors in this space, which they all should be, that’s not a big surprise.

But yeah, I think we’re close — I think that every month we’re really seeing traffic growth across the board and most of our platforms and, on the desktop for sure it’s incremental, but it’s really quite a bit more pronounced on the mobile web for us. And I think it can only continue, given the number of devices and potential people that we can reach.

O’Donovan: You mentioned how NPR has a unique situation because of being predominantly audio focused. But I’ve heard from at least a handful of people that there are people out there who really think that it’s going to become a much more important part of everyone’s strategy, in the same way that we talk about video. But there are definitely people who say that audio will become increasingly important. Do you think that there are in your mind any big design takeaways that people who might be looking to get more into the audio game would want to know about?
Wright: Yeah! I think that. I would certainly not claim that NPR has solved every problem in this space, and in fact, I think if you asked a lot of people here, we still have some pretty major problems to solve in terms of how we distribute audio effectively.

I think that SoundCloud is doing a great job of creating some really interesting innovations in the space. Anybody could look at them and say that seems like a really solid platform for audio distribution. I think, for us, the most important thing is to think about why — the distribution could be anybody’s game and I think that, especially for organizations who aren’t very well resourced, nobody wants to. Just like we don’t all want to rebuild the exact same CMS at great expense and very little gain, I don’t know that everybody just wants to invest in building audio delivery platforms.

But I would say that I think it’s so important ot understand why people gravitate toward audio, the same way they gravitate toward video or photography. What is the recipe, or the formula, that goes into creating compelling audio that matters? I think it has much less to do with design of the experience right now and much more to do with what makes great audio great audio. I think we’ve all been fans of podcasts that are amazing, and there are certainly lots and lots of things not produced by a public radio community that are amazing and that we love. There are lots of things that public radio creates that are amazing and we love. But that has a whole lot more to do with the content than the presentation and delivery. There’s lots of room for innovation there. My best advice to anybody who wanted to get into that game, is to really think a lot about why people love it.

O’Donovan: I was looking over some presentations you’ve given in the past, and one of the things that you emphasize is that, while you haven’t served as a storyteller or journalist at NPR, you have taken away from working around journalists not only the importance but the ease with which it is possible to ask questions and get out there and talk to people about the things you want to know about. So I want to move into talking about your next step at Twitter, and how you see that playing into the rest of your career.
Wright: Anybody who wants to be successful at making products has to be able to draw on all of the places where we are when we’re making things. Often the most important person whose voice is the most important part of your team is the user. We have a lot of really great ethnologists and design thinkers and people who are creating content, but the people who are consuming it are often absent from that conversation. So it’s less about “is this a good idea” or not. I think it’s almost always a good idea at some stage in the process to really incorporate users and listeners into what w’ere making.

Journalists, if they’re not doing it, they should be, because they’re already really good at that. They’re good at talking to people and asking hard questions and figuring out how to get somebody to say something meaningful, even if it’s hard to coax it out of them. It’s a natural fit. So if you’re trying to convince journalists and news organizations that talking to people about what you make is a good idea, it’s easy to tell them by saying, you’ve already done this. You already do this.

As far as the next phase in my career, I’ve fortunately had the great pleasure of working shoulder to shoulder with some really amazing journalists and some really amazing storytellers and some really great reporters, and people who know how to chase stories, and I think I’ll always feel in some way like I’d like to try to harness what I’ve witnessed, a lot of what these talented people do. In my own practice, whether it’s outside of a newsroom or in newsroom, I’d always like to channel that as best I can.

You know, What would David Gilkey do in this scenario? He wouldn’t be shy about approaching this curmudgeonly user? No, he wouldn’t.

O’Donovan: How do you approach the curmudgeonly user? How do you go about getting that opinion?
Wright: At NPR — there’s a million ways that organizations do it, but at NPR we use a mix of what I might really consider three major kinds of audience feedback.

The first one is really kind of faceless and it’s field surveys. We do this the most infrequently, but basically we’ll say we really need to get a handle right now on how we think people are consuming digital news of this sort. We’ll put together a fairly lengthy survey and field it with the understanding that by the time we process the results, they’ll already be a little bit dated. But it gives us a really good snapshot of the time of how many people really listen to NPR, how many people are looking at news sites, how many people are reading newspapers, how many people are watching TV news — getting demographic information about that. We do that pretty infrequently, but it gives us pretty low resolution blocks of people we need to be thinking about and it helps us figure out where opportunities are.

The second kind of testing or conversation that we have really has to do with our ability to have long-term conversations with people about stuff that we make. So existing users of products — we have opportunities that are much more regular than large surveys — opportunities to reach out to people that are on our listener panel, or other people that we can intercept or make callouts in social media and say, “Take five minutes and tell us what you think of this particular feature.” We can ask questions that way. It certainly puts more of a face on things and we can get very specific about product features.

And then the most specific thing we try to do is actually bring real life users into our world and sit down with them and lead them through testing that says, “Hey, we made this thing, it’s kind of half baked, and we want you to use it and tell us what you think about it.” Pretty standard user testing.

O’Donovan: I do want to talk about what’s coming up for you. How much do you know about what you’re doing there, what are you really excited about, what do you hope to see come out of it?
Wright: I wish that I had a lot more information — well, no, I’m fine having a vague sense of what’s going on, but, you know, we know what Twitter is and what Twitter does and it was really exciting for me to be able to visit with that team and learn about the kinds of things that they’re tackling and the things they’ve built and some of the plans they have for the future.

To the extent that I can be specific about what I’ll be working on, what I do know is that I’ll be focused at first on a platform team. I’ll be working with the Twitter for websites team, figuring out interesting ways to make Twitter appear in more places than it does today. The thing that I think I’m most excited about is that I feel like I work with a very talented team at NPR and I know it will be true about the team I’ll be working with at Twitter — just a lot of really smart people that, as a designer, I’ve just really respected and followed a lot in my design career.

To have so many of those people — like Doug Bowman and Mike Davidson, founder of Newsvine — just really smart, smart thinkers who, like I said, are respected web design heroes of mine. I’m really excited to be able to go and solve problems with them, to get up in the morning and go to work and try to figure out how to make Twitter better, which is great. I think that the other part that is a huge selling point for me is, there’s lots of reasons that my family wanted to get to California and be there and be a part of the amazing community that’s happening, and the amazing design community that is part and parcel of the Bay Area.

But for me to leave news is hard. It’s really hard. But what’s interesting is that while I feel like I’ll be leaving journalism, going to work at Twitter, I don’t have to squint very hard to see how involved I still will be in news. I think it’s a really fascinating platform for me to be able, as a user and an observer and a guy who spent a lot of time in newsrooms, who watch what I think this platform could do.

O’Donovan: In the future, how do you see people, specifically journalists but also more broadly, using Twitter differently than they do now? What would you like to build for, for what kind of usage?
Wright: That’s something I’m really looking forward to learning more about as a person on the inside, because I think that even though I’ve spent a considerable amount of time talking with folks there about what they’re trying to build and what they need help building, I still don’t think I have a full enough picture to really know what is even in the realm of possibility. I have lots of sort of fantastic dreams about what could happen, what sort of the Twitter-on-steroids might look like — and maybe even a simpler version of Twitter. I think there are many things. It’s probably too much for me to speculate right now.
O’Donovan: Well, give us one fantasy. What’s the craziest Twitter-on-steroids fantasy?
Wright: Wow.

I think that there’s something fascinating to me about the range of information that you can get from Twitter. We often talk a lot at NPR about making sure that people get their vegetables and also get really delicious pieces of candy that we can distribute through the radio. What I love about Twitter is that, in a combined stream, I can see this heartbreaking story or updates from people who are literally fighting for their lives in Egypt as they are in the midst of the revolution, and then, you know, followed by an update from somebody who’s, you know, explaining how hungover they are because they were at their favorite bar. I think that, as a medium, like, what else does that? That is never part of the presentation that happens on our broadcast news.

This is certainly not a Twitter-on-steroids idea, but, in terms of being able to harness the ability for people be able to narrowcast to them in really specific ways, I think has such a reach potential. That my mom can find value in that, in a way that manifests itself very differently from the way that I would, but we can find the same value out of it with very different content. I think that the challenge of kind of wrestling with: How do you create an experience that will be as useful for my mom as it will be for me, using the same basic parts and concepts but obviously delivering very different content? That’s a fascinating problem to solve, and I’m excited to roll my sleeves up and give it a go.

O’Donovan: Was it you who was tweeting about explaining Twitter to your grandmother recently?
Wright: It was. Absolutely it was. I believe the thing I said after that was if she gets sudden onset dementia, I’m going to feel partially responsible.

Yeah, the thing that’s cool though, is, her story is great. She was a telephone operator back in the day, where, we’ve all seen the photos of people plugging all the lines into one of the boards. One of my favorite stories that she told me was she was manning a board the night that it was V-E Day, and as soon as the word got to the United States via the phones, that victory in Europe had happened, she said the board lit up!

So I was trying to tell her: This is what we do now. We don’t use phones anymore — this is what we do. The fact that Twitter would blow up with this information is how we know it. She said, “I think I understand.” I said, “All right, well, it’s the same thing.”

O’Donovan: I guess it’s not altogether entirely undigestible.
Wright: Yeah, there was part of it she thought was pretty cool.
O’Donovan: We talked a little bit at the beginning about designing for audio, and I’d be curious to know if you think those skills will come into play.
Wright: We haven’t talked specifically about audio, but we had a lot of really great conversations about the experiences that I’ve had designing for news organizations and bringing with me information about how publishers specifically are using lots of different tools, Twitter included.

I’ve built really — I wouldn’t call them large muscles, I’d call them interesting muscles over the last 12 years, thinking a lot about these problems. I think it would be really hard for me to not apply some of those skills. It’s become such a part of my DNA that I’m interested in seeing, How do those skills fit and work? How are those patterns applied out of a newsroom?

O’Donovan: I would imagine you also bring some insight about what publishers want or what they think they want from ads. I don’t know if you have thoughts about Twitter’s different advertising strategies lately, but you’ve said in the past that you think publishers need to be thinking really differently about advertising.
Wright: What I said in my conversations with people at Twitter was, if you’re looking for a client services manager to go to newsrooms and write down the requirements of what would make Twitter great on news websites — I’ve been pretty vocal about some of the things news organizations aren’t doing as well as I wish they were, or things I wish they were doing differently — but I was pretty clear that I might not be the best guy to come in and take those kinds of requirements down.

So I’ve been critical about some of the things publishers have done and ads are chief among them. I think display advertising as we know it is in many cases a race to the bottom and is in many ways unsustainable. What I’m excited to learn more about is advertising models that are so native to the platform — and Twitter is a good example of that, I think the best is obviously Google’s AdWords, AdSense — and just feel like part of the experience. I won’t have a ton of good things to bring along with me from the point of view of what I think digital news design is doing in general. I think it will be more of the other way around, where I eventually might be able to bring some of the information and things I’ve learned working with a company like Twitter to help publishers figure out how to think differently about how they’re doing things. I expect it might go the other way.

O’Donovan: So, let’s say you’re leaving NPR and the whole news world throws you a party. And they say, What’s the one thing we can do for you while you’re gone? What would you want them to do?
Wright: Oh! This is easy. My one wish is for every news org, to really understand the importance of having — it doesn’t have to be a visual designer, but to have design thinkers have a seat at the table. It’s not about deciding what work gets done or how it gets done but it’s really about making design as important an ingredient in what we make as editorial, as reporters, writers, photographers, and technologists. Designers bring such a unique value to the table and can just help solve so many interesting problems in really thoughtful ways. The best presents the news community could give me is to say, Everybody, designers are always at the table.

Photo by Casey Capachi via the ONA.

May 23 2013

16:33

The newsonomics of value exchange and Google Surveys

whittier-daily-news-google-survey-paywall

What happens when a reader hits the paywall?

Only a small percentage slap their foreheads, say “Why didn’t I subscribe earlier?” and pay up. Most go away; some will come back next month when the meter resets. A few will then subscribe; others just go elsewhere.

So what if there were a way to capture some value from those non-subscribing paywall hitters — people who plainly have some affinity for a certain news site but aren’t willing to pay?

Welcome to the emerging world of value exchange. It’s not a new idea; value exchange has been used in the gaming world for a long time. As the Zyngas have figured out, only a small percentage of people will pay to play games. So they’ve long used interactive ads, quizzes, surveys, and more as ways to wring some revenue out of those non-payers.

It’s a variation on the an old saw that says much of life boils down to two things: money and time. It also brings to mind the classic Jack Benny radio routine, “Your Money or Your Life.” If people won’t pay for media with currency, many are willing to trade their time.

Now the idea is arriving at publishers’ doorsteps. It is being tested mainly, but not exclusively, as a paywall alternative. Yet, as we’ll see it, there may be many other innovative uses of time-based payment.

In part, this is part of the digital generational shift we might call “beyond the banner.” Static, smaller-display advertising is increasingly out of favor, with both prices and clickthrough rates moving deeper into the bargain basement. But marketers want to market, readers want to read, and viewers want to watch, so new methods that combine the marketing of brands and offers and the go-button on media consumption are au courant.

That’s where value exchange fits. Publishers are seeing double-digit, $10-$19 CPM rates from value exchange, and that’s more than many average for their online advertising. Annual revenues in the significant six figures are now flowing in to the companies that have gotten in early on the business.

The big player in publisher-oriented value exchange is Google Consumer Surveys (GCS), a year-old brainchild born out of the Google’s 20-percent-free-time-for-employees program (and first written about here at Nieman Lab). GCS now claims more than 200 publisher partners, including the L.A. Times, Bloomberg, and McClatchy properties. It says it has so far exposed some 500 million survey “prompts” to readers.

GCS will soon have more company in the value exchange game. Companies like Berlin-based SponsorPay, which offers interactive ad experiences in exchange for access mainly to games, is beginning to pursue publisher possibilities, both in Europe and the U.S, where half of its current clients are based. SponsorPay emphasizes mobile and social in its business.

L.A.-based SocialVibe, newly headed by hard-charging CEO Joe Marchese, is an ad tech company. It’s mainly oriented to non-newspaper media, especially TV companies.

How does this value exchange exactly work? Typical is the implementation at one smaller paper, the Whittier Daily News in the L.A. area., one of some 35 Digital First Media papers (both MediaNews and Journal Register brands) that have deployed GCS almost since its inception. Upon reading their 10th, and last, free metered article of the month, readers get a choice: buy a sub for 99 cents for the first month — or take a survey. “Do you own a cat?” for instance.

Publishers get a nickel for each completed response. Response rates tend to fall between 10 and 20 percent. “Completion rates” improve by targeting specific questions to specific audiences. The nickels add up.

For publishers, then, we have a new acronym: PAM, Paywall Alternative Monetization.

Consider the innovation a by-product of the paywall revolution. If you haven’t created a barrier to free access, you have less leverage to force wannabe readers to choose the lesser of two choices to proceed with their reading. Now, publishers can say, pay me for access with money — or with time. The time is short — measured in seconds or maybe minutes, depending on a video’s length or a survey’s questions.

What does the consumer get for answering a question? It varies. Respondents can get as little as a single “free” article, or an hour, or a day of access.

These programs can offer side-by-side offers. For instance, someone like a Press+ (which now powers some 380 newspaper sites) may power a subscription offer in one box, and Google Surveys or a SocialVibe can offer up an alternative in a neighboring one.

Digital First Media, long a public skeptic of paywalls, is using value exchange as an adjunct to its paywalls, many of which were deployed before DFM took over management of the MediaNews papers. While it is using it successfully as a paywall alternative, says Digital First Ventures managing director Arturo Duran, it’s also finding a couple of other ways to wring money out of surveys.

At many of its digital properties, including The Denver Post, its photo- and video-heavy Media Center hub offers Google surveys as speed bumps for continued access. Readers perceive value; enough of them are willing to pay with a few seconds of time to keep getting access to visuals. Similarly, Boston.com’s The Big Picture “news stories in photographs” uses GCS.

This approach, putting up a speed bump — in the form of a survey — instead of paywall explores the nuances of differing consumer valuation of differing parts of news sites. The Texas Tribune has offered a similar approach, having used Google surveys on its extensive data section. How often a survey is deployed can be adjusted by the publisher, working with Google, to maximize both revenue and reduce traffic lost. The search here is for the magic sweet spots.

The Christian Science Monitor is also an earlier surveys adopter. “We don’t have a paywall,” says online director David Clark Scott. “So we tried an experimental speed bump.” Those bumps were installed first on a single section, and now have grown, popping up on much of the site. One CSM twist: If you come to the site directly, you won’t see the surveys. If you come via some search, social, or other referrals, you will.

Digital First is also testing survey deployment for a group notoriously hard for the news industry to monetize: international readers. “We can’t sell [ads] in Kenya, Japan, and India,” says Duran. Instead of fetching bottom-of-the-ad-network prices, as low as 25 cents, surveys can return money in the whole dollars. One lesson so far: “It’s a much better experience than an ad,” for many readers, says Duran.

Publishers are also finding other ways to get readers to “pay.” At the Newton (Iowa) Daily News, the paywall also provides these two alternatives: answer a survey question or a share an article (via Twitter, Facebook, or Google+) in exchange for continued passage.

“It wasn’t about market research at all — it was about trading time for content,” says Paul McDonald, head of Google Consumer Surveys. McDonald, who developed the product along with engineer Brett Slatkin, says they tested out what people would most likely be willing to do, in exchange for some good. They tested a million impressions at The Huffington Post and found that question-answering was the most likable activity. Hence, Google Consumer Surveys.

“Most research is stuck in old ways — paper, email, and phone. It’s a stagnant industry, ” McDonald says. The industry, of course, has responded, offering its own critique of GCS’ rapid-fire — surveys can be commissioned and deployed within a day, with complete results, broken down by customized demographics (at an extra cost to survey buyers) within 48 hours — disruption of the market survey space. Still, industry reaction is more than mixed, with the positives of Google’s new technique winning adherents among bigger brands and smaller businesses. It’s a self-service buying technique, borrowing from Google’s flagship AdWords model.

Interestingly, Google itself is using Surveys to obtain consumer insight. Yes, the company that derives more data from our clicks than anyone still finds asking a human being a question can yield unexpected learning — which, of course, can be combined with clickstream analytics. YouTube is among the many GCS deployers.

It’s a new frontier, and one that I think offers a number of curious potentials.

  • At scale, if there is scale to the business, it’s about significant new sources of revenue.
  • As a paywall alternative, it may be a detour that leads back to the road to subscription. If a reader is engaged enough with a news brand over time — kept engaged in part through value exchange — maybe he or she will eventually subscribe. Does a value exchange-using customer have a higher likelihood of subscribing in the future? It’s too early to know, but we may have soon have sufficient data to see.
  • Value exchange could expand the ability to gain customer data. Each time someone trades some time for reading, she or he could be asked for an additional piece of profiling information. Essentially “registered,” that new customer becomes more targetable for subscription offers or advertising.
  • We can start to widen the idea of trading time for access. Remember the idea of the “reverse paywall,” espoused by then-Washington Post managing editor Raju Narisetti and Jeff Jarvis? Spend enough time with a news product, and get rewarded, they proposed. Value exchange begins to structure that kind of relationship, providing value both to readers and publishers. Rough equalization of value would be a painful process, but it may be doable through much experimentation.
  • Let’s combine two things: the rise of mobile traffic and value exchange. Mobile may not be ad-friendly, but customers might be far more willing to watch a video or touch through a quick questionnaire on a cell phone — and that can ring a different key on the digital cash register. “Mobile is already more diversified,” says SponsorPay CEO Andreas Bodczek, explaining that it is moving beyond gaming companies for value exchange and will soon include publishers.
  • GCS is an easily deployable tool for small- and medium-sized businesses. As such, it could be an interesting add-on for publishers’ emerging marketing services businesses (“The newsonomics of selling Main Street”). That’s a line Google could allow newspaper companies to resell, just as many resell Google paid search.

December 08 2011

17:00

The newsonomics of Google’s retail push

It looked like just more head-butting among the mammoths of our time: Google will match up with Amazon, said the Wall Street Journal last week: “The Web-search giant is in talks with major retailers and shippers about creating a service that would let consumers shop for goods online and receive their orders within a day for a low fee.”

Most of the stories played on that Goliath vs. Goliath theme, and of course that’s an increasingly familiar one as the businesses of Google, Amazon, Facebook, and Apple overlap, intersect, and collide. Who is a bookseller? Well, Amazon, and Apple, and Google, kind of. Who is selling and renting media — well, who isn’t or preparing to do so? Who is in the hardware biz — all except Facebook? Who’s reaching for the digital ad riches, now generating $80 billion worldwide; Google, the king, and Facebook, the fast-threatening prince.

Yes, the Google/Amazon match-up over delivering goods is a good and real storyline. As big brains butt, it could be thunderous and landscape-changing. That landscape includes the news business, and you can almost feel the rumbles underfoot just with the word of Google’s move.

Let’s look at the newsonomics of Google’s would-be one-day-shipping program — let’s call it Google Tomorrow™© — and its wider impacts and strategic rationale. First, we’re talking about a lot of potential money. U.S. retail e-commerce is forecast to hit almost $200 billion this year, with the global total adding up to $700 billion. So there are many companies trying to get in the middle of it.

The idea of website-facilitated buying — and shipping — from fairly local retailers isn’t a new one by a longshot. Storerunner plied this territory, too early, a decade ago. Webvan, the best funded of the grocery deliverers went from brilliance to punchline in about 30 seconds. Shoprunner is currently out there, pitching the same idea as Google Tomorrow. Newspaper companies have been more steadfast, more the tortoise in the race for perfection of our emerging online/offline commercial world.

Companies like the Gannett-owned ShopLocal and independent Travidia, with its FindnSave product used by McClatchy and other news chains, have been building the know-the-local-retail-inventory, compare-prices-and-buy terrain for years. Unlike what Google may do, they don’t deliver one-click buying and delivery. They offer product selection, availability and then click off to retailer’s own sites for buying and shipping or store pickup. The idea seems like a great one, a merger of the best of online and offline, yet it’s been slow to grow. Every time I’ve checked out the sites, I’ve found the promise smart, but the inventories too uneven or the hierarchy of results skewed to preferred shops — not my preferences. Consumers have clearly opted for Amazon over these kinds of sites.

The impact on the ShopLocals and FindnSaves is not what should concern newspapers, though. The big issue: retail advertising.

While the web has greatly damaged newspapers’ classifieds and national ad businesses, retail has been a relatively stronger area. Worth about $13 billion last year — or half of daily newspapers’ ad revenue — it’s a lifeline at this point in the tough print-to-digital transition. Retail is being challenged on several fronts, with the Sunday preprint business a big concern. In fact, both Google and newspapers are pursuing e-circulars to counter the inevitable print downturn in that area.

Wait a minute, you may say — that $13 billion is advertising money and Google, like Amazon, wants to make money facilitating actual commerce. But the division between advertising and selling is an old one, fast blurring. Think about where we’ve come from the era of impression-based (newspaper, TV, radio, magazine) ads into the era of pay-per-click, pay-per-lead, pay-per-acquisition, and more.

Retailers don’t want to advertise; they want to sell stuff.

Give them new routes to sell stuff, and deliver it more cheaply than they could before, and they’ll migrate their ad/marketing/lead generation dollars. So if Google can really make it easier to personalize, routinize and make more efficient the selling process, it will place itself between the seller and the buyer. As it does that, it replaces the newspaper as middleman, further reducing much of the revenue that is keeping newsrooms staffed, even if many of them are now half-staffed at best.

Is the replacement of newspaper as advertising-oriented middleman inevitable? Probably, but over a longer term. Since the dawn of the web, people have been chasing the perfection of commerce, and it’s been a tough slog with far more losers than winners. Amazon, of course, is the big winner, but with relatively small profits, a paltry $63 million in the last quarter on sales of $10.8 billion. While Amazon is perfecting commerce, it’s got a long way ago. Since it was born in 1994, four years before Google, it has built a one-of-a-kind business on customer obsession and brilliant analytics. Its recommendations engine is ready for the web hall of fame, and its latest foray with Prime membership (“The newsonomics of Amazon’s prime moves“) shows it knows how to build on its foundation.

Google lacks some of Amazon’s core strengths. It’s a mix-and-match technology company, famously trying lots of things and at times more quickly abandoning losers. In commerce, Google is moving forward with a spate of moves. Google OnePass is a restyled content buying system, with some prominent publishers signing on. Add in Google Latitude, Google Local, Google Local Shopping, Google Shopper, Google Tags, and Google Places, all relating to local commerce. Google Offers is gaining steam and is working with publishers on syndicating local daily deals.

There’s an irony to such publisher partnerships, of course. On the one hand, Google is a “partner,” magnifying publisher businesses through its ad and search products. On the other, initiatives such as Google Tomorrow are a potential dagger to newspapers’ jugular. That’s the way of the web world. For Google, or Amazon, or Apple, or Facebook, any new initiative it takes on has its own internal logic. Should another industry — say newspapers — be wounded in the process, it’s just collateral damage. Given the size of these digital behemoths, as they decimate legacy industries, you can almost hear them say, “Sorry, did I sideswipe you? I didn’t feel anything.”

If everyone is a frenemy these days, and Google is taking on Amazon, media companies have to ask: Who is the frenemy of my frenemy?

One last point to ponder about Google Tomorrow. Consider it, in part, a defensive move.

If, in fact, selling and advertising are blurring, Google has to move more in the selling direction. Right now, it’s an ad company, pure and simple. About 97 percent of its revenue comes from advertising (and you thought newspapers relied too much on that revenue source). It has brilliantly moved to expand its digital ad dominance (now taking in about 40 percent of the dollars in the U.S.) by merging its paid search foundation with big acquisitions in display advertising and mobile. Just last week, the feds let it buy AdMeld, an ad optimizer — and Google’s 57th acquisition so far this year. Now, the Doubleclick ad management system offers a singular approach, incorporating in one place display, search and mobile, to the delight — and terror — of publishers and others in and around the ad industry.

The dominance is a sight to behold. Yet as digital innovation continues to disrupt everything in its path, the ad business is vulnerable, with companies, led by Amazon trying to eliminate the cost and friction of finding buyers. So let’s look at the Google Tomorrow battle plan as one aimed at Amazon surely, but with ammo that may hit newspapers as well — and one that may allow Google to find that big, elusive second revenue stream.

Photo of Amazon warehouse by Chris Watt/Scottish Government used under a Creative Commons license.

Each week, Ken Doctor — author of Newsonomics and longtime watcher of the business side of digital news — writes about the economics of news for the Lab.

February 08 2011

12:40

Twitter promoted tweets – the AdWords for live news?

Al Jazeera sponsored Twitter tweet on Egypt Remember all that fuss about newspapers bidding on Google Adwords to drive traffic to their site? Well here’s a Web 2.0 twist on the idea: Al Jazeera using sponsored tweets to raise awareness of their Egypt coverage.

Twitter itself has the background. Some notable differences to Adwords are that the promoted tweets can be replied to and retweeted just like any other Tweet.

Also, interestingly, “according to Riyaad Minty, head of social media at Al Jazeera English, the @AJEnglish team is operating their Promoted Tweets campaign just like a news desk.” That’s because the content is the advertising, rather than the advertising driving users to the content.

Some metrics to come out of this, according to Twitter (they’re linking to evidence here):

H/t Laura Oliver

December 02 2010

15:00

The Newsonomics of Google Grouponomics

[Each week, our friend Ken Doctor — author of Newsonomics and longtime watcher of the business side of digital news — writes about the economics of the news business for the Lab.]

It wasn’t supposed to be this way. Newspapers were the kings of coupons, the best source for getting the daily deal, on any kind of local product or service you could imagine. Over the years, direct (mailed) competition came along, taking business from newspapers. Now, it, has been further eclipsed by the sheer cost savings of digital coupons, which rose 60 percent within the last year.

In that context, Groupon was an idea just waiting to come along; and the remorse being expressed in newspaper buildings across America this week is the same: Why didn’t we come up with that idea? The remorse should go deeper; check out the Groupon Merchant Services page, and try to find a similar one, with similar marketing support, offered by a newspaper company online. In fact, Groupon’s whole pitch to merchants, cheerfully animated in its Grouponomics section, is a textbook lesson in selling local.

Now, if gobbled by Google today, or as the company moves into play, Groupon is set to become a big local ad play. In the Google portfolio, it could be the on-ramp to an eight-lane gateway, as Google widens its reach into local business marketing and local merchants get introduced to Google, through Groupon’s simple couponing pitch. As I noted last week (“The newsonomics of eight-percent reach“), Google’s reach into the small- and medium-sized business community in the US is about 8 percent, leaving more than 23 million businesses as potential clients. Get a bigger piece of that growing digital marketing play — estimated to be $16.1 billion by Borrell Associates — and you’ve got a big growth engine to add.

In fact, think of Groupon as Google’s new gateway drug. The Groupon inventors did the R & D, and now Big Search (aka Big Ads) is coming along to greatly expand its market reach and penetration. Groupon makes entry to local merchant markets simpler, and that’s the key to the $5 billion or so purchase price (“The newsonomics of simplicity“).

Certainly, we can tick off the reasons why the Google/Groupon deal makes sense for Google:

  • It’s a growth strategy. As paid search inevitably matures, Google needs to stoke several new engines of growth to keep the topline growing. Groupon has scaled to $400 million in sales in two years, and clearly has lots of potential.
  • It’s a search strategy. What could be better to add to keyword results than a single, relevant deal of the day? You want relevant ads? Nothing’s better than a relevant, geo-targeted coupon on something you just searched for.
  • It’s a social strategy. The deal is an in-your-face move directed at Facebook, as it connects up the web of relationships to buying.
  • It’s a mobile strategy. As the world moves mobile, tablets proliferate, and Google’s newly federally approved AdMob ad network looks to 2011, a simple daily deal can make the most of location-aware shopping.

All those are true. Yet Google has made more than 40 acquisitions this year, and none has approached this purchase price. So the gateway factor here, I believe, is the big difference-maker. In 2010, the power of a simple, great daily deal, well-delivered, breaks through the digital clutter — and provides the way into the wallets (and hearts) of local merchants.

Talk to those selling digital products to local merchants, and they’ll tell you it’s a slog. Yes, it’s working. All those 25 million merchants are experiencing the angst of marketing transition. They know they need to be in digital, but how do you work this search engine marketing, appear in the right places on the smart phone, play Facebook? It’s a slow go. Some merchants are digitally savvy, but most need the fundamentals explained, packaged, and demonstrated. That takes time. It’s not only newspaper sales managers that tell you this; it’s also what Google sales managers have said as they’ve tried to figure out the quickest way into local.

There may be nothing quicker than saying: How ’bout we do a coupon? Those six words could open the door wider and more quickly. Once through the door, Google, of course, can offer its growing array of paid search (Ad Words), display (Double Click) and mobile (Ad Mob) products, and ease businesses into the wonders of Google Analytics.

Figure that $5 billion price is worth it, if it ignites the local market sales more quickly, and acts as a gateway drug. Therein we can see the newsonomics of Google Grouponomics. How quickly can Google double its, maybe, 1.5 million merchants? Let’s say those additional 1.5 million merchants spend only 25 percent annually of what the first 1.5 million spend, which is about $27 billion a year, at the 2010 run rate. (A quarter as much might make sense, because many of the first set of advertisers are big, national ones.) If it could double its merchant base two years earlier (than it could if it didn’t buy Groupon), that might mean an additional $13.5 billion in revenue ($6.75 billion a year from the second 1.5 million advertisers). Suddenly, the $5 billion price is understandable.

The big question: What’s it likely to mean in local newspaper markets? How will it change an emerging balance of sales power?

Already, newspaper companies have taken a more catholic approach to local ad sales. Much of the Yahoo-related money they’ve taken in comes from selling Yahoo.com ads in their area, in addition to their own site inventory. A number of companies are reselling Google ads in their own markets, trying to leverage the power of their feet-on-the-street sales force and their well-known community brands.

Consequently, in addition to the why-didn’t-we-do-that remorse they’re feeling, they’re wondering how the Groupon deal will change the local sales landscape over the next couple of years.

A few scenarios:

  • Doomsday: Google’s use of Groupon as its new stalking horse lets it dominate local online spending as it has with national paid search. Newspaper online ad growth — newspapers’ only growth engine — slows against the competition. Newspapers’ Sunday circulars — based on price/item sales — become more obsolescent, as they are replaced by niched and customized deals of the day, not just a single day of the deal available to everyone.
  • Google replaces Yahoo as the partner of choice: The Yahoo consortium looks fairly mature these days, bringing in some good revenue for several top sellers. Yet it’s plagued by Yahoo’s ongoing identity crisis and Carol Bartz’ less-than-full backing. So Google could become the new best friend of newspapers (and broadcasters and Yellow Pages companies), enabling them to sell Groupon-led digital deals, and supplant Yahoo (which itself tried to buy Groupon earlier this year for a reported $2-3 billion) out of the local game. There’s precedent, with some of those newspapers already reselling Google paid search, and the higher sellers getting monetary incentives to do it. So Google could take a largely go-it-alone strategy, selling coupons-plus itself; or fully partner with local salesforces — or, third and probable choice, pursue a hybrid strategy for now, as it increases local penetration.

Among the big questions here: How would Google value the power of local feet-on-the-street, compared to cheaper telesales and self-service? Local sales forces have been vital to the newspaper/Yahoo initiative, and to Groupon’s own growth. Check out Groupon’s employment page (especially “Sales and Business Development — Outside,” to use industry vernacular), and you can see the value it places on feet-on-the-street. And yet Google has built its empire largely on self-service, and would like to do that into the future, increasing margin. Who else wants to turn coupons into self-service? Well, Groupon. Within a week, it will unveil its own Groupon self-service offering.

So, much of this deal, its value to Google, and its threat or promise to newspaper companies may come down to simple question: What do you need to sell a digital coupon to a local merchant?

April 01 2010

18:16

The Newsonomics of iPads and tablets, floor by floor

[Each week, our friend Ken Doctor — author of Newsonomics and longtime watcher of the business side of digital news — writes about the economics of the news business for the Lab.]

AppleMania meets Rummy’s oft-noted trilogy of known knowns, known unknowns and unknown unknowns this week. The iPad is finally here.

Predictably, opinion is widely split on the impact of the tablet on future of news publishing. We don’t know enough, in truth, to ground any certainties. We can, though, start pecking away at it. Here’s a start. One way to assess the new is to connect it to the old.

So let’s build on the traditional cost-and-revenue structures of newspaper operations. I recall the floor-by-floor layout of the Pioneer Press, in Saint Paul, in the ’90s, a time our staff still filled almost all the floor space.

Bottom floor: HR and Finance. 2nd floor: Circulation. 3rd: Production. 4th: Marketing. 5th floor, advertising. 6th and 7th, newsroom. 8th, Exec suite.

So in a tablet world, what’s the impact on the major cost and revenue divisions of the news enterprise, knowing that HR, finance, marketing and executive suites have already seen their own slimming-downs and won’t be much affected?

Let’s start with the newsroom and with “production.” The traditional newsroom provides the meat-and-potatoes of the tablet experience, the text-reading experience. Yes, the iPad should turn “e-readers” and “e-editions” into trivia game answers. Most publishers look at their first tablet products as lite versions of what’s to come, incorporating a few gee-whiz features to salute the innovation. In those first versions, content production doesn’t need to change much.

Soon, though, it will. News companies will need to hire up and skill up — designing, creating and presenting reader-pleasing content. That’s enough of a challenge for monthly and weekly magazines; for dailies, it’s truly a transformative process. Dozens of newsrooms have incorporated videographers, design-savvy producers, and social net masters into workflow, but even in those newsrooms, the resources aren’t sufficient to create the truly new product the tablet enables — a product worth consumers paying for. Then, there are the hundreds of newsrooms who have relatively few of the skills they need at all. Newsroom (and Production) Net: The tablet demands new investment, mainly in new hires, somewhat in new training. With papers still in cutting mode, where will the money come from?

Circulation: It’s an accident of timing that the tablet launch coincides with the Year of Experimenting (Perhaps Dangerously) with paid content. Journalism Online’s Press+ system will soon test niche play from prep sports to obits to metering schemes of several kinds. The New York Times is neck-deep in its begin-metering-in-early-2011 plan. News Corp is erecting walls, the latest around the Times of London, as it just announced a paywall there to go up in June. Yet the timing of the iPad launch means that tablet economics will inevitably color – and may drive – paid content plans.

The Apple model, in a sense, just sets a new cost-of-distribution. While web distribution has been free-plus, the cost of Apple distribution — if you charge for news products — is a predictable, and seemingly stable 30 percent. Just give me 30 percent off the top, says Steve Jobs. Ironically, that 30 percent isn’t far off from the costs of physical distribution for newspapers.

With many news publishers planning on charging for iPad apps (though free, lite apps-as-teasers will probably be near-universal), we see the model of tablet “circ” emerging. Publishers look at the Guardian example (charging about $3.75 one time for its iPhone app), and have two reactions:

— Wow! They got 100,000 people to pay in just a couple of months!

— One-time sales are peanuts. We’re going to charge ongoing subscription rates for our apps/news products. Right now, each edition of a magazine is a separate app, as the Apple store is architected.

So, almost overnight, we’ve got a new model of paid content and supplier/distributor business model. The content company gets 70 percent; the distributor (Apple, first at least and foremost at least for now), gets 30 percent. That’s the inverse of the detested, standard Amazon model, 70 cents to Amazon and 30 to the publisher.

What might be the impact of such a split? Well, let’s estimate that The New York Times serves about 75,000 customers with its Kindle product, a nice little niche. The price is $13.99 a month. That’s $168 a year. With the standard split (the Times may do better), that would be $50 a year to the Times and $118 to Amazon. That would be $3.75 million a year for the Times (and $8.85 million to Amazon).

If the split were 70/30, the numbers would be reversed, netting the publisher another $5 million a year. That’s not huge money, but we can see how it would scale over time, as is clearly the intent with Wall Street Journal’s new $17.99 iPad product.

Now, Apple-delivered apps will not be the only way to monetize content, but expect to see the approximate 70/30 split become a model, a good starting point.

Circulation Net: News and magazine publishers now see a second digital revenue line. It’s 70 percent of X (the retail price) multiplied by Y (volume of sales). As news companies reinvent not only products, but new business arrangements with the distributors of the day — from Google/Amazon/Yahoo to Comcast/AT&T/Verizon — expect to see the Apple model invoked as “fair.”

Advertising: Early returns have been blockbusters — big advertisers like Chase supporting the New York Times iPad launch and watchmaker Hublot subsidizing two months of the FT product, for instance — and that buoys hope. At launch, iPad advertising is like Triple A office space in the city; it’s the new shiny, slick must place to be.

As the shine wears off a bit, it’s likely to become a great test ground for a new merger of brand and performance advertising. Brands love the idea of owning their own tablet experience, directly embedding themselves into customer experience, given the multitouch capabilities, video, and social upfront natures of this new platform. Connect that to direct-response advertising (glossy magazine with built-in wifi), and you’ve got all kinds of opportunities for engaging customers and watching the resulting metrics, minute by minute. Branded premium pricing may mate with AdWords performance-based pricing; who knows what the offspring will look like?

The first advertisers are the big national ones, and they in turn will want to associate with products that best use the new medium — the better to attract the kind of customer they want: leading edge, willing to try something new.

Ad Net: Tablet-based advertising should add, unexpectedly, to top line revenues in the second half of 2010 and more strongly in 2011. Expect though, a big split here: those companies I call the Digital Dozen, the 12-15 companies with national and global publishing reach and resources, will be the ones to create the best out-of-the-box news and magazine products – and they’ll be rewarded with a small surge in ad revenue. Those unable to play at a significant level will in turn reap few rewards.

March 04 2010

16:34

Do the BBC pay for AdWords?

That’s the question posed by Rednelly, with this screengrab:

Google search for Cartel client review

Curious. Anyone at the BBC got any idea?

November 10 2009

15:36

New public relations: Beating back bad press with Google AdWords

The New York Times reported on its front page in September that hoki, an unattractive sea creature best known as the primary ingredient in the Filet-O-Fish, is at risk of depletion. Naturally, the New Zealand companies that farm hoki by the metric ton weren’t pleased by the article, which pointed to “ominous signs of overfishing.”

Time was, the subject of a critical news story could write a letter to the editor, issue a press release, maybe demand a correction. Not content with those options, the New Zealand Seafood Industry Council took an approach I hadn’t seen before: buying Google ads for keywords like new zealand hoki and hoki new york times.

The ads sought to target people discussing or searching for more information about the story. Here’s one that appeared in Gmail atop a message about hoki and the Times:

Now, I don’t really care who’s right in this dispute, though I should note the Times only apologized for using the trade association’s photograph without permission. The ads linked to a page that purports to set the record straight about hoki fishing and includes emails exchanged with Times science editor Laura Chang.

That was itself a feat of public-relations genius: Because the council’s hoki page was originally a straightforward description of the fish and its uses, the Times had linked to it in the third paragraph of the article (at right), and 78,000 people clicked though, according to Sarah Crysell, a spokeswoman for the council. Taking advantage of that incoming traffic, the group transformed its hoki page into a rebuttal of the Times story.

The man behind the effort — and similar campaigns for other clients — was Jim McCarthy of CounterPoint Strategies, a boutique PR firm in New York and Washington. He’s an aggressive guy who will run your ear off about “holding the media accountable for their deliberate falsehoods” and “arrogant reporters who have a one-sided agenda.”

That animus turns out to be a key element of McCarthy’s strategy: In addition to buying Google AdWords for combinations of keywords like new york times, hoki, and new zealand, McCarthy also targeted searches for the story’s author, William Broad.

“When you include their name in the search, it draws attention to it and lets the reporter know that you mean business and you’re going to hold them responsible,” McCarthy told me over the phone. For another seafaring client, the National Fisheries Institute, he bought Google ads against the names three Vogue reporters — and Anna Wintour — who wrote about high levels of mercury in fish. “Someone inside of Condé Nast tried to outbid us for those search terms,” McCarthy said, though I can’t confirm the story. An example of one of the ads is at left.

Targeting reporters where they hang out online is McCarthy’s grating specialty. He went after ABC News, on behalf of the Formaldehyde Council, with ads (like the one at right) on Mediabistro’s TVNewser. “It was virtually a guarantee that they and all their competitors were going to see it,” McCarthy told me with more than a little relish. He has attempted to place similar ads on Romenesko, but the Poynter Institute declined to run them. (Crysell said the council hired McCarthy, in part, because “New Zealanders are far more modest in the way we express ourselves.”)

McCarthy calls his strategy “media accountability.” That’s spin. He’s representing his client’s interests like any other PR firm. But doing it with Google AdWords and links is a novel strategy that feels more effectual than a letter to the editor.

Hoki photo used with the permission of the New Zealand Seafood Industry Council.

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