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July 28 2011

16:30

Why The Atlantic joined up with Pulse — and what the app’s usage stats can tell data-hungry publishers

Let’s face some facts: Media companies aren’t entirely sure what to do with the new crop of news reading apps that are springing up at the moment. Technology like Flipboard, Zite, or Pulse could either be a thief, a new revenue stream, or an inexpensive test bed for finding new ways to get your content in front of people. For the moment, these deals, if they are drawn up between a publisher and an app maker, typically get thrown into the category of “partnerships,” like the kind of reading app Pulse has been brokering with media companies like CNN, the Wall Street Journal, Vanity Fair, Time, and MSNBC.

Just last week Pulse struck a new partnership agreement, adding The Atlantic, The Atlantic Wire, and The National Journal to its list of featured content providers. So far, the deals between Pulse and news organizations haven’t been monetary; if anything, they’re more exploratory in nature, determining whether a third party can deliver substantial traffic to news sites (and eyes to their ads). But it can also be instructive on how audiences’ appetites for reading has changed, and give us an idea why places like The Atlantic want in with Pulse.

M. Scott Havens, vice president of digital strategy and operations for The Atlantic, told me the new wave of display apps are offering experiments in how the reading experience has changed, which is of no small interest to publishers. “Hopefully people will find us, discover us on Pulse, and might actually become a subscriber to our brands,” Havens said. The Atlantic can reach new audiences while also studying how users read, Havens said.

Essentially it’s a win-win for the moment: “Since we don’t spend money on advertising and let the editorial be our branding arm, we’d like to get out to these applications where other readers are, who aren’t familiar with our brand,” he said.

This all works perfectly for Pulse, says Akshay Kothari, the company’s CEO, because their broad goal at the moment is gathering more content to spotlight within the app and developing fruitful relationships with publishers. One of the critical bits of information Pulse holds is data on usage patterns for readers within the app, both on the iPad and iPhone.

Though Kothari would not offer up specific data, he told me one clear trend is the difference in the reading patterns on the iPhone vs. the iPad. On any given week, Pulse users on smartphones open the app twice as often as people on the tablet version. But all told, tablet users spend more time on Pulse, and their sessions are twice as long as those of iPhone users. What’s also interesting is that in some cases one platform feeds into another: “If you look at usage patterns, [users] will come in small bursts to look at news, and if they like it — long-form articles or something from The Economist — they’ll save them and read them on other devices,” he said.

So in a typical day a Pulse reader may drop in more than 3 times to check the news, but only spend 5-10 minutes scanning, Kothari said. From what they’re seeing, a good chunk of Pulse’s audience falls somewhere into this category of heavy-ish users who subscribe to multiple sources, as opposed to those who scan stories and headlines on Pulse with less frequency.

It probably shouldn’t be a surprise that Pulse tracks with patterns we’ve been seeing emerge in the ways people read on new devices. In terms of the iPad, Pulse seems to mirror similar evidence we’ve seen suggesting that people look for a comfy spot to do serious reading on their tablets. “The consumption pattern on the tablet is slightly different, spending longer time,” Kothari said. “The use-case is kind of like sitting in home, maybe lounging with the iPad and consuming lots of time and news stories.”

Another trend they saw was an increase in delayed reading. Not long after launching, it became clear readers were using Pulse to dip into and out of the day’s news and emailing stories to themselves. “We realized that a good majority of people want something to save (stories) and go back to it later, simple functionality to save from Pulse and synch with other devices,” he said. (They’ve since added Instapaper and Read It Later buttons.)

Pulse uses all this information in refining its product, adding features when necessary and responding to feedback from users. But it’s clear that this is also intel that could be of interest to news organizations trying to reconcile their digital media plans with those of third-party app companies. As part of the partnership, news organizations will get their hands on data from Pulse on how many users subscribe to their content, as well as social sharing stats and click-through rates, Kothari said.

Pulse can be an app for news discovery as much as presentation, meaning it can be a gateway for introducing people to news sources they would otherwise not know. Which is one of the reasons they’re eager to buddy-up with media companies like The Atlantic, Kothari said. One of the things they learned early was that there’s no predicting what readers will find interesting. Of all the pre-loaded news sources they had at launch, which included RSS feeds from mainstream organizations, one that was apparently most interesting to readers was from Cool Hunting, the design and culture blog. One of Pulse’s goals going forward, Kothari said, is to create an opportunity for a “Cool Hunting moment” for more publishers.

“We’re very, very excited to work on this,” he said. “The team assembled are all great developers and designers, but also people who want to see great journalism survive.”

February 24 2011

17:00

Professor Pablo Boczkowski on news consumption — and how when you read affects what you read

We wrote in September about Pablo Boczkowski’s new book, News at Work: Imitation in an Age of Newsroom Abundance. During a talk at Harvard’s Kennedy School, the Northwestern communications professor discussed the effects of imitation in the news space, highlighting a troubling paradox: Though we live in a time of abundant information, we also live in a time of homogenization. Repetition is everywhere.

It’s an intriguing phenomenon, but it’s not the only one in Boczkowski is studying. Another fascinating aspect of the professor’s research — the aspect, in fact, for which the book is named — is the study he conducted of the environments in which people consume their news. People tend to read the news at work; and that, in turn, skews the news content they consume. (For more on that idea — and for the broader trends it suggests about information consumption and civic life — check out the talk Boczkowski will be giving this evening, with the Lab’s own Josh Benton, as part of MIT’s Communications Forum. If you’re in the Cambridge area, the discussion will take place from 5 to 7 on the MIT campus; it’ll also be recorded and archived.)

When it comes to news, how does where we consume affect what what we consume? Above is a video, shot back in 2009 by former Lab-er Ted Delaney, of Boczkowski discussing the “news at work” ideas and implications; below is its transcript.


…is that the time and place of work has become a very important temporal and spacial location of online news consumption for a fairly large number of people who get the news online. Whereas in the case of traditional media — like print newspapers, television newscasts, radio newscasts — you would get the news before or after work, or going to and from work, but not at the time and place of work. Now, a sizable proportion of the people who get the news online get the news at work. And that has been changing how we get the news, what kind of news we get when we’re at work, and whom we talk to — the person, the people we talk to — when we talk to people about the news at work.

So, for instance, just to give you some examples, when people are at work, they tend to spend first some time, the first time that they visit the news sites during the day, or a number of news sites during the day, they tend to spend time looking at those sites in a routine, comprehensive fashion: They scan the home pages, they click on some stories, and so on and so forth. And then any subsequent visits after that are of much shorter duration, more focused on particular issues. Usually not clicking after that, just browsing on the homepage, looking at a particular story. A coworker said, “Oh, there is a big fire in this neighborhood; oh, have you looked at these poll results from that kind of competition.” People go online, check 15, 20 seconds, maybe a minute — maybe they will look at the first paragraph of the story, then they leave the site.

And the other thing that has happened is that because of the social norms of the workplace, usually it’s not well seen to have conversations with coworkers about politically, for instance, sensitive, or culturally sensitive or contentious issues. And because the people we talk to tend to influence the kinds of news that we get — sometimes to the point that we look at particular news stories because we anticipate having conversations about those stories with, in this case, the people with whom we work.

That tends to steer people away from the consumption of politically sensitive topics, and move them towards consumption of sports stories, stories celebrity stories — topics that are more innocuous, and lighter in terms of workplace conversations. And that also marks an interesting shift to people who for example work in a home environment, in a home office, versus the people who work in an office environment, with many other coworkers. The people who tend to work in an office environment, with other coworkers, and get the news online at work, tend to identify the consumption of online news with the workplace. So when they leave the office, right, because there is that symbolic association between the consumption of news and the workplace, they don’t want, when they’re at home, or it’s the weekend, they don’t want to get the news online. They’re less predisposed, because, at home, it’s not work, so they shouldn’t be doing work-related stuff. Versus the people who work in the home environment, they keep checking news sites after they finish working, right — or, at least, they have a higher chance of doing that — and also spending time looking at news during the weekend.

So these are some of the ways in which the consumption of online news at work has changed some of the habitualized, some of the routine patterns of news consumption that we have seen in traditional media. Sometimes major changes, sometimes intensifying pre-existing habits, and sometimes conforming to what we have known before. For instance, this issue that the people we talk to, the most proximate social relations, are a major factor in shaping what news we get and the kinds of things we talk about.

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