February 4, 2020

Is Less Actually More With Content?

For a long time, the narrative around content production was to produce as much as possible because it would result in overall user growth. This made sense (sort of) in a world where only pageviews mattered. With the move to subscriptions, the conversation has had to change.

According to a Digiday article:

Publishers including the Guardian, News UK’s The Times of London and Le Monde have trimmed the number of articles they publish, leading to a growth in audience traffic, higher dwell times and ultimately more subscribers.

At a high level, this doesn’t actually make sense. How does cutting the amount of content result in growth in audience?

I think the answer can be linked to total resources. Publishers are finding that they are stretched for resource (duh), so they need to decide where to invest journalists time. Do they have a journalist spend a few days on a pretty great story or do they have that journalist spend half a day and churn something out?

In the past, it would have been the latter. But now that publishers are focusing on different metrics, the conversation is more about the former.

And that’s the real story here… Publishers are finally realizing that if they produce high quality content, more people are going to want to consume it than if they produce average content. The pendulum has finally swung back where quality matters far more than quantity.

Back in August, the Shorenstein Center and The Lenfest Institute did a report on paywalls. One part jumped out to me:

According [to] the publishers surveyed, users who view local news appear to be 2-5 times more likely to subscribe than those who view national and wire-sourced stories. Of news organizations studied, publishers that produce more local (and non-wire-sourced) stories tended to generate greater subscription sales. High-performing editorial and business teams tended to clearly identify the unique value proposition of local news, incorporating editorial and coverage to improve readers’ lives within their communities. Critically, our analysis identified a correlation between subscription sales and amount of local content produced by the publication, reinforcing the business case for local reporting.

What’s fascinating about this is that the same type of content that tends to get gutted from these local publications is the higher-quality, well-reported local news that results in higher conversions. When looking at search and social algorithms, a national story might generate higher traffic because of better keywords. But in this case, the local community—the audience you want—wants to know more about what’s happening in their community.

But how can you make this actionable for your organization?

This story on Poynter about how The Post and Courier grew subscriptions offers one possible solution.

“We have to prosecute the value of every single story every single day,” Pugh said.

If a story didn’t have 500 unique visitors and at least 1.2 minutes of engaged time, it got reevaluated. That doesn’t mean those kinds of stories just stopped. Instead, staff looked at how the story was written, the headline, the keywords for search and other dials they could adjust.

If after all that, if those pieces still didn’t hit those minimum goals, the newsroom stopped doing them.

It’s rather straightforward. If the story is not generating the right number of unique visitors and the right amount of engagement—in this case, the amount of time on a page—then it might not be the right story.

A key point here, though, is that they don’t immediately disqualify these stories. Instead, they see if they are able to make them better. Only then do they stop doing that type of story.

I would take this one step farther. Start tracking conversions on the individual stories, whether that’s newsletter sign ups, subscriptions or something else. In this case, you want to know if there is a certain category of story that works really well. A story might get less traffic, but get more conversions.

The likely outcome is that you will stop doing specific types of stories and spend more time on the ones that do the best. This, in turn, should result in more traffic to the site without having to publish as much.

Lots of new tools for publishers

Over the past week or so, there have been a few new products launched that are meant to help publishers specifically. Each is worth looking at.


The first is News Corp’s Knewz product. According to The Wall Street Journal:

The service features headlines from about 400 local and national news sources, including the Washington Post, the New York Times, Newsmax and the Nation.

The articles on Knewz.com will link directly to publishers’ sites, and News Corp will receive no remuneration. News Corp says it will share data with those publishers and prominently tag each link with the name of its source.

I understand why News Corp built this, but I am a bit unsure how big of an impact it will have on any publishers.

As an aggregator, the user has to know about the brand and seek it out. To do that, Knewz needs to have a pretty strong advertising campaign just to get users used to seeking Knewz out. Compare that to Google News and Apple News, which come preinstalled on Android and iPhones respectively. Knewz is fighting an uphill battle.

I’m not terribly bullish on this product working and, since it is brand new, I have not heard anyone talking about traffic numbers from it. If I had to guess, News Corp. will shut it down by the end of 2020 because it’s just not converting for anyone. That said, I don’t imagine adding your content is very hard, so roll the dice and see what happens.


The second new tool is Flipboard expanding into local news. According to Axios, Flipboard is expanding into 23 North America metro areas. The article states:

Where Flipboard thinks it can be useful is to provide local communities with a curated mix of not just news, but also lifestyle information about local sports, dining, weather, real estate, transportation and more.

Unlike Knewz, which has a lot of work ahead of it, Flipboard is a product that I really enjoy using both as a consumer and as a publisher. I’ve found the traffic to be pretty consistent. If you spend a bit of time curating the content, as a publisher, you can see a nice boost. One caveat is that the niche obviously matters.

Flipboard told Axios that its users were asking for a local news solution. While other traffic sources have dried up for local news, this should prove useful for small and local publications. Couple this with publishing fewer, but more impactful stories as I mentioned above, and the impact could be decent.


The final tool is the newly launched Scroll. The Verge did a good writeup of the product and explained the product like this:

A new subscription service called Scroll is offering ad-free access to hundreds of websites — not by blocking the ads, but by working with an expanding group of publishers to take the ads down in exchange for a slice of the subscription fee.

The way it works is pretty straight forward. For $5, a user gets an ad-free experience to hundreds of different websites. Once they pay, they can log into the app or website, which drops a cookie on the site. If the publisher has Scroll’s javascript on the site, the cookie is recognized and the site is delivered totally ad free.

In exchange for this, Scroll takes $1.50 of the total $5 in revenue. The other $3.50 is then shared with the rest of the sites in the network based on how often you visit them. So, let’s assume you visit The Verge 600 times and BuzzFeed News 400 times in one month, The Verge would get $2.10 and BuzzFeed News would get $1.40. Compared to typical ad rates, this is obviously much higher.

What’s good about the tool is that a subscription to Scroll is not like a subscription to Apple News+, which is meant to go around your paywall. Scroll respects the publisher’s paywall. That means, if a user can only see three stories before hitting the wall, Scroll will show three ad-free pages before the wall appears.

According to Axios:

Haile says that on average, it makes $46 for every 1000 impressions served to a user across its network right now. That’s significantly higher than what most publishers charge for ads today.

Here’s the only thing that I am curious about… As more sites get added to the network, that $3.50 gets spread out across more and more pages. That, theoretically, reduces the revenue per read, while keeping the rate constant for Scroll.

But the way I see it, programmatic ad rates are a couple of bucks, if you’re lucky, so even if Scroll’s “CPM” drops to $5-10, it should still result in a boost in revenue.

It’ll be interesting to see whether Scroll can convince millions of people to sign up. If so, this will be meaningful revenue to the publishers, even if CPMs drop. However, I am a little skeptical that people are going to do that versus just using their ad blockers that they’ve grown accustomed to.

What would help this move along a lot faster is if a browser got on board. A year ago, Venture Beat wrote that Scroll and Firefox had partnered.

As part of the deal, Mozilla said it would test features and product ideas provided by Scroll, which itself has been conducting internal tests with a number of outlets. Small groups of Firefox users will be invited at random to share feedback and also respond to surveys, Mozilla said.

There has been no update on whether these early tests worked, but it would be interesting to see this roll out to all Firefox users. That would then expose it to tens of millions of users. What percentage would convert?

Here’s one way to try to maximize your revenue with Scroll once the javascript is on your site.

Identify the users that are coming back multiple times a month. For those people, deliver house ads that talk about Scroll. The reason you want these users is because they are your most loyal; therefore, by getting them to sign up for Scroll, you’ll be generating more money than the typical programmatic ads that are running today.

Tools are great, but…

Here’s the thing about tools. They’re cool. They promise a lot. Ultimately, though, they’re hit or miss. Depending on your site, topic and traffic patterns, any one of these tools could be a win or a dud.

It’s easy to get excited about tools, but each project takes at least a little bit of time. A lot of small things add up to take a lot of time, so be mindful of that as you chase the latest and greatest tool.