By Serene Touma
It’s no secret to those who know me that my dream job is Editor in Chief. Preferably displacing Graydon Carter at Vanity Fair — though late at night I sometimes dare to dream of the New Yorker as a future home.
My passion for content, and especially in an editorial context, has me responding to friends’ first world problems and complaints with “you should definitely write an article about that,” believing the way to solve anything starts with someone writing a letter.
Born in 1984, they say my generation is the last to remember life BI (Before Internet) and as a result I often feel that my being born 30 something years ago has afforded me the luxury of knowing a world both before and after, and with it the ability to see and appreciate the change that the Internet, and subsequent access to data, has brought with it.
At BECO Capital, we meet all kinds of tech entrepreneurs, and the ones I am most excited to meet are excited about content, and specifically about creating original content in the region, and for the region.
With, at best, mediocre content catering to an audience that is hungry for better, many of the region’s media companies (and for that matter, even Western ones) haven’t adapted their mindset or strategies to take into account two incredibly shifting realities.
1. Don’t go with your gut — go with your algorithm
The cofounder of a growing digital media company we recently met said something that I have liberally reproduced to any bright-eyed storyteller who, like me, has ever dreamed of being a media creator and distributor. In explaining how their algorithm worked to determine what content to create based on past performance and user behavior, my creative and literary brain asked whether their editors sometimes relied on a hypothesis instead, their gut so to speak, to write about something they truly believed in their hearts would do well and be widely read, loved and shared. I looked at him expectantly, hoping for the romantic response I knew better than to expect, but instead he said:
“The biggest mistake you can make as a content creator is to believe you know better than the data.”
Today, the most successful media companies are data companies first, and content creators second. Never the other way round.
In the Middle East, Kasra and the OLN family of channels (Nawa3em, Gheir,Chababs and Ra2ed) lead the charge in their approach to data and editorial content. In fact, every vertical or ‘sister site’ that Kasra and OLN launch is created in direct response to data and user behaviour. For example, barely in recovery from a global financial crisis, no-one would have guessed that what the region wanted was a website dedicated to luxury content, but OLN’s data told a different story. Instead of ‘going with their gut’, the founders took the opposite route: “They want more bling? Let’s give them more bling!” and thus, Gheir was born.
While Buzzfeed’s whimsical Disney princess quizzes might seem superficial on the surface, every princess image, every question and answer, the length and the language, and most importantly the title, have been tested and studied to get as close to full marks as possible on Facebook’s Relevance Score (the gold standard of measurement for audience-content fit). Knowing this for example, Kasra’s team (data + analytics + editorial, side by side) have been able to tap into insights that saw them selling the previously unknown and ignored motorsport of Formula 1 to a Saudi male audience who just happens to be obsessed with Rowan Atkinson’s Mr Bean. Who would have guessed?
Digital means article titles can be changed and non-performing content buried while high-performing content promoted, making it go “viral”, which the data will tell you, is something that is much more science than an art, never a fluke of the hand or the mouse.
2. Facebook Frenemies
I read an article somewhere about Facebook’s shift from friend to foe, and a poignant line stayed with me: “As a publisher, if Facebook isn’t your friend today, it’s your enemy.”
[Aside: Curiously, I don’t remember where I read the article, which only goes to show that consumers don’t retain the source, but they will retain content that they connect with.]
The distribution of content has become just as important as its creation. “If a tree falls in a forest and there’s no-one around to hear it, does it make a sound?”
We’ve moved from the era of ‘watching the news’ and ‘reading the morning paper’ to consuming our content all the time, and everywhere. While some savvy infophiles, overwhelmed by the amount of information they can (and feel compelled to) consume on a daily basis, are embracing newsletters and shying away from the now traditional newsfeeds, most consumers still turn to Facebook for their daily news, and to a lesser extent, Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat.
Facebook’s average “time spent on site” is 50 minutes. FIFTY. (To put that number into perspective, LinkedIn’s is 2 minutes, and Twitter’s just 1 minute.)
Today, like a persistent aunt, Facebook is doing its very best to keep you there for at least that long. Or longer if it can! Its algorithm rewards content that keeps users on site longer, like native video, and penalises content that tries to get users off the site and somewhere else, like another website. This subtle change is intended to make for a better user experience on the site. (Which is always of highest priority, after all, Facebook’s product is actually its users, an audience whose attention it sells to its customer, the advertiser.)
To illustrate this shift, I’ve outlined a timeline of three mindsets:
a) Old School Thinking in a Then New World:
“This Facebook site is awesome. Everyone is on it. I’ll make a Page and post links to my website. I’ll use it as a way to drive traffic from people who are interested in what I have to say to my site. Then I can make money by selling advertisers some real estate on my site based on all the traffic its getting. This is going to be awesome!”
b) Old School Thinking in a New School World:
“Oh I can do Facebook ads! This is great. I can get more people to like my Page, and more people will see my links, and click on them, and visit my site! Wait a minute, I have 20,000 fans but an average of only 5 clicks from each post. Man… no one sees my organic posts. I know — I’ll boost my posts. A couple of dollars here and there to make sure people see and click on my links! After all, Facebook is a great place to build an audience, I can target people so well, so I’ll keep using Facebook to direct people to my site! CPC is awesome. Woah… it’s getting more expensive to bid on clicks. Driving traffic to my site is getting more costly, and it’s eating into my margins. And ad-blockers seem to be getting more popular… I guess I wouldn’t want to see those ads either. Sigh, I don’t know how long I can sustain this for. My advertisers will want to see traffic data soon… are they gonna stick around?”
c) New School Thinking in a New School World:
“So, Facebook clearly wants more eyeballs on their properties. They want to keep people on Facebook, not drive them away somewhere else, to someone else’s site. I need to stop fighting this and think, ‘How can I help?’ Maybe if I create awesome content for Facebook, and it keeps people there longer, then Facebook will reward me and improve my organic reach. They’ll see me as a publisher, and not a promoter. Okay, that’s all good and well for Zuck, but how will I make money? Well here’s an idea: Instead of charging advertisers for digital real estate with a banner on my site, I can offer them a spot in my awesome content… Plus, Facebook tells me so much about my audience, I can start creating content just for them! Actually, this makes a lot more sense for my Instagram and Snapchat* strategy too. Neither of them will let me seamlessly link out, to drive any of my growing audience to my site either, so maybe I’ll start creating content just for them there too.”
The role of the editor has changed considerably, moving away from artist and closer to scientist. While on the surface, this should upset me; making me nostalgic for a simpler time where a magazine article was written by a reporter and copy-edited by her editor in chief, it excites me instead.
A nomad by nature, I thrive in a state of flux and embrace change like a familiar friend. Instead of choosing to be nostalgic for a bygone era, I will always opt to embrace change and look for the positivity that technology brings with it. While I will always enjoy the feel of a book or magazine between my hands, I can’t deny the equal enjoyment I get from a scroll scroll scroll and tap tap tap.
I am excited about the possibilities this presents for content and media, and I’m hopeful for the opportunities that exist to build the next big media company in our region.