Welcome back to the Baekdal Plus newsletter. My vacation time is over and now all the work for the second half of the year begins.
Today, we are going to talk about three things + a few reminders:
The most important story today is about preventing clickbait from negatively segmenting our audience. And the second story is just some quick notes about the latest subscription numbers from the NYT. The third story is about how changing the narrative of news can fix the problems we write about.
One of the fundamental problems online is that it's so easy to be tempted to try to build traffic with clickbait, and every single time someone tries to do that, you end up taking yourself down a path you really don't want to go.
To illustrate why, let's go back to May 2017. Back then, Facebook announced that they had created even more changes to stop clickbait from dominating your newsfeed. As they wrote:
People tell us they don't like stories that are misleading, sensational or spammy. That includes clickbait headlines that are designed to get attention and lure visitors into clicking on a link. In an effort to support an informed community, we're always working to determine what stories might have clickbait headlines so we can show them less often.
Last year we made an update to News Feed to reduce stories from sources that consistently post clickbait headlines that withhold and exaggerate information. Today, we are making three updates that build on this work so that people will see even fewer clickbait stories in their feeds, and more of the stories they find authentic.
First, we are now taking into account clickbait at the individual post level in addition to the domain and Page level, in order to more precisely reduce clickbait headlines.
Second, in order to make this more effective, we are dividing our efforts into two separate signals - so we will now look at whether a headline withholds information or if it exaggerates information separately.
Third, we are starting to test this work in additional languages.
This, of course, was not unique to Facebook. Google was doing the same thing. Whenever someone started to find a way to exploit Google Search with low-end content, Google would make (and is still making) changes to prevent that from becoming the norm.
But the question every publisher should ask is, why? Why do the tech companies spend so much time trying to stop clickbait? Wouldn't they benefit from the extra traffic and engagement that drives?
Well, no. And there are two very big reasons why.
The first reason is about value. If most of your traffic comes to your least valuable content, then, as a business, you are in a very bad place. You don't ever want to do that. Instead, any successful business is based on being able to drive most of their audiences' focus towards their most valuable content.
This is not just true for tech companies, but for everyone. If you have a web shop, your most sold products should also be the product line that best represents your uniqueness and your value. And it's true for publishers.
One easy way to check this (from the outside), is just to go to newspapers and look at the sidebar where they often have the "most viewed" stories of that day. What do you see?
If the answer is that the most viewed stories are also the least valuable, then you have a really big problem. More than that, if you then also see that your most viewed articles all have clickbait-like headlines, then you have two big problems. First, that your most viewed content is the least valuable, and secondly that the reason people see it is because you are tricking them.
As traffic acquisition and traffic engagement strategies go, this is pretty much the worst you can do.
The second problem is about people's time, and let me give you an example of this.
Here is a screenshot of the top article on the front page of one of the largest newspapers in my country (as I'm writing this newsletter).
This headline is one of the many forms of clickbait, and, because of it, you have no idea what this article is about.
So, I want you to think about the different paths your audience now has in front of them. Essentially, there are four paths available, but let's talk about each one.
First are all the people who simply don't click, and here we have two outcomes (two paths).
The first path is all the people who just don't have the time to click on every article to see what something is about, so they just don't click and move on. I would define this path as being neutral-negative, because although it doesn't provide a negative result, it also doesn't really change anything. It's just people going: ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
The second path is all the people who see this headline, and get annoyed at you for not telling them what the article is about. In other words, they get angry at you for wasting their time. This is a really bad outcome because people in this segment will never subscribe. You are creating anti-subscriptions.
Then we have the people who click on the article, and, again, there are two paths (which we will call path 3 and 4).
The third path is people who click, but then realize that it wasn't useful to them. This, again, is a terrible outcome because you just wasted people's time in the worst way possible. You created the perception of something of interest, but never delivered on this promise. And again, this segment of people will never subscribe.
And finally, the fourth path is the people who clicked, and were surprised by how relevant the article was for them. This is the only good outcome of these three paths, but even at that, it's suboptimal because you started out not telling people what it was about. So yes, the final outcome was good, but the path to it was incredibly inefficient.
Now think about these four paths.
What you have created is a situation where you have divided your audience into four segments. Two of these segments now hate you, and will never subscribe. Another segment is kind of indifferent, and only one segment likes what you have to offer.
In terms of audience optimization, this is a crappy model.
What you need to do instead is to think about this fourth path. What could you do to optimize things so that this becomes the primary path, and it also becomes the most efficient one?
For starters, don't use these types of headlines. It's such a bad culture. I mean, imagine if you went to Amazon looking for headphones, and then you found these two results:
Which one of these two product headlines do you think would drive the most sales? There is a reason why successful web shops don't do this. Instead, they tell people upfront what something is, and then they try to make that product as appealing as possible.
For articles (in a subscription economy) it's the same thing. Tell me what the news is, and then if that's relevant to me I will click on it to get the details. This is the behavior that you need to optimize for. This is what most of your traffic should be doing.
The next thing you should optimize for is a positive news habit. Create a news experience where it is easy for me to get information that I need, be upfront about it, be efficient, and be complete about it.
But this is something we are not that good at today.
To give a simple example from the past year. Here in my country, of the five largest national newspapers, only one of them has provided an easy way for me to get the latest COVID information. The rest of them are just covering COVID with random news articles, where somewhere on the front page, maybe, there is a story that I need ... but I don't know where. So even though the latest COVID data is updated every day at 2 PM, for four of these news sites, I have no idea where on the front page I can find this ... and sometimes it's not even on the front page.
Think about that experience.
This is not good enough for today's highly competitive world, nor is it going to help you get people to subscribe.
We can do much better than this.
The New York Times has just released its latest revenue subscription figures, and they have now reached 8 million subscribers, and expect to reach 8.5 by the end of 2021.
You can read the full details in the link above, but I have three very quick notes about this.
First of all, one thing that is very important to remember about their growth is that almost half of it is coming from their non-news operations. As Sara Fischer over at Axios commented:
NYT added 142,000 paid digital-only subs last Q - lowest number of net adds since Q2 2018. Adds continue to lean on non-news subs, which proves resiliency of biz model (IMO). A record 46% of new net adds came from non-core news, like cooking+games+audio.
Mind you, a lot of the overall revenue is still news based, but the New York Times is increasingly turning into a company where news may not be their primary revenue in the future. It's difficult to compare directly though since there is a lot of overlap.
Secondly, the New York Times has two big benefits that most other publishers don't have. It's in English, which provides them with a much wider reach, and it's US-based, which is just a gigantic market.
To give you an idea of just how big, here is a very quick table I made comparing the New York Times subscription numbers to how much that would be in other countries (based on the population).
Finally, all of the New York Times' growth is digital. This is not surprising in any way, but it's just a quick reminder to anyone in the media industry:
The third story today was heavily inspired by a Twitter thread I came across by Margaret Middleton, a designer who helps museums create gender inclusive signage... and I just found it really interesting from a news perspective.
In her thread, Margaret uses the examples of bathroom signs, and how you can fix the gender problem by simply changing the narrative.
For instance, as she says:
The best gender inclusive restroom signage puts focus on the facility, not the user.
What this means is that instead of creating a sign with a man and a woman, make the sign show the toilet instead.
Another example is baby care, where standard signs currently focus on the 'mother'. So Margaret changed that narrative to be about the baby:
The best gender inclusive baby care signage puts emphasis on the baby, not the carer. Baby care stations should be welcoming and available to people of all genders and abilities.
Margaret has other examples in her thread, but it's such a simple change that solves the gender problem.
When I saw this I immediately started thinking about the news. Today we live in a world where several very important topics have become associated with things that prevent us from talking about them in a useful way.
Think about something like climate change in the US. For some weird reason, it has become extremely politically polarized and every time you report about it, it turns into this weird shitshow of people fighting each other.
So could we use the same principles to fix that as well? Well, yes, of course we can. If you're covering a topic where political polarization is a problem ... then change the narrative. Get rid of political focus - don't talk about what opinions the politicians have, change the focus to what it means for your readers directly.
In Europe we also have this problem, although with other topics. Take something like immigration. Today this has become an incredibly politicized topic to the point where the public is generally misinformed. So, get rid of that narrative, and instead start to talk about immigration from all the other perspectives. What does it mean for businesses? How are things really going? What is the actual impact on your readers?
It's such a simple thing to do. If a topic is undermined by a specific element, change the narrative so that element no longer enters people's minds.
Finally, just to repeat...
Before I went on my vacation, I wrote a big article about how we should cover climate change: "Climate change is a news story that requires a very different type of journalism".
And don't forget, you can also find out how to think about events in a different way by reading, "What if virtual events were not an event?"
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Founder, media analyst, author, and publisher. Follow on Twitter
"Thomas Baekdal is one of Scandinavia's most sought-after experts in the digitization of media companies. He has made himself known for his analysis of how digitization has changed the way we consume media."
Swedish business magazine, Resumé