Quartz released its new app today, and it looks very much like a messaging app. Which is smart, because for anybody trying to build a news brand today, messaging is clearly the most important new area to conquer, and right now the field is wide open.
There are two big reasons for this: reach and branding.
The reach part is obvious. Here, for instance, is one of many charts on the dominance of mobile: if you’re not mobile-native these days, you’re simply not where the world’s attention is.
Up until now, news organizations have understood that there’s a huge overlap between mobile and social: if you see somebody on their phone, they’re more likely than not to be using their single most-used app. That app is probably Facebook, and if it’s not Facebook it’s some other social network, like Instagram or Snapchat.
The result has been a rise in social teams, some of whom concentrate mainly on getting traffic from Facebook to their website, and some of whom concentrate on building stories which live natively within social apps. (That would include Instant Articles on Facebook.) All of this is good for boosting engagement metrics: the number of people reading and interacting with your content.
But it’s not necessarily good for building a brand.
In the news business, if you want to build long-term value, then you need to build a robust brand. Traffic is great, as far as it goes, but it isn’t enough. If you have lots of traffic but little brand value, then you can disappear more or less overnight: look at Upworthy. On the other hand, if you have low ratings but a strong global brand, then you can still be worth a fortune: look at CNN.
And the problem with mobile and social content is that news sources tend to blur into each other: there are so many constraints and optimizations that one outlet’s Instant Articles or AMP pages, or even mobile web pages, look pretty much the same as the last. The result is that the platform becomes the news source, rather than the publisher: “I read it on Facebook” becomes the standard answer to where you saw some news story. And clearly, that’s no way to build a news brand.
This is a big change. Back in the days of the news bundle, when people would watch a whole newscast or subscribe to a physical newspaper, reach and branding were more or less one and the same thing. You would immerse yourself in a news brand for a substantial amount of time, and become familiar with its language, its attitudes, its peculiar syntax. You would become a loyal consumer, and the brand would resonate with you much more than any individual story. Bundles could even be shared: I could lend you my copy of The Economist, for instance, which would bring you up to speed on the value of its bundle very quickly.
In a social world, however, the thing being shared is not the bundle, but the story–and most stories look and feel very similar. What’s more, there’s a problematic disconnect between the stuff we share and the stuff we love. When news organizations optimize their stories for social media, they try and maximize the chances that they will “go viral”: get shared over and over again. The pieces get packaged to appeal to our fast-twitch, System 1 reflexes: those buttons on BuzzFeed, saying WTF or LOL, are immediate little dopamine hits.
What’s more, if the things we share are not the same as the things we like, they’re certainly not the same as the things we remember for years to come. My social network of choice is Twitter, and I retweet stuff every day, but often I have no idea which outlets I’m retweeting, and my followers don’t either. They see headlines and Twitter cards and they might engage in conversation about the story, but the experience, as a whole, is a Twitter experience, rather than one defined by any particular news brand.
The deeper point is that when we’re on a social network, we’re mainly interacting with people–our friends, or maybe celebrities. So when a friend of mine shares a link, I’ll read the story, and I might remember who shared it, but I’m much less likely to remember which outlet I was reading. All social networks are set up this way: the person who shared something with you is more prominent, and more memorable, than the brand which produced the content being shared. Individuals–friends–have replaced news brands as the sources where we get our information.
Which is where messaging comes in, and the idea that messaging is the new social.
Messaging apps have already overtaken social networks in terms of global popularity, and if anything that understates their reach, since the distinctions between the two are constantly blurring. Instagram is a social network which became a messaging app. Facebook is only two different things because it artificially split itself. Messaging is incorporating itself into lots of other areas, too, like video games. And then there’s Snapchat, which started as a messaging app and which has now become the highest-amplitude social network in the world. A couple of datapoints: Firstly, for every 1,000 followers you have on Snapchat, 900 of them will view your story. Secondly, Snapchat delivers the same amount of video as Facebook every day, with only 1/15th of the user base. The success of Snapchat is testament to the power of direct connections, and that means one big thing for any company aspiring to create a news brand: you’ve got to be one of those connections. It’s not enough to be shared: you have to be the sharer.
By mimicking a messaging app, Quartz’s new app forces you to interact with the brand not only as the publisher of the information, but also as the “person” sharing it. Once again the bundle becomes important: you’re not consuming individual stories, you’re taking an active role in a threaded message which includes multiple stories. Both of these things are great ways of building brand value.
Quartz hasn’t completely nailed the format yet, but then again you wouldn’t expect it to: this is version 1.0, after all. Most importantly, it isn’t native. If you want to reach a broad audience, you can’t hope that people will specifically open up your app; you have to reach them where they are, which is inside existing messaging apps like Apple’s iMessage. When Quartz becomes another person I’m regularly getting messages from, alongside my friends and family, that’s when it starts building real value for itself. We’ve already seen a travel agency which lives only on Viber, and a jobs site which lives on WeChat; there’s no conceptual reason why news brands can’t similarly live on messaging platforms. Indeed, What’sApp recently changed its business model to get rid of all subscription fees, and concentrate instead on brand relationships. Clearly the platforms see the future. The question is which publishers are going to nail this first, and which ones are going to end up getting left behind.