ONA recap mobile Facebook social publishing

Five things we learned about the future of mobile engagement from ONA

By   |   September 19th, 2018   |   Reading time: 6 minutes Digital Journalism

Mobile strategy, Facebook

Journalism on mobile is constantly in the process of evolving. We rounded up the biggest changes coming in social publishing for mobile audiences, according to the experts at ONA.

We recently made the trip down to ONA 18 in Austin, Texas, to learn a bit about what people in the industry and those adjacent to it are thinking about the future of journalism.

One of the first panels we sat in on was entitled “Alerts, Apps, and Algorithms: Loyalty in a Mobile-First World”, and focused on how to build reader loyalty in a time where traffic sources are in flux and unpredictable.

The panel was moderated by Emily Bell – Director, Tow Center For Digital Journalism, Columbia Journalism School, and the panelists were:

  • Emily Ingram (Director of Product Management, Chartbeat)
  • Coleen O’Lear (Editorial Director for Emerging News Products, The Washington Post)
  • Nathalie Malinarich (Editor, Mobile, and New Formats, BBC News)
  • Mark Alford (Head of Digital, Sky News)

Emily Bell opened the panel by exploring how the world has changed, especially on mobile, in the last 18 months.

Where social referrals once were, if not the sole source of traffic, then at least the principal one, there are now a number of other ways for publishers to reach people, from search engines, to push notifications, to direct access. 

Here are five things we learned from the ensuing discussion.


1. Facebook is still essential for new reader acquisition


This is the big one. For all the talk of declining Facebook traffic and how publishers need to find new sources as a back-up, Facebook is still the hot source for acquiring new readers.

Emily Bell asked the panel if there was too much work required on the publisher side, in exchange for limited return from the platforms, but there was a fairly strong reaction from the panel on this.

Mark Alford argued that it’s almost impossible to quantify exactly what the social networks provide, because “we can’t put a value on getting new people to see stuff”.

Nathalie Malinarich pointed out that there’s no real way to track where regular, returning readers originate from, and as long as that’s the case social will always be a huge part of any mobile strategy.

Emily Ingram pointed out the continued utility of dark social, that is private social and message app sharing, because it is extremely difficult to track.

So it’s clear that Facebook is far from irrelevant yet, especially with personal sharing on Facebook making up a big slice of referrals.

But there are a number of changes publishers are preparing for and with which they are experimenting.


2. People are using Apple News 


People are genuinely excited about Apple News. Indeed, this was a big theme across the ONA conference.

Apple News is ubiquitous for anyone that has an Apple device, and the fact that there is some editorial input beyond algorithms is something that’s particularly appealing to journalists, according to the panel.

There is some experimentation with the platform among the group, as it is still a fairly new phenomenon.

For example, Sky News uses Apple News, but only for certain stories and testing for a specific demographic, which skews younger, American, and female.


3. Keeping mobile users in-app is a key next step


With the uncertainty around traffic sources, there is a big focus on keeping users in-app.

For The Washington Post, Coleen O’Lear said that they have a lot of different strategies for how to create different alert strategies to engage audiences and create daily habits. They do this with a team of designers and editors, with around half of their fledgling experimental newsroom actually being designers.

Different challenges abound for the BBC, who have both a national and international audience, and have to adapt accordingly.

For Mark Alford, keeping people in-app was an obvious goal:

“It’s less about Facebook, it’s less about referrals, it’s to develop our brand and journalism and get people to habitually use the product. It’s difficult to get the audience to where we want them to go, which is the app. We currently have seven times more people on the website, but our app audience is seven times more engaged. Push notifications are an engagement tool, not a recruitment tool. In an ideal world, I’d like people to be in the app.”


4. iOS 12 is going to shake things up


iOS 12 was released shortly after this panel, and the panelists were already looking ahead to the effect it might have on mobile engagement.

One of the aims is seemingly to make it easier for the user to manage phone usage, so there will be a screen-time measurement tool, as well as grouped alerts for users.

Android has also recently introduced controls to limit the number of push notifications people will get, and these updates are going to radically change the way publishers approach push notifications.


5. Coming soon: following journalists


One thing that was predicted that is not quite here yet is the ability to follow individual journalists in terms of the push notifications that we get.

It was pointed out by Emily Ingram that sports apps are actually leading the charge in terms of audience segmentation simply due to the obvious, easy way the audience can be divided up by sports and teams, and the reporters who work on those sports and teams.

The general news industry is a little behind in this regard, but Mark Alford thinks that’s what’s on the horizon.

“I think it’s coming. I can follow favorite sportspeople, I think soon you’ll be able to follow journalists, topics, exclude bits you don’t like. There’s a certain tiredness with Trump and Brexit, for example”

Nathalie Malinarich pointed out the obvious difficulties with this strategy, noting that the actual writing of the push notifications is a crucial part of getting people to engage with them, and that if audiences get too segmented then you’re going to need a lot of writers to cope with that, something which the panel agreed was a clear challenge in the strategy.

One proposed solution came from the Washington Post’s Coleen O’Lear, who noted that they’ve been experimenting with AI, especially around their sports verticals, where it’s much easier to auto-generate a report.

Even with this, there are still a significant amount of editorial calls required by her and her team though for most of their content, and their strategy changes on an individual alert level, but also on a story level.

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