Five things we learned at Zeitung Digital 2018

So we’ve rounded out the second day here at the Zeitung Digital conference here in Berlin. As always there’s been a lot of inspiring talks, great case studies and surprising stories. Here are a few things we’ve learned along the way:

Articles about house sales convert readers at Mittmedia

There was an audible intake of breath when the mostly German audience heard Robin Govick say that articles about homes were the ones frequently topping the engagement charts and conversion rates at Mittmedia. The reaction stemmed not so much from the subject matter as it did from the fact that these articles featured detailed information about the transaction itself – about the vendors, buyers and pricing. Oh, and they’re written by bots too.

While the idea of sharing this amount of personal information was incongruous to the audience here in Berlin, it wasn’t a problem for the Swedish audience, who are familiar with a high level of transparency in public life.

Whatever your feeling about the content itself, there’s no denying that paying attention to customer reading habits and behaviours can yield significant results. Mittmedia report that it’s those housing articles which both drive subscription growth and engagement on the site. And, as to the question of whether readers are ok with articles being robot written, a recent study at the publisher revealed 68% weren’t even aware that they were AI-authored.

There’s worry about the implications of GDPR

The audience may have expressed their incredulity about how those housing stories were able to be published post-GDPR, but there’s a broader concern about the implication of tightening data regulations.

‘Are we entering the digital stone age with the current hysteria about data?’ asked Kevin Beatty, CEO of DMG Media in the UK. After the Cambridge Analytica scandal, Facebook reportedly took only 8 weeks to bounce back from the fallout, while the GDPR is – as Jan Oetjen pithily put it – ‘making America great again’.

In Germany 48% of users aren’t happy giving data to US companies or platforms, but there is an undeniable correlation between ease of use and increased probability of conversions. Oetjen’s NetID have produced a third way: a non-proprietary universal login which hopes to serve the GDPR region.

Ad revenue is in decline, but collaboration is mutually beneficial

Subscriptions neither suit every publication, nor do they typically make up the entirety of the revenue stream. Advertising may be out of vogue, but for them to be an attractive proposition for both publisher and advertiser, collaboration is essential. At the Mail Group, Kevin Beatty says ‘hoping that the market will just correct isn’t enough. The world has changed’. Brand safety is of paramount concern and where the industry is reporting success in this area, it’s where creative solutions have been applied to long-standing norms.

Content matters

Sure, this isn’t exactly new learning, but it’s good to see this recognised. Whether it’s identifying the most in-demand subjects, ensuring that people see themselves and their communities represented or getting creative with form, content remains integral to success.

Munich’s Kontextlab have completely rethought the way content is presented, by developing a mapping system, which encourages readers to explore subjects and connections as their curiosity takes them in a navigable web. Two minutes before they had taken to the stage founder Julia Koeberlein had found out that one of their clients had won an award for content produced using this system. The approach has clear applications in complex subject areas like Brexit, the rise of populism or the changing state of European identity, but the fact it has been successfully applied to organisations such as the German Farmers’ Association and the UN, where it was utilised as a resource for training nurses, says a lot about its appeal as a way

Over at Mittmedia use of bots has enabled stories otherwise unable to be covered to get the column inches they deserve. A female sixteen-year old soccer player had scored three goals in a single match and shared the resultant article enthusiastically in her community, and beyond.

Be data-informed, not data-driven

A data informed newsroom is a smart newsroom and an efficient newsroom. The places that are doing well now are successful because they’ve been open to those data insights, happy to experiment and – sometimes – willing to fail (as long as you ‘Fail Forward’ as was the memorable title of Freya Oehle’s honest account of life in a startup).

We spoke on stage with Sueddeutsche Zeitung’s Analyst & Audience Development Editor, Christopher Pramstaller about how they’re using data to optimize their workflows and reinforce editorial gut instinct. ‘Editors fundamentally want to be read and have a strongly honed sense of what works. If the data you’re using is wrong more than 20% of the time, the trust in that tech is going to diminish. The key is to ensure you’ve got the right way to measure your content’.

Bild, the poster child for success are the first to admit their first paywall attempt was a failure. They’re also open about the fact that this failure was in large part because the motivation for creating it wasn’t quite right: it was conceived as a way to protect print revenue. By shifting focus to ask: what content converts? What content makes them stay?, Tobias Henning and his team were able to create a strategy which has propelled the company forward.

Nils von der Kall’s comment was perhaps one of the most useful self-check devices in the conference: Why are we assuming readers want to pay? Quite. Assumption is a dangerous condition. Readers will pay if the content is worth paying for. Let’s just not take the eye off the ball.

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