John Battelle and the content wars: what editorial can learn from marketing


BattellepicI’ve been blogging recently about the ‘age of context’ around the ‘internet of things’ in which sensors are turning everything to data. Given that my first interest in writing this blog is to examine the ways in which digital technology is disrupting print media business models, it’s fair to ask why I’m going on about all this data, schmata.

Of course, data journalists are proliferating across newsrooms, but the line between that trend and how newspapers fit into the ‘age of context’ is less clear. Analysing large data sets for news angles is one thing, but how much are newspapers grappling with the data they get through their readers, not to mention advertisers? And a big one: whither ‘native advertising’ or ‘branded content’ – again, proliferating across news publications?

These questions all seem to lead to the word ‘content’, in all of its slippery definitions.

Ask a journalist what content is, and they will tell you it’s editorial – news or features content untainted by obligation to commerce. The difference between church and state: the stuff next to the ads. As Lord Northcliff said: “News is what somebody somewhere wants to suppress; all the rest is advertising.”

Ask John Battelle, the former Wired man and now head of Federated Media Publishing, and he’ll tell you that “advertising is content – and it should be good content that you wish to consume”.

So which is it? Does editorial content have anything in common with Battelle’s advertising content? Or should they be kept apart at all times, as the USP of news media?

In an interview with Loic le Meur at the LeWeb conference in London last week, above, Battelle explained how data is allowing content to be delivered “at the right time in the right place in the right context – in real time”. This is where the trends of programmatic ad technology and native advertising/branded content are coming together, he says, with “extraordinary” power.

Battelle is unencumbered by romantic notions of editorial content. He thinks like a marketer – the ultimate “content marketer” in the latest buzzword. A large part of his business is helping to give companies a “human voice” in the new digital and data-enabled “conversation” with their customers.

“You’ve got to learn how to have the conversation with your customers at scale, leveraging digital, if you’re going to survive as a brand.

“The era of slamming your message to people because they’re a captive audience is certainly over. Corporations have to figure out how to be what they are. Corporations are people, so they have to figure out how to have a voice like human beings.”

Newspapers see an opportunity here to relieve corporations of their fat marketing budgets by providing a platform for that “conversation” – as long as it’s clearly sign-posted and doesn’t infect their “pure” editorial content.

But I would argue that newspapers should also be thinking more like Battelle’s corporations and considering their own “voice”. Having that conversation with their readers could yield invaluable data about how to pitch their content more effectively. After all, aren’t newspapers brands too?

There are also lessons in the algorithms that underlie programmatic ad tech. 

A company called Visual Revenue claims to be able to use data to tell editors the best time to distribute content, and help them predict how well that content will perform in terms of traffic and engagement. No small claim – it’s claiming to effectively do the job of an editor.

In an interview earlier this year on the site AdExchanger, Dennis Mortensen,  the chief executive and founder of Visual Revenue, was carefuly to emphasise they’re not trying to put editors out of a job:

“Any editor, whether at Forbes or at People Magazine or the Independent or The Telegraph, needs some sort decision support when it comes to what stories they should carry, and where to place it. For the most part, the traditional method of editing still depends on good editorial judgment, gut-feeling and what they believe is important. We’re not here to overtake that process. We’re here to participate in it. Think of us as the editor’s best friend. We’re powering the data-driven newsroom.”

Mortensen claims the magic sauce in this is something called “Holistic Yield Management” – algorithmic software that can tell an editor how much he or she stands to gain or lose – in terms of pageviews and pounds sterling – from shifting pieces of content to different places on the homepage or otherwise.

“What we try to come up with is a set of insights, which we have distilled for them, based on their objective. We can say, “Take that story which you wrote about Spain and their banking crisis, exactly 17 minutes ago and put that into folder picture one. If you are willing to do so, you stand to make an additional $172 dollars on top of what you’re already making.” 

Mortensen suggests editors will not be confused or threatened by such actionable recommendations, and says it is up to his company to acquire a deep understanding of the publisher’s audience and their taste, and an understanding of the layout of their website, from homepage and section pages. That’s where “holistic yield management” kicks in.

“No piece of content can really be valued the same. For example, a national entertainment gallery doesn’t yield the same value for the publisher as a local real estate story. That’s obvious to an editor and a publisher. But when it comes to how do they take advantage of it from a readership and an advertising standpoint, outside help from a company like ours can make a difference.”

So programmatic news story placement … not a million miles from Battelle’s glorious union of branded content and programmatic ad tech. 

Online, things don’t just sit next to each other any more. Maybe it’s time for a proper conversation between church and state.

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