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Key takeaways from the Google News Initiative Summit

From supporting increasingly advanced subscriber funnels to additional tools for WordPress through Newspack, Kevin Anderson draws out the initiatives from the GNI summit that publishers should be paying attention to.

Riffing on the poolside conversation in the movie classic The Graduate, I have one word for you, just one word: Funnel.

I say this because funnels, more precisely conversion funnels, were the major theme at the recent Google News Initiative Summit at the search giant’s HQ in California. The event brought hundreds of journalism leaders, media entrepreneurs and researchers together to launch the next phase of Google’s News Initiative, a project to develop tools for publishers and journalists, plus an investment fund to support innovation in journalism.

While the focus on conversion funnels is hardly breaking news for any savvy media operator in 2019, it was striking how much of the conversation at the conference was based on strategies for converting digital users from casual, drive-by visitors to paying customers.

Before I dive too much deeper into the two day conference, I need to quickly add that the conference was conducted under Chatham House Rules, which means I can report on what was said but not who said it. And I might obscure some of the details of the publications because it would be clear who I was talking about, which would break the spirit of the rules.

It is easy to sum up Google’s motivation for the Google News Initiative (GNI), for which they have already committed $120m out of $300m, funding 87 projects in 23 countries. Googler after Googler explained that, as a search company with the mission of organising the world’s information, the company believes that it does well when content creators are doing well. Or as one Google executive said, “We have always believed that the future of Google and the future of our journalism partners are intimately linked.”

Conversion funnels were part of the evolving business models pillar of the GNI, the other two pillars being elevating quality journalism and empowering journalism through technology.  

Of course, the elephant in the room was in part Google itself, as one half of The Duopoly – the other half being Facebook. These two companies have won the majority of digital advertising revenue across much of the world and are winning the majority of growth in digital ad revenue. Many legacy print companies have seen their core print advertising revenues decline, in some cases precipitously. As they have tried to pivot to digital, media companies have found their options limited by the dominance of the Duopoly in digital advertising. It has limited their ability to replace the revenue that is gone from their print advertising with new digital ad revenue.

Fine-tuning the Funnel

The conference started with examples from companies from Brazil to Australia and the US that are working to develop the business model of journalism. All three publications were focused on reader revenue, and they all had sophisticated conversion funnels.

The Brazilian funnel broke non-subscribers and subscribers into three separate groups for each, and the media group had mapped different ways to engage, retain and re-engage the range of users with newsletters, email marketing, house ads, paid media as well as web and app push notifications. And subscriber special events and a benefits club deliver that sense of exclusivity to retain their brand lovers.

Subscribe with Google is a subscription payment processing service, based on a revenue sharing model in which publishers get to retain 95 percent of the revenue earned on their websites and 85 percent on Android. A Google executive garnered enthusiastic applause when he said: “You own the customer relationship. You get an email address, not an anonymous customer ID.” It was in stark contrast to the financial terms of the Apple News subscription service which had just launched ahead of the GNI Summit.

The Brazilian media company said that they found three times the clickthrough rate with Subscribe with Google, in comparison to the button they had been using.

At the moment, Subscribe with Google is focused solely on subscription models, but they will soon support donations and memberships. A Google manager told me that the speed bump to rolling out that addition to the service isn’t technical but rather to do with tax.

As conversion funnels have become more sophisticated, the user research supporting them has also had to become more sophisticated, and we saw examples from both Australian and US publications.

I loved the US example, which highlighted the importance of qualitative as well as quantitative data. Researchers asked users to describe what kind of person the subscription process reminded them of, and they said an accountant in a suit, an insurance salesman or a straightforward waitress telling you the specials of the day. That helped them retool not only the technology but also the calls to action and design.

The Australian publication identified key challenges in the conversation process that they needed to overcome. For casual users, they, of course, needed to build awareness, not only of the brand but also of the authority and values of the publication. The next step was to increase frequency of readers coming to the site, a key indicator of whether a publisher can convert a casual reader to a paying subscriber.

Their research also found that users had some issues with the subscription signup process, so worked to make it easier. Finally, they found that some subscribers would actually pay more so are creating a premium subscription tier.

Where Google is Helping and Where It Isn’t

Google announced a number of services and projects at the summit. To support the conversion funnel activities, Google announced new Google Data Studio dashboards including a real-time dashboard as well as a data tool they called News Consumer Insights.

News Consumer Insights maps Google Analytics data to user segments: casual users, loyal readers, brand lovers and subscribers. It also maps the number of users on your site against a value score that Google assigns based on data that it has collected from a thousand sites. The score relates to how likely those users might become paying subscribers.

One thing that stood out was a Google manager who said that their data showed newsletter subscribers as having much greater value in terms of conversion than users coming from social media. “If you have three social media editors and one newsletter editor, you might want to rethink that,” she said.  

Google also announced a ”propensity to subscribe” tool that they are developing. Their data suggests that readers in the top 20 percent of their model are 50 times more likely to subscribe. This tool would give a wider range of publishers the kind of data modelling tools that currently only the largest and best funded national and international groups can afford.

The Google News Initiative, along with the Lenfest Institute, ConsenSys and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, are supporting Newspack, a publishing and business platform for small and medium publishers, which is being built byAutomattic, the company behind WordPress.com.

Newspack has just announced the first dozen small publishers that they will work with, who will get special access to additional tools for WordPress, along with business and support services specifically for small and medium journalism organisations. In a recent blog post announcing the launch partners, Steve Beatty said, “The selected features and continued support of the Newspack team will ease the technology burden for newsroom leaders so they can put their resources toward doing what they do best — serving their communities with high-quality, dependable journalism.”

But while Google is happy to support Newspack, they told attendees at the conference that they wouldn’t be building a CMS, despite interest from attendees in the company building one.

A technical executive said that Google was very careful about what markets it entered because of the potentially disruptive impact that company could have.

Turning the Tide for the Decline of Local News?

While cynics might say that Google is launching GNI merely to generate goodwill from the publishers and broadcasters to avoid regulation, I think that is only one of Google’s goal. Many of Google’s news executives, managers and product managers came from journalism or media, and they want to see journalism thrive.

I do think that Google has learned lessons from its Europe-focused Digital News Initiative in that those who participate must share their experience with others so that successful models can be spread and hopefully scaled. The bigger question is whether these lessons and efforts, by Google, foundations in the US and others, to find new models to support journalism will be able to gain momentum and have a positive impact on the secular decline in journalism, especially in local news and information. On that, I think we’re still in the middle of the disruption brought on by digital, mobile media and advertising.

The bright spot is that we have models that do work for news and information, and we have a renewed sense of experimentation and support for those experiments. I think corporate and foundation philanthropy have recognised the dire state of local news and information, especially in English-speaking markets. Hopefully the GNI and other projects will begin to support renewal in local news. Local communities want it and our democracies desperately need it.

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