Experimenting With Media Formats At TNC

I’ve now been in and around the publishing business for about seven years throughout this time, I’ve never been a fan of that one metric most publishers seem to obsess over — traffic. It’s understandable why any publisher would obsesses about their traffic; its probably even more understandable in this part of the world where advertisers literarily only want to talk to you as a publisher if your average monthly users/sessions are in several hundreds of thousands. If you’re a publisher in Nigeria reading this, how many times have you reached out to a potential advertiser and they hit you with this line .. “what is your Alexa ranking?

Yes I know the pain. Even when some traditional agencies finally started investing in digital and they started asking publishers for Google Analytics reports, I still found it surprising that most of them focused on users, sessions — they are all about impressions and honestly don’t care how a platform is getting its traffic, where the traffic is coming from and more importantly, what the visitors are doing on the site.

I’ve always been more intrigued by quality or substance if you will. I find metrics like average session duration and pages per session, which are more indicative of the engagement level on a platform more interesting. Why? Well, as a marketer, if you’re looking for conversions, that is where to look. This might explain why I’ve always been somewhat obsessed with media formats and how they impact engagement.

Video, audio and text are broad examples of media formats. Nowadays, you can break down these formats even further into “sub-formats” like explainer videos, interviews, summary videos, listicles, short stories, articles etc. I’m sure you’ve heard of the term ‘listicles’ — the media format popularized by sites like Buzzfeed. Listicles together with short form summary videos are probably two of the most common media formats that have recently emerged and don’t seem to be going away anytime soon. I love how the author in the quote below described listicles:

It’s so easy you wonder why everyone doesn’t do it until you realize that now it’s all they do: Come up with an idea (“Top 10 Worst [X]”) on the L train ride to the office that morning, [and] slap together 10 (or 25, or 100) cultural artifacts ripe for the kind of snarky working over that won’t actually tax you at all as a writer/thinker. — Blender Jerks Off Another ‘Worst’ List”: The Idolator

And if you’re wondering how or why we got here, Marc O’Connell said it best:

“The rise of the listicle obviously connects with the Internet’s much-discussed effect on our ability (or desire) to sit still and concentrate on one thing for longer than ninety seconds. — Marc O’Connell, “10 Paragraphs About Lists You Need in Your Life Right Now.” The New Yorker, August 29, 2013

Just as technology and the Internet have brought about change/innovation in many aspects of our lives, it is only natural that it also affects how we consume media right? But in developing markets like Africa where we’re still only just discovering the Internet and writing our own history of how we use this amazing technology, I’ve always wondered if we could do to media formats what we did to mobile phones by creating mPesa. Can we possibly find room for innovation (unique to Africa) in this seemingly ‘forgotten’ space? (listicles first emerged as far back as 2006)

It is important to innovate but it is equally important to take your users into consideration during this process. Videos are great and publishers the world over are still falling over themselves to join the bandwagon but why would anyone want to invest in video if your readers aren’t watching — not because they don’t want to, but because they can’t afford to — data is not cheap. Listicles can be fun but again, if it doesn’t interest your readers, should you really bother with them? In both instances, creating short form <1min, light weight videos might solve the problem and for the listicles, making them more localized and relatable like the guys at OMG and Zikoko do so well could also help. These are quick fixes but are they sustainable?

I first experimented with media formats in a series (Third Mainland) I wrote for TNC back in 2012. Basically, I wanted to fuse music with storytelling (sort of like a written musical) to see if it would catch on. The response was ok — not great. Some people got it and several others were completely lost. I didn’t stop there, I pushed my team to develop different ways of presenting content to our readers. In 2013, we developed another series titled, The Buffet. With this series, we used our skills of storytelling to create a compelling story but we added the engagement element when we gave the power of choosing how the story ends to the reader. This was well received and till this day, it’s still one of TNC’s most read series.

Last year, the two crazy guys who host TNC’s weekly news round up column came up to me and informed me of an idea they had about skinning their column to look more like a chat taking place in a messaging app like Whatsapp or Facebook Messenger. They had always had the chat format but they typed out their names to signify who was talking at that point — more like a script. Now, they wanted to create actual avatars for each of them and have their words represented in speech bubbles. I was sold instantly. We implemented the update a week later and the reaction from our readers was unbelievable — they loved it. Not only did it improve their reading experience, it was fresh and unique to TNC.

We recently brought in an editor at TNC and one of the first conversations I had with him was about media formats and how he felt we could make little changes here and there to better improve the reading experience. We released version 7.1 of the TNC site a few weeks ago and with that came unique curating tools. Last week, the team put out a curated list titled Stories With Music. Just as the name implies, it features short stories which have light weight thematic background music playing while you read. Some of the stories had been published before but the feedback from the comments proved that adding music really improved the experience. When you think about it, it makes a lot of sense; this is Africa where we love telling stories. By adding music, just like you have with score in movies, you add more emotions to the story — it literally brings it to life and therefore improves the overall experience.

These are just a few examples of how the TNC team has consistently tried to innovate with media formats. I’m beyond excited about these experiments and I certainly believe it’s the right way to go to improve engagement in digital communities.

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