Media Entrepreneurs: Antenna’s Porter Bayne on how he’s trying to help publishers build communities and the challenges of working with newsrooms
Porter Bayne is something of a serial entrepreneur. He’s building his third startup called Antenna — a community engagement tool that helps to curb abuse by providing fixed, structured responses. In this profile, he explains how the tool works, his views on entrepreneurship and the challenges of working with newsrooms.
Porter appears here as part of The Splice Newsroom’s profiles of media entrepreneurs reinventing the service of journalism.
What’s the best way to describe Antenna?
Antenna is a free, mobile-first way for web visitors to tell you what content gets their attention, and why. While many sites have turned away from comments, and are souring on Facebook’s dominance over the information ecosystem, Antenna aims to enable nearly abuse-proof feedback from your audience in a way that reinforces your brand and community.
Antenna empowers readers to react to the story as a whole, to specific passages, or even to photos or videos. Publishers can also tailor the tool to allow reactions that match the editorial voice, and the site’s look and feel — for example, this paragraph is interesting or that image looks tasty!. We then offer a content recommendation widget that uses the audience sentiment to suggest content to other readers.
E-commerce sites use Antenna too. Rather than saying a product is “five stars!” — nobody says that in real life! — Antenna lets people say, “Fits great”, or “Really durable”, or whatever short statement about the product describes why they like it.
What’s the problem you’re trying to solve here?
We have two goals that are tightly-aligned.
First, our content engagement piece is helping get on-site audience engagement in a way that’s nearly abuse/spam-proof to boot. All of our media partners see a lift in return visits (10% on average) and page views (8% on average), so that KPI lift suggests we’re helping publishers build their community.
Second, our content recommendation widget is going after clickbait. We think knowing what content actual readers found interesting, rather than what headlines people clicked, is a far better data point to use in suggesting content. Our early tests show that’s true.
What’s the ideal customer of Antenna?
Any media or e-commerce company wanting to build community further on their site, and increase KPIs along the way. There’s not really a content type we haven’t seen work — lifestyle, politics, entertainment, sports.
Next year, as our content recommendation widget becomes available as a network, both publishers and e-commerce sites will be able to syndicate content out on our network. So hopefully we’ll be a great source of audience and revenue at that time as well.
There’s a lot to be said about understanding the diversity of news readers out there, especially with Trump’s election. Do you see Antenna playing a role in this?
We all certainly (and deeply) hope so. If you check out an article with even thousands of reactions, like this one at InsideHook or this one at Digital Trends Spanish, you’ll see that even though there are thousands of responses… you can understand a wide diversity of opinion in seconds in our grid of reactions. The minority voice isn’t lost or shouted-down like it can be in a long comment thread. It’s right there in the grid, easily seen.
Going a step further… as we scale, and since content is so widely syndicated, we’ll love to show how the same content is reacted to very differently in different contexts.
Some newsrooms downright don’t want the input on their content. “My editors are afraid people will not like their content” is a quote we’ve gotten a handful of times.
When you’re out pitching Antenna, what’s the most common feedback you hear from newsrooms?
There is interest in a couple of things — the KPI lift is important. Being safer and far easier to manage than comments is a big benefit. And being mobile first is huge. People can tell you “I disagree” or “That’s Inspiring” in two taps while waiting on their coffee, and that’s meaningful feedback editorially. Some definitely get excited about the bigger vision — understanding how entire communities feel about content, and being able to compare that.
And, we universally hear people lament the current state of content recommendation, so when we discuss our approach to that, there’s hope that we’ll grow enough to be able to offer that as a platform (which, our goal is to do so by mid-2017. Sites can test it with us now, though!)
Where we meet resistance: Some newsrooms downright don’t want the input on their content. “My editors are afraid people will not like their content” is a quote we’ve gotten a handful of times. Some people say Antenna feels too “light” for their content. I disagree with that, since each site sets the tone, and I think seeing, say, 40 people mark a part of an article as “Important” is very meaningful. But we’ve heard it a few times.
And then, publishers are bombarded right now with new tech and revenue challenges, so sometimes interest doesn’t translate into a deployment of Antenna due to competing priorities. In media, lots of people can say “no” to a new user-facing technology like ours. We have to get editorial, tech, community, and publishers all greenlighting us. Fortunately, once they do, Antenna is super easy to install and configure.
I care a lot about making it very simple for busy people to give meaningful feedback, and be heard in doing so.
What do you feel is needed to get more newsrooms on board?
Hopefully, just more exposure! But it will help when our content recommendation widget can deliver new audience and/or revenue to a publisher, in addition to what we excel at now, which is helping them retain their audience.
Having founded companies before, what was the insight and motivation that made you want to build Antenna?
Well, my trajectory came from what could be called “RapGenius for Political Media” — a web annotation/fact-checking platform company I started in 2008 and shut down in 2010, called Ameritocracy. I care a lot about making it very simple for busy people to give meaningful feedback, and be heard in doing so.
Having worked with so many in digital media as a result of this project, and in my time inside NBCU-owned DailyCandy, I really love people in our industry, too, and hope to help media companies stay afloat and continue employing good people.
Antenna is 6 years old. That’s a long time in tech. How has it evolved?
It began ages ago as a Sundays-only side project, and stayed that way for a long (long, long) time. We finally entered a startup accelerator in fall 2014, and even then we weren’t quite full-time on it until summer 2015 after seed funding came together.
Sometimes, with a startup you want to move fast. Sometimes, you need things to incubate or marinate as you test assumptions, so you can’t rush it.
The #1 thing is always figuring out what you can remove, design-wise, feature-wise, messaging-wise, team-wise. For example, our initial prototypes included inline comments, inline search, extra stuff. We’ve pulled back on all of that to focus on the one core thing: feedback on specific content.
Some say the average startup takes 7 years before “any” success is achieved. Everyone should keep that in mind. It’s one thing to build software, and a wholly other thing to persuade lots of very busy people to pay attention to what you’ve built. That takes awhile.
I did just turn 37 yesterday. I feel like I’m maybe… 30? 31? So take that as you will. :)
What have you learned about newsrooms in that process? What’s broken?
We’ve talked to people in media of all sizes, from single-person blogs to conglomerate-owned digital-only or digital/print publications.
In the bigger groups, I frequently hear laments about how trying new things is hard and must run through a centralized, organization-wide CMS. That does have drawbacks, but then again, not each local unit of a large publishing company has the resources to roll out new ad tech while also baking in AMP support, for example.
It’s a real tension that is created in part by fast-evolving technology in our world, and expensive engineering resources to try and keep up. But, as a vendor, it is nice when there’s more local flexibility to try a few things here and there.
My wife just started her first post-training job as a kids’ eye surgeon. If she has a bad day, it’s probably because a child is very ill. If I have a bad day, it’s probably because I couldn’t persuade someone to use my thing right away.
It’s a tough life. How do you keep your motivation up?
Ha, I love this question. Boy, it’s a mix. Some days, you gotta get amped up and work a loooong day. Some days, you gotta cut early and do something else, get refreshed. Some days you have to be passionate and relentless. Some days, you have to be able to step away and look at your own company as an unimpressed outsider might.
Some days you gotta take it seriously, and pretty much everyday, I try to remember I’m not saving lives here and to keep things in perspective. My wife just started her first post-training job as a kids’ eye surgeon. If she has a bad day, it’s probably because a child is very ill. If I have a bad day, it’s probably because I couldn’t persuade someone to use my thing right away.
I definitely have to pause and remember that no one thing really will make or break us. A favorite sports quote is, “to be great, you need to be good for a long time”. I keep that in mind, and try to stay even keeled (and, make sure the lights stay on), and keep trying to make sure what we’re doing is useful.
What do success and failure look like to you as an entrepreneur?
I very much want to return cash to my investors, by way of generating a lot of revenue for publishers, by way of learning real insights about what people think about the world around them.
Failing will be not doing that.
As a designer by training, how has your design philosophy evolved over the past few years?
I call myself a “designer” — in air quotes — rather than a designer, but I try to adhere to this: “A designer knows [they have] achieved perfection not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.” Credited to Antoine de Saint-Exupery.
Did design school help you figure out how to start and run a business?
Not in my case, no.
How have you filled those gaps in knowledge?
Failing! Tech failures, user complaints about a product, investor rejections, all of that carries useful feedback.
And also, not-failing! Supportive mentors, partners, advisers, investors have filled in so many gaps and broadened our network in countless ways.
What lessons do you wish you learned earlier in the process of being an entrepreneur?
Here’s a big one: I’ve pitched easily 150 investors over the years. It used to be that every call was an existential crisis! Now, I feel like I’m evaluating the investor nearly as much as they’re evaluating me, and as importantly, I better understand their perspective and their business models. Being an entrepreneur is emotional, but less so than it used to be.
This interview is part of a series of stories around the journey of entrepreneurial journalism and the different ideas that could help build sustainable models.
We want to showcase both the ideas and the courage that goes behind breaking new ground on the business of media. If you know of someone who should be interviewed here (or yourself), please drop me an email — firstname.lastname@example.org