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March 27, 2017, 11:47 a.m.
Aggregation & Discovery

Australia’s public broadcaster is using Apple News push alerts to reach new, younger audiences

“It’s gone from being an interesting platform that we’re dipping our toes into to a huge audience.”

Apple News sometimes gets forgotten about amid the discussion of Facebook and Twitter, but the platform is growing as a way for publishers to reach new audiences. With last year’s launch of iOS 10, Apple started letting publishers send users push notifications through the app, which comes preinstalled on all iOS devices. Apple also changed the on-boarding process, highlighting specific publications and encouraging users to enable alerts.

For the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, the country’s public broadcaster, that’s added up to more than 1.1 million subscribers who’ve enabled push alerts since September. (Australia is home to roughly 23 million people, so that’s a noteworthy share in a short time.)

ABC’s audience on Apple News is younger and more female than its readers on other digital platforms, and 75 percent of the people it reaches there are new to the brand, deputy editor (mobile) Lincoln Archer told me recently. In order to connect with these new readers, the broadcaster is experimenting with the type of stories it sends as alerts to Apple News, as well as with the tone and timing of the notifications.

The surge in subscribers has made Apple News more of a priority, Archer said. “This is the reality of off-platform. You can be going along at a decent pace, and they can make a change and suddenly your entire work day has changed, which is exciting but also a little bit sobering.”

What follows is a condensed and lightly edited transcript of our conversation.

Joseph Lichterman: Since you’re attracting such a different audience on Apple News, how have you changed your content mix? Are the alerts you send from Apple News different from the alerts you send on your native app?

Lincoln Archer: This is all of six months old, so our very best strategy is our very most recent strategy. But the way we’re starting to think about it is that when there is a straight-up hard breaking news story, we have [our native app] for that. But when there’s a bit more of an interesting take or something more visual, that might be something for Apple News.

There’s this new audience who have recognized our brand even if they’re not using it regularly, so they’ve opted in to test us out — a try-before-you-buy kind of thing. So we’re looking for ways to highlight the content they probably don’t associate with the ABC.

We’re a public broadcaster. We have a legacy of a certain type of coverage, but we’re trying to show them that we’re actually much broader than they might have thought; we’re much more fun than they might have thought; and, hopefully, we’ve got something that speaks to their interest at the time of day that they’re going to be interested in consuming news.

Lichterman: What are some of those different types of stories? What might be some of the feature-y or more analytic stories that you push to Apple News?

Archer: All of our platforms got a breaking news alert for the end of the Oscars, but only Apple News got an alert for the highlights of the red carpet.

All of our platforms got an alert for our election analysts calling Trump’s win. On Apple News, we got a much higher tap-through for the alert that collated all of the things he said he’d do if he won. There, I think it was the analysis, and if you hadn’t followed anything to do with the U.S. election, it had all gotten real suddenly and you had to know this thing now.

That’s the other thing. It’s an aggregator app. We weren’t the only people appearing on your lock screen telling you that Trump won; every news app on the face of the planet did that. It’s about trying to add some value beyond the obvious headline.

There was a change in the law for medicinal cannabis here. That didn’t go to our news app, which skews older and more traditional, but that’s very much something that we sent to Apple News. The phrasing for Apple News was not just “politicians somewhere make a change to law,” it was, “No, you’re not going to be able to get marijuana for a headache. Here’s what today’s news on medicinal cannabis means for you.” That’s trying an interesting way to hook you and make you more inclined to tap through, but we’re also underlining that it’s today’s news, not just plucking a feature out of thin air and throwing it at you.

Lichterman: When you compare open rates between Apple News and your own app, how do they compare?

Archer: Double [on Apple News]. With the caveat that it’s not the same system measuring both — our app’s open rates come from our internal data science people and views in iCloud News Publisher come from Apple — we get an average of a 3 or 4 percent open rate on an Apple News alert and 1.5 percent for a similar alert in our own app. We hear that 1.5 percent is sort of the average domestically. Of course, you can be satisfied with an alert without necessarily opening, but straight-up comparison, these Apple News alerts are more popular.

Lichterman: So it seems as if that conversational tone works.

Archer: We have a bunch of rules that we try to adhere to. But equally, the best one recently was for a photographer here who has been quite controversial for working with underage models, and one of the models spoke to one of our current affairs programs. Now, that is an exclusive, which obviously we want to highlight because we want to differentiate ourselves from the other providers on Apple News. It’s also going to be a visual story. There’s going to be a lot of pull quotes, and it’s going to look good on the Apple News format.

Because it wasn’t “oh my God, breaking news,” we had a few minutes to sit back and workshop how we were going to phrase the alert. We went through probably six or seven iterations, which seems luxurious compared to what we normally have to rush out the door. And that one had a 4 percent open rate, which is the best in the past few weeks. It’s the best since the phone call between Trump and our prime minister, which made some news, I believe, all around the world. When we have the time to really craft what we want to do, there is that return there.

There are internal limitations on what we can send. For instance, our live blogs turn up as not-supported external links in Apple News. It’s not a very good experience if we send you something to follow live and then you can’t, or you have to make that extra tap to go into a browser. So we tend toward saying that our app is where we do that live, fast-paced, we-have-two-lines-and-this-is-all-we-know-more-to-come kind of news. Whereas that “OK, let’s take a breath and this is what you need to know about that amazing thing that just happened” tends to go to Apple News.

For what it’s worth, we also have a [Facebook] Messenger alert service going to a far smaller base, but that’s getting like 80 percent tap-through so there’s sort of a different behavior there as well. For the purposes of Apple News, we’re trying to get a handle on the kind of thing that fits into the time of day that you’re looking and fits into the type of news that we think this new audience is looking for.

Lichterman: Is there a time of day when you’re most focused on sending alerts, or does it vary based on the news?

Archer: As the audience has grown, it’s gone from being an interesting platform that we’re dipping our toes into to “wow, this is a huge audience.” We have to think about how we’re going to service these people. Some of our competitors do a morning lead story and an evening lead story pretty much every day. We haven’t done that yet because we don’t want it to feel like, oh, here’s today’s lead. You can come to the website for that. There are other ways of getting that. If we’re going to reach out to you, we want to do it when it’s worth it, so we haven’t locked into a specific time of day when we must send something.

But we also try to think: Okay, you’ve probably got a few minutes up your sleeves in the afternoon commute or after dinner, maybe, so we have a look around about what’s our best, most thought-provoking, most visually interesting story to send at this point.

Probably our best example is one I didn’t send, ironically. There was a feature that we did about female runners feeling harassed as soon as sunset hits. You can go running in daytime and you’re just a runner, but if you go running at dusk or early evening, you’re a target. We weren’t really at that point where we nailed down exactly the tone. I had a few goes at how I wanted to send that and didn’t feel like it was there and didn’t pull the trigger. I regret it. It would’ve been a perfect example: We would’ve sent it as the sun set, we would’ve sent it to the people we thought this was about. This is part of the example I have in my mind of what we should be doing. We now just need to identify those moments and the best content to fit those moments.

There was another one on freedivers saying how tranquil their sport is. So we were selling it as: “Planning a relaxing weekend? You’ve got nothing on the most tranquil sport in the world.” It’s helping us identify the sort of content we’re looking to push, but we’re not locking ourself into “we must send by this time, no matter what we have.” Particularly when we’ve grown this fast, a lot of this audience is still in that corridor of uncertainty, of “are they going to spam me? Can I trust these guys not to constantly tap me on the shoulder or buzz my pocket?” We’re still wanting to reassure those people that they can trust us.

Lichterman: I imagine that influences how many alerts you send per day, if you don’t want to overwhelm people.

Archer: We’ve been doing alerts in our app since 2014, and at launch we had a very strict policy about frequency. That held up until the Paris attacks, when we sent six in one day, and then we had a look at the numbers and it was record traffic and the unsubscribes were outweighed two times over by the subscribes.

Since then, we’ve felt that if it’s good enough, it doesn’t matter if you’ve also just sent one about something else. But obviously, it’s a factor. We are mindful, and it influences our workflow of saying: All right, I’m going to have a look now for what might be Apple-worthy. I really need to know what’s in the pipeline from all the various desks because if I go with Option A and it turns out there was Option B up our sleeves 20 minutes later, but I didn’t know about it, then we get into trouble. That’s influencing the way we work and the way we communicate with other teams.

Lichterman: Does ABC’s role as a public broadcaster influence your thinking around the alerts? You mentioned changing perceptions, but you also don’t have to worry about a subscriber base or a paywall or anything like that.

Archer: It does. The competitors all have advertising in their articles and they also promote their own services within their articles. We do that as well, but it’s not a driving factor. Our goal is to provide a good service to this new audience, and then if they turn into habitual users, great. But we’re not trying to trick you into doing that.

In Apple News, we try to focus on more positive news. We’re not just sending a daily death toll. But equally, we are a serious news organization, that doesn’t mean we’re going to send lollipops and rainbows every morning. We need to be taken seriously. You need to know that when the big, bad news does come, you can trust our reporting on it. On a daily basis, that feeds into how far we’re willing to take playing around with a playful tone. There are a few times when we’ve pushed the envelope, basically to see what will happen and what response we’ll get, and there are other times when we’ve taken ourselves back from the brink and decided to play it a bit straighter. That can come at the expense of learning something from a content experiment, but it will also hopefully keep us on the right side of the line, even if we are veering toward the same type of tone that we send to our app. We figure that’s the price we pay for being associated with a trusted news brand.

Photo of ABC studios in Brisbane by John used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     March 27, 2017, 11:47 a.m.
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