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Aug. 28, 2019, 9:30 a.m.
Aggregation & Discovery

“We realized Spotify for news was exactly the wrong thing to do.” Here’s what Kinzen is doing instead

“We can give more power to the user to tell the publisher what they really want.”

When Mark Little and Áine Kerr first began thinking about developing a news product, they started going where many people had gone before: A news app, one that would connect content from multiple publishers with readers.

But then — unlike most news app developers before them — they had a realization. After two years of testing, “we suddenly realized Spotify for news was exactly the wrong thing to do,” said Little, who was a foreign correspondent and anchor for Irish public broadcaster RTÉ for more than 20 years before founding social news agency Storyful in 2010 (News Corp bought it in 2013). “News publishers should not be giving away their content to third-party platforms, or relying on social platforms. They should develop these personalized and curated experiences themselves.” Little and Kerr (who had been managing editor at Storyful and headed Facebook journalism partnerships before cofounding Kinzen with Little), decided to switch their focus to helping publishers provide personalized news experiences on their own platforms, their own newsletters and websites, powered by Kinzen’s underlying technology. (Previous iterations of the company were called Neva Labs, but that name is being phased out in favor of Kinzen.) The hope is that the personalization will help those publisher clients convert readers to subscribers — and keep up with very large news organizations like The New York Times that are developing personalization tech in-house. (Kinzen hasn’t entirely abandoned the app it spent a lot of time on — the people who originally signed up to test it can continue to use it to provide feedback on various concepts Kinzen is testing — but it’s not going to be the consumer-facing app that was promised.)

“Publishers recognize that they have to rebuild trust,” Kerr said. “In the years of move fast and break things and building for clicks and scale and advertisers, what really happened was the connection between publishers and people got lost. Personalization is a critical path back, to ensure quality, deeper engagement.”

“We can give more power to the user to tell the publisher what they really want,” Little said. “[Our software] provides stronger signals for the publisher than the very shallow behavioral data that used to power personalization.” The company, based in Dublin, has 13 employees and has raised around $1.8 million in funding, and also received a “significant” grant from Google’s Digital News Initiative last year.

Kinzen’s first product is personalized newsletter technology for publishers. Readers can customize the newsletters based not just on topics but on the amount of time they have to read and when they’ll be reading (on their commute, at lunch, in the evening when they get home from work). “We’re trying to get very specific with suggestions around your profession, location, interest, and hobbies,” Kerr said. The company’s first publicly announced newsletter partnership is with the Belfast Telegraph; more partners are in the pipeline. Though Little and Kerr had originally envisioned working primarily with regional publishers, they’ve received interest from international, national, and local publishers, too, along with broadcasters and brands. (So far, about 50 percent of the companies that have expressed interest are Irish, 40 percent are from the rest of Europe, and 10 percent are from the U.S.)

“The opportunity for this personalization of a service has gone way beyond the expectations that we had to begin with,” Kerr said. “There are a lot of partners for that newsletter product, that front-end experience. But there are other publishers that don’t have the capacity to do personalization and just need to do discovery.” In those cases, Kinzen can work with them to sort out their content databases, making sure that they’re getting long-tail stories in front of readers who’d be interested in them.

The company also has local and regional publisher clients who are interested in sending daily newsletters to their readers, but need help bulking up their offerings. “We’re helping them build that everyday experience where maybe the first five articles are from them, and others are from whitelisted sources — either competitive or non-competitive sources,” Kerr explained. Local publishers can, for instance, give readers the ability to add traffic and weather content that’s pulled in from other outlets, or to pull in stories from national and international outlets.

“If publishers are really to respond to this Netflix generation, they have to get used to the idea of having other brands and entities in there alongside them to give readers one destination, one experience,” Kerr said. “If someone says they have 20 minutes [for news], publishers have the responsibility to give them a quality 20 minutes, even if that means pulling in other sources.”

Kinzen’s technology at work at the Belfast Telegraph.

POSTED     Aug. 28, 2019, 9:30 a.m.
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