Let’s call a spade a spade: the news industry’s push to retake control of the news reading experience from the Wild Wild Web via elegantly designed but hardly functional iPad apps is a flop. Almost every app I’ve downloaded from news organizations lays unused, while my news consumption on the iPad via news websites and aggregators like Flipboard is steadily on the rise.
That’s because, contrary to The Web is Dead cant, the iPad is leading a resurgence of the open Web on non-PC devices.
Part of the problem is definitional and existential. An app, short for application, implies something you can do something with. But news content isn’t about doing. It’s about consumption. The best apps centralize everything about a certain function or behavior you do online — Facebook for social, Twitter (well) for Twitter, Foursquare for location, Mint for personal finance, Nike+ or Runkeeper for fitness, Flipboard or Reeder for news reading. Even if the function is highly specific and hard to differentiate to the layperson, virtually all the apps on my home screen are dominant in a specific vertical.
This is inherently difficult for a news app to achieve, no matter how much credibility the New York Times or the Wall Street Journal might bring to the table. The Times will not dominate all news reading — even (and you might say, especially) for an informed devotee on the Upper West Side in the same way that Facebook will dominate their social experience online. To get the same sort of coverage that the Facebook or Twitter apps give me in their verticals, I have to download and install (at least) a screenful of newspaper apps from every major outlet in the country. Why do that when Flipboard gives me the stuff that matters in one place?
Moreover, the Web experience on a tablet is just better — better than it is on the PC, in my view.
The standard width on most websites today — in the 900-950 pixel range, is a relic of the 1024×768 default display size of the early 2000s. The default width scaled upwards from 600ish in the ’90s to 800 early in the last decade and but stopped growing even though no PC on the market today (except possibly for the flatlining netbooks) still ships with a 1024 pixel wide display. This has led to increasing amounts of wasted real estate on the screen, with huge areas given over for background images.
The consequence of this is that the metaphor of the web “page” is hopelessly broken. Most pages in real life are oriented in portrait mode. But your monitor is perpetually oriented in landscape. When I had the opportunity to hook up an external display that could swivel into portrait mode, I found the experience much more satisfying for reading news and blogs. Why? More of the content was viewable, less need for scrolling, and no wasted pixels. We can also think of the general problem the design community faces in deciding what goes above and below “the fold.” Less of a problem if “the fold” is effectively nonexistent.
We didn’t start thinking again about viewing web “pages” how they were meant to be viewed until the iPhone and the iPad, which default to portrait mode and are used that way probably 90% of the time.
Incidentally, guess what the screen size is on the iPad? 1024×768 — what today’s websites were designed for!
In the tablet setting, reading long-form content with a lot of scrolling is actually ideal. I wouldn’t change a thing about NYTimes.com or Politico.com on the iPad.
And I don’t mean their apps, which I never use. I mean their websites.
And it’s not just that news sites on the iPad have upside. It’s that the apps have downside. I always assume that the experience in an app is somehow crippled. The tradeoffs I may accept on the iPhone because of its tiny screen size I will not accept on the iPad. Either they won’t give me all the articles, I won’t be able to share the piece on Facebook and Twitter, deep links from sites like Twitter (where I read most of my news anyway) will take me directly to the web, and it’ll lack other functionality like comments. I also find a lot of articles on sites like Politico by scanning the sidebar on individual article pages, which I won’t have in the news app.
And with a few exceptions, they’re horrendously designed. They try to mimic the print medium in digital form, with boxy blocks of articles designed to mimic a front page, and the difficult-to-read multicolumn format shoehorned into the article pages. These design choices show the true impetus behind the news apps: thumbing their noses at the web and reimposing the dominance of print — when the two are in fact totally different.
I haven’t even touched the fact that the news sites eventually want me to pay for this crippled experience on the iPad when the (superior) web product remains free.
It’s not just news sites either. There’s a reason Facebook is still not developing an app for the iPad, despite the phenomenal success of the iPhone app, and that’s because, at a screen resolution designed to handle the default width of most websites, even its famously jam-packed layout works on the iPad. I tried installing Friendly just to see if I’d like the app experience better and haven’t opened it since. As other apps have discovered, taking the iPhone app experience that works and just doubling the size isn’t optimal. Facebook isn’t fully functional on the iPad, but I know that with the site, I at least have the best shot at getting the full Facebook experience.
This doesn’t mean that there aren’t innovative news apps out there, just not the kind that solve the problems of the news industry. In fact, the really good apps like Flipboard exacerbate the traditional news industry’s downward spiral by aggregating the best bits of content from all sources. It’s still early and I trust that someone will find a clever way to innovate in the year ahead, but so far, I echo Mathew Ingram’s assessment that the iPad app ecosystem looks more like a desolate wasteland for publishers than it does their savior.
You don’t have to be an aficionado of the Old Spice social media campaign to understand that online marketing moves numbers. Yet the question of how much a campaign or advocacy effort should devote to online advertising remains more art than science, with large digital campaigns in the political space still a relative rarity. In the 2008 election cycle, political advertisers spent 1.6% of their budgets online, according to a postelection report from the Institute for Politics, Democracy, and the Internet. Even the Obama campaign, known for its sophisticated use of digital tools, only committed 4% of its media pie to online ads (granted, it was a large pie). Lately, the trendsetters have been on the Republican side, with Bob McDonnell’s campaign committing 7% of their media budget to digital efforts (see Engage’s case study) and Scott Brown’s winning effort earlier this year devoting 10%.
Right off the bat, skeptics might point out that these candidates were online rockstars with flush budgets who could afford to advertise online, which itself betrays another myth of online media: that it’s only for big campaigns that can afford it.
If that were so, only the most expensive luxury brands would advertise online. But in fact, online as a share of all advertising in the United States just cracked 10% this year (it’s estimated to be 10.5% in 2010). That includes both the Old Spices of the world and the mom-and-pop shops who depend on search ads to drive sales leads. This chart on online ad spending by medium published late last year by the Business Insider is an eye-opener, and we’ve visualized it below:
Unpack these numbers a bit more, and you realize that 10% is just the start.
Many advertising mediums above — think the yellow pages, billboards, magazines, and (by and large) newspapers — haven’t traditionally been good fits for political campaigns. Other mediums, like direct mail, TV, radio, and now the Internet, have gained currency as the advertising mediums of choice for politics.
What does the pie look like with just these communications channels? Direct mail comes in first at 33.2%, followed by 23.4% for broadcast TV, 17.6% for cable TV, 16.1% for online, and 10.1% for radio.
Direct mail certainly has many uses in campaigns — from fundraising to voter contact — but many campaigns don’t consider it to be inside the typical “media budget” — the lion’s share of the campaign kitty reserved largely for TV and other electronic forms of communications at the end of the campaign. So, if mail is broken out, the breakdown of electronic media is 35% broadcast, 25.7% cable, 24.1% online, and 15.2% radio.
That’s 75.9% spent on traditional advertising formats, 24.1% spent online. For every $1 all advertisers in the United States are spending online in 2010, they spend $2.52 on television. In politics, that figure is anywhere from $30 to $50 spent on TV for every dollar spent online. That’s a 15-fold difference. Isn’t something out of whack here?
What do big advertisers with billions on the line know that political advertisers don’t? That digital advertising is remarkably cost-effective. You don’t need to spend as much to get the same reach, making the medium appealing to candidates for any office.
When deciding to make the leap to online, you need metrics you can easily understand. And in this respect, the terms commonly used by the online advertising industry — CPC, CPM, share of voice (SOV) — don’t do a very good job of answering the fundamental questions: how many voters does this let me reach and how many times will they see my ad?
At Engage, we use a metric we call Online Ratings Points so you can get a better sense of the cost-effectiveness and reach of online advertising relative to traditional media. The calculation behind it is pretty simple:
Online Ratings Points = ( Number of ad impressions / number of unique visitors on your target sites) x 100
When you’ve bought 1,000 “points” on TV, that means that the average viewer has seen at least part of your ad ten times. (Admittedly, it’s a fuzzy metric given the extent to which people channel surf during commercial breaks, tune out advertising, or just skip the ads using TiVo or other DVR platform, but the bottom line is that to make an impact, repetition is key.) Similarly, 1,000 points online ensures that your target audience will be exposed to your ad online an average of 10 times.
The beauty of online advertising, however, is in its unmatched ability to target. Not all online ads are created equal — from targeting specific websites frequented by political activists, to targeting those searching for you or visiting sites that talk about you (the Google approach), to going after individuals with specific interests or demographic characteristics in a geographic region (Facebook and behavioral targeting), to re-targeting those who have already visited your website, to a broad-based “network blast” of all sites in a network. And it’s not just demographic targeting, but geographic targeting: your ads can be targeted precisely inside a state or Congressional district with minimal bleed to people who can never vote for you.
To illustrate the point, let’s take the example of a hypothetical Congressional race in a district inside in the Denver, Colorado media market and ask what it would cost to get 2,000 “points” (or 20 impressions per voter) on the air or online? The difference, you’ll see, is pretty stark.
Not only are online ads four times cheaper than TV — a $4 CPM is actually on the high side of the range — but it takes one quarter of the impressions to reach a targeted voter 20 times because of the “bleed” into other areas of a district — a common problem in a country with 435 Congressional districts but only 210 media markets. That means it’s 15 times cheaper to get the same amount of impressions to targeted voters online as you would on TV. One might say that a banner ad is not as immersive and hard-hitting as video advertising delivered through the medium of television, but as free market capitalists, we can probably agree that the difference is fairly reflected in the price.
None of this is to diminish the enduring power of television. Even those of us who rarely watch television would agree that video advertising is powerful, even online — just look at the success of YouTube. But at the end of the day, this is 2010. The world is changing. Average Americans are already spending more time online than in front of the tube. It’s getting easier and easier to block out TV ads, and the Internet itself is changing how we spend time. If just 10% of the population are tuning out your ads because the technology makes it really easy for them to do, that’s 10% of voters you need to reach some other way. The shift doesn’t have to be all-or-nothing to be significant. Ask the record companies and Barnes and Noble what a shift of (maybe) 10% of their industry to digital has done to their business.
In light of all this, is it unreasonable to ask for a smart and balanced media strategy that reaches voters wherever they are — whether that’s their television, their computer, their cell phone, or their mailbox — and does so commensurate with the amount of time voters invest in each of these channels?
Here’s a real-life role-play: After 2,000 or 3,000 points of saturation advertising in the final two weeks, when you’ve likely hit a point of diminishing returns, would it be smarter to invest in 200 or 300 more points on TV — or saturate the online space with 2,000 or 3,000 points of advertising and own the medium before your opponent does?
But even this example is in-apt — you shouldn’t be doing online after you do TV. It should be ingrained in your media strategy, and baked into your budget at a fixed percentage so it rises and falls with the amount you have to spend on voter engagement.
Our friend Jonathan Rick notes an interesting trend: more big companies are eschewing the traditional press release, and are announcing news in first-person media like blogs and Twitter:
Indeed, as Claire Cain Miller reported in a much-discussed article last week, the pr agency representing Flickr never issued a release on its behalf-not even when Yahoo acquired the photo-sharing Web site. Similarly, when Google has exciting news to share, it does not use a wire service.
Rather, both companies self-publish blog posts. They do so, I suspect, not because blogs are hipper, but because they’re more genuine, more personal, and more flexible than their old media counterparts. Instead of a flack ghostwriting quotes for a CEO, the individual(s) who managed the project can craft a first-person narrative recounting the project’s past, present and future with pictures and videos and links. Then, as other bloggers pick up the post, “two days later, BusinessWeek calls,” as Donna Sokolsky Burke, of Spark PR, puts it.
As Jon hints at, this is more than just a format change, but part of a revolt against contrived speech.
What social media gives powerful people from politicians to CEOs is an opportunity to communicate big ideas on their own terms, in media they personally create. Being on Twitter has created a paradigm shift for many a celebrity and political figure — either for good or occasional chagrin. You mean I can say what I actually think, in my own words, right now? It’s amazing how bad P.R. has made this basic principle of everyday human interaction seem somehow alien and unexpected.
With a built-in audience of bloggers and social media influentials who will carry your message (big caveat: if it’s interesting), it’s no longer necessary to go for the hard sell, or for that perfectly crafted quote that will show up in the paper. Bloggers are all about authentic voice; what they say about you is more important than what you say about yourself.
Getting in the papers is a nice bonus, but secondary to building a direct constituency for your product or candidate online. If your story is naturally interesting, or even better, can be vouched for in real time by thousands of people congregating online, the media will have no choice but to report on it. When reading up on the latest tech or political trend, mainstream media is usually the last place I hear about something, the final validator of whether something is important or not — usually after it’s been dissected to death in the blogosphere.
This doesn’t mean it’s not important to get your story out to the press, but even the press is no longer reading canned press releases. Increasingly, blogs are the assignment desks for mainstream media — the place where reporters go to get the pulse of the digerati. Indeed, many mainstream reporters, like ABC’s Jake Tapper, break news through their own blogs.
For my part, I can’t promise I’ll never use a wire service. But the stuff I’d put out on it would probably look a lot like the following: “Candidate X just posted the following to his blog: LINK.”
Based on the latest data from the Wisconsin Advertising Project, Obama’s spending advantage is starting to come into play. In the week from September 28 to October 4, Obama-Biden spent $16.2 million on ads in 15 swing states to McCain-Palin and the RNC’s $9.5 million.
Is this spending making a difference? The answer is a qualified yes.
To figure out the impact of Obama’s TV ad spending edge in various states, I updated this spreadsheet to aggregate a number of data points, including RCP averages from various points in the race, 2004 results, and aggregate ad spending as well as ad spending per voter per week.
In states where Obama has an above average spending advantages (more than 1.7 to 1), his RCP average lead has moved up 3.61 percent versus in 2.44 percent in states where the candidates were more stalemated in terms of ad spending. A similar shift of about 1.2 points was found when comparing these polling averages to July 1 or the first date we had polling for a state, when ad spending was a fraction of what it is today.
With 15 states, this kind of analysis is plagued by a small-n factor in which one state can throw the calculus off dramatically. It’s also worth pointing out that state-specific RCP averages can be less reliable than their national counterparts.
In these cases, I find it useful to build typologies state by state. Overall, I found 5 states (Florida, Missouri, New Hampshire, North Carolina, and Virginia) in which a massive Obama spending edge correlated with an above-average shift to Obama since September 28, versus one state that defied this pattern (Indiana). Remove Indiana and the ad spending effect rises to 1.6 points.
As for the rest of the states, all but one are grouped as battlegrounds in that both candidates were competitive at a 2-to-1 spending ratio or lower, and these generally resulted in more muted shifts or contradictions between the July and September deltas.
The odd man out is Minnesota in which McCain is actually outspending Obama and has held the line relatively well there. This is the one example of an ad effect working in his direction.
Here’s a scatterplot of Obama’s ad spending edge in dollars per voter last week, mapped against the change in the RCP average from July 1st and from September 28th:
So, the difference between outspending your opponent 3.6 to 1 and 1.3 to 1 could be about 1.2 points — maybe 1.6. But I wouldn’t write home about this until we have several weeks of ad spending correlated with corresponding before and after poll data.
It’s also worth noting that this cash advantage is not recreatable in every state. There are still lots of states where McCain will compete aggressively. That means saturation advertising on both sides, making it physically impossible to maintain a 3-to-1 cash advantage. And even if it were possible, it wouldn’t be as effective since McCain has established a baseline presence.
Obama’s spending advantage is also mostly in Republican states that are not likely to be tipping points that have seen little McCain advertising. These uncontested situations In these states are ripe for moving poll numbers. Obama is advertising at normal levels and McCain is on the air little or not at all. However, these will be wasted dollars if Obama doesn’t succeed in flipping these states or realign them to the point where they are electoral vote #270.