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Publishers and The Snacking Economy

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Written by on March 1, 2016

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Joakim Jardenberg

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One thing I have written about many times before is that the digital world is different not because it is a new format, but because it has split into a multitude of mixed behaviors.

In many of my previous Plus reports, I have focused on trying to explain what these different behaviors are and how to optimize for them. Specifically, I have tried to help publishers get out of the race to the bottom of chasing random pageviews with increasingly shallow social content.

I have also illustrated how most of the true digital natives are winning not because they have optimized for the latest viral tactic, but because of how they are focusing on creating real value over time, thus building momentum and driving intent.

But this doesn't mean that quick articles aren't useful. It's obviously an important part of the future of media and there are many good reasons to make that type of content.

So, in this article, we are going to focus on the snacking economy. We will talk about what it really is, what focus it requires, how to optimize for it, but also what it isn't.

Sound good?

How did we get to this?

Before we focus on only the snacking type of behavior, it's important to repeat just how big a change this really is. This new world of media is nothing like anything we had in the past.

If we go back 20 years and we look at how people consume media in the past, we see that pretty much all forms of media fitted into only a single type of behavior. That behavior was that we would choose to sit down with, for instance, a newspaper. But since the newspaper came as a package of random articles, we had no specific intent when it came to actually reading it.

We see this when we look at when we consumed media in the past. Here is a breakdown of an average day.

As you can see, we didn't snack on media in the past. Our day was defined in very specific periods. One period was for sleeping, one was for working (the dark blue period), and then we had the free time in the evening.

We might be glancing through the morning paper during breakfast or at lunch, and we might set aside maybe 20 minutes of dedicated reading in the afternoon. But the real consumption of media in the past was during the 3.5 hours of passive lean back media consumption in the evening.

Now fast forward to 2016, and we see an entirely different pattern.

We still sleep for about 7 hours (which I have cut out of this illustration to make it easier to see), we still go to work, but our media consumption patterns have changed dramatically.

Today we have several forms of media behavior that overlap each other throughout each day. There are many different types of behaviors, but here I am illustrating the four biggest ones.

The traditional (and declining) behavior

At the bottom is the old form of media consumption (red). As you can see, several parts of it are missing. The morning paper, the newspaper at lunch, and the 20 minutes with a magazine in the evening are all gone. Those moments have been replaced by other forms of media consumption.

We still spend 3.5 hours in zombie mode by the end of each day. This passive behavior hasn't changed, although today that time is increasingly spent binging on Netflix (or on YouTube) instead of watching linear TV from a cable provider.

The social snacking behavior

The next behavior is very different. It is the snacking behavior that we see all around us via social channels (yellow). Because of the internet, wireless connectivity and smartphones, we now have the ability to snack on content from anywhere we want, at any time of day. And this is exactly what we are doing.

Instead of reading the morning paper, we now snack on content on our phones from the moment we wake: while preparing to leave for work, during the commute, every time we feel we need a break at work, especially during lunch, during all the short momentary breaks in the afternoon, during the commute back home, while we do our daily chores, while we stand in line at the grocery store, during dinner, after dinner, and while we are watching TV in the evening.

We have moved from a world where media was consumed by choice, to a world where media has become an extension of our consciousness. You don't think about checking Facebook or Instagram. You just do it.

The search

The third behavior is also a new one. It's the moments when we are looking for something specific (green). Today, these moments come naturally to us (and they are growing due to tools like Google Voice, Apple Siri, Microsoft Cortana and Amazon Alexa). But think how new this really is.

It's hard to even imagine how we could work 20 years ago without Google Search. What did we do when we needed some data or some information?

Today, of course, we have all that. If you need some information, you will just look it up. If you want to see that product your competitor just made, you will just go to their website.

More to the point, today we search as part of the conversation. If you are talking to a friend and one of you has a question, you don't just sit there, you take out your phone and look it up. Life before Google was weird, as illustrated by the Shoeboxblog.

The content choice

Finally we have the fourth behavior in which we have moments where we have chosen to consume a specific article or video (blue). You might say that this looks very similar to old media consumption patterns, but it's actually very different.

As I mentioned before, the old way is that you would sit down with a package of content (newspaper/magazine) and read whatever was in it. By doing this, your focus was on the package of content, but not on the individual articles that you might see.

Today, we are instead seeing that people choose to consume a very specific article, like what you are doing right now with this article. You didn't come to this site and just start reading one article after another. You have chosen to read this article specifically.

These are the four (biggest) behaviors that define the new world of media, and there are a few key things to understand about this.

First of all, none of these behaviors is really defined around a format. This is not about print versus digital or even digital versus mobile. The real shift is that we have moved away from a format-first business model to a behavior-first model.

Secondly, each of these behaviors has potential for success. But the type of content, the business model and the editorial strategy is very different for each. Content you produce for people having a break is nothing like the content you make for people to want to be inspired.

Thirdly, each of these behaviors is a niche, and a very narrow one as such. For years we have heard publishers say that 'Facebook is the future of media distribution', but that's only true for the one type of content that fits into that one behavior to which social snacking belongs.

A very simple way to illustrate this is to look at the choices and intent that match each behavior.

As you can see, old media (red) was a deliberate action because we chose to sit down with it. But it was also a low-intent form of content because it came in a package of random content. You never really knew what you would get, and as such couldn't target your intent.

Snacking content is low-intent as well, mostly because of how we discover it. It's content that we just come across when we check Facebook or some other channel. And when we go to Facebook we aren't looking for anything specific (because we don't know what we will get). That makes it low-intent.

Search, however, is also a form of snacking, but most is based on a very specific need. You are searching for something and you expect a very specific output as a result. This makes searching a very different type of snacking than social browsing. And it makes it high-intent.

Finally, we have the deliberate moments with high-intent, which are all the moments when you specially choose to dedicate time to read or view something you find to be of value to you.

You see how dramatically different the editorial style needs to be for each? You see why each can be turned into a successful publication? And do you see why the monetization methods will be very different?

For instance, which behavior is best for selling exposure based advertising? The answer is obvious. You need to focus low-intent snacking during people's micro-moments (yellow). It's a no-brainer. If pageviews are your metric, you need to focus on the behavior that generates the most of them.

But what behavior is best at lead-generation? Surely not low-intent snacking. Snacking content gives you a ton of traffic, but without a real intent you are not going to deliver any useful lead-generating results to your advertising partners. Now you need to focus on either the green or the blue type of behavior.

The changes are even more profound when you move away from advertising and start to focus on niche-verticals monetized via subscriptions or memberships. Low-intent snacking is terrible at that, but high-intent deliberation is perfect.

You see the difference?

This is where we are today. The new world of media is behavioral based and the challenge for every publisher is to choose which behavior to target. Each can be successful, but in very different ways.

But while I have written about all these other behaviors in many of my previous articles, let's now narrow in on the low-intent snacking behavior. What do you need to do to win at that?

Change your editorial focus

Step one to winning at low-intent snacking is to realize just how narrow that niche is, and to optimize your editorial strategy for that niche. This is a big problem for all traditional publishers because you are coming from a world where your focus is to be random for a mass market.

Think about a fashion magazine. In it you have a mix of stories targeting every behavior. You have the quick pages with fashion news. The longer articles with interviews, featured articles, photo galleries and much more. None of this is really designed for snacking.

So what is the answer to this?

First of all, the answer differs whether you are targeting a specific type of story or whether you are just trying to reach everyone with everything. The more random you are, the more shallow you need to make the content.

But I want to show you something remarkable.

Let's look at BuzzFeed for a moment. Most of what BuzzFeed is doing is pretty crappy, but their audience do not actually engage with their most crappy content the most. We think they do because that seems to be most of what they do, but let me give you a few examples.

Here is an example of some of the videos that Buzzfeed has posted recently.

Yeah... they are crap. And they fall into the category of 'funny shit for people who are bored'. Then you look at the numbers and you see that each of them have accumulated about half a million to one million views.

That sounds pretty impressive, doesn't it? Well... not really.

You see, something interesting happens when we instead look at BuzzFeed's most popular content, which is this:

Okay, so we have the Disney princess videos, which work because BuzzFeed really is mostly targeting teenagers. And we have the porn/sex content, which is the same thing. It's for teenagers who are very curious about sex. That's why those videos are at the top and this is no different from what teenage magazines did before the internet.

But look at the rest of the videos. They are actually pretty good.

We have a video about how the ideal body type of women has changed throughout history. It's very well made and it's a great way to make people feel happy about themselves.

Great stuff!

We have this video, which is actually native advertising from the cat food company Friskies, and again, it's brilliant. It's extremely well made. It's funny (especially if you like cats), and it's perfect for sharing and sending to your friends and engaging with while you are on a break.

Think about how amazing this is. The third most popular video of all time is a native ad. Remember this the next time someone tells you that advertising no longer works. Great creative advertising absolutely works. Crappy advertising designed solely to interrupt people with pointless sales messages don't.

Again, great stuff!

Then we have this video about the difference between McDonald's in the US and the UK. It's not really that good a video but if you are just having a break, it's kind of fun to see the cultural differences between nations.

Finally, we have another truly insightful video about how real women react to being Photoshopped. It's following the same pattern as the one before, in that it very strongly illustrates how fake it is, and it helps people feel happy with who they really are.

It's a wonderful video.

You see what's happening here?

BuzzFeed's most popular content is not the shallow and pointless content (well, except for the Disney videos). It's the insightful videos that are based on real value or real creativity.

Again, compare their everyday videos:

With their most popular videos:

Isn't this fascinating? People actually prefer good videos.

People don't prefer the content to be shallow just because is snackable for a low-intent audience. It's us, the media, that is making things shallow. Not our audiences.

But wait-a-minute, you say. If we know that good videos outperform shallow videos, why aren't BuzzFeed doing that instead? Why are BuzzFeed spending most of their time making crappy videos?

The answer is 'scale'. As long as your market is big enough, and as long as you can dedicate enough resources into it, scale wins over quality every time. It's a sad fact that is not just true on the internet, but in every part of life. Think about Walmart.

Think about it like this. Which one is better?

  • Producing one high-quality video per month, generating 17 million views.
  • Or... producing 30 low-quality videos generating 1 million views each, but 30 million views combined?

In terms of traffic (if you are monetized by views), it's more profitable to do 30 mediocre articles than one good one, even though you know that people would prefer the good one.

Or what about this?

  • Producing one high-quality video per month at a total cost of $300,000.
  • Or... producing 10 low-quality videos per month at a total cost of $100,000

You see the problem?

As long as you can create enough scale, you can reach a point where it's more cost and result efficient to produce low-end content.

This the sad reality that we live in. But remember what's going on here. Sites like BuzzFeed aren't winning because people want to read about '22 Pictures That Won't Make Sense To Anyone Who Doesn't Wear Lipstick'. We know that this content doesn't really perform that well.

They are winning because they make so much of that, at a high enough volume, that they can flip the scale and end up with more views in total than if they focused on what people really wanted.

Sadly, crap wins at scale.

The niches

But here is interesting question. What if you can't scale? What if, for some reason, your market, your resources, your reach or your impact was limited in such a way that you couldn't just publish more posts to reach more engagement?

Remember the graph from before. What if a limit in the market did this?

Now the reality is suddenly very different. Now, it's better to focus on that one really good article, rather than trying to post several mediocre ones. If you can't scale, quality wins!

This is the reality for most brands in the world. As a brand, you exist in a specific niche (the focus on your product), and that limitation prevents you from scaling to a size big enough for you to engage on random content generation. As such, every brand finds themselves in a world where they have to focus on quality to win.

We see this all the time in the social world. There are two types of winners. Those who can scale, and those who have quality niches.

How do you create low-intent snackable content for a niche, focusing on quality? Well, one good example is to look at 'Lowe's Home Improvement' stores. This is an American retail chain, basically a hardware store. As such, its market and focus is incredibly niche.

The trick is to create content that can stand alone, while at the same time create short micro-moments of inspiration. And the answer to that is obvious. Create home-improvement life-hacks.

This is what Lowe's did. They created the 'hyper made' series, which is an ongoing collection of short, funny, well-made and inspirational ideas.

Like these:

These videos don't work on YouTube (because YouTube isn't for snacking), but they work wonders on Facebook (which is). These two videos alone generated 2.6 million views on Facebook.

This is incredible, because remember, BuzzFeed's everyday videos often don't reach this level. Obviously, as a niche, Lowe's will never get close to BuzzFeed's total traffic, but on a per post level, Lowe's is performing at the same level.

Another place we see this is on Instagram. Here Lowe's has a page with 205,000 followers. That's incredible for a hardware store.

So, the key to winning as a niche at snackable low-intent content is to focus on what people really want to see. And that is creative, quality content, targeted to that niche and delivered as a stand-alone post.

More to the point, this content can be posted everywhere. It can be posted on the social channels, on the chat channels, on websites and anywhere else. It's not designed to match a specific format. It's designed to match a specific behavior.

Of course, the challenge is to know what your purpose is, to really have a niche to focus on, and to have the skills, the insights and the expertise to actually produce content that inspires people.

That's the hard part.

But regardless of if you have the scale or if you are a niche, the key is to design for the behavior instead of the format. Are you designing for people on a break? Are you designing for people who are not looking to make decisions? Are you designing content that is great to consume quickly when you just have a short moment?

If you don't take this into account, you will fail.

This, for instance, is the main reason why newspapers fail badly at optimizing for these moments.

The first problem is that newspapers, by design, are random (aka the opposite of being a niche) and, as such, can only succeed at scale. That's a big problem for most newspapers. Can you imagine if BuzzFeed were to publish only in Chicago?

The second problem is that news itself rarely has the ability to be stand-alone (which is what you need when you have low-intent). Instead, most news articles require that people have prior knowledge of the story, and have the time and interest in browsing around for more.

In other words, the news articles are still designed for the old world of print where you are designing for people who have chosen to sit down with news for 20 minutes at the time. It doesn't work with this behavior.

The third problem is that most news articles aren't that interesting, relevant or useful. If you are just taking a quick break from your stressful job, and you have a choice between watching a funny video on BuzzFeed, an inspiring video from Lowe's or a news article about terror in some far away country, we all know what people will do.

People choose the content that matches the 'lighter moments', as the BBC puts it:

The results backed our editorial intuition by showing the page's fans, the majority of whom are aged 16-24, wanted the Match of the Day Facebook account to be knowledgeable, cheeky and irreverent, and mirror the tone of the TV presenting team during the lighter moments of our broadcasts. We began to change how we wrote posts but it was a work in progress. We looked deeply at our analytics to refine the style, execution and also guide when to post and how often.

This had a profound effect. In September 2014 we had 35,000 referrals a week from the page. In the equivalent week in September 2015, this figure was 3.7 million.

It's the same with B2B publications (like business magazines). When people at work just want to have a break, what do you think they are most likely to do? To go to a place where they can read about work-related things or go to Instagram to see something from Lowe's?

Again, the answer is obvious. People will choose the type of moments that help to distract themselves from whatever it was they did before (like work).

This is not because people are shallow. It's because they are taking a break. Nor is it specifically about making funny content. There are plenty of examples of somewhat serious articles having a big social impact as well.

It's about matching the behavior of this moment.

Distribution of snackable content

There is, however, one more important thing that we need to talk about. That is, how do you deal with distribution when your focus is on creating low-intent snackable content?

You see the problem here?

People with this behavior are in a state where they don't want to make decisions. They are just having a micro-moment. As such, asking this type of audience to go somewhere else to see your content is never going to work. Why would they do that?

Asking people to do something means you want them to make a decision, which implies that you are focusing on people with an intent. That's the wrong behavior for this type of moment.

The answer is obvious. You don't ask people to go somewhere else, instead you bring yourself, your content, and your business model to where people are. The last part is the key.

The problem is that most publishers today doesn't operate like this. Their business model is based on:

  1. Get people to come to you
  2. Get them to browse around
  3. Display advertising next to and around the content

This doesn't work with snacking. People don't deliberately visit your site, and then spend some time with it. They are going to go to their preferred content snacking platforms, like Facebook, Snapchat, Instagram and others.

This is nothing new. We know that when you try to interact with people who are merely engaged in a micro-moment with low-intent, any step will have a serious negative impact on conversions. Everyone knows this.

So the solution to this is to minimize the number of steps that people have to take... all the way down to zero.

Now, in a perfect world, we all dream of a world where this initial step would go directly to the publishers, but we also know that this is not how the world works. When engaging in a micro-moment, people will always choose the platforms first.

This means that in order to reduce the number of steps to zero, you need to bring your content to those platforms, instead of asking people to take extra steps to come to you.

The first thing to understand here is that this doesn't apply to everything. It only applies to this one behavior. If people are looking for something specific, they are not going to go to Facebook, nor if they decide to watch a video from a creator they love, or even if they have decided to sit down and explore a certain topic of interest for an hour.

None of those behaviors work that well on the randomly focused social channel.

This is why that discussions about Facebook Instant Articles or Snapchat Discovery only make sense if you are a site like Buzzfeed. If you are a magazine focusing on high-intent behaviors, putting that into an Instant article is the worst thing you can possible do (because it kills your intent and destroys your editorial purpose).

But if your focus is to create content for the low-intent snackable moment, then it's a no-brainer. Be where people are, and bring your business model with you.

For publishers, of course, this means that your advertising can no longer be a separate format next to the content. It has to be a part of the content. It has be made in the same way as the rest of the content.

You can't do a banner ad on Instagram next to your photos. You can't place a display ad next to your Snapchat. You can technically place a display ad inside an Facebook Instant Article, but while some publishers say that one spot works as well as similar spots on mobile, it's not a very good solution.

A far better solution is to partner with advertisers to make the whole article/video/image seem to be coming from them. This is what BuzzFeed did with the Friskies videos.

This is a much better advertising model than display advertising, because BuzzFeed can then sell exposure based on their total reach, as opposed to whatever a display ad would get on a single page.

Obviously, there are also a ton of problems with this.

First we have the increasing challenge with advertiser disclosures (especially from Europe), where rules are being strengthened all the time so that it's abundantly clear what is an ad and what is not.

We have the editorial question of how we stay neutral if the advertising is part of our editorial profile.

We have the massive problem that these platforms change all the time, and have a vested interest in getting advertisers to go through them instead of through the publishers. For instance, why would Friskies partner with BuzzFeed to reach people on Facebook when they can create the same content and just pay Facebook to reach the same people (and for a cheaper price)?

We have the massive problem that each of these platforms work in different ways, forcing you to diversify your formats and your communication skills for each. This is not really a problem for a big site like BuzzFeed, but it's a massive resource challenge for smaller niche sites.

And finally, we have the huge challenge that this concept only really works if the advertisers can match your editorial focus. Most advertisers can't do that (or want something else). We see this all too often with Instagrammers doing sponsored endorsements. As long as the brand and the Instagrammer are working towards the same purpose (and form of inspiration), it's a match made in heaven. But if not, it's a nightmare.

So many Instagrammers have found themselves in a social shit storm when they decide they would rather earn a bit more money than staying true to why people were following them.

This makes this type of advertising very different from traditional advertising. Old newspapers didn't really care what was in the ads (as long as it wasn't offensive). The editorial strategy and the ads were completely separate.

But you can't do that on social channels. Not even BuzzFeed can do that. The advertising has to match the editorial style.

All of this is the key to understanding how to win in this space.

In short:

Low-intent snackable is a very narrow niche. People actually prefer the good content, but with scale, the bad content wins. You have to completely rethink your editorial strategy and design solely for people who aren't interested in making decisions (they are not shallow, they are just not deciding).

Each piece of content has to be able to stand alone because people won't browse around. You have to shift your distribution to where people are first, and your site second. Meaning you have to shift your entire monetization model as well, so that you can bring the ads with you to whatever platform you engage with.

To do this, the advertising too has to be able to stand alone. It can't be an extra next to the content because that space doesn't exist on most of these platforms. This means that advertising has to be designed the same way as the rest of the content, with the same editorial focus, style, and integrity.

You have to diversify to as many places as possible, partly because no single platform really dominates (despite what you think of Facebook), and partly because the platforms change their focus so often that it would be foolish to bet on any one.

Remember, you are renting your existence without having signed a contract with the owner. This means you need to focus on your publication as a brand.

Think like Coca Cola. You can buy that from everywhere (rented distribution), but their brand is so strong that any time a new mall opens up, people look for them there as well. Brand value is suddenly a critical element of distribution.

Most of all, though, you have to make a choice as a publisher. You have to choose if this is your niche, or whether your publication would be a better fit with another type of digital behavior. And if it is, then you have to design specifically for that other type of behavior instead of trying to optimize for bored people on Facebook.

So who are you, and what do you choose?

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Joakim Jardenberg

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Thomas Baekdal

Founder of Baekdal, author, writer, strategic consultant, and new media advocate.

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