The pandemic has accelerated the transition of news publishers from an advertising-driven model to a subscription-based one, and that’s good news. But news publishers can’t just rely on paywalls – hard, metered or dynamic – to convert users or habit-forming products like newsletters and podcasts. And converting the users who land from social networks, the data speak for themselves, is a lost battle. They are casual traffic, not engaged audience.
Your outreach job must focus on platforms where users already consume content regularly and perform active research for information. Find high-potential users where they live: on mobile phones and news apps.
That is why aggregators like Google News are so crucial and ignore them, or make them just one battleground on which they are European publishers, strengthened by the new EU copyright legislation, clash with Google, a strategic mistake.
So, let’s talk about Google News and its most recent evolution launched in October in Germany and Brazil: the launch of Google News Showcase.
Google News Showcase. Not (only) PR initiative.
GOOGLE NEWS, IN A NUTSHELL. Google News is a tab in the desktop search engine and a mobile app aggregator available on all Android phones and downloadable on the iPhone too, used by over 400 million people around the world every day.
THE NEWS. On October 1st, Google announced the rollout of a new product under new terms of agreement with Publishers: Google News Showcase, to which Google has allocated 880 Million Euro to make partnerships with Publishers that populate the Showcase with both free content and a selection of pay-walled content.
The Google News Showcase product brings back curation to the newsfeed and offers better exposure to the partner publishers.
- The News Showcase is made up of story panels that allow publishers to package stories the stories that appear within Google’s news products, providing deeper storytelling and more context through features like timelines, bullets and related articles. Other components like video, audio and daily briefings will come next.
- The new Showcase product is different from Google Search or News because it leans on the editorial choices of individual publishers. The same algorithms used to rank content in Google News or Search will still surface panels, but within them, publishers will curate what’s featured. Depending on the negotiated terms with Google, partner publishers will offer free access to select pay-walled articles, with the goal to “give a taste” of the paid product and convert Google news readers to subscribers.
- Looking at these pictures, you notice how panels are designed to promote the publisher’s brand. This is a response to the many critics of the “commoditization” effect that aggregators have on the sources providing content through them.
Is the Google News Showcase a revolution?
The answer is “no”. There are other news app aggregators that do a more elegant showcasing job, but they are proprietary apps to mobile producers or small new ventures with limited reach and not enough partner publishers. But, as a publisher, you do not need disruption: you need to think strategically and raise the right questions.
Can Google News Showcase help me reach out and engage with audiences with the potential to convert them into subscribers?
The preliminary answer is “potentially, yes”. The showcase addresses two issues that undermine the relationship between publishers and Google: the tyranny of the algorithm, here compensated by the publisher’s editorial curation of showcased news + the lack of publisher brand recognition (aka commoditization).
A Germany-first rollout: why?
In October 2020, two markets will rollout the Google News Showcase: Germany and Brazil. You can see the German move to appease the world of German publishers ahead of 2021 when Germany is expected to implement locally the new EU copyright law.
But it is not only that. Germany is the biggest European news media market, less innovative than the Nordics, but way bigger. After a slow, conservative start, German news publishers are moving at speed to become digital-first and transform their business models.
In 2020, the pandemic has challenged the advertising also here, but many people – seeking credible information and advice for how to handle the coronavirus – have come back to the established publishers, subscribed to newsletters, listened to their podcasts more than ever.
So, this is a Country where many publishers think pragmatically and go beyond their biases. Many of them are technically savvy and have an attitude to experiment (e.g. die Zeit, whose digital transformation is a definitive success story, or Der Spiegel, that with its 2019 redesign made a leapfrog to become digital-first). In the first 20 Google News Showcase partner publishers´ list you find, among others:
- Berliner Verlag (Berliner Zeitung, i.a)
- Der Spiegel
- Frankfurter Allgemeine
- Funke Medien Gruppe
- Heidenheimer Zeitung
- Die Zeit
The one missing: the Axel Springer publishing powerhouse, that strictly refuses any commercial cooperation with Google, until the Eu copyright regulation will be fully implemented in Germany.
What’s next for publishers.
As a Google news app user, one that customizes her preferences, has a list of preferred publishers and has deleted lots of low-quality publishers from the feed I receive, to have on my mobile showcase populated by credible, established publishers and CURATED, delivers value.
As a happy subscriber of some news sources, that I consume mostly on my mobile, the Google News app is a complementary product, not a competitor to them. Am I a representative of those people that publishers seek on digital? I belong to a niche of news freaks, so not entirely. I do not need the Showcase to discover new publishers.
For other mid-intensity news consumers, a curated branded experience in the Google News App can be of greater help. It can help to fill the subscription funnel.
It can help, first, to showcase habit-forming products alongside the news – newsletters and podcasts. However, it does not solve the dilemma of the “Spotify for news”.
“Spotify for news” is a label used in the last couple of years to evoke and promote a one-stop-shop for news publishers with a subscription model similar to Spotify, and a kickback to publishers joining the platform. For some of its promoters, a publisher-led Spotify (that is, a platform owned and operated by publishers, not by technology companies) for news would be a game-changer and a way to get back control against the platform giants.
The idea sounds appealing, so why it is not yet there? It is much simpler to make a deal with Google than to create an open collaboration among publishers that should agree on financial terms, share technology and marketing costs, and assume responsibility for how the product would prioritize content.
Google news is already there, installed on all Android phones, and needs not promote itself. But that does not mean it cannot happen, starting maybe by big media houses with a multicountry footprint, or by independent technology startups acting with a neutral, agnostic perspective. I have already written about the Austrian startup Newsadoo, and I repeat here that we should closely watch startups like these, in 2020. What they are doing there is to develop a product tailor-made to publishers and carefully crafted around their business challenges.
The message: the technology is there, so the matter is more commercial and strategic.
Publishers – same as for selling programmatic advertising, addressable TV ads, bundling subscription – have to think beyond their own business and cooperate more, ideally with some support from the EU.There is room for a healthy business with Google that would be even healthier if publishers use Google News as a test field to develop more “DTC” propositions for digital newsreaders.
It is hard, almost impossible, to ask people to download and subscribe to 12 news apps and pay for 6 of them. But one aggregator could fill a gap and still promote publishers, create habits and engage valuable audiences.