Direct Publishing: The Opportunity for Newsrooms

At the International Journalism Festival in April I shared Fathm’s vision for the opportunities Direct Publishing has for the news and publishing industries. This is something that we started talking about a year ago but since then there have been a whole load of positive developments that make this technology more accessible.

We did face some hurdles in talking about Direct Publishing, primarily due to the incredibly limited numbers of examples from the news industry that are out there. So, we have spent the last 12 months doing more research and forging relationships with the necessary technology partners so that we could be in a position to really help the industry understand the potential of Direct Publishing as well as the nuts and bolts needed to make it happen. This natural evolution of this was to build a demo, because we realised that it was really difficult to describe something that people hadn’t seen before and where points of reference were few and far between.

I thought it would be useful to share what we have learned here.

What is Direct Publishing?

It’s a term we use to talk about a range of technologies, platforms and processes that create an experience that is directly between the publisher and the audience, without algorithmic influence or the risk of interception by bad actors. 

Direct Publishing is NOT just a different way of describing text messaging with your audience. It’s also not just a chat bot.

With Direct Publishing we want an audience to interact with a news brand in a conversational way across a multitude of platforms and devices. The process needs to be seamless and the journalism remains the product, not the technology used to deliver it. e.g. “Daily Planet Chatbot” or a “Metropolis Gazette WhatsApp Tip Line.” Remember when we used to have “iPad editions“….exactly.

The Technology

We do need to understand the technology that we’ll be using though, even if we don’t think our audience needs to care about it. It is because of developments in the technology and messaging protocols that make this all possible.

Here’s a breakdown…

RCS (Rich Communication Services)

RCS is the new messaging standard that will replace SMS. It’s a protocol so it isn’t owned by anyone but it is the one that Google will adopt for its messaging app – Messages. It’s also currently enabled on Android phones globally. It enables rich graphics, carousels, video, audio and interactive experiences delivered over the air. RCS products can be monetised through subscriptions or advertising and the costs for running RCS services are fairly low. We are focusing on this initially as we think it holds the greatest potential.

GBM (Google Business Messages)

In Google’s own words; “Google Business Messages (GBM) is a mobile conversational channel that combines entry points on Google Maps, Search, and brand websites to create rich, asynchronous messaging experiences that delight customers and drive business results. Soon you will be able to find Business Messages in even more places on Android, including within apps and during calls.”

AMB (Apple Messages for Business)

“Apple’s Business Chat is a powerful new way for businesses to connect directly with customers using iPhone, iPad, Mac, and Apple Watch. With Business Chat, your customers can easily get assistance, schedule appointments, and complete purchases with Apple Pay, right from within Messages.”

AMB uses Apple’s own protocol, not RCS, but services created for one service can be replicated fairly easily for another.

The Business Case for Newsrooms

A 2020 report by Mobilesquared says brands will spend $52.5 billion on RCS by 2028. One of the main reasons is because the click-through/conversion rate is so high. It is much higher than basic SMS campaigns and we understand that spending on messaging is becoming much more appealing than banner and other placed ads, simply because of the direct access to consumers.

The advertising ecosystem isn’t particularly standardised yet and certainly there is no obvious main player. Media organisations would be able to work with their in-house ad teams to create bespoke solutions for themselves…and in most cases no third parties are getting the data. It’s all yours.

An editorial product delivered via messaging can also be monetisable as a subscription service, or the technology can be used to managed a subscription flow from mobile.

Show us what it looks like and how it works then!

This was harder than it sounds because we really couldn’t find any examples. So we built our own prototype to show off what it looks like and the kind of content it can serve.

Ultimately we are thinking of it in two ways:

  • As a service platform – providing on-demand information for audiences around stories, issues or events
  • A new format for interactive storytelling or for personalised, delivered-to-your-device content (e.g. newsletters)

This is the Info page for any brand that has an RCS presence. Think of it like a kind of masthead.

This is a screenshot of an actual interaction with a live RCS demo product. You’ll see at the top that the brand is verified, which for a news organisation will be vital to establish the trusted nature of the source from the start.

While natural language is a possible form of entry for navigation we think that buttons are simplest for responding and helping to control the flow.

The really exciting part is that you can see a 10 image carousel. These can also be GIFs. Remember: this is all delivered through the standard messaging apps that are already on phones. The example here is a breakdown of a vaccine effectiveness explainer but it could be applied to many storytelling techniques and formats.

With RCS you can also:

  • Ask for and share location, then deliver content based on that location
  • Deliver images, GIFs and video content; displayed in carousels or full screen, all within the messaging app
  • Create click through images, for services or to take you to your own site
  • Ask for free text input from users

You can also run a subscriptions process and take payments within the flow (see video below).

A closer look at a possible subscription flow.

Data and Metrics

In most cases the data is yours. Yes, just yours.

With RCS no third party is monetising the data and you control what you are asking for.

You’ll get:

  • Phone number/Unique ID – Flows are kicked off by users with phone numbers. You don’t have to identify them with names or personal information but you will have this unique ID.
  • Delivered – Know when your message was delivered
  • Read (incl. timestamp) – Was it read? and at what time?
  • When/where audience drop out – You’ll know what is and isn’t working by where and when people drop out of the flows.
  • Message content shared back – Natural language is possible for input so you can ask for free-form answers to any questions you like.

Costs for Newsrooms

Even though this technology has been widely rolled out we are in the early days. In a lot of countries there is no cost to send an RCS message. We could see an evolution eventually, like we have seen with WhatsApp introducing structured pricing, but we have an opportunity to create compelling offerings that shape this ecosystem while it is in its infancy. The current exception is the UK where there are small costs to send messages.

Of course nothing is totally free. There are some platform costs because you have to be registered with the services that hook you up to the mobile network and your flows and content need to be hosted somewhere. We have built a relationship with Webex/Cisco for this and have done the hard work to determine the path to making it possible for publishers to get up and running.

tl;dr we think a basic RCS/messaging product or offering for a newsroom is going to start around £2000 a month. But we think it more than possible for it to pay for itself through ads, sponsorship or subscription revenue.

Start thinking about it now!

There are undoubtedly opportunities for the news industry, especially for the early adopters:

  • You can create a single product that is white labelled to work with your different brands. e.g. Front ends for each market working off the same back end.
  • You own the majority of data and metrics 
  • You control advertising and can leverage existing infrastructure
  • You become a case study for innovation

If the industry moves now, we have an opportunity. We can’t afford for another situation to arise where a new way of delivering journalism is controlled by third parties. We really can put journalism back in control.

We’d love to work with you on this. Please get in touch if you are interested in exploring this as a solution for your newsroom.