Originally published at The Media Briefing

How CNN Digital and The Odyssey approach audience data

In All by Tola Brennan

Under the direction of Aimee Schier, CNN has moved to embrace new platforms like Kik, Line and Snapchat while Evan Burns, CEO of The Odyssey, a curated digital publishing platform, emphasizes growing a loyal user base. They both sat down with Mike Rothman of Fatherly at Digital Media Strategies 2016 to discuss their experiences.

CNN Digital was one of the first 12 media organizations, and the only news outlet, to be invited to Snapchat Discover back in January 2015. “I think that’s pretty tremendous,” said Schier. The benefit of being an older brand is that they often get invited to experiment with new platforms early, she said.

The five­person team went through several iterations learning how to work with Snapchat and realized they needed to rethink how to tell a CNN story: fine­tuning headlines, repackaging for the app design and becoming more deeply mobile­focused. One early lesson: audiences didn’t respond to familiar news personalities.

“It’s provided us with some great opportunities internally to experiment with storytelling,” said Schier.

They eventually settled into creating an edition every day based on stories from other social channels, but plan to soon expand publishing to throughout the day. And understanding the Snapchat audience is another adjustment. On Discover, users seem to be coming to the channel three to four times a week. It might appear low, but according to what Snapchat has shared with publishers, it’s the standard.

And for now, that can easily line up with the team’s direction of cultivating a habit. “Our goal is to create a very loyal news consumer,” said Schier. For CNN, it’s a matter of brand extension and with company funding, it means the freedom to try things out a see what works.

In April, they added Line, Kik and Facebook Instant Messenger. On these platforms users are a little more frequent and Schier is gearing towards five or six visits a week. “For us, that’s success,” said Schier. With newer platforms that’s evolving and it can be hard to get enough metrics at such an early phase.

Explaining data to audiences

Besides expanding outwards, part of the reward has been sharing the experience with the rest of the CNN newsroom. “It showed many of our colleagues internally what we could accomplish in a few months,” said Schier. She’s excited to be bringing the insights and knowledge gained back to core platforms. To this end, Schier has organized events like lunches with the rest of the CNN staff to share the journey, and of course, push for vertical video.

While CNN has an already established brand and audience, Evan Burns at The Odyssey takes a different tack.

“We are a platform, not a publisher,” he said. And they have a fine­tuned mission to help “real people in communities around the country be heard.” The idea is to nurture posts already being published on networks like Facebook that have drawn people’s attention, that might be shared in a text or by email and bring those creators onto the platform.

The strategy has been finding the most interesting content a community really wants to talk about. Burns said: “Organic social traction is very powerful,” he said. And it’s not only growing the writer’s reach with guidance. It’s about creating a diverse environment. We look for different viewpoints, cultural backgrounds, interests and experiences. For The Odyssey, engagement means reading a piece of content and then seeing something from a entirely different viewpoint; it’s the anti-­echo chamber.

Part of their edge has been how they use data to inform the structure of content: By focusing on building a platform, they learn more and more about people’s interests and reading habits. Then, they bring that information to the creators. Besides personal emails and internal memos, they’ve baked this into the writing experience with a wizard that will nudge and provide useful data passively. It’s advice about quality, length and sentiment but “we’re not going to make them start creating clickbait headline,” said Burns.

In the long run, Burns sees this as the winning strategy. “There’s gonna be a divergence where we have people who own platforms and people who create content on other people’s platforms,” he said. The Odyssey aims to remain the former and monetize on platform. An off­platform user has no value said Burns, but a logged in user is worth a lot more.

Being able to get to know the audience really well, hypertarget and really hit people’s interests is key, he said. And it’s also important to make sure “people understand why that data helps improve their experience of the site.” This relationship with users is what helps grab advertisers interest and serve up messaging that people actually want to see.