Extending the brand of traditional publishing to new, networked audiences has been embraced big-time at the Washington Post. I spoke this week to Vijay Ravindran, Senior Vice President and Chief Digital Officer at the venerable newspaper company, who has been heading up its initiative called The Washington Post Social Reader on Facebook. The WaPo Reader was announced this September at F8 and it was recently announced (requires registration) that it has gathered over five million readers.
The audience for the WaPo social reader is, according to Ravindran, "the millions of readers who care about news, and for whom Facebook is the center of their online universe." The new Facebook app grew out of an earlier WaPo-developed application known as Trove, which helps individual users aggregate and engage their preferred content. As Ravindran saw it, the next step for Trove was an extension to a global distribution system, and what better than Facebook's?
That's putting a brand that stood for perhaps the best national political coverage into the hands of an entirely new audience. Now the "paper" is being put on the "doorstep" of a global audience, 83% of whom are under the age of 35. Because of Facebook's social network, the thought is not only to present the latest news discussed by the water-cooler, but also to co-create, along with Facebook, the water-cooler itself. Further, with leading content partnerships formed with other media outlets like the Hindustani Times, this hyper-local news source (The Washington Post newspaper, unlike the NY Times, has virtually no distribution outside the DC-metro area) extends its reach into a very flat world.
All well and good, and one would imagine, not that expensive. Although Ravindran would not share the cost of the project or the size of the team that developed the app, the company has shrewdly created a wider footprint through partnerships that expand the scope of its content. That requires, presumably, not an enormous investment, but rather, an understanding of the value of the brand to potential partners.
Social Media Today recently hosted a panel discussion with Clay Shirky and IBM's Saul Berman during which they both touched on how traditional publishers are moving to new models to support their businesses. Captured here in video, Shirky specifically refers to the model supported by the New York Times (and would apply to the WaPo Reader) which focuses on creating a branded experience for the reader and then building monetization from there (vs. a more discrete pay-per-use model like The Wall Street Journal's.) While Shirky was not be more specific about what this kind of brand experience would eventually mean for monetization, it breaks the model that has, to date, stumped newspaperpublishers seeking to make money online.
The idea of making money on the Social Reader venture, which Ravindran says is still way in the future, has occurred to The Post, which cannot afford to milk a venerable brand without also feeding it occasionally. Correctly, Ravindran points out that with Facebook, the "real estate left of the right rail is open to application developers" to have a go at monetization or whatever is needed to support the business. This is what our friend and Social Media Today blogger, Laurent Francois, refers to as "hyphenated marketing" when creators of content can co-create advertising and other marketing buys with the large platform providers.
"In time, when we have an audience, we can contemplate monetization..." states Ravindran. Since when is five million not an (enormous) audience?