Why is the Telegraph on Amazon’s Echo now without having a clear role for it yet?

The Telegraph is one of the first publishers in the UK on Amazon's Echo device.

What does a publisher stand to benefit from being one of the first on Amazon’s Echo even though it doesn’t have a clear role for the device? According to the Telegraph’s lead product manager Melinda Rogers, it’s about trying to understand early on how people want to get their news in the connected home.

Most morning routines involve a quick glance at a news feed on a smartphone or a review of the morning bulletins on the TV. Imagine if after snoozing your alarm at least twice, you could roll over and say, “Alexa, give me the main news headlines”. The Amazon Echo sitting on the bedside table whirs to life and proceeds to read out the Telegraph’s five headlines, each of which it could read the whole story if commanded.

Or it could rattle through the sports or entertainment headlines, the final two in a trio of topics the publisher thinks will work best following workshops with the Amazon product team earlier in the year. People will also be able to ask for theme based topics such as “Brexit” in the coming months.

Regardless of what section or headline is picked, all articles are a maximum of 8,000 characters, roughly the equivalent of 1,600 words.

At first glance, it may seem superfluous at best and counter-intuitive at worst. After all, publishers have yet to fully adapt to the ubiquity of mobile devices and have suffered greatly because of tech companies like Amazon eating into their advertising revenues. However, on the flip side of the argument, it is far riskier to miss out on the next big shift in consumers’ online consumption than it is to invest in a range of emerging technologies even if over half of them end up being defunct.

Whether the age of artificial intelligence arrives in a year or years is debatable. What isn’t is that the Telegraph, along with the Guardian and the Daily Mail, think it that important that they need to push into unchartered territory now even though they have yet to master how people want their content on mobile devices and on third party platforms. Rogers reasoned that “it’s about being there at the beginning of the internet of things”, a time when the commercial pressures are non-existent and the competition for attention is at a minimum.

“All the platforms are moving in this direction so it’s great to be among the first launch on something like Amazon Echo,” Rogers continued. “It’s all about getting more frictionless; that’s the whole point of technology – this idea of making something easier like not having to take out your phone to find the latest news.”

People would normally turn on their TV or radio for news in the absence of their phone, though Rogers argues all those experiences will blur into one once “something like Amazon Echo or Google Home” becomes the focal point for all their connected devices. Whether the Telegraph brand becomes primarily used for news, sport, entertainment or even podcasts in this medley is something the publisher is still a way from being able to answer.

Careful not to give too much a way in terms of how the publisher will carve out this point of difference, Rogers hinted at what’s in store for the coming months. “I was really interested to read a survey on Alexa users in the US that found most people were using the device in their kitchens. It was 30% above the living room and other areas in the home. That’s interesting for us given we’ve got lifestyle content including food, drink and recipes so we might try and use this content a bit more.”

Despite the (considerable) length of the audio stories, there’s only so much the publisher can do now to gauge that attention. Measurement of Alexa content is still a work in progress, with the Telegraph getting early insights via a dashboard that tracks behaviour such as the ‘most mentioned utterances’, the ‘most requested topics’, and the ‘length of time someone listens to an article’ and the ‘number of returning users’.

With all this information passing through the device the publisher hopes that Alexa can eventually personalise its story briefings, though Rogers admitted it’s too early to tell how much of this is already happening.

The more the Telegraph looks to do with Alexa, the more it will need to invest in a channel it is yet to create specific content for or have a dedicated team on. Should that become a reality then pressure to offset those costs with branded content will rise.

“We’ve started to have those internal chats [about monetisation] now but we also need to talk to Amazon because obviously, they’ll come up with some rules that we’ll have to stick to,” explained Rogers. “It’s early days and we’re not exactly clear how that will turn out but we’re keen to make it [Amazon Echo] commercially viable].”

"Publishers are right to embrace new platforms and technologies as it future proofs their content and main currency – that of knowledge and opinion,” said Fabio Labate, media strategist at DigitasLBi.

“By defining the tech companies as the problem, they lose sight of the real ill that plagues them. The main issue publishers face is the following: advertising revenues fell dramatically when news consumption went online and then again when online display buying went programmatic. To safeguard their revenues and strengthen their bargaining power vs the emerging digital eco-systems, publishers should remember that together, they are a formidable force and band together to protect their margins and negotiate as a consolidated block rather than scrap over a shrinking pool of opportunities.”

The Telegraph may be charmed by the potential of Amazon Echo but it is still firmly in the test-and-learn arena rather than tried-and-tested at the moment. However, Christmas could prove a good time to win over more users, with the device tipped to be one of the gifts high in demand.

Ahead of the predicted uptake, the Telegraph is mulling whether to run a marketing campaign to properly announce itself on the deice. Amazon Echo’s big launch was a soft launch for the Telegraph service and so there’s a belief that an awareness push could help swell early usage numbers.

“We’ve been told by Amazon that we’re in the top ten on their UK Skills store,” enthused Rogers.

The Telegraph’s announcement is just the latest move in a well-established trend of publishers embracing emerging technologies before there is a critical mass of users justifying that they do so. A similar attitude was taken for Discover on Snapchat, Google Glass, Google AMP and Facebook Instant Articles.

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