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Elections & epidemics: how Google is helping publishers in Asia with real-time data


By Charlotte McEleny, Asia Editor

April 7, 2020 | 8 min read

Data science has been on the marketing and media wishlist for some time but many smaller teams and businesses can’t resource this expertise. For many publishers, the need to be more real-time and reactive is prescient but with business models being challenged constantly, having the tools and expertise is tougher.

Google stepped in last year to help these publishers, launching Realtime Content Insights (RCI) as a free tool for smaller publishers to use.

Explaining the tool, Amy Adams Harding, director of analytics and revenue optimization, news and publishing at Google, says the tool helps in decision-making for both content and distribution strategies for publishers.

“One of the reasons we developed Realtime Content Insights (RCI) is to help smaller news organizations, who may not have a data scientist on-site, still receive actionable insights informed by real-time data. We know this is so important to decision-making today and can help publishers deliver the right news to their audiences and build reader loyalty,” she says.

The Drum spoke to two Asia-based publishers - Daniak Jagran in India and Rappler in the Philippines - that have been using the tool, initially finding a powerful use case alongside major elections but now seeing its value as the world is rocked by the coronavirus epidemic.

For Rappler, having access to data that is easy to understand and act on during a time that is forcing a lot of change on people and its business has been a useful tool, and allowed them to test new ideas.

Maria Ressa, chief executive officer of Rappler, explains, “The world as we know it will never be the same. The Philippines lockdown began [in March] and journalists can go out and still go on the streets but to walk around the streets and see them empty, I just think, what kind of world are we going to have after the lockdown? Using this data, you look to see how much the digital transformation has knocked us like a punch. Everyone was forced to go online, everyone, because we're on lockdown. Our traffic not only has increased exponentially but it has also given us new opportunities.”

Ressa says that analysing data about its most loyal readers, the brand lovers, has helped her shift from doing video interviews for stories to launching webinars instead that can sit behind its membership. The publisher now has plans to open this up to its civic engagement arm as a way of revitalising connection with its NGO and student communities. They have also launched a data-based tool to help people understand the impact of Coronavirus to local neighbourhoods and enlisted a former government minister and epidemiologist as an expert, initially targeting this content to loyal readers.

“What we're trying to do is at a time when information is at a premium, and when everyone is alone in their homes, we are looking for ways to connect us all together in more meaningful ways, using the data that we have available,” she explains.

According to Google’s Adams Harding, major large events have been the driving force of this data and provided publishers with the ‘aha’ moment in how to use this data, rather than feeling overwhelmed by the amount of data.

“Since we launched RCI about a year ago, we’ve heard from our publishing partners that one of the strongest use cases has been during big news events. Historically, during these heightened cultural moments, there is an overwhelming amount of data available to publishers. We’ve seen the tool help news organizations hone in on the real-time metrics that matter to keep pace with reader interests and popular news topics as they unfold, as well as identify potential gaps in their coverage,” she explains.

For India’s Daniak Jagran, India’s top Hindi language newspaper and biggest paper by readership, this moment first came during the Indian general elections last year.

Danaik Jagran

Bharat Gupta, chief executive officer of Jarat New Media, Danaik Jagran’s digital business, explains that a major challenge for publishers during events like elections is being quick and nimble while not jeopardising the quality of the coverage. As such the company decided its core objective had to be to drive meaningful awareness among the audience.

“How do we ensure that the agility and the authoritativeness are maintained? When you talk about the election, very giant things are happening very, very quickly. In order to run after that agility, you compromise an authoritativeness and you tend to make mistakes,” he explains.

The concern about being both quick and meaningful for users drove an interesting approach for distribution during the elections. Starting ahead of the elections, they created ‘cohorts’ of audiences, based on their interest around certain keywords. The primary keyword was ‘election’ but using these ‘cohorts’ meant they could use Google’s paid-for channels to target content to a much more specific and engaged group. For example, crime was of interest to people in certain towns, or development in another. Once the publisher used the data to establish these ‘cohorts’, it used Google’s ad tools like AdWords to help make sure the right content hit the right audiences.

“My content was being delivered to the right audience in a far more effective way. This is versus what used to happen earlier, where users were left to explore what is available on the website or you were expecting them to type and search certain things on Google. I think that was the fundamental change. The dashboard also gave us the ability to quickly see what the key trending things were happening throughout the day. The politicians were, for example, filing a Manifesto and we were able to map that with cities which our primary attraction is coming from. This gave the editorial teams insight around what is the audience wanting to know because this particular day was outside the purview of a planned content pipeline,” he explains.

All this work led to a huge spike in traffic for Danaik Jagran, which over the course of the election last year saw a 6x growth in traffic and 4x growth in consumption.

“I think there is nothing like seeing an empirical form of growth attached to a theory. This really proves the point that data-driven or data-informed decisions can really do wonders,” he says.

In terms of what’s next for this technology, Google’s Adams Harding explains that it has already updated the tool to improve its usage around major events.

“A few months ago, we unveiled a new feature in RCI dedicated to trendings events and cultural moments, with more real-data from Google Trends. This “Trending Topics” module creates a unified view of real-time data specific to a big news event and has helped publishers generate greater insights as news about critical events unfolds. We continue to update the tool based on feedback from our publishing partners, who are an important part of our development process. We look forward to sharing future updates in the months ahead,” she explains.

With coronavirus dominating news coverage globally, the consensus from most newsrooms is that they have to innovate quickly around being the most useful media company for their audiences. Data will play a large part in this as publishers seek to remove the guess-work from understanding and predicting what their audiences want to read next.

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