How NewsWhip intends to take the guesswork out of which stories will go viral

Covering the most powerful media companies to the smartest startups, former Independent media editor Ian Burrell examines the fraught problem of how news is funded today. Follow Ian @iburrell.

On the southside of Dublin in a Georgian square that was once the address of Oscar Wilde and WB Yeats, a small but fast growing digital company aims to unlock the formulae that determine how articles perform on social media.

NewsWhip, barely six years old, has accrued a vast pool of historic social media data which it believes holds insights that can return to news publishers the control over their content which, at great financial cost, they lost hold of when rushing to follow readers into the uncharted territories of the new platforms of modern communication.

It has built digital tools – called 'Spike' and 'Analytics' – to scour and assess this data, allowing newsrooms to identify important and emerging stories and to investigate trends, ensuring that such publishers as the BBC, the Guardian and the Washington Post are among its customers.

The value of these tools is now being recognised by brand marketers (Reebok), media agencies (OMD), public relations businesses (Edelman) and finance companies (Mastercard) who see competitive advantage in being able to predict the public’s reaction to story telling, whether it is of an editorial or commercial nature. NewsWhip’s client list stands at 320 companies.

It frequently publishes findings that give a greater understanding of how social media is being used to read news. It recently disclosed that India Times was the most-effective English language publisher on Facebook in terms of shares, ahead of NBC and Fox News (with the Daily Mail in seventh and the BBC in eighth). It analysed the optimum length of a story for maximum shares and found that the sweet spot for the New York Times audience is 1,021 words, but for the BBC it’s 721 and for the Huffington Post it’s 641.

Clickbait cooling

And, most intriguingly, it recently compared the most shared headlines of January 2015 with those of January 2017 across 10 large publishers and found a marked shift away from clickbait, listicles and showbusiness stories, in favour of serious content, especially politics. You might say this is the Trump effect but, if so, the new tone of news on social media could last for four years or more.

NewsWhip’s founder and CEO Paul Quigley is the first to admit he is on a learning curve like everyone else, and that the company is still “discovering” new business applications for its data. “It’s the opposite of how you are supposed to build a company,” he admits. “We have found the business afterwards.”

When Quigley quit a career at the top end of the legal profession in 2010 to pursue his interest in online media it was with a wholly different purpose in mind - he aspired to follow digital publishers such as Nick Denton and Arianna Huffington. “I wanted to build a European youth news brand, a Gawker meets Private Eye meets the Huffington Post for Europe,” he says.

His ambition foundered on “the unforgiving nature of online economics” and the challenge of growing revenue on a banner advertising model of “10 cents per thousand eyeballs”. But the experience of working closely with journalists as they studied online news traffic taught him a lot. He was taken with Facebook’s early publication of share data and the possibilities that entailed. “I became interested in doing that for the entire internet,” he says. “Let’s pull in everything and see what’s the most shared sports story in the whole world in the last hour.”

This is what NewsWhip’s Spike tool does. Journalists starting work each day are able to identify the most shared articles on their beat and news desks are able to direct their reporters to news that Spike reveals to be generating increased interest among the online public.

Publishers have “limited resources” and “one of the big time costs is researching and finding which stories [journalists] should write about”, says Quigley. “A lot of that research is guesswork and what you end up with is inefficiency and people hunting on social media and competitor sites trying to work out what are the important stories today.” Spike is designed to “eliminate that guesswork”.

Clients typically pay around $12,000-a-year for this service. The fear from a citizen’s perspective would be that we end up with a news media that operates in a pack (even more so than old Fleet Street), endlessly obsessing over what is already being covered and not bringing previously unreported news into the public domain.

Quigley maintains that Spike helps investigative and campaigning journalists too, citing the example of US liberal publisher ThinkProgress, an early NewsWhip client, which was helped to monitor local acts of police brutality that were under the radar of bigger media companies. “ThinkProgress was able to discover a story about a schizophrenic teenager shot by the police, and it became an international story…and they were able to make real progress with that cause.”

Similar “heads-up” tools are available for free via Google News Alerts or Twitter trending, or for a fee from traditional media monitoring agencies that “clipping” services. But Quigley argues that NewsWhip’s services from the real-time insights of Spike to the historic database of Analytics gives a much more sophisticated result than a keyword search or brand reference. “I can look at the top 500 UK publishers and a whole year of data and I want to search for the biggest influencer on the Oscars, say, or EastEnders. It’s a data set that is unique that we have been building up over the last few years,” he says.

Instead of charging per keyword, NewsWhip offers an unlimited search model.

The capability of identifying not just the publications but the writers who are most influential in a particular niche, has obvious value to brands and PR businesses. It could also transform the relationship between specialist journalists and their employers.

Advertising agencies and marketers are able to see how public interest in particular themes changes at different times of the year and how users respond to content according to format and publisher, helping them to shape future campaigns. “We have been learning about the marketers as they have been coming in the door and telling us what they want,” says Quigley.

“Brands used to be able to buy your attention because you had to sit there while they stuck an ad next to the content you were going to watch or read. It’s getting harder and harder to do that so now you have to earn attention as a brand. That means you can’t just tell a crappy story and put $20m behind it. That means there is a value in understanding what kind of topics people are interested in, on what kind of media and in how many words.”

Dark social

NewsWhip can’t offer a complete picture. Its database does not include sharing in the increasingly influential private messaging platforms, such as Snapchat, WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger.

Quigley is philosophical about the problem. “We will take in every source that becomes available. We have Reddit, Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, Linked In, Pinterest, and between this combination we can get a pretty good imprint of what’s interesting and what people are sharing. If Snapchat and WhatsApp was in it as well it would probably change the results a bit but it would probably be the same stuff that was bubbling up.”

Similarly, measuring shares of video content is currently prohibitively expensive but NewsWhip hopes that advances in machine learning will soon enable it to add this key format to its data pool.

NewsWhip has expanded its staff headcount to 55 and is set to undergo a new growth spurt. As well as its offices in Dublin (“We have fancy high ceilings and big sash windows for all the people in their hoodies writing code”) it has a presence in New York, which Quigley describes as “the capital for new media” and home to NewsWhip clients including BuzzFeed and Hearst.

Someone who studies Facebook data so closely has a unique insight into the news industry’s relationship with the platform. He claims that the disruption that followed last year’s changes to the Facebook algorithm, favouring posts by friends and family over those from news publishers, has largely settled down. ’It turned up the baby photos a little and turned down the news a little and everyone felt that. But there’s still a huge volume of news sharing going on,” he says.

For certain types of publisher, Facebook and other social media platforms are an ally. “It’s a great time to be a niche publisher you can build up an audience and connect with them directly on Facebook and it’s a great time to be a big national publication with an international reputation like the New York Times or the Washington Post.” For regional publishers life is more “difficult”, says Quigley, highlighting how social media users can go directly to the source for news from local sports teams and freely obtain international news for free.

But while he may not have become the big publisher that he once dreamed of, he claims that NewsWhip can play a part in giving back to news providers the stewardship of their own content as it travels across social media.

“Having big data you can see trends over time and compare yourself with competitors,” he says. “If you don’t have that it’s all guesswork, it’s I heard Joe down the corridor say Facebook’s algorithm has changed….”

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