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Fresh Prints, Virtual Shuttle Rides and Event Mugs Can Inject Needed Smiles

Innovation is hard. It involves taking chances, which during a pandemic is not easy. But a 2020 survey from Marketing General found that “a culture of innovation is the critical driver” for creating member/subscriber value. ”Try something new or you’ll plateau and decline,” one respondent said. Those who have seen member/subscriber gains “are significantly more likely to have a process in place for innovation and new ideas.”

I might not call it a French revolution, but the touchless Short Story Dispensers that Short Édition, a French publishing house, came up with a few years ago may be another sign that print does have its place.

After a brief stint in Philadelphia, the dispensers have come to the Bay Area. According to a story from BART, riders can access machines that print—yes, print—one-, three- and five-minute reads at Richmond, Fruitvale and Pleasant Hill Stations, with another one coming soon to Montgomery Street Station. Local writers get the chance to have their work published and distributed as part of the project after the one-year pilot, sponsored by the BART Communications Department and Art Program, is up and running.” It’s all touchless, and the paper is, of course, recyclable.

Short Édition created the dispensers a few years ago, printing and distributing their stories in “public spaces around the world with the aim of uplifting literature in a digital age.” Filmmaker Francis Ford Coppola, an investor in the company, had one installed in his Café Zoetrope (pictured here) in San Francisco’s North Beach. “[Our customers] are fascinated, trying to figure out how, and why, something can exist to give them a gift, a literary gift, without depositing a coin,” Coppola told BART.

For now, the program specializes in poetry, short stories and flash fiction. But why not B2B? Surely, sponsorships would follow, and it’s healthier than soda. Personally, I hope it comes to Washington, DC., so I would not be the only person reading a physical paper on the Metro.

Here are three more innovative ideas I’ve seen from organizations:

Videos about innovation. On the National Association of Broadcasters website, under a section titled Innovation Stories Videos, a two-minute video shows how Beasley Media Group is reaching young audiences with a novel strategy for a radio broadcasting organization—investing in competitive video gaming. The clip features Lori Burgess, COO for Beasley’s esports division. “Younger consumers around the world…are heavily invested in video gaming,” she said. “And we really saw an opportunity to get very, very immersed in this space and start to attract and develop these relationships with younger consumers when they’re forming their decisions about what matters most to them.”

Virtual shuttle rides. When the Institute of Food Technologists transitioned its Annual Meeting and Food Expo to SHIFT20 Virtual Event and Expo, organizers didn’t want to lose all of the networking opportunities that participants had become used to. Since shuttle rides often lead to spontaneous conversations and connections (I’ve actually had a dew of those myself on the way to hotels or an evening reception), IFT hosted a 15-minute virtual shuttle ride before every evening event. Each night, two IFT members moderated a live shuttle-bus-themed discussion with a guest to chat about the ideas emerging at SHIFT20.

Mugging for the camera. To foster a spirit of connectedness at their annual conference, BIO (Biotechnology Innovation Organization) Digital changed the meeting’s tagline from ‘Beyond’ to ‘Nothing Stops Innovation.’ Then, in advance of the conference, the group mailed all speakers a custom mug with the new tagline.” It was an added expense, but worth it because it gave speakers brand recognition onscreen that reflected togetherness, said Erin Lee, VP of marketing operations and customer experience at BIO. She added that engagement has become “more about building loyalty, the power of the brand, and giving members access to resources and connectivity in a time of need.” BIO surveyed members—always like to hear that—to find out what would be most helpful for them. “We focused on being a service to the industry.”

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Innovation and Boldness Are Being Rewarded During Pandemic

“There are no ‘enemies’ of innovation, but it is a question of complacency and inertia, of innovation perhaps not being top of mind. I hear often ‘we’ve never done it that way’ or ‘we’ve always done it that way.’”
That quote comes from Kerstin Fröhlich, head of innovation management at German media company Spiegel Verlag in an article on FIPP’s World Media Congress on the What’s New in Publishing site. Fröhlich spoke about how the German media power is “baking innovation into its organizational culture. Despite everyone agreeing that innovation is something they want to prioritize, its value must be consistently reiterated.”
An initial response to publishing life in the pandemic might have been to play down innovation and go with what you know, but what we know has been upended. The more I read, it’s the companies that are being bold and innovative that are doing well.
Here are some successful ways I’ve come across.
Reach out into new areas. Future plc, a member of our Connectiv group, has just announced profits of around $110 million for 2020, up from operating profits of $68.7 million in 2019. How have they done it? “[Future] stands out in its confidence and performance,” independent media analyst Alex DeGroote told Digiday. “Some of its products skew towards gaming—like Techradar—and gaming has gone nuts in lockdown.” Speaking at FIPP, Claire MacLellan, COO at Future, said: “We set out to become global and to have multiple revenue streams. In acquisitions”—they recently acquired Marie Claire among other brands—“we look for ways of bringing in expertise that align with the strategy and really add to the business’s strengths.”
Come up with new event ideas. These event boxes are taking off. Donna Jefferson of Chesapeake Family told me that she is planning to mail out an “event box” to attendees to a virtual event they are holding in October—possibly with sponsorships on both the inside and outside of the box. Bustle Digital Group has started giving away product kits ahead of some of its sponsored events. These kits include items like yoga mats—for its virtual yoga retreat—and lip glosses in order to make for a more immersive experience, but also to get attendees more engaged with the sponsoring brands. The event kits were complementary for the first 150 attendees to RSVP.” Always good to set a limit like that.
Strive for interactivity. This is a different industry but… Geffen “Stayhouse” (formerly Playhouse) in Los Angeles has a new show which follows the hugely successful The Present—which featured those mailed event boxes. “Inside the Box takes us into the exhilarating world of games with New York Times crossword constructor David Kwong. Twenty-four guests will have a front-row seat to an entirely interactive show of puzzles, while David regales them with stories of the most extraordinary puzzle-makers throughout history.” Q&As, roundtables, chat rooms, trivia games, polling… whatever you can do to be interactive, do it.
Adapt your content to audience needs. “There have been real challenges with COVID-19, but the significant point is that our audiences required something different through this time, so we had to pivot quite quickly to create content that mattered to them during some of the most difficult times of their lives,” said MacLellan. The pandemic has augmented the role of the media in people’s lives, and “scale brings opportunity,” she added. Jared Waters, training director for BVR who planned their Virtual Divorce Conference this week, said this is “not a personal growth year. It’s, ‘What do I need to know to survive?’ It’s all COVID-19 related.” Content from people in your community on the frontlines has been hugely rewarding these last few months.
Use virtual’s strengths. I just saw that Mario Garcia, who was a hit at our BIMS conference last year, keynoted WAN IFRA’s Asian Media Leaders eSummit in July. And why not. This year, a trip across the globe to speak has become a trip to your home office to speak. Think big for your speakers. “One of the interesting things about working from home [is] that we could dive in, get on a phone call very quickly and agree that we want to do this and we don’t have time to do 100 meetings,” said Scott Havens, chief growth officer and global head of strategic partnerships at Bloomberg Media U.S. “Hopefully this moment will be a breeding ground for new innovations to connect digital and live in a much more profound way than we do today.”
Did someone say, “hybrid”?
Business network concept. Group of businessperson. AI (Artificial Intelligence).

‘The Core Job of Journalists Isn’t Going Away’ – ALM’s New AI Content Tool Shows Human Plus Machine is the Way Forward

Last month, legal publisher ALM introduced Legal Radar, a “first-of-its-kind website and app” that uses artificial intelligence and natural language generation to offer faster and more personalized user experiences.

Legal Radar puts the reader in charge, allowing users to select the news they would like to see from a list of relevant industries, practice areas, law firms, companies, and geographic regions, then scrapes information from federal case database PACER to generate automated summaries (usually between 50-80 words) of key details about cases as well as pulling in original ALM content from other channels.

“The newsfeed is filled with short, easy-to-digest news briefs that are intended to be scanned, kind of like the experience you would have on a social media app like Twitter or a news app like Flipboard,” says Vanessa Blum,  head of newsroom innovation for ALM’s Global Newsroom. “It’s a very mobile friendly experience and responds to that habit we know our users have which is responding to short news snippets while they are on the go.”

Legal Radar represents a significant shift in the way that content is both generated and consumed. Connectiv spoke with Blum about the realities of building an AI-driven content product, how the customer content experience is changing in B2B media and what the rise of AI really means for editors and journalists.

Connectiv: Vanessa, how does the AI component of Legal Radar work?

Vanessa Blum: We start with a stream of raw data from the federal court system via PACER (Public Access to Court Electronic Records). We apply some data processing on the back end in order to normalize, structure and clean up that data.  Then it’s converted into short summaries using natural language generation (NLG) technology from a platform called Automated Insights.

It goes in as structured data and it comes out as a readable summary. Then, as the final step, we have editors review the summary for accuracy and to make any edits that are necessary.

Connectiv: The release refers to a “first-of-a-kind website and app.” Can you talk more about what makes this first of a kind and how this offers a new customer experience?

Blum: I’ll talk about two things. First is that user experience. There’s never been a legal news product, certainly not a free legal news product, that is so easy to use on mobile, that can be personalized by user selection and is so seamless to digest information and respond to it. We think we nailed that UX in a way that hasn’t been done in legal media

The second part, which we are really excited about, is the way we are using technology and data processing to generate content for Legal Radar. It’s not the tech in itself, it’s that using technology allows us to be exponentially faster in delivering news to readers and also to deliver news across a wide array of topics and interest areas. I’m really excited about what the technology allows us to do, not only the tech in itself.

Connectiv: Talk about the interaction of the technology with editors. What’s this mean for an editor day-to-day?

Blum: I’ll start with the development process, and how closely our editors and developers worked together in building the back-end system. There are journalistic insights baked into every piece of the data processing engine—it’s the editors who devised how this data should be handled as well as the categories and the tagging that should be applied to it.

And then at the NLG level, these are templates that were created by editors to produce the kind of output that would be useful to readers. They account for over a dozen different fact patterns. It’s not a simple plug-and-play NLG engine, there is really this contribution of journalists and editors throughout the development of Legal Radar. Now that it’s up and running, we have editorial review of every item that’s created. We have staffing around the clock where an editor is looking over each and every item.

We thought that was necessary for two reasons—one is that the data set we are working with can be messy. We knew we needed something on the back end to protect against an error in the data producing an error in the content.

The other component is the ability of a human to enrich the content that we are putting out. These are very short, very fast-paced summaries but if something catches an editor’s interest, they will take an extra step—they will open a case, they will open a lawsuit and add a few key facts. We think it’s incredibly valuable to have the human judgment at the end of that process to resolve any questions or enrich what we are producing using the automated system.

Connectiv: A lot of publishers are taking a look at AI and trying to understand what they can do. As someone who’s successfully built an AI tool, what takeaways ca you share about working with AI and building and AI-driven product?

Blum: I have two main takeaways from this experience: first is to focus on the end user and not the tech. It’s easy to get enraptured by cool tech but the best practice is focus first on what you want to deliver and then focus on how the tool gets you to that result. In my role, learning about new tech and seeing how other companies are applying it is eye opening and can spark that creative process but it’s essential to stay user-focused.

The second thing is to build truly cross-functional teams. Creating Legal Radar required journalists, programmers, product designers and business strategists to all be around the table in a way that was really new for our organization. We tend to have content creators in one area and developers in another. For Legal Radar, content creation and technology are so intertwined that we had to break down the walls and get editors and programmers talking together to solve problems. Not only has that made our product better, it’s made our company better.

Connectiv: What was the biggest strategic takeaway from this experience?

Blum: Staying open minded. When we first started, we had a different data set in mind that we thought we’d be using to produce automated coverage. We learned early on that data set wasn’t workable for us, we had to pivot to something else.

One other thing that I’ll mention, we are working with Automated Insights and it’s a great product, but we found we had to build a lot of solutions at the front end before the data is fed into Automated Insights and at the back end before the content goes into the Legal Radar newsfeed. That’s not something we necessarily anticipated at the outset—how much thought and creativity we’d have to apply both to the data feed going into Automated Insights and how we would handle the content on the back-end.

Connectiv: As the head of newsroom innovation, what are you excited about with content and media? And conversely, what do you think is overrated?

Blum: I’m interested and excited in the combination of human and machine intelligence. I love watching how other news organizations are using technology, using algorithmic journalism, using AI and combining it with the expertise of their journalists to come up with solutions that are incredibly rich. That’s kind of the secret sauce in my view.

In terms of what I think is overhyped, I hate answering that because I’m sure I’ll be back talking about this a year from now, but I will say that smart speakers and developing news products for Alexa. I don’t get that one yet. I’m not convinced we’ll be receiving our information from smart speakers in the near future.

Connectiv: You’ve talked about journalists and AI working together. What’s your reaction to the idea of AI replacing editors and writers?

Blum: That’s the natural fear that people in our industry have as we begin learning about automated journalism. The more I’ve learned about it, the less that fear seems grounded. What technology is capable of is so different from what humans are capable of that it’s really through combining the two that we will see the most exciting advances. Technology is great at processing reams of data very fast, but in the business I’m in, which involves asking questions, exploring trends, talking to insiders, there’s no potential at this point that a machine will take over those functions.

When you combine the speed and data processing capabilities of the technology and turn that over to a human being to do the investigation and talk to real people, that’s where magic happens. I think journalist jobs will change–my own changed dramatically–and journalists will be forced to become more tech-savvy and be more open to using data processing in their work, but the core job of a journalist isn’t going away and cannot be replaced by a computer or an algorithm.