Here he discusses NBC’s recent virtual reality presidential debate, the potential of Facebook 360, how the company is developing interactive radio-like experiences for users of the Amazon Echo, launching micro verticals and why and when email still works.
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How does NBC go about assessing the potential of a new technological innovation for its news output?
Like at any large enterprise, there is not always one consistent method to institute change. Ideas can come from anywhere and often start with a single team or individual being particularly curious about exploring a new opportunity or investing additional time and resources. We encourage creative spontaneity at NBC News Digital and favour rapid iteration over a more structured, top-down approach. In addition, we have dedicated innovation labs and often collaborate with platform partners who are keen to work with our brands and content.
We always want to test, validate and learn quickly, in order to iterate as often as possible. That means releasing new products early and getting feedback from our audience, our advertisers, and our journalists to understand the product-market fit without being too invested upfront.
What was the background to the VR Presidential debate? Where did the idea come from and how did you go about finding partners and executing on it?
For the last four Presidential elections, NBC News has transformed New York City’s Rockefeller Center into Democracy Plaza, where folks could watch our Election Night coverage, meet our talent and interact with new technologies. In 2016 we wanted to launch this initiative earlier and extend it to people all across the world, and social VR was the perfect medium. We partnered with AltspaceVR, a cross-platform app to share social experiences, to help us recreate Democracy Plaza as a virtual world. We debuted the Virtual Democracy Plaza space in late September and held 11 events there, including streaming the presidential debates live so users could watch with friends, hosting a cybersecurity panel with a “Mr. Robot” writer, and having talent including Chuck Todd and Al Roker answer audience questions.
Our work in VR is produced by Steve Veres and the Strategic Content team at NBC News.
How did the event go? Any lessons learned?
Thousands of folks checked out our experience, and we were happily surprised at the level of engagement – the average time a visitor spent in the space was more than 30 minutes. In the end, we saw more than 10,000 visits to the experience.
Are you planning other VR events in the future? Do you see opportunities in mixed and augmented reality too?
NBC News is excited about the potential of AR and VR for truly immersive storytelling, and we’re experimenting all the time. One example: We saw quite a bit of success partnering with Facebook on a 360 video livestream of the Trump Inauguration and Women’s March in DC.
How successful do you feel that your 360 video experiments have been? Does the platform have a future in news video or is it purely an intermediary format?
We’ve seen success with our first few 360 videos on Facebook (especially Facebook Live 360 which we experimented with over Inauguration Weekend). We saw millions of viewers from these videos alone. We’ve also recently launched our digital video studio, which will focus on delivering video content across all platforms, including 360 video and in VR.
Do you think that publishers should continue to invest so heavily in apps? Are there other priorities now?
The diminishing number of new app downloads certainly means a shift in priorities. Mobile users gravitate towards platforms and obviously value aggregation and performance. The less distinguished the content, the more that rings true. However, for large brands with loyal audiences, unique content and promotional capacity apps can still be a great way to serve devoted followers. At NBC News Digital, we’ve recently launched a new Today Show mobile app and saw more than 100,000 downloads in the first week and see continuously high retention rates.
In addition, video content is still engaging in native apps and that is where we will continue to invest (in mobile and OTT). We’ll also explore frameworks that enable efficient distribution via open standards, such as AMP and progressive web apps. It is important to stay diversified and continue to evolve the product portfolio so that we meet our users wherever they are and do not get too invested in one platform – especially if there is no clear path to meaningful monetisation.
You have pioneered chatbots for news in the US. What lessons did you learn from your experience with Kik, Facebook and others? How do you think publishers will use chatbots in the future?
One major learning is the balancing act between being robotic vs. human-like language within a chatbot’s voice. Too robotic comes off dull while too human-sounding can be unsettling. Plus, this type of voice should vary from platform to platform rather than feeling too ‘repurposed.’ Another important lesson is around bot discovery. Often platforms ‘hide’ the chatbots from easy view and a user needs to already know how to access them to discover new ones. We learned that sharing news about the bot on other platforms often helped. While we can’t really imagine a future where users ONLY interact with conversational interfaces, they will certainly become more and more prominent, which creates a real opportunity for us to develop deeper relationships with our audience by providing more customised experiences. You can see two of these chatbots with Today Food and NBC Politics on Facebook Messenger.
These creations and more were produced by the Today Innovation Lab, led by Andrew Pinzler.
There was a huge buzz about Amazon Echo and other voice activated gadgets at CES this year? Again, what are the opportunities you see for NBC and other publishers in using Echo, Home and their rivals?
Similar to chatbots, voice is a compelling opportunity to engage our audience, and we want to be there early and evolve with the platforms. It is still very early for conversational interfaces and that means they are currently mostly navigational. For publishers, they offer a shortcut to get to the right content, so this puts a new emphasis on audio. However, it’s not compelling to have a machine speak a news piece that was meant for reading. So, there’s a need for iteration. One idea we’re exploring is an interactive radio-like experience, where a user can arrive at specific segments, chose levels of detail or respond to a call to action. Any avenue we explore, we need to build better bridges for our users, so that they can become more familiar with this type of engagement and get value from it.
There continues to be a lot of talk about the revival of email, as marketing tool and communication tool for publishers. Is this the case for NBC? How do you think publishers can innovate using email?
Newsletters are the original mobile-first product. They probably never went away, at least not for the audience. Email is a great way to engage your loyal audience and we use it extensively. Personalisation and micro verticals are two interesting opportunities we explore. Recently, NBC News switched to an email platform that allows better algorithmic curation of our newsletters. We’re testing opportunities to deliver a completely unique email experience. With the recent launch of our new content verticals, email has been a great way to test and develop new content. For example, we learned that some of our audience values small, attainable advice across any section. Our newsletter ‘One Small Thing’ offers tips on anything from cleaning to dieting, parenting to personal finance, mindfulness to management. This has led us to build a new content vertical simply called BETTER. We now have a popup website for it and are working on a more feature-rich version that will be released in a few months.
How have you been using drones for newsgathering? What’s the best example of footage that you have taken using them?
While rules for flying drones have been pretty strict in the US (only licensed pilots were allowed to fly them commercially), NBC News received a Section 333 exemption to fly drones for newsgathering. We have been steadily building our inventory of pilots and aircraft all around the country. While there are airspace restrictions on where drones can fly, we are still averaging close to a dozen flights a month to film feature packages, breaking news footage and more. We’ve also begun working on our drone coverage internationally in countries like the UK, Poland, Russia, China, Thailand, Turkey and Italy. There’s some footage from the earthquake in Nepal that we used for digital and TV. There, we worked with local contacts to be sure we stayed out of the way of authorities and rescue workers but were still able to produce high-quality video coverage of the events in Nepal.
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