Media Pitch: Shorthand Wants to Help Publishers Create "Gorgeous" Stories On A Budget
As publishers continue their search for meaningful ad revenue online, it’s becoming increasingly clear that quality trumps quantity when it comes to audience attention. Studies have shown that longer periods of engagement with content leads to greater brand recognition and impact from ads. That’s why organizations like The Financial Times are beginning to sell ads on cost-per-hour metric, rather than the typical CPM. But for this engagement strategy to work, publishers need to be able to build more appealing and differentiated content experiences. That is the goal of Shorthand, a startup that is helping publishers develop immersive and interactive longform stories. In the following interview, Shorthand CEO Ricky Robinson explains how his startup helps publishers design unique stories that keep readers on the page three to ten times longer than the average website.
1. Who are you? What is your technology and how does it work? Who are the entrepreneurs behind it?
Shorthand is the multimedia storytelling tool of choice for a wide range of publishers, brands, and nonprofits, including the BBC, The Telegraph, Business Insider, WBEZ Chicago, Skift, Refinery29, WWF, and many others. Our customers use Shorthand to create immersive, New York Times “Snow Fall“-style stories for editorial, sponsored content, and content marketing. And they can do this at a fraction of the time and cost it takes to build these stories using development teams, which is still the main alternative to what we offer.
I lead a talented and growing team of software engineers, former journalists, designers, and account executives who are responsible for making Shorthand what it is today. Each of us is drawn to the world of digital storytelling, and the rich set of challenges and opportunities to be found there. Our founding investor,
Graeme Wood, has a long history of backing news and media organizations either as an investor or philanthropist. Graeme is one of the backers of Guardian Australia, and the ICIJ, the group responsible for the Panama Papers.
2. Explain your existence: What problem are you solving or opportunity are you enabling? How are you unique and innovative?
We exist to service the growing demand for rich, multimedia stories across a range of market segments.
Longform and multimedia stories are playing an increasingly large role right across the publishing spectrum, from news and sponsored content to content marketing. In news media, where we started out, this increase is driven by several factors, but the largest is the need for publishers to find new revenue streams in the wake of collapsing traditional ad revenue. Highly engaging sponsored content is one such revenue stream. However, engaging, immersive content has typically been expensive and slow to produce because each piece is created bespoke with the involvement of a development team.
Our customers tell us that their high-end stories take a minimum of five weeks and $10,000 to produce. Now Shorthand enables them to create these pieces at a fraction of the cost and in hours instead of weeks. An editor or designer can build a Shorthand story without the support of developers in most cases.
3. Inspiration: How did you come up with this idea? How does your new tech solution reflect changes and trends underway in the media world?
When the The New York Times published “Snow Fall” in 2012, it made many publishers re-examine what storytelling on the web could be. Here was a story that captivated three million readers within the first six days of its publication, a story that used full-screen images and video to immerse the reader more thoroughly than ordinary story formats can. But “Snow Fall” was a significant development effort, and cost a lot of money to produce.
What if it were possible to build a tool that would enable teams to create these stories without having to rely on development teams? Was it possible to build a multimedia story editor that could cut the time to assemble a story like “Snow Fall” from months or weeks to days or hours?
This idea was the genesis of Shorthand. We’ve since shown the answer to these questions is an emphatic “yes”.
4. Results: How have you or do you plan to help media companies increase revenue or cut costs? Can you quantify this?
Our customers generally use Shorthand when they want their stories to look gorgeous, stand out and be read across all browsers and devices. Furthermore, Shorthand stories typically receive three to ten times higher engagement than regular web pages. To make this concrete, the average time on page for Shorthand stories across many millions of pageviews over the last six months is slightly more than 17 minutes. That’s off the charts! These two points — premium look and increased engagement — mean our customers can attract top of the range pricing for their sponsored content pieces. Couple that with the fact that Shorthand significantly reduces the time and cost to build these branded stories, and you can see we’re improving our customers’ margins at both ends.
A growing number of our customers are also moving from per-story or per-project pricing to our annual subscription plans to drive costs down even further. The subscription plans mean they can amortize the cost of Shorthand across a large number of projects each year, so the effective price they’re paying us per story can be a tiny fraction of what they’d have had to pay a developer to build the same story.
5. Share some wisdom: What do you think are the most important trends affecting the media business today? What do you see that no one else sees?
We’re bullish on the sustained importance of the independent website. These days a publication’s probability of long-term success is tied to its ability to deliver unique experiences to its readers. That in turn is dependent on its ability to experiment and innovate. Its ability to experiment and innovate comes down to its people and the platforms it’s built on.
The difficulty is, many of the platforms and tools publications are choosing may help them increase reach and publish faster, but they do not help them differentiate themselves from other publications. In fact, they do the opposite, forcing lowest common denominator formats, and the same look and feel, on all publishers who choose to participate. Facebook Instant is a case in point. The same goes for platforms like Medium. Medium is great if you’re an individual writer or a very small publisher. But larger publishers need to differentiate the experiences they provide as a whole, and not merely distinguish themselves by subject, style of writing, and the words on the page. If you’re choosing a “commodity” platform, then you’re essentially tying yourself to that platform’s innovation cycle. Being enslaved to someone else’s innovation cycle is not a situation I’d want to be in as a publisher in 2017 and beyond.
The platform you need is called “the web”. Here you can integrate new tools and technologies that you or third parties build at a pace that suits you. You can build experiences that truly set you apart from the crowd, and maintain a direct relationship with your audience. You can experiment with different business models and revenue streams far more easily here than you can on the platforms, and you’re going to see some interesting new payment models emerge in the coming years that will enable independent news media sites to prosper. Then there’s nothing stopping you from using those platforms and the tools they offer strategically — and on your own terms — rather than being tied to them.
6. What’s next? How do you plan on expanding or improving on your offering? Where do you see opportunities for growth?
We’re dedicated to seeing a flourishing and diverse news media landscape. So everything we do is focused on helping our customers improve their bottom line. Right now we do that by simplifying and expediting the process of creating premium look-and-feel stories that deeply engage their audiences. You mightn’t know it from our customer list, but it’s still very early days for us, and so we have lots of growth left in this market, even just within the magazine publisher segment. But we want to do more to help publishers monetize their audiences, and we know we can. In 2017 you’ll see some truly novel offerings from us designed to grow and directly monetize audiences for publishers. It’s exciting times!