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Ready yourself for the rise of voice, Canadian VP of content urges

Natalie Milne ()

Publishers should ready themselves for a world where voice is a primary user interface for interacting with their content, says Natalie Milne, VP of Content at Maple Media, based in Toronto, Canada.

“It’s fascinating,” said Natalie of the rise of voice. “My six-year old uses YouTube Kids, and she, even though she can write, uses voice to do all of her searches on YouTube Kids. To me that was an eye-opener. You need to think of the device as a utility, for example using it to contact your pizza restaurant to call for that pepperoni pizza to collect on your way home. It’s going to change the landscape.”

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FIPP contributor Felix Mago caught up with Natalie at Digital Innovators’ Summit 2017 in Berlin, which she attended as a delegate. Here, apart from the rise of voice, she shares thoughts on changes in the media landscape, the role of content and what excites her about the future with us.

Natalie describes Maple Media as “a digital first, digital only magazine company. We have eight owned and operated properties and are strong in three verticals: parenting, women’s lifestyle (focused mainly on women in their 20s) and male lifestyle.”

At Maple Media, Natalie oversees all content, including video and content initiatives for clients. While she originally started her career, she “moved quickly into the digital space, realising that is the future.”

Producing quality content is not only close to her heart, but she believes is paramount for publishers to survive. “When I started as a web editor over a decade ago, my role was primarily to take print editorial and make it snappy for the web and create different headlines that were more literal and SEO friendly. 

“It was essentially taking print content and re-publishing it. In that time without budgets there was only so much we could do. When we started getting a small budget to create web exclusive content, the content was only about 400 words long.”

She believes that's the wrong approach. “I think we underestimated our readers online. We believed that they wanted short stories, very easy to read.” When people are consuming content on digital devices, “they want the same high standards they would’ve received in a magazine or newspaper”. 

As the desire for quality content grows, she believes people’s willingness to pay for content will increase eventually. “It is evolving … people are realising if they want quality, they must be willing to pay to have the voices of their favourite writers on the site.”

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It brings us to a question about writers as a brand in their own right, something that can be a boon in an era of social distribution. “It helps, certainly. In my organisation, we often use writers that have social influence because we know that they have a devoted audience and can help amplify content. However, we don't choose writers based only on their individual influence of course. We also rely on skilled writers because they create the content we know our readers want.”

Social distribution is one of the big changes Natalie highlights since she started in digital a decade ago. While this has extended reach, it also brought other changes to contend with, for example of users engaging with your content without necessarily knowing your brand or ever visiting it via your homepage.

In fact, Natalie says, the rise of in particular Google and Facebook as the dominant drivers of traffic to content sites has brought about other challenges. For example, “one algorithmic change and you can see a significant drop in traffic. We are really dependent on those third parties and while it extends reach, it makes our, job very, very challenging.”

Another big change has been the shift from gut feel-based editorial decisions to data driven editorial decisions. “Traditionally editors would work on a hunch, what they believe their readers wanted to see. Relying more on data to actually see how our readers are engaging with our content, how long they're staying, and the type of content that we produce.” It also helps building deeper understanding of user behaviours, how they engage with different content and individual writers, how they reach the homepage, how they engage socially, and so on. 

Looking ahead, Natalie says mobile remains of paramount importance. “I primarily focus on women in their 20s and moms, so mobile is very important. Moms are busy. Their attention is fragmented as it is; they need to be able to consume content wherever they are, whether it's at the doctor's office or in the middle of the night feeding their baby. Mobile has always been an important part of our brand and ensuring that we're providing the best user experience and ability to find our content is very important.”

She is also excited about location-based opportunities for their brands. “It is important to us. We focus on local content for parents in various cities in Canada. Location tracking is actually a unique opportunity to be able to provide information on for example family-friendly restaurants wherever they are or parks if they're in a new city. We can provide that content easily.”

Looking slightly further ahead, technologies of interest include VR and AR (“It’s a common theme I’m hearing – it will change the way people consume our content”), as well as chatbots (“That’s certainly something I’m going to spend my time on researching.”).

In the final analysis though, for Natalie there is one thing that remains consistent. “Content is king. I believe if you're providing a service to readers with content that really engages them, you can overcome many of the challenges thrown your way.”

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