Inside CNN Digital’s $20 million bid for global domination in mobile and video news

CNN is the most popular mobile news destination and news video provider in the US, and it wants to stay there.

Not content to rest on its laurels, CNN is investing massively in digital and is focusing on third-party platforms as well as its own websites and apps.

CNN’s Senior Vice President and Chief Product Officer Alex Wellen tells ClickZ:

“Mobile is fundamental to our future – consumption on mobile already outpaces desktop. We are the largest desktop news provider in the world and yet mobile is larger both in terms of unique users and consumption.”

Across all platforms – desktop, mobile, tablet, apps – CNN has 121 million monthly unique users of its owned digital properties. 92 million of those are mobile users, according to ComScore (January 2017) data which was supplied to ClickZ by CNN.

CNN’s nearest rivals in mobile news are New York Times, with 88 million; Washington Post, 79 million; Huffington Post, 70 million; Yahoo: 67 million; and 66 million.

Mobile web vs mobile app

So which is bigger: CNN’s mobile web sites, or its apps?

“Our mobile web audience is 10 times our audience on apps.

“So you ask yourself: why continue to spend all this money on apps? But when you look at the users of app they are viewing 13 times more pages and 17 times more video. So that means that an audience that is 1/10 the size of mobile web is consuming as much or more than other 9/10s.

“The mobile web audience is larger because people come in through side doors and they jump in for a story and then leave again. Think about behavior on Facebook… you see a story in your feed, you read it, and then you return to Facebook.”

Two recent additions to the CNN stable of mobile properties include the new version of the CNN app, released in February 2017, which focuses more on video content than the previous version.

The new app combines the simulcasting of TV news stories with digital content curated by editors. The other addition is the CNN Politics app, launched last year, which was built in partnership with CA Technologies – more on this below.

Own platform vs third-party platform

Screenshots of and CNN on Facebook (both featuring President Trump)

Unsurprisingly for a TV news broadcaster, video content is core to CNN Digital’s business today and in the future.

ComScore stats suggest CNN is way ahead of rivals when it comes to views of its news videos on its owned web and app properties. The ComScore data (provided by CNN) says CNN had 307 Million Video Starts in January 2017.

The next-largest is Yahoo with 147 Million;; 126 Million; Buzzfeed, 83 Million; and MSN News, 63 Million.

But CNN isn’t just concentrating on its owned platforms; it has strong ambitions to proliferate its content, particularly video, through third-party platforms.

“We are looking long and hard at what our own platforms look like and what partnerships we strike with third-party platforms.

“It is important to be where the audience is, so we have spent a lot of energy in being both destination and a distributed brand… we have bespoke content across Snapchat, Facebook Instant Articles and Messenger, Apple News, Kik, Line, Amazon Alexa and Google Home.

“All of these are unique experiences in the way we distribute content for each audience and, ideally, reaching new readers and viewers.”

Of all platforms, CNN sees its highest video engagement on Facebook. In January 2017, CNN content received almost a billion video views (999 million), according to data from Shareablee. This is well ahead of rivals Fox News (581 million), BuzzFeed (179 million) and Yahoo (108 million).

Graph shows data from Shareablee January 2017 for video views on Facebook, CNN 999 million; Fox News 581 million; BuzzFeed 179 million; Yahoo 108 million.

$20 million investment in digital

So how difficult is it to serve all these different platforms?

“It is very difficult and it is very expensive. It is not is acceptable to take the same piece of content and redistribute. Even if you have the best technology on all of these platforms – each platform deserves bespoke content.

“Sometimes this means creating original content for those platforms and sometimes it means packaging existing content in a way that this audience is accustomed to receiving the news.

“So our experience on Snapchat looks nothing like our experience on Facebook Instant Articles, Apple News or our core platforms. Part of it is down to pure technology and design, but the most important bit is editorial storytelling and the programming.”

To meet this demand to provide content for numerous platforms, CNN has expanded its digital division, dramatically:

“CNN has invested over $20 million into CNN Digital to continue growth, with the stated mission to be the worldwide leader in mobile and video news and information.

“We have hired over 250 people at CNN Digital over the last year. The most people hired are in editorial, then programming, technology, product management, design, audience development, business operations and video.”

Technology and investment

Being at the forefront of digital video requires both technological and editorial expertise.

“We need to be a pioneer in the video space and how we deliver video news. So video news and information has unique demands. It needs to be urgent, available, compelling and, in some cases, beautiful.

“From a tech point of view, we were an early adopter of adaptive bit rate. We are very sensitive to how much bandwidth you have and the impact this has on resolution. The video is encoded so it is optimized for every device, whether it is WIFI or cellular.

“It is also about the storytelling: how do we tell stories that meet people where they are – if they only have 5 minutes or 2 minutes or even 30 seconds.

“Virtually all our content on any topic is original. We are creating content that is digital only. It’s not just taking segments as they air on television. We are repackaging and condensing and sometimes adding graphics to tell the story in a more mobile way.”

Spots and dots

All of CNN’s digital properties are free to the customer and funded by advertising.

Like most publishers, CNN is expanding its ad capability to offer more sophisticated services than what Wellen calls “spots and dots” – i.e. the traditional TV or radio ad spot and the internet web banner.

This includes so-called native advertising – richer, more in-depth content often mimicking the style the publisher’s site.

“Advertisers and brands are storytellers that we need to give the same types of tools that we are using to tell their stories and be very transparent about them. So we are doing multimedia storytelling through native everything: from inline video and photography to long-form storytelling.”

Screenshots of CNN Politics app built with CA Technology One of the more interesting innovations was the partnership with CA Technologies to produce a CNN Politics app in time for the US election.

“We are very transparent about it. CA Technologies did not control any of the editorial. The app was not “powered by CA”, it was “built with CA technology”.

“They approached us and wanted to use some of their technology. They wanted something big and powerful and to display their technology in an unprecedented way. We had things we wanted to accomplish and they were in a unique position to help us.

“We wanted to do it in a card-based way. So CA with its APIs it was able to take all of this election data [such as election polls and voter demographics] and distill it down to its essence with these cards.

“… And yes, we would welcome the opportunity to do it again.”

This interview with CNN SVP Alex Wellen took place at Mobile World Congress 2017 in Barcelona. For more MWC interviews and coverage see:

Andy Favell is ClickZ’s columnist on mobile. He is a London-based freelance mobile/digital consultant, journalist and web editor. Contact him via LinkedIn or Twitter at Andy_Favell.

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