Pocket’s 30 Million Users Are Great for Publishers

(Bloomberg Businessweek) -- The jittery system of homepages, search engines, social networks, and content aggregators that helps people find topical things to read and watch online has spent 2018 readjusting to a dramatic disturbance. At the start of the year, facing a backlash over its role in spreading misinformation, Facebook Inc. announced that its News Feed would begin favoring posts by users’ friends and family over those posted by professional sources. The switch left publishers racing to find new sources of reader referrals and, where possible, wring more ad dollars from fewer clicks.

Publishers tend to focus their pitches to advertisers or investors on how much time the audience spends with their material. That requires a different formula than the clickbait and listicles of the past, says Nate Weiner. “It might be a deep dive on something happening in the news,” he says. “Or it might be those tabs you have open in your browser about your career or about parenting or how to be a better person.”

Weiner’s service, Pocket, lets users save stories and videos for later consumption and uses staffers and readership data to recommend similar content from around the web. Since founding Pocket (originally called Read It Later) in 2007, he’s tried to distance it from the fast-churning hellbroth of the daily news cycle. “Pocket has a great opportunity right now to stand out as a thoughtful repository for interesting information and thinking,” says Colin Nagy, head of strategy at independent ad agency Fred & Farid.

What separates Pocket from other sites focused on making a virtue of their time-intensive material, such as Longform.org and Longreads, is its audience of more than 30 million. Mozilla Corp., maker of the open-source Firefox browser, bought Weiner’s 22-employee company last year for a sum neither party would disclose. The latest versions of Firefox prominently display by default a Pocket save-for-later button at the top of the browser. In the U.S., Canada, and Germany, users who open up a tab on Firefox see a carefully tended, steadily updated menu of recommended Pocket links. Some recent examples on this reporter’s tab: a New York magazine profile of Elizabeth Warren; a GQ feature on North Korea’s treatment of Otto Warmbier; and an Atlantic essay on the rise of an American kakistocracy.

Pocket is also experimenting with personalizing recommendations for certain users based partly on each person’s Firefox browsing history. Mozilla is quick to say that this tracking is only for the benefit of the reader; neither Mozilla nor Pocket receives a copy of the browsing data, it says, and human editors are always involved in the recommendation process. It’s a key part, Weiner says, of making sure Pocket promotes verifiable facts. “Part of the issue with ‘fake news’ is that it relies on incredibly sensational headlines that people share quickly without actually reading,” he says. “Sharing something with a crazy headline isn’t going to make it prominent in Pocket. Our platform just isn’t set up that way. It’s a lot slower.”

A leisurely reading experience has been Weiner’s goal since 2007, when he was a few years out of college, working as a web consultant and thinking up companies he could run from his apartment. The gradual addition of features to Pocket, including recommendations in 2015, eventually made it an appealing acquisition for Mozilla, says Andrew Lipsman, an analyst at researcher EMarketer Inc. For years, the Firefox maker has been struggling to persuade desktop users to download its browser on their iOS or Android phones. Its own mobile operating system failed to catch on when it made its debut in 2013 and was discontinued two years later. “Firefox tends to get frozen out of mobile,” Lipsman says. “Pocket, on the other hand, helps Mozilla reach people on their phones.”

Pocket’s basic version is free; paid subscriptions, starting at $4.99 a month, cut out ads and boost storage space. Weiner says that since mid-November Firefox users have seen more than 50 billion Pocket recommendations, though he wouldn’t detail the service’s paid user base or finances. Pocket is expanding its marketing of ads—stories and videos publishers can pay to place alongside the staff-recommended ones. The Wall Street Journal recently began paying to promote a rotating selection of evergreen articles on Firefox, within a handful of Pocket newsletters, and within the Pocket app, says Paul Montella, the Journal’s global digital sales manager. He’s been particularly happy, he says, with placements in Pocket recommendations on Firefox’s “new tab” page, which only suggests three stories at a time.

Mozilla needs to worry about competing directly with Apple Inc. and Google, says Margarita Noriega, an independent publishing consultant. “They have the platform and the device, all in one,” she says. “If I were Pocket, I’d be most terrified of Apple News.” Web analytics company Parse.ly says Pocket isn’t among the top 10 sites that refer traffic to the more than 2,500 publishers in its network and that Facebook is still the No. 1 sender of social traffic by far.

Pocket is, however, sending almost 75 percent more traffic to Parse.ly’s publisher network than it was at the start of 2018. Weiner says he’ll expand his team to about 55 by the end of the year; he just hired Carolyn O’Hara, previously managing editor at news magazine the Week, as editorial manager. The priority, Weiner says, is to ramp up the kind of strong editorial hand that other tech companies shirk.

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.