Credit: Rodion Kutsaev on Unsplash

Direct publishing sounds like a 21st century journalist's dream come true: a technology that allows newsrooms to create a direct relationship with their audiences while retaining control over their content, data, metrics and ad revenue. Struggling to wrap your head around this idea? Let us unpack it.

Direct publishing is an umbrella term for a new type of conversational journalism that is personal, interactive and that features rich content distributed via messaging services on smartphones. If you want a more geeky definition, it uses the rich communications service (RCS) messaging, which is essentially an upgraded SMS protocol promoted by Google, Android, Samsung and other mobile phone manufacturers. The closest comparison is a newsletter sent via a direct messaging app — but that is still not the whole story.

It is not a platform in the same way as you might think of WhatsApp or Messenger. Direct publishing is the term used for the message content itself.

"For the user, it is a rich experience that is similar to messaging but is personal and interactive," says Fergus Bell, founder and CEO of Fathm, champions of this new technology in the publishing sector.

Bell explains that - like with direct messaging on social media - the technology allows the user to get and share information on demand and to connect directly with the journalist. Unlike on social media, the publisher is in charge of who is in this space (bye-bye trolls) and keeps control of user data. Depending on the platform, you can collect information about audience behaviour so you understand where people come in, click through and drop off.

This environment also makes it easier to control misinformation. Readers can flag up content, allowing the journalists to not only fact-check but also follow up with those who were affected by it.

More generally, the possibilities for audience engagement are probably the most attractive feature. The majority of interactions can be automated (think of a very fancy chatbot) but you can also interact with your audience manually.

More good news: because you are the one who creates and distributes content, you also control your own advertising and monetise the ad space.

How to start using direct publishing

Like with any new opportunity, you first need to think about what type of content and what kinds of stories are going to work. But there is not much out there to get inspiration from so you just need to build your own flow and test it.

This technology is no good for pushing out links. You will need to create original, short content that is native to the platform. It is not miles away from text, images and videos you create for different social platforms but the advantage of direct publishing is that you can segment your audience and control who sees what.

So here is the bit where we should show you all the amazing case studies from big publishers already using the technology. The truth is, direct publishing is largely unknown in the media industry, giving you the opportunity to become an early adopter. Outside of the media space, it is used by organisations like Oxfam and Subway.

Sure, it is not an off-the-shelf product, like a social app you just need to log into, so it makes it harder to get to grips with. But those who seize the opportunity can use this technology to build solutions suited to their newsroom's and their users' needs. Other perks include controlling data and building a new advertising revenue stream.

It is a similar situation to when social networks started, says Bell. The publishers missed the boat and allowed other companies to build products ill-suited for serving news audiences. Direct publishing gives us the opportunity to build our own solutions before someone does it for us again, taking advantage of the reluctance of the media companies to enter the tech space as creators.

As for the cost, Bell explains that it will vary from country to country, depending on the type of product you create and the size of the organisation, as the bigger players can often negotiate better prices. For instance, if you use text messages (SMS), you will be charged by the mobile operator. If you use a solution that works on wifi, you can keep the cost relatively low.

All in all, though, the cost can be counted in pennies per user. To offset the initial investment, Bell suggests opening the service to premium subscribers, using it as a new way to drive reader revenue.

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