Paul: Welcome to another episode of The App Guy Podcast. I am your host, it's Paul Kemp. I love this show, because we go around the world and really chat with the most interesting founders. We've recorded 375 episodes almost, and I am yet to speak with an editor or journalist, and that's who we've got on. This is going to be a great a episode, do stay tuned for it. I want to introduce straight away, it's Martin Bryant. He is the editor-at-large at The Next Web, and everyone listening to this show must have heard of The Next Web. You can obviously go there as well and check it out. We're going to talk about The Next Web, tech and journalism, and just how to help us with approaching journalists. So Martin, welcome to The App Guy Podcast.
Martin: Hello Paul, good to be here.
Paul: It's great to have you on. You are actually I think our first journalist on this show, which is wonderful. What is it actually you do at The Next Web, just start there. I've noticed you are editor-at-large, what does that mean?
Martin: Yes, well this is a brand new role for me. At the time of recording I've been doing it for less than a week. I was previously editor-in-chief, which is a lot easier to explain. I was managing the team, making sure we were covering everything that we were supposed to, looking at how to grow traffic, hiring new people, all that kind of thing. Another think I did in that role was going to accelerators, to meet startups, talk about pitching to the press, things like that. I was on TV and radio a lot, that kind of thing, talking about tech news and things. What we want to do now... We had a good growth spurt over the last few months, and in July it was our best traffic month ever, in September it was our second best traffic month ever, so traffic is going nicely; we wanted to really push forward even faster into 2016, and so we had to do a reshuffle in the team, and Matthew Hussey, who was previously our commissioning editor, he's become our new editor-in-chief, he's got a lot of ideas for growing the site and pushing things forward. I am focusing on really getting out there and being a voice for The Next Web in all sorts of different ways, including appearing on this podcast.
Paul: Martin, it's really refreshing to hear someone like yourself who actually does provide really good exposure for some of the startups, the apps that we have on this show as well, and yet you're also thinking of growing and trying to promote The Next Web.
Martin: Really at the moment it's social, that's where we can really make an impact with our growth, and I think that's the same for most publishers. Over the last few years publishers have seen Facebook become a really key traffic source. For some people it's more than Google; I don't think we're quite at that stage, but it's certainly an important source of traffic for us. Of course, the problem with relying on Facebook for your traffic is that you are reliant on Facebook's algorithm and it deciding whether each post you put on Facebook is of interest to your audience. Sometimes you might post something and a very small number of people will see it. So the rules for what will be successful on Facebook are changing constantly. So we have a number of staff who is focused on that and the strategies around social growth, the way we use Twitter... For example, we find posting on Twitter with an image pretty much always does better than without an image, and again, you see that with a lot of publishers now - almost every time they tweet they have an image, because it just gets more engagement.
Paul: Yes, I would actually agree with you on that one Martin, because I've been following a strategy of posting images, and I've seen my sort of small audience grow to something like 3 million one month for the number of people that see a tweet, and that's obviously better with images. So it's good to reinforce the requirement of posting with images.
Martin: Absolutely, yes. If you look beyond that, there are all these social platforms, Instagram, Snapchat etc. where they can't really drive traffic to your site, but it's good to build a community around them. I think BuzzFeed is a great example of a site that's being very smart in the way they use these platforms. What they're basically saying is you don't necessarily need to go to BuzzFeed, you can go to Snapchat, Instagram or whatever and see BuzzFeed content; you might not necessarily have to click through from that, because actually getting a link into those services is hard to sometimes impossible, but you'll experience the content in a distributed form around the web, and figuring out ways to monetize that through maybe sponsored content etc. is an interesting challenge. Yes, so social media is definitely our big traffic growth area.
Paul: Martin, I have a lot of app entrepreneurs listening to this show, and I've gone out to a community of them and some of them have actually come back and suggested that we focus on some of these questions here. So how do app entrepreneurs and startup founders catch your eye as a potential journalist who has the ability to give good exposure to maybe a new idea or a new app? Because I can imagine your e-mail is completely over bloated. How's the best way of catching your eye and getting through to people like yourself?
Martin: Yes, it can be difficult to get attention through e-mail, but at the same time it is the best way. I say this and some people may disagree, but certainly a lot of tech journalists I speak to feel the same way. Although they have trouble keeping up with their e-mail, they much prefer pitches by e-mail than any other way. I get people who pitch me by a Twitter direct message, via Facebook messages, all these different ways. I had one via Instagram message once as well, and the problem is, it's impossible to keep up with all these pitches in different places. LinkedIn is another one; I'll get messages there and it's hard for me to reply, because I'll be going through my e-mail and I'll get the "You've got a new LinkedIn message. Here it is." But then I have to click through and go to LinkedIn and reply there, and then the person will probably reply to me on LinkedIn even if I say e-mail me back, and so it just becomes really hard to deal with. If all our messages are in one place it's a lot easier.
In terms of ways to get attention, keep your e-mails short, especially for first contact; it's best to be really plain, straightforward English, really just get to the point about what's new and different about what you're doing and why we should be interested. Don't tell us everything; I get some people who will paste in a 500 word press release that explains everything about them and has loads of buzz words and things in. That's not a good way, because when you think someone's working through their e-mail, and if they don't already know you through an introduction or whatever, then if they just see a wall of text, they're not necessarily going to be that inclined to read through it. I personally know I've missed some great apps through pitches that just didn't catch my eye. That's partly my fault through not paying enough attention, but I only have a certain amount of time to check my e-mail. So yes, brief e-mail, which tells me enough to interest me, and then I'll get back to you and then we can take it from there.
Paul: Martin, you can't leave us teased like that, what if you missed?
Martin: To be honest, it's hard to remember. I just know that for example I've seen things coming on to the site and I've immediately got in touch with the people who launched the apps and said, "Why didn't you contact The Next Web?" and they went, "We did, we contacted you about two weeks ago." And I'll look back and I'll have archived an e-mail or whatever and I'll be like, "Oh, no..." So yes, it has happened.
Paul: It's like all those investors that said no to Google and Twitter.
Paul: Also, the other thing is this is a show about apps, and the Apple have just released the Apple News default app, and I noticed that was on your site as well. Do you have a view about that and how that may impact the way we consume our news?
Martin: This is part of a broader trend that encapsulates everything from ad blockers at the user's end, through to things like Facebook instant articles and Google's AMP project - Accelerated Mobile Pages, which is all about stripped down, fast-loading mobile pages. Apple News is similar in that it's a way to browse news in one place. It loads really quickly, because a lot of people complain about slow loading pages on the web, especially on mobile where you might have a slow connection. So in that way it's good, and it's good that people are looking to solve that problem.
Facebook instant articles is another really interesting way of doing that, although it's really slow to roll out. We would like to get in on that, so hopefully Facebook will get us in on that at some point. We're certainly looking at developing accelerated mobile pages as well, as another really fast way of making sure that people can load our pages nicely on their phones. But in terms of Apple News, I think the speed is great; I think the product isn't quite there yet. If I look at it - I've got it on my home screen on my phone - I don't open it that much. The first time I opened it I thought, "Hm, this is..."
Paul: ... Where did this come from?
Martin: Well no, I thought, "This is cool." I knew it was coming on iOS 9, but when I opened it I was like, "Hm, this is actually quite a good idea, but I don't feel like I should go there." I still find my news through social media mainly, or through an RSS reader, old school, because I'm a journalist so I like to keep up with what people are writing, so I'll go through a list of everything they've written. So the Apple way of you going through and suggesting, "I'm interested in these topics or these publications" and then learning what you read and giving you a feed of the news and things you want is interesting, but there's something about it - I'm not exactly sure what it is - something about the way it's presented, or the algorithm, that just doesn't draw me back to it.
Paul: Yes, and actually when you compare it with Google AMP, that is pretty impressive when you have a first go at that. I'll make sure as we're talking that, we do have people listening who are potentially or doing something dangerous, to write this stuff down, so everything will be in your show notes Martin, episode 375, which you can get from the TheAppGuy.co.
We are app entrepreneurs, a lot of us, small startups, and we're often competing against the big companies, with big budgets and also large venture capital funded startups, and someone asked about how do the tech press take more responsibility for maybe promoting diverse role models, and sustainable business models, rather than jumping on the bandwagon and the hype around big venture capital startups. Do you have any view about that?
Martin: You mean in terms of not necessarily just going down the route of rating a load of money, rather bootstrapping and rating money through revenue and growing slower but in a way that means you're in control?
Paul: Yes, it's more about getting attention even though you are maybe a bootstrap startup and you don't have a big VC firm behind you with some large investor who could maybe have the relationships that the tech press did to get their attention during the launch.
Martin: Yes, well in terms of that, we make no distinction between a VC-backed firm or a bootstrapped firm at all. It's all about the product and the pitch. So yes, a startup that has millions in the bank from well-known VC firms might be able to afford an on-staff PR person who knows how to pitch the press, but really the skills you need to contact the press are not that great. It's about relationship building, it's about - like I said earlier - being prompt and being brief in your e-mails, and just getting what we need to know into those e-mails so that we're not overloaded with information and so we're actually interested. So we really make no distinction; a great product is a great product, wherever it's from, and we want to tell our readers about it. So yes, do get in touch.
Paul: Someone else asks, "Have you noticed anything unexpected from your readers?" So you've got some amazing readers who are obviously really into tech, and I wondered if you'd noticed any interesting themes from any kinds of products or services that you're talking about at the moment? Anything interesting that you're noticing as trends, from what your readers are reading?
Martin: So what our readers are reading, as in what's popular on the site?
Paul: Yes, what's popular... I think this is coming from the point of anything we can glean from you that you're seeing as an upcoming trend, based on the amount of interest from readers.
Martin: I think that the most interesting trend this year that we're seeing from readers is - and this feeds into what we've been saying already - is a lack of tolerance around slow-loading pages, around overloaded ads, that kind of thing. And this is something that publishers are seeing across the web. When iOS 9 launched and included support for ad blockers, people were very worried saying this would be an adblockalipse, and overnight people will install ad blockers and nobody would get any revenue, and traffic would drop on all sites, and all that kind of thing. It hasn't happened, certainly we've noticed no notable drop in traffic at all that we can really attribute to ad blockers and get worried about. So I don't think that's going to happen overnight, but there's definitely room for improvements amongst publishers, and definitely an increasing awareness in the readers that there is more that publishers could be doing. So that's certainly something that we're looking at, from a technical point of view.
Paul: Martin, did you feel like the makers of today, the startup founders, are they making stuff that your users, readers or people that follow you are actually wanting? Do you feel like there's a good connection between what is being made and pushed, via what is actually required? Do you have any views on that?
Martin: It's hard to say, because I don't think there's anything that our readers are asking for that isn't being made, or anything like that. For example our readers - certainly an overlapping audience with this podcast, in terms of we have a lot of people who are developers and designers, and people in the app building business in some way, shape or form, and if they've got a problem, they'll probably work to solve it with a product that they'll build themselves. So yes, I don't think there's anything that I can really highlight that isn't being made and that could be made. But that's what's great about apps - you don't know what you want, until suddenly it appears in front of you and you're like, "Wow, this is just perfect for me."
Paul: Yes, and I'm actually thinking Instagram's latest one with the one second video.
Martin: Yes, absolutely. Boomerang is a great example of an app that when it came out last week I was like, "That's a bit of a silly idea for an app." Because everyone's saying, "Oh, it's like Vine, but rather than seven seconds it's one second loops." But it's not that at all; it's more like a Boomerang of one second videos. It comes forward and goes back again. So you have these very fun individual-looking, very unique-looking videos that you can make with it. I made one the other day of one of my dogs rolling his eyes; it was just waking up and it was rolling its eyes, and because it then plays backwards, it then looks like it's rolling its eyes back the other way and then also forward again. I did one of a tram here in Manchester, where I'm based, with a tram pulling into a stop, and then as it pulls in, it reverses back out again. It's just fun. I saw a really good one of dancing at a wedding. So yes, I don't know whether it's going to stick. I think the problem with Instagram - and Facebook in general, actually - is that they come up with these experimental apps that may be lost about five minutes in terms of how much people are actually interested in them. They might learn a bit about user interaction and what works and what doesn't work, but you end up with all these apps on your phone that never get used. All the other Instagram ones... Layout, for example, another Instagram one. I think I opened that once to try it, and I have no interest in that at all.
Paul: Yes, that's right. I think the same, it's a one-hit wonder. I want to switch gears slightly, because you are a guest who has a background of writing and you got into journalism, and I wondered about your story, Martin. Have you got any suggestions for anyone who wants to sort of follow a similar path in terms of how you did it, how you actually became the editor at The Next Web and then what you're doing now. Any advice for anyone who wants to follow a similar type of career path?
Martin: Yes, I mean for me, I was working in a school and I had a job where I was helping kids make TV and radio programs in the school. It was a fun job but I didn't exactly know where I'd go next, because it wasn't really something you could turn into a career. So at lunch times and after work I'd head over in my office room and I'd write technology blog posts. I'd just write them on my own site. That site, sadly I've left it neglected, without updating Wordpress for a while, and then it got hacked and then the ISP closed it down. So I've basically lost it now, although I'm sure it will be somewhere online if someone wants to dig out and find it. So I was just doing that for fun, and then back on FriendFeed, which was a great service that Facebook ended up buying, but it was a very innovative service back in 2008-2009; it was the first place that had real-time feeds.
I remember the day they launched real-time feeds, and it was like you couldn't keep up, basically. Just a rain of content flying down your screen, as people were like, "Wow, this is amazing! Real-time!" On there, Zee, who was a former editor-in-chief at The Next Web before me, he had just started in that role and he was looking for part-time people to write maybe one post a day, something like that. So I said, "How about me?" and I ended up joining the team and writing one, two, three posts a day, while I was doing other things, while I was doing my main day job. My first ever post was about Google Wave; people were learning about Google Wave, it launched at Google I/O 2009; it launched a day after Bing was launched by Microsoft. My headline was "Google's Wave drowns out Microsoft's Bing hype." I remember that to this day. So yes, in terms of how I did it, I just got out there and wrote stuff. Then I joined the site... Most people will maybe join a site that's quite small, and then maybe join another site that's bigger. I basically did that while staying at the same site, because The Next Web was tiny when I joined them. We're a lot bigger now, and we want to grow even bigger, but [unintelligible 00:23:06] and the best way to become a writer is to just start writing.
Paul: Yes, it's actually so ironic that I'm talking to you on a day following a launch of something I've been involved with which helps writers, actually. It helps writers avoid all the distractions, it's called ilys. What I was going to ask you is about your discipline of writing as well, because I can imagine that producing one to three posts a day whilst you've actually got some other kind of role and job must be quite challenging. How do you keep the discipline of actually writing and getting the content and articles actually written and published?
Martin: Well I think if it was for just my own personal blog, I wouldn't have the discipline. I would probably just go, "Well, I've had a busy day, I just want to sit and watch TV." So yes, on my personal blog I used to sometimes go a few days without writing a post, and if I look at my personal blog now, I wrote a very short post last week, that was my first post in about four or five months. So yes, that would probably be the same, but because I was writing for The Next Web, we were small at the time and there was only one full-time editorial team member - Zee, who was editor-in-chief - that's how small it was; I think there were like two or three part-time people writing with him. So the pressure was on to grow the site, and I was really passionate about writing about technology and I really wanted to grow the site, so I would just make the time. Back in those days, in 2009, I had one of those little Asus netbooks that ran Windows XP; you used to be able to get them for 150 or 200 quid. So sometimes I'd be sitting on the bus, writing a post and tethering to my phone to get it published. I did that many times, on a rush hour bus, through the Manchester traffic. Or I'd be doing it at lunch breaks, staying late after work to write something, writing something really late at night to go out the next morning. The real drive was that we were a small team, we were ambitious, we wanted to grow, and the way to do that was just to make sure that we wrote stuff and put it out there.
Commercial break [00:25:34] to [00:27:55]
Paul: So Martin, there's two things we need to do before we say goodbye to you. One is that we'd love to learn about the challenges that our guests face in their day-to-day work and what they're doing. It helps us come up with ideas for potential apps, for example. So what are, over the last month or two, or in fact as you're doing your new role probably, what are the big obstacles and frustrations that you're seeing, that you feel like you wish there was a solution for?
Martin: A big frustration I've always had and continue to have is e-mail. I think this would be what a lot of people would say: just having too much e-mail. In my old role... It's funny, when I said I turned chief I got so much e-mail, I very often couldn't keep up and I'd have to spend maybe two or three hours of the weekend catching up with my e-mail, because I don't like having... I'm not one of those people who can have an inbox of loads of unread e-mails for weeks and months at a time. I like to keep an empty inbox as much as possible. So I'd be using Inbox by Gmail, or Mailbox, or whatever I was using at the time, to schedule e-mails to come back to me at a time when I could deal with them, and I'd sit in a coffee shop on Saturdays and write them. I've noticed that just in the few days since I announced I was moving to a new role where I won't be maybe writing as much news, or at least I won't be assigning news for the people quite as much as I used to, I got a lot less e-mail; which is nice. But it's still something I need to keep an eye on, it's still something I need to spend a lot of time thinking about and replying to people.
I'm not one of those journalists who likes to ignore people. There are a lot of e-mails that I won't reply to, that I think are completely irrelevant to The Next Web, or sometimes I literally don't have time to reply. But I do like to reply where I can, and that eats up a lot of time, and people appreciate it. So just a way to manage pitches in a way that's really nice, and maybe centralize, so everyone can pick it up. I know ReadWrite, the tech blog, they actually use Zendesk for their e-mail, they were saying that recently on Twitter. That's obviously a customer service platform, and the people who send e-mails to them don't necessarily notice that the e-mails are going to Zendesk, but that means that anyone can handle them as they come in. But there's got to be a smarter way of dealing with massive amounts of e-mail, that maybe doesn't use e-mail at all.
Paul: Well if you have any app developers who want to solve that, maybe you want to listen to some past episodes... I know we had Dave Baggett, he was trying to solve that. He was actually the founding engineer of Crash Bandicoot, that big game in the '90s, and he's working and spent a lot of money on that. Then there's another guy, Branko Cerny who's obsessed with trying to solve that problem; that was one of my earliest episodes, back in fortyish. So have a look at that.
Martin, this is a show about apps, final thing. We love talking about apps, it wouldn't be right to let you get away without giving us maybe one or two really cool app recommendations from your phone, that you think we may not have come across before.
Martin: Well, I was listening to a couple of shows earlier, so I was thinking, "Hm, what could I suggest for this?" And I was actually going to suggest Boomerang, as the app that has come out most recently that I've been having fun with. We’ve discussed that one already. So yes, Boomerang - definitely a fun app. Very minimalist, there's not a lot to it, a single-purpose app, but it does that very well. I'll tell you an app that I use every day, and a lot of people have kind of either tried in the past and decided they don't like and have moved away from it, or they've never tried it, don't see the point of it. It's Swarm, which is obviously Foursquare's app for checking in. Foursquare had one app for place recommendations, where do I go for a restaurant, but also all the checking in, of I'm at McDonald's... I don't know if I've ever checked into a McDonald's, but... They moved that off a couple of years ago to a separate app, and a lot of people I think didn't really like that, and I think a lot of people gave up on it around then, but in recent months they've really improved the app. It's so much fun to use. When I check in at places, basically I'm a religious user of Swarm. I literally check in every place I go. If the NSA ever wants to find out where I've been they will just have to hack my Swarm account.
I check in everywhere, and I just love the fact that if I check in somewhere that I have not been for a while, it will say "This is your first check in here in 3 years", or whatever. And they give you so many fun reasons to keep using the app. I love the coins you get when you check in. For example, if I check in at a place I check in every week and I'm the mayor, I might get 13 points rather than 1 for checking. 3 because I'm the mayor, 10 because it's my 15th week in a row checking in at that place, and just all these fun things you never know. It surprises you with a lot of different things. Every Monday you get extra coins for your total, in the form of a piñata that you have to keep tapping on the screen to make all these coins explode all over the street. I mean it's not for everyone, but yes, I love it and I follow a lot of people that I know, so it's fun to see where people are and what they're doing all over the world. Someone I know is at The Wall Street Journal Europe in London at the moment, and I'm thinking, "What's he doing there?" Someone else I know is on a 7 train on the MTA subway in Queens. So yes, it's a fun app. It's been around for 6 years in various forms, but I think they've really got it right in the last few months, and I really love using it, so that's definitely one to check out.
Paul: Well Martin, I'm thrilled, because you happen to have mentioned an app that has never been mentioned before, an app that I use every day as well. I am a big swarmer as well, I'm obsessed with checking in. That's wonderful, and I can't believe that's never been talked about. This has been great, Martin, what a terrific chat. I'm going to make sure that we have all the links to those apps on your episode, that's 375, and you can find that from TheAppGuy.co, just go and search Martin Bryant if you can't see it. Martin, in the meantime, obviously now your e-mails are drying up a little bit, how is the best way of getting in contact with you?
Martin: Always, always e-mail. Yes, it's Martin@thenextweb.com.
Paul: Wonderful. Martin, thank you so much for coming on The App Guy Podcast, really a pleasure talking to you and all the best with your new role and growing The Next Web to the next level.
Martin: Thank you very much.