illustration of the number five, representing the five subscription business topics for this column, Five-on-Friday

Five on Friday: Targeted Ads A/B Testing and Article Popularity

Featuring The New York Times, Daily Telegraph, TikTok and Facebook

In this week’s edition of Five on Friday, we’ll share what we’ve learned about The New York Times’ A/B testing of its headlines, how U.S. box office revenue dropped 80% last year while streaming boomed and the pros and cons of paying journalists based on the popularity of their content. Also, TikTok users are now required to accept targeted ads, and Facebook expands fan payments and subscription options to attract creators.

The New York Times A/B Tests 29% of Its Headlines to Improve Engagement

In an in-depth piece about The New York Times, TJCX looks at how The New York Times A/B tests their headlines, something the legacy newspaper has been transparent about. In 2017, the newspaper revealed its practices in an article titled “When a headline makes headlines of its own.”

“The Times also makes a practice of running what are called A/B tests on the digital headlines that appear on its homepage: Half of readers will see one headline, and the other half will see an alternative headline, for about half an hour. At the end of the test, The Times will use the headline that attracted more readers. “People think if you change a headline, that it’s some kind of ‘Gotcha!,’ and it’s just not,” said Mark Bulik, a senior editor who oversees digital headlines. “People who think it’s a ‘gotcha’ just don’t have a full understanding of news in the digital world.”

In some cases, The Times has merely changed capitalization. In others, it may test and change the headlines as a story evolves. More often than not, however, The Times uses A/B testing to make educated decisions about what headlines will grab more attention from readers. Here is an example TJCX shows, which comes from TJCX’s own research and testing:

Image credit: TJCX

According to TJCX, articles that The Times A/B tests are 80% more likely to rank on a “most popular” article list because those articles are more engage. For more information on how The Times uses A/B tests to alter and adjust their headlines, and to see examples from TJCX’s research, see the March 10 article titled “How the New York Times A/B tests their headlines.”

U.S. Box Office Revenue Plummeted 80% in 2020 While Streaming Services Soared

Last year was a rough one for movie theatres, who had to close for at least a portion of the pandemic. Meanwhile, digital subscribers to streaming video services jumped to more than 1 billion, according to the 2020 Theme Report put out by the Motion Picture Association (MPA). Here are some staggering statistics from last year.

  • In the U.S., the home/mobile entertainment market (content released digitally and on disc grew to $30.0 billion, a 21% increase over 2019.
  • The total number of online video subscriptions increased 32% to 308.7 million last year.
  • Fifty-five percent of U.S. adults watched movies or shows through an online subscription service, and 46% said they watched more shows via pay TV last year.
  • Last year, the total amount time U.S. adults spent watching TV (live or recorded) was 3 hours and 34 minutes, a seven-minute increase and the first uptick since 2012.
  • The time U.S. adults spent watching subscription over-the-top TV services increased 34% to 71.8 minutes, the first time that figure exceeded an hour.
  • The box office did not fare as well. The U.S./Canada box office market was only $2.2 billion in 2020, an 80% decrease over the prior year. This was due to theatre closures and the postponement of major releases like “No Time to Time,” the latest James Bond film.
  • In 2020, only 46% of the U.S./Canada population, or 162 million, went to the movie theatre once in 2020, a 76% decrease over 2019.
  • In terms of market share, digital movies and TV made up the majority of global theatrical and home/mobile entertainment in 2020.

It is too early to say how theatres and streaming subscription services will fare in 2020, but we anticipate box office income will increase as COVID-related restrictions ease up. Streaming subscription services are likely to see some churn as people complete binge-watching their favorite shows or realize they don’t really need five streaming services to be adequately entertained. For more data and insights, view MPA’s 2020 Theme Report at

Image credit: MAP’s 2020 Theme Report

Quality journalism or clickbait?

Quality journalism or clickbait? That’s the debate surrounding how The Daily Telegraph wants to pay its journalists, reports The Guardian. In an email by editor Chris Evans, The Daily Telegraph said it wants to use a stars rating system that will score online articles by a formula that considers drive to subscriptions and clicks. The goal, Evans said, is “to link performance to reward.”

“It seems only right that those who attract and retain the most subscribers should be the most handsomely paid,” Evans said.

Debate on the issue has been heated with journalists reportedly up in arms about the policy, and Evans saying on Twitter that The Guardian story was misleading. Here’s a snippet from the thread.

In another tweet, Evans said that analytics has changed journalism and that data helps media outlets make better decisions.

The Oxford dictionary defines clickbait as online “content whose main purpose is to attract attention and encourage visitors to click on a link to a particular web page.” The Content Marketing Institute says that clickbait isn’t always bad, but it is often associated with sensationalized headlines and fake news to drive ad revenue and readership.

“Clickbait isn’t necessarily bad,” says Andrew Selepak, a professor and director of a graduate social media program at the University of Florida. “While we often view clickbait negatively because it is associated with fake news and online hucksters, if your company has a solid product that can actually help consumers, getting people to your site by hook or crook isn’t such a bad thing.”

The real question is does it make sense to tie a journalist’s compensation to how many people read their work? While readership does indicate to an extent the perceived value of content, sensational headlines can attract readers too. If the journalist is paid based on clicks, will they hold true to the same ethical and quality standards they would if their compensation was not tied to clicks and similar metrics?

The debate continues.

TikTok Users Must Accept Targeted Ads, Starting April 15

TikTok is in the news again, this time for forcing users to accept targeted ads, starting April 15. Here’s a message that TikTok users who previously opted out of personalized ads are getting, according to Media Post.

In a Recode article, TikTok said, “Our goal is to help businesses reach the people they care about in a creative and meaningful way, while also respecting the privacy of our users. As our advertising platform matures, we continue to be transparent with our users about their choices with respect to personalized advertising on our platform.”

The Verge reports that TikTok users will get ads based on the types of content they view and engage with. Users will, however, have control over whether TikTok can personalize ads based on user data from other apps and websites. The Verge speculates the change is coming because of the next iOS 14 rollout in which developers have to get users’ permission to track their personal data across apps for the purpose of personalized targeting.

It seems unlikely that this is a dealbreaker for TikTok users, many of whom are part of a generation that grew up online and who have already consented (or failed to opt out) of personalized ads and tracking previously.

For advertisers like subscription companies trying to reach a particular audience, this is ideal. They can serve their ads up to people who engage with content similar to theirs. This makes TikTok’s value proposition a smart play for those advertisers.

Facebook Adds New Ways for Content Creators to Monetize

Facebook wants to the preferred destination of content creators whether they are media companies, game developers, video producers or another type of creator. The social media platform already has some tools in place to help creators monetize their work. In fact, between 2019 and 2020, content creators earning more than $10,000 a month grew 88% and content creators earning $1,000 a month grew 94%.

But wait. There’s more.

Earlier this month, Facebook announced three new ways for content creators to make money:

  1. Earn revenue with video, particularly short-form video. Video creators can earn money from videos as short as a minute long. Facebook offers in-stream ads as well as pre-, mid-, post-roll and image ads, formats that will only work via Facebook Live.

“We’re especially focused on short-form video monetization. In the coming weeks, we’ll begin testing the ability for content creators to monetize their Facebook Stories with ads that look like stickers and receive a portion of the resulting revenue. While the initial test is small, we hope to soon expand to more content creators. And then broaden it to short-form videos on Facebook, eventually providing a way for content creators to monetize this popular content,” said Facebok.

2. Expanding in-stream ads for Facebook Live. More content creators now have the ability to monetize their Live videos with in-stream ads. Previously, they had to be invited to the program. Now Facebook Pages with a minimum of 600,000 total minutes viewed in the previous 60 days and five or more active video uploads are eligible to participate.

3. Expanding paid online events and fan subscriptions. Catering to global audiences stuck at home, Facebook introduced a paid online event feature in August 2020. Facebook Pages could post everything from sporting events and cooking classes to Live podcast recordings and make-up tutorials. This feature is available in 20 countries, and Facebook reports it is seeing strong growth in this category with more than 1 million active fan subscriptions. Through at least August 2021, Facebook will not receive a revenue share from these monetization tools. Once post-pandemic life arrives, that is likely to change.

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