Exploring “Thin Media” and the Notification Layer of Technology

The Invisible Hand


“Thin Media” refers to the slices of content we consume within the notification layer of our mobile devices. From ordering lunch with a few taps on our smartwatch, to reading breaking news items without picking up our phone, the “Invisible Hand” of technology powers this experience.


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More and more individuals are wearing smartwatches, carrying smartphones, and inserting technology into more aspects of daily life. Now that we are literally wearing mobile devices, it makes notifications, alerts, and lock-screen content even more relevant.

That’s why push personalization, or “Thin Media”, a term coined by betaworks (the team behind Bitly, Digg, Giphy, Dots, Instapaper, and more products) referring to the slices of content we now consume within this notification layer of our mobile devices, is a term you’ll start to hear more about very soon, and possibly consider for your business.

Thin Media plays a pivotal role in the “Invisible Hand” of technology, which powers this experience within the notification layer. In anticipation of Social Media Week this February 22-26, SMW and betaworks joined forces to discuss Thin Media alongside Lisa Clunie (Chief Operating Officer, Refinery29) and Zach Seward (VP of Product and Executive Editor, Quartz).

This talk explored Thin Media in the context of Social Media Week’s global theme for 2016, “The Invisible Hand: Hidden Forces of Technology (and how it can be used for good),” which explores how mobile technology, social media, data and machine learning have contributed to a new paradigm in how we connect, consume and communicate.

“Thin Media” and the broken ecosystem of mobile apps

James Cooper (Head of Creative, betaworks) believes the app ecosystem is somewhat broken. It’s too cheap to make and deploy apps, which results in too many low-quality ones. “There are 45,000 new apps every week,” Cooper said, “which makes it increasingly difficult to stand out in the market and gain traction.”

One thing betaworks aims to do with their products is create an experience and content that can span multiple platforms. “People are too busy with not enough headspace to open an app every five minutes. Weather and news are just two examples of things that should come to you seamlessly, either through texts or app notifications, and this is the ‘Thin Experience’ we’re exploring each day.”

Organizations are changing alongside the notification layer

Refinery29’s COO, Lisa Clunie, encourages any brands exploring the notification layer as a business opportunity to really understand what service they provide to users or customers. At the end of the day, Clunie said, they still measure participation rigorously, which is engagement combined with reach. “Does it make sense to push a headline to someone’s smartwatch, only to link to an article? Probably not. But, what if we know you usually eat lunch at 12:00, and send you a push notification to do five minutes of meditation at 12:30. That could be really valuable for someone.”

“Going back to the actual service a personalized push notification provides,” said Clunie, “Refinery29 won’t use Thin Media for affiliate revenue, but rather provide a great experience for partners. If you’re shopping at a retail store, we could push to you special benefits like a 20% off discount, or even a piece of content with 10 fashion trends to know for 2016.”

Why “Thin Media” matters even if notifications aren’t new

“We could have had this conversation years ago,” said Seward of Quartz. “Notifications are not new, but part of the reason why Thin Media still matters is because no one is really doing it best. Nearly 8 of the top 10 mobile apps are owned by a very small handful of companies, like Google and Facebook. That tiny percentage of companies that own a majority of the most popular apps are still trying to figure this all out with the rest of us.”

Seward talked about his latest experiment of completely clearing the home screen of his smartphone so that no apps are visible. Instead, he relies on the search screen of his iPhone, which also lists recommended contacts and apps from Siri, as well as news and nearby venues. All of which are dictated by Apple and iOS. “You can imagine the start or search screen of our phones as the new home screen,” Seward mentioned. “Because we use a small number of apps constantly, our home screens look the same, and they’ll continue to look the same unless more apps do a better job at what existing ones do now, which ties in directly to personalized push notifications and alerts.”

Commerce and decision-making on the horizon for push personalization

James Cooper of betaworks talked about commerce on the notification layer. He argues that nobody wants to read an article on his or her wrist, but what they might want is to make decisions about their day, such as purchasing movie tickets or making a dinner reservation instantly in real-time. “You might remember an app called ‘Yo‘ which utilized the notification layer to ping friends and receive custom updates. What that team is looking into now is user purchasing decisions within the notification layer. A simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’ option makes transactions within text or notification environment incredibly simple.”

Cooper pointed out a few companies already monetizing off of the notification layer. One of them is called “Arcade”, which texts opted-in users every morning with one special food offer. If users reply “YES” to the text, they’ll receive that day’s meal from a popular New York restaurant described int he text offer. It’s essentially as if someone texts you asking if you want one specific dish from one specific restaurant to be delivered to you.

Push personalization and businesses developing “brand trust”

When it comes to new models and trends in media, there are things that cannot, or should not, be measured, but still positively impact your brand. Much of this comes as a result of “brand trust” that users and consumers develop in a variety of ways. For example, betaworks built a Slack bot called PlusPlus++ to allow teams on Slack to award and subtract points from teammates and anything else. This Slack bot isn’t going to be a new revenue stream for Cooper and his betaworks team, but if it’s a fun or valuable product that people enjoy using, these individuals now have a new, improved, or deeper level of appreciation for the betaworks brand.

“I think we’re in a phase of building brands by doing a lot of stuff to have people fall in love with the brand, instead of solely worrying about clicks and metrics,” Cooper points out. “I care about people who love Poncho, a fun weather product we built, and those individuals remembering that it’s a cool product and valuable service to them every day. It seems that the big players are will continue to get bigger, and the period of experimentation and “oh, there’s an app for that” is quickly eroding. Now, the big players can do everything. If you trust a brand, you’ll always go back to them.”

What success looks like beyond the notification layer

“For Refinery29,” Clunie says, “we’re treating every platform differently because our audience uses each differently. We need to develop interesting content strategies for each. Our Discover channel on Snapchat was an incredible learning opportunity for us in terms of content production. We’re also understanding more and more about segmentation, and ensuring the content we push out gets to the right people without over-saturating their feeds.” Refinery29 still cares about and measures carefully their website visits and video streams. “It’s part of how we measure success just like Starbucks can count the number of cups of coffee sold each day,” Clunie added.

From Quartz’s perspective, Seward said email is still incredibly important for them. “In a way, email is a form of ‘Thin Media’ too. We craft our emails so that they can live and be experienced natively in your inbox. Instead of emailing our readers a digest of links, we make it easy for them to consume information and stories without the need to click a second time, and at the bottom of each email is a ‘surprise and discovery’ section for users to click. This helps us better understand the types of articles and content our readers truly want to read more of. Articles with more clicks from that bottom section means the more we write about that topic.”

Brands can do a better job of understanding who we truly are

“Who knows me?” It’s a question you might ask yourself when thinking of your closest friends, but it’s also a question for the businesses, publishers, and brands you love as well. If your favorite line of apparel sends you emails each week, are they customized and relevant to your life? Do you get excited to see their emails, or immediately delete them like others in your inbox?

As important as it is for brands to figure out what you do like, which many are trying to do in the notification environment, it’s equally important for them to understand what you don’t like, especially in terms of timing. “The New York Times,” Daniels said, “is testing out which notifications people interact with, and which they ignore. Plus, ignoring a notification isn’t necessarily a bad thing either. An alert or update from a publisher could be informative and relevant, but still swiped away from the user. It’s another challenge businesses are trying to figure out.”

“One product that really knows me, and knows more about me each day, is my virtual assistant, Amy,” Daniels added. Amy, or, is a virtual, personal assistant that schedules meetings for her human boss ( also has Andrew, a fellow virtual, personal assistant). Amy and Andrew respond to emails for you, and save you time that would normally be wasted going back and forth to schedule a meeting or event. Over time, Amy and Andrew better understand your language, tone, active times online, and more about you to be smarter, and save you more time each day. “Amy and the technology makes my life better, and brands need to think more about providing actual value to their users.”

Your notifications might be primarily verbal, and not visual

Amazon Alexa, Messenger’s M, Apple’s Siri, Microsoft’s Cortana, IBM’s Watson, and Google Now. The space for verbal, AI intelligence is heating up, but right now, no one is clearly in front. “It’s why we’re building products that can function across any of the verbal AI systems. Notifications right now are primarily visual and text-based, but in a couple of years it might be easier for us to say ‘I like that a lot’ or ‘never send to me again’ to Siri, Alexa, Cortana, Watson, M, or any other AI,” explains Cooper.

“Thin Media” is just one component of “The Invisible Hand” that exists in today’s digital, tech-permeated society. The way we consume media, engage with brands, access healthcare, vote, travel, choose restaurants, commute to work, collaborate on projects, or even how we go about choosing someone we’d like to date, technology’s invisible hand plays a crucial role in decision-making, or the way in which we experience the world around us.

We’re excited to launch our year-long journey with you in 2016. Whether you attend Social Media Week in one of our 18 cities, or are just hearing about us for the first time, we hope you will participate in-person and online throughout the year. You can sign up here for our weekly digest of top articles, industry news, and conference announcements.

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