Enhancing engagement and a culture of experimentation

Increasing engagement remains a key priority for newsrooms today, and was another topic of focus at the American Press Institute’s Research Advisory Group’s meeting in February in Miami (I wrote about mobile earlier on this blog).

Engagement, while notoriously hard to define,  is conceived by most in journalism as some combination of as loyalty, stickiness, and/or a consumer’s likelihood to interact with and share the brand’s content. While many news organizations have slowly but surely become better at garnering pageviews, they increasingly recognize that this is a difficult game to maintain and that they ultimately can’t compete on volume with tech titans. Instead, they are looking to bolster ad rates and/or subscriptions by boosting metrics tied to engagement.

View from meeting hotel...not bad.

View from meeting hotel…not bad.

Two things stood out to me in the discussion on engagement at the meeting among some of the smartest journalism academics and professionals I’ve seen in the same room in a long time. The first was the need to create a culture of experimentation in newsrooms. This is close to my heart as somebody who studies organizational culture and change in newsrooms as well as how journalists can learn from startups to become more agile and improve their ability to learn and adapt quickly.

Lisa George, an economist at Hunter College, noted that at tech giants like Yahoo, they are running around 100 experiments at any given time, trying to find out how they can make the user experience better and get people to stay around. This was echoed by Matt Hindman, associate professor at George Washington University, who discussed how Google constantly uses A/B testing to measure ways to maximize stickiness, and recommended that news organizations conduct more robust user tracking and test multiple site versions. As I’ve become more immersed in startup culture through my teaching, I’ve learned how critical the build-measure-test cycle is to some of the most successful and fast-growing technology and information businesses. Other academics like Steve Lacy of Michigan State also noted the importance of getting more longitudinal data.

For example, one of the key insights from this kind of constant testing by Google is that even small differences in loading speed make a massive difference when it comes to stickiness. Small variations can compound quickly over time. Hindman said that Google’s first foray into A/B testing involved trying to determine the ideal number of search results to return for a query. They found that because giving more results increased load times, they saw as much as a 25 percent drop in traffic over six weeks if they offered 30 results instead of 20. George similarly said that even an additional half-second of load time is incredibly important to user experience: “How quickly can I find what I’m looking for?” is a critical factor for information seekers.

The second thing that stuck out to me was what academics do know about stickiness, in addition to the previously mentioned insight on load time – although it should be noted that all were quick to point out that these factors are always dynamic.  Hindman said that personalized content recommendations and sign design, usability, and aesthetics are the other key ways to keep digital visitors staying longer. More specifically, he said that news sites in search of boosting stickiness should consider: 1)More stories 2)More frequently updated 3)SEO and social media optimization 4)Headline testing 5)High-immediacy content (e.g. live blogs) 6)Affective content 7)Computerized story prospecting 8)Utilization of the news brand/individual journalist brand.

Of course, at the end of the day, these research-based insights are only as good as the ability to execute on them, as Lacy pointed out – and that, I think, is where those of us interested in how to galvanize change might come in.

 

 

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