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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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Mobile Isn’t “Coming.” It’s Already HERE

Jim Brady, editor-in-chief of Digital First Media, gave me the idea for title of  this post at the American Press Institute’s Research Advisory Board meeting on February 10 in Miami, effectively summing up the strongest theme I heard that day from top editors at the nation’s leading newspapers.  Figuring out how to serve audiences’ mobile needs and build sustainable revenue streams from doing so is overwhelmingly top of mind for most news organizations today. Because it has to be.

Today’s news organizations are seeing explosive growth in the amount of their traffic that comes from mobile devices. At the Boston Globe, for some hours of the day, it’s over 50 percent, according to Senior Product Manager Damon Kiesow. Brady described similar statistics at many of the newspapers in the Digital First Media chain, and noted how quickly the numbers have risen even just over the past year.  At the New York Times, mobile traffic is more than one-third, and spikes during breaking news events, editors from that paper said. All of this points to another wave of disruption that may affect the news industry much as the web did.

The problem, of course, is all too familiar. Mobile advertising revenue remains abysmal. Meeting attendees largely agreed that news organizations need to do the following: Create a solid case to convince advertisers to pay higher rates for mobile ads appearing with their engaging, credible content; develop new kinds of mobile-friendly advertising products or models, such as content marketing; and/or create mobile products so crucial to users  that they will pay for them.

Miami, not a bad location for a meeting in February

Miami, not a bad location for a meeting in February

The first step is understanding emerging news consumption behavior on mobile and how it meshes with other things users do with their device. For example, Brian Brett of the NYT said that they are increasingly seeing more scanning and “snacking” behavior on mobile and are trying to understand how that may change the meaning or form of news.  Brady and Gregory Moore, editor of the Denver Post, agreed that news organizations are swimming in data, but they often lack the tools or knowledge to parse the data into actionable strategy and to predict where things are going so that they can get ahead of the curve. They looked to us researchers at the meeting, like Esther Thorson, associate dean at the Missouri School of Journalism, to plan new studies that will help editors better understand the data they have, identify clusters of users, their needs/interests, and how their mobile behavior may change in different circumstances. Longitudinal data is needed to be predictive.

Another key insight from Brian Brett at the NYT is that currently advertisers are buying audiences not environments, and news producers need to convince them to do the opposite. Even with their mobile growth, news organizations can’t compete with the Googles and Yahoos of the world when it comes to pure volume. They need to make the case for higher CPMs based on the quality of the content and the brand that the advertisements will be surrounded by. The latter is obviously not a new idea by any means; for example, UNC’s Phil Meyer wrote about the “influence model” in his book The Vanishing Newspaper in 2004,  or the idea that a newspaper’s main product is societal and commercial influence, in which the former enhances the value of the latter. But as Brady points out, newsrooms have, in recent years, been on the race for pageviews at all costs, and this may have done damage to their influence, not to mention the journalism and the audience experience.

In many ways, the challenge comes down to identifying valuable metrics besides page views and helping journalists figure out how to monetize loyalty rather than chasing traffic, an imperative that many people have discussed in future-of-news circles. Several meeting attendees said that advertisers are coming to think that Click Through Rate is an awful measurement, but they continue to use it without an obvious alternative; some noted that academics could play a leadership role in helping the ad industry understand why they should use better measurements such as attachment to a news brand, which can be linked with propensity to buy. Rachel Davis Mersey of Northwestern, who  has expertise in studying identity, gave the example of Fox News, a company that is very good at attracting advertisers because it can show that whatever it advertises, viewers are into it – the same basic principle as celebrity endorsement. Having a formalized relationship with subscribers can be be a unique selling proposition.

A few other items discussed/suggested:

  • Newspapers should partner with creative local ad agencies, Thorson said. They understand mobile better than most.
  • What would cause the mobile consumer to just buy a product right there, on their phone, immediately after seeing an ad or a coupon, Moore wondered. This means understanding different levels of comfort among consumers in terms of willingness to buy online.
  • Could reading the paper be a kind of membership like you get at Costco? You get access to certain sales/products?
  • Brett observed that in some ways mobile is not a new channel, it is a  horizontal disruptor. A lot of people are using their devices from their couch, meaning that sometimes it’s not location that is the most relevant difference about consumption.

Bottom line: Don’t make the same mistakes of 10 to 15 years ago when it comes to dealing with disruptive technology.


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