Washington Post experience chief: reader engagement key to survival

16 May 2012

The chief experience officer of the Washington Post has warned publishers that newspapers in the online space are missing the point by lashing up Britney Spears stories that they know will bring lots of page views. Instead they should be focusing on using analytics to drive better engagement with the reader.

Speaking at yesterday’s Media Future Conference 2012, Laura Evans said that in terms of online publishing, The Washington Post had to find a way to handle its dual purpose: to be a newspaper for the city of Washington, DC; and to be a source of news for the globe from the capital city of one of the world’s most powerful countries.

She said the problem was solved relatively simply by launching a regional homepage for the city of Washington that was presented to local readers based on their IP address and an international version for readers outside the city based on their IP addresses.

But solving that particular problem pales beside the bigger problem newspapers face. As readers buy fewer physical copies and get their news online, newspapers need to find ways of growing that online audience and monetise at the same time.

The key, Evans asserted, is reader engagement.

“In 2010 we began a strategy focusing on growing audience and we saw that while we were growing our audience we weren’t making headway with engagement. We looked at our data and while we could bring page views and unique visitors up by doing the odd Britney Spears article, we needed to stand out and make a difference. That required a clear strategy and a mission – ours was to be the indispensable guide to Washington – and we got that insight by talking to customers.”

What’s behind the numbers on Google analytics, Evans said, is often what publishers in a headlong race for traffic, fail to ask.

“It’s really easy to say if something is doing well. What’s harder is asking did it do well enough? Did we provide the best experience possible? You need to focus on goals and what are your metrics for success and then you decide to disseminate those goals throughout your organisation.”

The Washington Post’s journey began by studying the numbers and comparing where it was relative to its competition.

As well as studying Google Insights, the newspaper’s team studied its own data and what keywords brought readers to the site via Google searches.

This led to more focus on the times that readers came to the site. “We also realised that live discussions weren’t customer friendly.”

Another game changer was ensuring that when stories went up on the newspaper’s site that the authors would also join in the discussion with readers.

‘Done is better than perfect’

“We also learned by studying our data that readers came to us across multiple devices and didn’t always come to our homepage. Each page is an entrance to your site and you need to showcase the information that you have. Readers would access articles, blogs and galleries in one sitting.”

This also meant a key change in how the newspaper approached news. Traditionally, newspapers were oriented towards daily deadlines for the next day’s paper but in the online world the readers were coming at all hours of the day.

“We had to essentially adjust and move when story meetings happened. All of this made a difference,” she said pointing out that studying analytics and looking for insights all the time was key.

She said that mobile should always be seen as a work in progress. When the newspaper launched the second version of its iPhone app it saw 174pc growth in subscriptions. “We learned because we were already out there. If we were going to be waiting for it to be perfect we would have been losing time. ‘Done is better than perfect,’ is a Mark Zuckerberg line.”

Evans said that everything online should be viewed as a work in progress that requires constant refocus.

It all starts with data

Data analytics has been a constant ally throughout, especially in identifying patterns of behaviour among readers coming in through a variety of devices.

“We found that with the iPad, for example, we experience spikes in the morning, it drops around midday and then picks up at the end of the day. The mobile web spikes in the morning and spreads throughout the day.”

Into the future Evans said that online publishers need to put analytics at the heart of the organisation. “Embrace it, love it. It’s a small barrier to entry in the digital space but to not use this resource means you are going to end up losing against the competition.

“A customer-centric approach will always give you results.”

She said publishers won’t be able to do their job well in the future without having analysis or analysts close by to help them understand and take action.

“Require analyst insights,” she told publishers. “Don’t just ask for information, push your analytics team.”

This has become a new ethos for The Washington Post team when it comes to using data: “Everything has to have a recommendation. A recommendation for what you do with the information you’ve been given and how you use the data to leverage for success.”

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years