Trends in Publishing: personalization, contextualization and new formats

News organizations have begun to shift from a broadcasting model (one-size-fits-all) to a personalized model where each user gets content tailored to his interests and preferences. Organizations that are late to adopt this technological trend will find it difficult to keep a viable audience.  

Large news organizations like The New York Times publish about 1,000 stories daily, but the average reader reads only a handful of articles. The reason why this number is so low is two-fold: first, users are nowadays overloaded with information. Emails, latest sports scores, push notifications, and social media all compete for a person’s attention. Second, mobile screens allow for only a limited number of stories to be featured on a landing page.

The result is that when a reader lands on a landing page that is not personalized, he will be only interested in one or two stories. This is what the Lenfest Institute reported using Philadelphia residents in their focus group study. Participants mostly depended on their mobile phones for news consumption and self-reported to opt out following the news if too much information was presented to them.

In order to deliver a personalized experience, news organizations could personalize features such as their headlines, newsletters or delivery time. By personalizing these features the average reader will read more articles. Furthermore, he will be likely to spend more time on a publishers website. Users currently spend about a fifth of their time scrolling through their social media news feeds which directly compete with the publisher for the user’s attention. While these feeds do offer a personalized experience, they also represent an information overload that alienates a segment of the population. Eventually, news media that personalize their entire platform will be best positioned to build their audience.

For the last decade, news media have been using A/B testing to optimize the user experience. In A/B testing two or more versions of a web page are compared to determine which one performs the best. An issue is, however, that A/B testing optimizes the user experience for your audience as a whole and not for the individual. Because individuals have different preferences, habits, and needs, the result of  A/B testing is a web page that has the least bad overall performance.

The Publishing Industry

News media have begun implementing personalization into their platforms. The news that the reader consumes is being personalized based on two types of data. One type of data is data that users pro-actively provide. This could be their gender, interests or age. Another kind of data is implicit data such as your location or the articles that you have read. An example of news personalization is readers of the AD, a Dutch daily newspaper, sharing their location in order to receive push notifications about important local news events.

Being the first media to fully personalize the user experience may be a good marketing strategy. If being the first worked for winning the race to the moon, for Apple, and for Windows, why would it not work for news personalization? That is why leading organizations like the New York Times, CNN or De Persgroep increasingly recognize personalization as an essential component of their strategy. As CNN’s Andrew Morse recently puts it in the Digiday podcast:

“You can’t be just a great journalism organization anymore. Along with great journalism, you need to invest in technology and infrastructure. It’s not about the next big product, but building the test-and-learn discipline. We have the single largest political site in the last three or four years. We need to think about tools and utilities for users to be able to engage with news and in a more personalized way. Because we talk about platforms with such disdain, there’s this false construct that there is a choice between content and technology. Let’s not seed technology to the platform. Let’s hire technologists and engineers to build great user experiences so we can deliver great content to users directly.”

Formats, Audiences & Contextualization

Today personalization is often offered in the form of recommended articles like: people who have read this also read this”. Though this works for news publishers, it is less effective for publications that already cover a specific niche like fashion or technology. A next step in the personalization process is contextualization. In the contextualized form of personalization consumers will get a message that is specifically tailored to their individual contexts such as their level of education or mood.

Currently, many readers tend to get disengaged and leave a web page when they encounter an article about a subject that they find hard to understand. Articles about issues like economic policy or climate change may include language that is difficult to understand, require background knowledge that is lacking or lack the broader context in which a story developed. By tailoring a news message to the context of an audience news media will be able to tap into audiences that they traditionally failed to reach.

Part of contextualization will be offering content in the right format. For example,  a person who is is commuting from and to work would not be able to read any article, but he might be interested in listening to a podcast or a spoken version of an article. Publishers like the Financial Times, Bloomberg and The New York Times have seen an increase in audio content consumption. For instance, Bloomberg reports that some of its podcast downloads have increased 35% year over year. The introduction of text to audio services and smart speakers in combination with contextualization is expected to make audio even more ubiquitous.

Formats like audio and video are especially popular among younger audiences. New York Times CEO Mark Thompson commented about this: “our podcast, The Daily, is really good at engaging our younger audiences who maybe don’t have as clear a view of the brand as our older, more heartland audiences would. More than two-thirds of that audience is under the age of 40 and nearly half is under the age of 30. These are far, far younger audiences than most newspaper audiences.”