Hackday Insights: How to make your website stickier and more engaging?

11 Jul 2014

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Reuters recently partnered with the Global Editors Network to present a Reuters Hackday in New York. In this post Eric Frederick, Online Managing Editor of The News and Observer of Raleigh, NC spoke to us about their highly commended project and how to make your website stickier and more engaging.

Could you tell us a little bit about your Hackday team?

Our team represented McClatchy Newspapers. The members were Tom Markart, senior design engineer at McClatchy Interactive; Peyton Vaughn, a senior web application developer at MI; and Eric Frederick, online managing editor at The News & Observer. All are based in Raleigh, NC.

How was the Hackdays experience different from your usual working day?

One key difference was the view of Times Square from the top of the Thomson Reuters building. Not bad. There was a lot of food and drink around, too. Of course, there was also an emphasis on nonstop creative thinking and collaboration, outside the daily routine of tasks and deadlines and random interruptions.

Please tell us about your project. 

The challenge was to use the Cxense analytics tool and build a feature that made our news website stickier and more engaging. We decided to develop a way to measure true engagement and reward it by improving the user experience — namely, by reducing ad content, incrementally, each time a user reached a certain level of long-term engagement.

We wrote the “rules of engagement,” which would be explained to users in general terms but not specifically revealed (so readers couldn’t cheat). We would award points for things like sharing a story, eliciting referrals to our site through a share, visiting five consecutive pages, and making comments that inspired reaction from others. We did not award points for a page view, or for a comment that got no reaction, or for time spent on site — in other words, things that can be faked and don’t indicate true interaction.

A registered user’s “engagement score” would be displayed at the top of the page when they visited, to kindle their competitive spirit and their need for social currency. They’d see their score rise (and occasionally fall) when they were truly engaged with the site (or weren’t). And when they reached certain benchmarks, they’d see fewer ads, and more news content higher on the page.

To sell this idea to our sales staff and advertisers, we built the system so that our more-engaged users, when they saw fewer ads, would get more finely targeted ads, based on their reading habits. So advertisers could reach people more likely to buy their products, and with fewer competition from other marketers.

You can see a presentation of the idea here.

What aspect are you particularly proud of?

Most of the competing teams conceived features that delivered customized content based on previous reading habits. We wanted to preserve the diversity and sense of discovery and surprise that make a non-customized news website so valuable, so we focused on delivering a better user experience instead, as our reward for engaged readers. Reducing the advertising was a fairly radical idea. But in the process, we conceived a way to deliver a premium advertising opportunity. So we felt as if everyone won.

How does the idea meet the needs of today’s news consumer and publisher?

Quite well, we think. The consumer stays in total control and gets a better experience, with a cleaner presentation of news and advertising that’s less obtrusive and more focused on his/her interests. The publisher gets a stronger site through greater engagement, and also the potential for more revenue, with an alternative to a stagnant advertising model that’s based on impressions that may be meaningless.

What were the key trends that emerged for you from the weekend?

The key trend still seems to be customization — bringing the principles of the marketplace to the presentation of news. Give the customers what they want, and they’ll come back. In general, that’s a good principle, when employed prudently.

How is your organization adapting to meet these challenges/opportunities?

Carefully. The key is balance. We’re studying analytics more than ever, and we’re adjusting our news decisions somewhat, but it’s important that we inform the public fully, rather than just keeping the ideological silos filled. So we’re learning more about what people want while still trying to inform them about things they don’t know, and we’re trying to improve the user experience by making our sites comfortable, if not fully customized.

What role does data play in your work?  How do you see this developing over time?

Data play a strong role — but not a defining role — in news decisions on our websites; they play a more crucial role in our refinement of the user experience. It’s critical to know what readers want, but we don’t want reader data to redefine our core mission. So, going forward, it’s important for news organizations to define and focus on the metrics that tell us whether we’re really serving our readers and serving our most important mission — to facilitate the healthy function of a free society. So we’ll be refining our understanding of true engagement and interaction, and moving away from the numbers that measure simple reach. We’ll also want data that will help our revenue-producing departments, of course — we have to survive.

What excites you about the future of digital journalism?

Data journalism. Tools are being developed every day that help journalists easily mine public and corporate data for issues that need to be examined, and also to help the public visualize and understand that data. We’ll find new ways of holding public officials accountable by finding new ways to see what they’re doing. We’ll find and define the issues that citizens should be concerned about, by quickly and accurately mining for the reasons behind trends and problems. And we’ll be able to help citizens make smarter decisions by presenting accurate information on complicated issues in ways they can easily understand.

What conclusions can you draw for us about how Hackdays can impact the newsroom?

Hackdays encourages us to focus on the “what if” for a while, instead of the daily task. Our business needs innovation more than ever, and we need to think about serving readers in new ways. Hackdays helps with that.

Read more about the Reuters Hackday