The leaked New York Times Innovation Report reviews the publication’s digital strategy, asks big questions and recommends steps to take to keep up with the shifting digital landscape on the content cluttered internet and the distracted mobile world. The Times might be the world’s leading news organization but the report shows that they lag behind new online publishers like Buzzfeed (ironically first to break the report) and Huffington Post.
The 96-page report was published internally on March 24th 2014 and is a must read for anyone in online content publishing and marketing. I recommend you take a look now. Lessons and recommendations from the report are useful for any content publisher. In case you are busy and want a quicker executive summary, these are the tl;dr (too long; didn’t read) content marketing and blogging lessons learned from reading the report.
- Your home page is not the key. Only a third of readers visit the home page of The New York Times. And those who do visit are spending less time on it. Page views and minutes spent per reader dropped by double-digit percentages in the year 2013. Encouraging sharing of content in social media is the new key to getting your content read.
- “If something is important, it will find me” behavioral trend. Users are moving away from browsing and expect the news to come to them through social media and mobile notifications. The New York Times has been late in seeing this shift in reading behavior and currently less than 10% of their traffic comes from social media (Buzzfeed gets about 60%). There’s an example of how reporters at ProPublica must submit five tweets alongside each story in order to force themselves to think how to distribute their content in social media. See tips on how to use Twitter and Facebook to drive traffic to your site.
- You don’t automatically get an audience, you have to go find your audience. The report states that many of the journalists at The Times have the attitude of “Let’s let our work speak for itself. We’re not the ones to brag”. To succeed online aggressive story promotion is needed. Content promotion should be integrated into your daily workflow. You should be an advocate of your own work in order to reach more readers.
- Create a promotional strategy and impact toolbox for each story ahead of its publication. Provide strategy, tactics and templates for increasing reach of an article before and after it has been published. Focus on ways to boost the article through search engines. Find influential users that can help spread the article through social media. Identify relevant communities to seed the story to. Reach out to other media and organizations interested in the story. This is my recommended content marketing routine to follow after publishing a new piece of content.
- Use email as a communication channel to reach readers directly. According to the report email marketing is one of the most efficient ways to cut through the noise and The Times should put more emphasis on it.
- Use a CMS tool that allows you to focus on innovating features instead of minor fixes. Functionality, ease of use and speed are important when looking for a CMS. The Times spends too much time fixing bugs on the CMS that they use (it’s called Scoop) and the report considers it one of the biggest problems that they face. CMS that I use and recommend is WordPress – it’s open-source, flexible and adaptable.
- Have a best practices checklist before publishing a piece of content. They list the example of The Huffington Post where bloggers cannot publish a post unless it has a search headline, tags, images, a tweet and a Facebook post pre-written. This is the checklist I recommend for things to do before publishing a post.
- Tag and structure content in order to help readers discover content. The Times have an impressive archive of content – almost 15 million articles published since the year 1851. All this content is not tagged and organized which makes it impossible to optimize the use of the archive. The Times did add structured data to their recipes which increased the traffic from search by more than 50%. Luckily for bloggers and content marketers WordPress makes it easy to categorize content, to add tags and to search through existing archives.
- The recirculation effect. Get people to consume more content by improving content’s effectiveness in driving readers to other articles within the site as opposed to them leaving the site. This is done by making your content sticky and interesting.
- Publish content when people are online. The report considers their publishing schedule which is focused on print to be out of sync with the new digital world. For example they publish majority of their content in the late evening (in order for it to make the morning paper) while majority of their traffic is in the morning hours. The most ambitious stories are published on Sundays (as that’s when there is the biggest print readership), even though Sunday is the slowest day for traffic online.
- What is the value of your comments area? On The New York Times only 1% of readers write comments and only 3% of readers read comments. Think of those figures when figuring out your goals and metrics you will use to measure the success of your efforts. And don’t be concerned that you don’t get too many comments.
- Don’t undervalue replicability. Focus on sustainable solutions over time consuming hacks. Build tools and templates that can help you replicate success stories – WordPress plugins are perfect for this. They mention the example of Buzzfeed quizzes where Buzzfeed writers have a simple tool to create quizzes while at The Times they work hard on getting more of the big, one-time but not easily replicable projects like Snow Fall. This is expensive, time consuming and not very efficient.
- Experiment quickly and constantly to discover new solutions. Don’t be a perfectionist and don’t use your high quality standards as an excuse to say no to an idea. Don’t perfect, then release. Go with a beta, the minimum viable product, then use vital reader feedback instead of another round of internal feedback to improve. Even before you finish something, start planning for version 2.0 and 3.0. This is how they presented disruption in the industry:
- Don’t run your mobile experience on autopilot. Nearly 60% of readers access The New York Times through mobile devices. The mobile experience demands its own control and creativity – first step towards that for me is to have a mobile responsive design. An idea presented in the report is that they could serve content that is relevant to the visitor’s location.
- Use Op-Eds and other user generated content as low cost way to expand your site and deepen loyalty. Ask people in your audience that have interesting skills and experiences to share them by contributing to your site. Allowing specially invited and quality guest posters is a good way of doing this.
- Pull back the curtain and talk about the process behind your work. Publish stories behind the story. Provide readers with a bit more insight into how you do your work to deepen their connection with you and your work. One way of doing this is by publishing a “What I am reading” section where you curate recommendations of good content from around the web.
- Be both a daily newspaper and a library. Offer latest news but also provide context and relevance to the breaking stories. This is a good example of how The Times could make sure they own a get the most out of a breaking story by using several different angles and have a scheduled digital roll-out of “second hour” stories:
- Mine your content archives. Repackage and republish content to give unseen content a second chance. Push relevant content to readers by using personalization. Enable right stories to find right readers, in the right places at the right times. This takes much less effort than creating new content. See the ways I recommend you recycle and reuse your existing content.
- Resurface evergreen content in useful, timely, relevant and shareable ways. Build, group and organize content collections. Couple of successful collections were done for the Valentine’s Day and for a story about sex trafficking. This also leads to people spending longer time on site. This evergreen article from one of the collections had an average time spent on it being 2 minutes and 34 seconds which was one of the articles people spent most time on that day. A good figure to benchmark your content against.
- Do content curation and aggregation. Aggregation can outperform original content by using better headlines, more stunning imagery and better social media push. In the report they mention the example of Gawker repacking old but relevant content from The Times and getting more views than The Times itself.
Data & Learning
- Collect user data. Understand your visitors in order to provide more relevant and useful user experience and content. Who are your visitors and how do they use your site? Use a tool like Google Analytics for your first steps in data collection.
- Read like your readers. Monitor your site on mobiles and on tablets to understand the visitor experience and help yourself figure out how to improve your site.
- Analyse the impact of your efforts in order to learn and improve. It’s not all about publishing new content all the time. You must stop, reflect, analyse and collect lessons learned in order to improve your future efforts.
- Failures are important learning opportunities. Build the insights from failures into future efforts. According to the report the risk of failing greatly outweighs the reward of succeeding at The New York Times and this needs to change.
- Track the media landscape and rethink your competition. See what works for others and adopt it. And it is not necessarily only your traditional competitors you should look at. In the competitor cheat sheet section of the report they list the mobile app Circa, the visual aggregator Flipboard and social network Linkedin among their competitors.
Timeless Principles Of Online Work
- Build your company out of legos, not bricks. The right structure and way of doing things today is not necessary the right structure for tomorrow. Your needs will change quickly and your skills will go out of date. Be flexible and adaptable. Learn and improve. Constantly assess your needs. Push back on perfectionist impulses and start making continuous improvements.
- Kill off mediocre efforts that do not work. Don’t be afraid to kill failed projects. Free up resources and time for new initiatives.
- You need to have a long-term vision. Focusing on your content calendar, on getting new content published and making it work can be a form of laziness. It is comfortable, familiar, and you know how to do it. Take time to step back and think about long term questions to ensure you’re exploring new areas. Look hard at your traditions and push yourself in ways that makes you uncomfortable. Don’t avoid the real hard work and bigger questions about your present and the future: what should we become? How must we change?
- Recruit the right digital staff. Data analysts, visual designers, technologists, social media editors and analytics specialists. People with intuitive sense for how to write for the web, interest in experimenting with mobile and social storytelling, a proficiency with data, a desire to engage with readers on and off the site, and an understanding of the shifting competitive landscape. Working as a content marketer and as a blogger actually gives you experience and insights into all of these.
- “Product first, department second”. Teams cannot work in silos as they do currently at The Times. There’s a need for collaboration between the different teams on improving the product and user experience. Journalists in the newsroom have to work together with product, technology, marketing and other departments.