Monday, April 20, 2009

Customisation and news sites

In early March Fairfax Media relaunched incorporating a degree of user enabled customisation previously not seen in New Zealand news sites. Below is a few thoughts about personalised news services from Darren Burden and David Higgins.

Darren is Director of News and Sport at Fairfax Digital in Australia (he was not involved in the Stuff relaunch). David Higgins is editor of which was the first major Australian news site to incorporate broad based customisation.

Q: Any general comments about the style of personalisation we've seen on and now

DARREN: Personalisation has been the flavour of the month for as long as I can remember. The thing is that people like the idea of personalisation, but very few could be bothered to actually use the features.

DAVID: Technically – I think I have this right – and are examples of customisation, where visitors can change a website to fit their own needs, eg. putting sport up top and entertainment down the bottom. Personalisation is where a site watches a visitor’s behaviour and changes itself to fit that individual’s needs. With care, I think both are good ways of building loyalty, but customisation/personalisation is only one element of a digital strategy.

DARREN: For a news site there are other limitations such as balancing the customisation above the fold, or being able to add components of interest such as email or IM clients. This type of functionality also impedes the “serendipity effect” of being spontaneously directed around a website using devices such as the Top 5 stores, or most viewed videos. I do like the idea however of localisation – this makes a lot of sense. For example the work that has done with weather. We need to get cracking on that concept for all Fairfax sites.

DAVID: For me there are five key reasons why digital journalism attracts people over print. Indulge the alliteration, but I’ll call them the 5Cs: cost (it’s free), convenience (it’s on your work computer or phone), currency (it’s up to date), connection (it’s not just a story it’s a discussion), and customisation (I can make the news suit me).

Q: So, David, has your experience shown that users treat differently as a result of the format changes?

DAVID: Just over a third of visitors have in some way used our customisation features to change to suit their tastes. Of those, about 40 per cent have moved content modules around on the page. The most popular customisation has been to move sport up to the top of the page. The second most popular has been to move the tech section – which appears at the bottom of the page by default – up to the top. We have seen engagement and session times increase at a higher-than-industry-average rates since introducing the technology.

Would we go to the next level and introduce an iGoogle or NetVibes approach allowing the construction of a totally customised experience? I doubt it because – being a big fan of NetVibes – I know Web customisation is more useful when pulling in feeds from all over the Web, not just from a single news site. Darren and I both agree that news sites are more likely to focus on further enabling users to export news content into third party customised environments.

Q: Darren, I know you have some thoughts on the degrees of personalisation that could work in different circumstances, could you give us either some examples or a rundown of what you see as ideal levels of personalisation for news sites?

DARREN: There are some personalisation techniques that could work really well – initiated from a product point of view. As I mentioned before, people don’t necessarily want to do these actions themselves, but if the product automatically does it for them it makes for a much better experience. Take for example Amazon, who combine behavioural knowledge from an individual – that is what they have bought, with intersections of the crowd to produce suggestions and recommendations. There are other things we can do such as not show you the same video/gallery/story on the home page if you have already clicked on it. The research that we do is consistent - people are time poor, they scan stories, they want breaking news. We should be showing you the stories you are interested in based on your past behaviour – a more up to date and personal experience if you like. We’ll need to change some mindsets and work practices to achieve this – for example the editorial team who currently choose the top eight stories may have to pick the top 25 to ensure we have the selection we need. Jonathan Rosenberg, Snr VP of Product Management at Google talks in much more depth about behavioural personalisation on his blog.

The second level of personalization is really more for readers who want to take our brands/content and build their own views in Facebook, NetVibes, blogs etc. This would entail creating better hooks into our content, but there are commercial challenges around this kind of personalisation which we would need to consider carefully. Nic Newman, Future Media Controller at the BBC recently indicated that they are also going to do more of this kind personalisation/syndication - but BBC don't have the same commercial challenges as public companies.

Q:In that context it’s interesting that The Guardian has just launched Open Platform. Given that we're still at the early, or even experimental stage, of this sort of formatting for news, how far do you think it can be pushed?

DARREN: I think a lot of it starts from some of the ideas already discussed. It can be pushed as far as the limitations allow it. Some of the limitations are commercial, budgetary or the capability of your technical teams. We are pretty interested in making sure we build functionality or features that really add value to the product, rather than just being a good idea.

Q: What about the editing process? Do you think we will see news stories being edited differently as a result of user information generated by personalisation?

DAVID: We certainly edit our home pages and features sections based on behaviour. News-editing is a lot more scientific these days and while there is still an element of “gut-feel”, most editors are more conscious of what stories and angles their audience are interested in. Editors now have incredible real-time data about their audiences and would be foolish not to be making the most of this.

DARREN: Creating and subbing the content would not change – the story will still be the story. The changes are more likely to manifest in layout and content management. For example rather than choosing one lead image, we may select up to 10 that could change depending on behaviour as discussed previously. The types of systems that support this type of content need to be smart and robust – they need to learn as they go along, and above all be easy, fast and flexible for the editorial teams.

DAVID: Current content management systems are not smart enough to efficiently edit stories for individuals – and clearly this will never be a manual task -- but I don’t see why this could not be possible in the future with smarter technology. The positive thing about the disappearance of "competitive barriers to entry" in our industry is the increased focus on innovation, which we all recognise as crucial to our prosperity.

Q: From a commercial perspective, what's the immediate upside? Does it increase the value of specific inventory? Do you think we'll see an upswing in targeted advertising?

DARREN: Clearly any product investment should have a commercial impact. In some of the scenarios above we would see an increase in page impressions as people find more content they are interested in. We would also see a corresponding increase in time on site which is a good indication of engagement – one of the key metrics for smart advertisers. After all it makes sense that the longer someone sticks around, the more chances they have of seeing ads. The engagement metric is also an indicator of quality. People don’t tend to stick around when the content is crap.

The other commercial aspect is really in behavioural advertising – one of the fastest growing segments of the online pie. We expect it to be a premium space as you need to have quite good data to provide this kind of service. It could be as simple as showing specific car ads to people who have been to Drive, or it could be show my ad to readers who are between 18-24, who've visited Drive in the last 7 days and who live at home. There will be an upswing, but creating the infrastructure to deal with this will be a challenge for publishers.

DAVID: Most of the current work News Digital Media is doing in this area is on the commercial side. NDM recently introduced an Audience Targeting product that allows clients to target their ads to people based on their browsing behaviour. For example we can now serve car ads to people who are interested in cars -- even when they are not in a motoring section. This not only makes advertising more efficient for clients, it also makes it more useful to visitors. Visitors remain anonymous of course.