What Are They Thinking: The Times harnesses the power of increasingly personalized push
Keep in touch. Tell me what’s new.
They’re simple requests, and ones that we’re used to repeating to each other. Now, though, courtesy of the powerful computers in our pockets called smartphones, the way we stay in touch with each other changed — and the way our favorite news sources stay in touch with us has been practically revolutionized.
In the news world, one conversation has consumed lots of air in the last six months: How do we deal with the rise of platforms? Facebook Instant Articles. Apple News. Snapchat Discover. Are these the new bêtes noire, to be competed against and overcome? Or are they the new superhighway to readers’ attention, given how they dominate so many readers' time? So far, we’d say neither, but it’s still way too early to judge.
Instead, let’s focus on a more direct kind of communication.
Andrew Phelps is Director of Push and Messaging for the New York Times — a new role. Phelps previously served as IOS Product Manager for the Times. His move in October into the Push job tells us lots of what the Times, and maybe a dozen or so of its peer companies, are learning about the value of more frequent, more direct, communication with their readers.
How many such communications do you get everyday? There are the notifications, and the alerts. Sign up for them at some point, and you’ll see the first screen of your smartphone filled up with the latest Trump gambit, or terrorist act, or, far too rarely, good news. Then, there are the email newsletters that tumble into your Inbox.
Such messaging is nothing new, but the primacy of the smartphone in our lives has pushed the Times to create Phelps’ new specific role, and to devote greater attention to the growing art and science of push.
“I think push is one of the most powerful messaging platforms in the history of the press,” said Phelps. “You can instantaneously interrupt the day of people on 24 million devices, just by sending up a single push. Maybe with the exception of television, I don't think any system has ever had the scale and immediacy and impact of Push. What we're finding more and more is that for a lot of users, push is the primary way that they're engaging with apps. They're not necessarily tapping the icon and browsing, which would be more pull, there's sort of expecting news organizations to come to them.”
Such power is like a genie in a bottle, though. And, it’s forcing the Times to think through how to use it.
“When we reach that many people and frankly, when we have that much power, we have to be really thoughtful and tread really carefully,” he said. “Now that the push audience is so big, I think we're finally starting to move beyond this very one-dimensional idea that push is the same as breaking news, and that whenever the Times has breaking news to share, you blast it out to 100 percent of users at the same time, whether it's 3:00 in the morning, their time, or 6:00 in the morning; whether they're interested in that particular alert or not.”
In other words, circa 2016, too much of news communication is one-to-many. The next frontier means using reader information — the analytics, the data science, the audience intelligence — to create a better reading relationship.
The intent, and the dream: one-to-one news publisher communication with its readers. Clearly, the technology will take us there sooner rather than later, and we’ll look back at this one-to-many age as a Stone Age.
“I think the ultimate goal is that for every user, there's sort of a different Push relationship with the New York Times, one that is customizable and infinitely personal. That's where we're headed. We've got a long way to go.”
The intangibles here are as interesting as the business fundamentals. How do regular readers — especially paying customers — want to be treated in the digital age? Phelps’ aspiration: be more “respectful of their time and intelligence.” That’s a big goal, but when that can be accomplished in small ways as well.
“You might have seen that we switched from the long-time standard of Times-style all-caps headlines to sentence-cased. One of those small, yet big, decisions. … We're trying to talk to people instead of yell at people.” In addition, in the fall, the Times used its first emoji in a push alert. "Happy Sunday. Your Times Magazine is ready, best enjoyed with [coffee emoji]," the alert read.
Yet, in the sheer volume of Times content — 150 staff stories produced every day and 250 on Sunday — complexity complicates respectfulness.
Almost all the questions occupying Phelps are mirrored on the email newsletter side of the business. Nicole Breskin, who also moved into a new job as director of product management in fall, 2014, now directs the increasingly ambitious email program. Her beginning complexity: 35 different newsletters.
Out of such content complexity, simplicity is, of course, the goal. How do bring it forth is a good question.
Would it make sense for the Times to send stories on a big new Apple product announcement only to its iOS phone users? “Why not just target iPhone and iPad users with a Push about our live coverage, instead of blasting it out to anyone?” asked Phelps.
Would you like the Times’ “Today’s Headlines” email product to be tailored for you? “What we really want to allow is for readers to say I want the top headlines in politics and sports, but perhaps not in technology,” said Breskin. “Maybe it's just not for them. That's something we're thinking about surfacing.”
How much more should the Times aim to connect its columnists with its push and email programs? Nick Kristof’s newsletter has gotten the first test, owing to his substantial social following. “Within six months, we grew a list really with grassroots site and social promotion of over 50,000 highly engaged readers."
How possible is increased targeting and personalization? It’s all in the data, and the data, at the Times and in every news organization I’ve talked to, is still pretty disparate.
As Phelps explained, “Data is the biggest challenge, especially at a company our size. We’re fragmented by device, and there's so many different tools at our disposal. The web is using a different analytics platform than the IOS apps, for example, which is a different platform from the Push system, which is a different platform from some of our backend business intelligence systems. Identifying data across all of those systems is pretty tough. I think improving the selection and sharing of data is a big part of what we're doing in the next year.”
So, there’s a lot of data rationalization to do. As that goes forward, though, Times users can expect a fair amount of testing.
“We're doing a lot of experimentation. We've been running a series of tests targeting smaller groups of users with pushes that we think may be more relevant to , and we've also been running a series of tests at different times of day, different times of the week. We’re watching the effectiveness of push in a more tailored way.”
Then, there’s the question of metrics: How will the Times know how well these push and email programs are performing, how much greater reader engagement it encourages?
It, too, isn’t an easy question. What counts? Is it a swipe-through rate that tracks a push to an article? Certainly, but the Times says a surprising number of people don't swipe an alert but instead open their app. That behavior, though, is hard to track.
On the email side of the business, the metrics are easier and the Times is now investing more resources in harvesting what it sees as proven results.
One notable stat: “If a reader subscribed to a newsletter, they're twice as likely to become a paid subscriber to the New York Times,” said Breskin. That’s the big payoff, of course. Then there’s the step to getting closer to that reader credit card: Times’ newsletter readers consume twice as many page views, compared to non-newsletter readers. Further, once someone subscribes to one newsletter, she’s likely to sign up for one or two more, on average.
Breskin said that the renewed emphasis helped increase the Times’ list size by 25 percent by the end of 2015 after a flat 2014.
“We're also seeing huge, huge open rates, to the tune of, on average, for our weeklies, we're at about 50 percent, so half of readers who receive our emails are opening them, which is pretty staggering in the industry. We have a bunch of newsletters that actually receive higher than 70 percent open, which is unheard of in the industry.”
Newsletters clearly are more easily ignored, but pushing content carries with it certain risks. If publishers are too pushy, they run risk of running off valued readers.
One big issue: actually losing readers.
“It's a little bit terrifying because they can go to their home screen and delete the app and then we've really lost them for good, or they'll go into the settings and nuke all the notifications and they may still use our app, but we're no longer able to reach them by Push.
That's kind of like the death penalty, I suggested.
“Yeah. Exactly,” said Phelps. “I think turning off push is life in prison, and deleting the app is death penalty. There isn't one kind of user who likes push. I could walk you through a few examples of what we deal with. This is a perennial debate about ‘Do we push big news if it's middle of the night in the United States, right?’ I'm a believer that we push news when it's news, no matter what the time of day is.
“We're a 24-hour global news operation. We can't worry about when a user may or may not be asleep. It's easier to become a lot more sophisticated about their 'do not disturb' settings on the phone and managing their notifications, but then we get a lot of users who email us and say, ‘Why are you sending me this not that big of a deal news alert at 4:00 in the morning? You woke me up and wrecked my sleep.’"
These, then, are weighty decisions. Who makes the decision whether to send out an alert or not?
It’s the Times, so that answer is still a clear one, said Phelps. “It's always an editor in the newsroom.”