»Data-Aware« will get you there
How the Winnipeg Free Press’ close eye on user experience drives revenue
At the Winnipeg Free Press, delivering the best local reporting in the region is table stakes. “We cover our marketplace better than everybody else, but that's not enough to get somebody to pay for you,” said Christian Panson, the newspaper’s vice president of digital. “The other guys in our marketplace just watch our site and then rewrite our stories.” Rather than succumb to the sincerest form of flattery— imitation—the publisher works hard to deliver a personalized digital experience that sometimes upends newsroom tradition, sometimes embraces it, but always puts readers first.
To reach readers, get personal
When the WFP launched its site in 2015, there were a few stumbles. To start, they didn’t organize content by section, causing confusion among readers. For another, they went full bore with algorithm- driven content personalization, causing problems in the newsroom. “I wouldn’t say we had a full-on rebellion, but editorial couldn’t wrap their heads around it.” They had to get the message across that using machine learning to recommend content doesn’t mean losing creative and operational control. By 2017, the traditional sections were back and the newsroom had regained control of the front page while allowing automated content recommendations to fill in the rest. Using Cxense, the WFP site surfaces content individual users are most likely to read and suppresses content users have already read. That capability is particularly important given the WFP’s cross-device presence. Its app has two news feeds, one curated for editors and one that’s completely personalized. That personalized feed is deduped against curated news so that readers are always moving onto a new story. Keeping readers engaged with new, relevant content is key to the WFP’s revenue strategy. Personalization nurtures engagement, and engagement triggers subscriptions. Panson’s next challenge is proving out that funnel.
Overview and Challenge
The Winnipeg Free Press offers the best local coverage in their market, but that alone won’t win subscribers. Instead, it aims to win registrants and subscribers with a frictionless user experience that keeps people reading and nudges them ever closer to sign up. Since installing its paywall in 2015, the digital team has used a combination of site design, personalization technology, and news judgment to make steady progress. Digital subscriptions have increased 40% year over year and now account for 35 % of the publication’s total readership. Like most small- to mid-sized publishers, the Winnipeg Free Press does not have a large data science team. Panson calls his organization “data-aware,” acknowledging that WFP is in the early stages of learning how to best apply data. By cribbing data strategy from global publishers and relying on Cxense technology to identify opportunities, it is making measured strides toward achieving its goals.
Personalized content recommendations not only improve the reader experience on site, but allows the newsroom to focus on curating top stories, rather than populating back pages. What’s more, by suppressing read content, Cxense helps move readers from story to story, boosting engagement and moving them closer to registration. Readers click on personalized recommendations 1.6 times as often as randomly placed stories and, since activating the technology in 2015, active time on site has doubled to an average eight minutes on desktop and four minutes on mobile. After its 3-story limit, readers are asked to register. But the traditional trial flow wasn’t working. The digital team used Cxense to identify drop-offs and have since instituted a new flow that has boosted sign-ups by 500 percent. The team continues to use the platform to A/B widgets, making marginal gains that result in real revenue. Now, the team is focused on which stories drive subscriptions, identifying which section or reporter is driving pageviews and analyzing how those pageviews translate into subscriptions. The team hopes they can make a good argument for funding newsrooms and, in doing so, boost data-awareness among the editorial team.
“Using Cxense to be data-aware helped us identify an opportunity, and then we went after that opportunity and proved that we were right.”
VP Digital & Technology, Winnipeg Free Press