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InContext / An inside look at the business of digital content

Data-driven design: informing readers’ deeper desires

April 1, 2015 | By Brandon Carter, Content Marketing Specialist—Outbrain

So much of digital publishing is now focused on the post-mortem: What happened on my site? Which stories performed well? Which stories did my audience share? Are those two things equivocal? How can we do better next time?

The emergence of data as a publisher’s new best friend in answering those questions is a compelling development, provided publishers have the tools and teams to act on this new information. Understanding audience behavior and patterns can inform everything from the way that editors plan and program content to the new products publishers build (or, just as importantly, don’t build).

Unfortunately, the constituent who consistently gets left out of the post-mortem is the most important one: the reader. Maybe it’s time to reconsider.

A while back, my colleague Elizabeth thought her HuffPo app was actually including her in the postmortem – by telling her how she was doing as a reader.

More than most people I know, Elizabeth is acutely aware of the kinds of stories she typically reads and makes no apology if they skew towards, say, “lighter” categories in Entertainment. (She is, for the record, a whip-smart graphic designer.)

So it was with great delight she observed that News and Tech & Innovation appeared foremost in her category navigation, ahead of even Comedy (which she’s constantly trying to get me to appreciate more as a pastime). The order of these Categories, she insisted, was moving periodically according to her recent reading habits. The fact that, at that moment, News and Tech were ahead of her self-described favorites, was evidence that she was blossoming into the well-rounded reader she aspired to be.

Neither of us was entirely sure her HuffPo app was actually playing back this data to her, but in a way it didn’t matter because it provided an interesting perspective: What if publishers explicitly reflected back our current regimen of content? What could that do for our relationship with publishers – and engagement with their content?

Most of us would like to think we’re relatively informed readers, even if we’re not up on the very latest in global politics or other proxies we use for “being informed.” And most of us would admit we have some guilty pleasures mixed in there too — from listicles to cat videos to celebrity gossip, few of us are completely immune to the appeal of these stories, no matter how frivolous or motivated by schadenfreude.

To stretch the nutrition metaphor a bit, maybe some sort of “content pyramid” would help us identify and organize the optimal consumption of each “content group” specific to our needs.

Theoretically, this is a utility publishers could provide with their growing data fluency. Opting in to an interaction like this could fulfill a need – not too far removed from why we share content on our social networks – in the form of validation; it could serve as a measure of reassurance, encouragement, or simply well-defined information on what kinds of readers we are (kind of like a less cynical Buzzfeed quiz), and by extension, the people we aspire to be. At its most basic function, a utility like this would communicate that the publisher and the reader had in fact entered into a relationship predicated on consideration and appreciation of the reader’s time and habits.

For publishers it could even be used to incentivize audiences to step up their engagement with certain categories or products e.g. rewarding users who hit a certain threshold with access to exclusive content. It might even be a service worth paying for.

We’re starting to see signs that publishers are moving towards more relationship-building cues via reader utilities. The Pool, a new site from 6 Music presenter Lauren Lavern and former Cosmopolitan and Red Magazine editor Sam Baker joins the likes of Medium in telling readers right up front how long it will take to consume each story. The Pool goes a step further and lets users search for content based on how much time they have.

A logical next step in this more personal approach to publishing would be to not just reflect what users should read based on their habits, but to let them know what they are in fact reading, acting as the mirror that journalism has always purported to be, albeit on a larger cultural scale. In digital, publishers have the opportunity to project that responsibility down to an individual level.


Brandon Carter is a Content Specialist at Outbrain (@brandedcarter @Outbrain). He began his career as a staff journalist for the Maine weekly ‘The Coastal Journal’ before moving to New York and joining the product licensing divisions of Peanuts Worldwide and Sesame Workshop.

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