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How ABC News uses push to deliver news that is personal and pervasive

April 24, 2018 | By Peggy Anne Salz, Founder and Lead Analyst—Mobile Groove @peggyanne

Push notifications are growing up, and content companies are getting smarter about ways to deliver them. Once, they were little more than generic (often spammy) alerts deployed to grab our attention. However, push notifications – in all their forms and formats – have evolved to become regarded as the “first mobile-native messaging channel.” Deployed properly, push notifications don’t simply trigger us to check our lock-screen; they can inspire us to engage with content frequently and care about outcomes.

ABC News is using push to power personalized news experiences that are as unique as each user, aligned with a deep understanding of user interests and ideal contexts. Peggy Anne Salz – mobile analyst and content marketing strategist at MobileGroove – catches up with Doug Vance, Vice President, Product Development, ABC News. Vance is responsible for product development and strategy for ABC News digital properties including ABCNews.com, GoodMorningAmerica.com, mobile apps, OTT channels and other emerging platforms. They discuss how the company is extending its push strategy to drive consumer connection and keep the conversation going inside the app and beyond the smartphone.


PAS: You offer a general news app and you pursue a goal to deliver the right news to the right person at the right time. What role does push play in the mix of capabilities you have built to reach and engage with your audience of more than 100 million users across devices and platforms every month?

DV: Push notifications sit at the center of our wider strategy to drive relevancy through personalized news and communications. More than two million users are subscribed to our personalized push alerts on native platforms, iOS and Android. Another half a million or so are subscribed on our Apple News channel. That’s a solid reach, and it’s because of how we use push is aligned with how consumers interact with their mobile devices. As we know, mobile devices are truly the most personal devices we own. Therefore, it was obvious to us that the way to reach and engage our audience starts with understanding how we can deliver the most relevant news offering on the mobile device and then take those learnings to the other platforms that are growing quickly for us.

Relevancy is not about blasting users with several alerts per day. It’s about sending alerts when you are confident your audience will appreciate them. For us, it starts with breaking news. We call them Everyone Alerts because they go to a multi-million size audience. These are the alerts we think our entire audience needs to know or would want to know. We take this very seriously. We don’t want to interrupt people on their very personal device unless we think it’s critical. Generally speaking, we send one or two Everyone Alerts per day. Then there are the personalized alerts we send to segments of our user base that we’ve created based on their interests. This can be between 5 to 10 personalized alerts around broad topics – like the conflict in Syria, all the way down to granular topics, like the recent Parkland shooting – that our users tell us they want to follow as it unfolds.

PAS: That’s a lot of user choice, but it also requires automation to deliver and track results. How do you orchestrate the types of push you offer to fit what your users have said they want and drive results for your business?

DV: We’re very interested in delivering an experience that will give the users the freedom to interact with push without necessarily having to open their app. It’s removing a step in the process that gets them faster to the content they want. Of course, they are not opening the app to do this, which means the industry KPIs that track the success of notifications through open rates need a rethink. We work with Braze (formerly Appboy) to deliver and personalize the types of push we offer and together we’re also working to better understand what comes after open rates.

It’s critical to understand this. If a piece of content that’s delivered in a push notification – let’s say a headline, an image, or a video – gives users the ability to take action or to share that notification, we have to know what to measure and what the data and analytics are telling us. This is the first step to tracking the success of these types of push notifications. Granted, in-app push that may not result in an app open, but it is an interaction that contributes to a user’s overall happiness with the state of our app and the service that we’re offering. As an industry, we need to understand these new types of push. It will be a big focus for us in 2018.

In the news space, a lot of our alerts are reactive, reacting to things that are happening in the world and therefore notifying our users about those events. Our audience development team stands ready 24/7 waiting to send those notifications segmented and personalized to users’ interests and geo. When we know about events that are going to happen in advance, we can script out how we will handle that from a push perspective well ahead of time. Take the wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle coming up in May. We see incredible interest in these types of stories, so we’re actively planning our strategy for that event. We’re going to launch a few new features in our app to coincide with that event, which I can’t disclose now.

PAS: Your success in personalizing push notifications and measuring the results beyond the open rate has produced a wealth of best practices. ABC News is part of the Disney ABC family; how do you share learnings across the company?

DV: We see it as a two-way street within the Disney Company. The Walt Disney Company owns eight local stations in some of the biggest markets in the U.S., and there’s a product group within the company that specifically manages local news applications. Of course, we work very closely with them. We’ve been updating them over the past few years on the success of our personalized push notification strategy. When they launched a new suite of local news apps in late 2017, personalized push and the ability to follow topics was a strong focus of their apps. Their research also confirmed that audiences were seeking more personalized experiences. Now, users can receive more information about micro-targeted communities in New York or LA, for example. Local stations have seen remarkable success and audiences are excited about their experience with personalized push.

More recently our sister company ESPN launched a big update to its native app offering. It now includes ESPN+, the first-ever multi-sport, direct-to-consumer subscription streaming service from The Walt Disney Company’s Direct-to-Consumer and International group. As part of that update, they’re also giving users more ability than ever to personalize their newsfeed. They can make that newsfeed personal around the teams they follow and the sports they like the most. They’ve shared learnings regarding how to encourage users to add favorites – for example, their favorite teams – and to then use that information to better personalize a newsfeed and push offering. Throughout the company, we are sharing information, and multiple groups within the Disney Company use Braze as well. Together we’re learning, and to benefit from learning from some of the best-in-class companies under the Disney umbrella allows us to continue to experiment and excel.

PAS:  Finally, you talk about learnings and their importance in your roadmap. Can you share a few?

DV: We’ve talked about the millions of our users who are subscribed to personalized push alerts in our mobile apps. But our Web audience is much bigger than our native audience. This is why we are bringing the learnings from our native platforms into our web platforms. Today when you go to abcnews.com on your desktop or phone or tablet, you’ll see interest iconography. When you’re scrolling down the homepage, you’ll see a band – a series of modules – that will show you updates on the latest interests that you’ve set. You’ll receive notifications on the web for those interests just as if you had set those interests on the phone. We’ve also introduced login and registration to allow cross-device syncing as part of this experience.

It’s what our users told us they value most. If they’re spending the time to set up their interests and curate their experience in their mobile apps, they want to have that same experience on the website. So, if we think an alert or a notification rises to the level of sending to everybody on their mobile phone, we’ll send that alert to everyone who’s subscribed to Web Push as well. It’s the same with personalized push. We see the web as another channel for personalized notification.

If you want to deliver push that users will appreciate, you need to start by explaining the value proposition of push to your audience and make it a core part of your overall offering. Don’t make it a tab in your app. It has to be everywhere. At ABC News we overlay our videos with interest iconography that allows users to favorite topics from within a video, from within a headline list, from within an article itself. It also has to be core to what you do as an organization. Push isn’t just a product feature; it’s part of the ethos of the entire organization. From the editorial process to the user experience, push has to be pervasive.

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