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InContext / An inside look at the business of digital content

How USA Today balanced advertiser and consumer expectations in its latest redesign

February 6, 2020 | By Jessica Bateman – Independent Journalist @jessicabateman

One of the biggest challenges facing any digital publisher is how to balance the often-competing needs of readers and advertisers. Brands may want visibility, but how do you ensure their presence doesn’t negatively impact the site’s look and feel? And how do you deliver the best possible user experience in a way that continues to deliver results to advertisers?

The product team at USAToday kept these challenges top of mind while working on its slick site overhaul unveiled late last year– its first major redesign since 2012. Among the most noticeable changes are faster speeds, different colored sections, clearer content labeling, more intuitive navigation and a more integrated presentation of sponsored content.

Doing the research

“Over the years we’ve collected a lot of information from both advertisers and users on what they want from us,” says Nicole Dingess, Senior Director of Product Design and User Experience Team at Gannett, USA Today’s parent company. “Our advertising clients had been saying they wanted something that felt special, and they kept using the word ‘premium’. So, we really dug into that and asked what they meant.”

After some questioning, most brands revealed they wanted to feel like a part of the content: “They don’t want a logo slapped on like an afterthought, they wanted something thoughtful that gave them presence.”

At the same time, the team also wanted to better serve their users, whether they came to them through search, social or homepage. “We describe our desktop users as our most loyal users – they’ll read three articles on average. And they’re the kind of folks that will engage with a 200-page photo gallery,” explains Dingess. “When people come from social, they want to know whether the article is what the headline said it was. We needed to meet their expectations and keep them engaged.”

Refined goals

With this in mind, the team set about work with three main goals: transparency, greater personalization for advertisers, and a more respectful user experience featuring faster speeds.

To improve the user experience, the team created new section colors to make it more obvious whether someone is reading a news story, opinion piece, or lifestyle content such as Travel. One of the most noticeable features is that op-eds now feature a ‘virtual highlighter’, clearly differentiating them from news pieces.  “We need to help consumers understand what it is they’re taking in,” says Dingess.

On the homepage the team created “section bundles” to help readers locate the latest content and ensure they’re up to date with the day’s latest news. “We’re doing organization for them. It’s quickly scannable, and then they can go deep into articles if they want,” says Dingess. They also came up with new ways to offer special content to users, such as investigative pieces or a podcast series, by adding pathways in the masthead. “We can catch your eye and reveal USA Today content that you might not otherwise know about.”

A premium experience

In order to satisfy advertisers’ needs, the team developed a page template to present sponsored content in a more natural-feeling way. “If someone sponsors a section, they get the background color as their brand color, so it feels very immersive,” she says. “Their logo is on the masthead, making it feel integrated rather than ‘stuck on’.”

Of course, user and advertiser needs can sometimes clash. Therefore, balancing these two goals at all times was the team’s biggest challenge. “We looked at every decision through those different lenses,” she says. “We needed to make sure we were not over-investing in one at the cost of another.”

A rigorous testing method was applied to ensure that all goals were being hit. “The team often had their own thoughts about what might be tripping people up or what could change, but we wanted to get a sense of how users were interacting,” she says. They used a card sorting exercise to test out the navigation, and each article layout was also put through user testing.

The big reveal

The final redesign was released to 2% of the website’s users. Then, after about a month of refinement, the site was rolled out to everyone.

Thus far, Dingess says the team has gotten “fantastic feedback” on the user experience, the site speed and the new premium look and feel. Advertisers and users alike are also fans of the clearer labeling of content. Overall, she says, “we’re hearing that the site’s much easier to use.”

One of the most discussed aspects of the redesign is the fact that comments on articles have been removed – a move in line with many other publishers, such as Vice and The Guardian. “We’d received feedback over time that people disliked the comments,” says Dingess. “Internally, we need to have an ongoing conversation about the role of commenting and what alternatives we might put out there, or how we might improve the experience.”

Overall, Dingess is confident the team has created an excellent base that will allow for tweaks and improvements as and when necessary. “We’ve built a solid foundation that we can refine over time, and we intend to do that,” she concludes.

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