In the battle over lock screens, the Guardian draws first blood

By Joe Amditis and Simon Galperin

Data from the Tow Knight Center for Digital Journalism shows that, of the 23 digital publishers surveyed, a total of 469 push notifications were sent to smartphones across the United States on Election Day and the day after. Some publishers sent out as many as 60 or more notifications over the course of the evening, while most kept it to around 10–12.

The Guardian sent just one.

Instead of drowning their subscribers in a sea of notifications and alert vibrations, the team at the Guardian’s Mobile Innovation Lab “used a modified AP data feed to show up-to-the-moment elections results in a single alert that automatically updated with the latest results throughout election night.”

Screenshot: Guardian Mobile Innovation Lab

How does it work?

The new iOS 10 notification features allow users to swipe left or down to view additional notification content and options. Access to the notification was made available through the Guardian’s iOS and Android apps, and US-based users were offered a “quick sign-up experience.”

Users were able to sign up with a single tap, according to the Guardian’s pre-election announcement. Once the user no longer wanted to see the notification or receive the updates, they could simply swipe down and tap “Opt Out” to disable the feature.

What about site traffic?

Pageviews, clicks, and other site-traffic analytics are the bread and butter of most for-profit publications. More traffic means publishers can charge more for advertising on their sites. So why would the Guardian want to put more information on their lock-screen notification, allowing users to get the latest election information at glance? Wouldn’t that discourage people from continuing to the Guardian homepage, thereby reducing the value of the ad space on said homepage?

Apparently not.

According to the Columbia Journalism Review, only 230,000 people signed up to receive the notification, and 75 percent of users tapped through to see more. In the end, a single notification managed to drive more than 800,000 pageviews to the Guardian’s live blog and full results page.

The mobile lab team also sent out user surveys about the notification campaign which, according to CJR, “returned favorable reviews from 6,054 users, 70 percent of which reported expanding the notification to see the visualization.”

A screenshot of the Weather Channel’s lock screen notification for Android users, which updates automatically based on the latest weather data at the location of the phone.

A first for digital publishers

The Weather Channel and Google Maps have been using live-update lock screen notifications to display live, updated information about your trip and the weather for a while now.

But the Guardian is the first digital news publisher to use the features to deliver live news updates directly to users’ lock screens and “absolutely the first time live notifications that auto-update have been used on a US election night,” according to the mobile lab’s associate editor, Madeline Walsh.

Local news applications

The applications at the local level are clear. Most local publishers would love to be able to use this technology to deliver critical information straight to the lock screens of their respective communities. This would open up an entirely new channel of communication between residents and the local city council, local media, and a range of other local players in Small Town, USA.

Unfortunately, there are several obstacles that must be overcome before smaller organizations can take advantage of all the benefits associated with such a direct connection to their users.

One such obstacle is the cost of developing something like what the Guardian Mobile Innovation Lab has built. Fortunately for the Guardian, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation gave them $2.6 million back in June 2015 to support their efforts. There are certainly opportunities for local publishers to raise money for various experiments and projects, but there’s no way they can expect to see the kind of ground-floor investment that went into the Guardian’s mobile lab.

A screenshot of a basic app development cost estimate from

The website estimates the development and other costs associated with building mobile apps.

Using the most basic settings, which strip most of the functionality, ease-of-use, and compatibility features from the app, the final product for even the most bare-bones mobile app is estimated to cost upwards of $15,000 or more – and that doesn’t even include the cost of making the app available to Android users. Once you start adding even the most basic compatibility features, the cost of development, server maintenance, and the other associated costs begins to skyrocket.

One solution to this issue might come from the increased buying power and other benefits associated with collaborative or networked endeavors. By pooling resources or paying into a collective development fund, a network of smaller publishers might be able to raise enough money to pay for the development of shared mobile apps, services, and back-end support.

Location-based notifications

In the wake of their successful Election Day notification experiment, the next arena for the team appears to be location-based notifications and updates.

In an email exchange with Nausicaa Renner of CJR, Sasha Koren, editor of the mobile lab, asked, “If we were granted permission to your location could we give you a package of stories if we see that you’ve landed in a new city, or a set of options for how you get news during your commute?”

From a broader perspective, the mobile lab team is looking to build additional “mobile-first” tools around breaking news, sports, and other live events, which typically rely on live blogs and other increasingly outdated delivery methods.

There are lessons to be learned from the work they’re doing. The Guardian’s team has made a point to write openly and honestly about their efforts and, no matter what they end up trying next, publishers of all sizes should be paying close attention.

(Featured image photo credit: Joe Amditis)

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