Lessons for Digital Marketers from the Leaked NYT Innovation Report

Interesting stats, insights and lessons to learn from the New York Times as it makes the move to digital

Michael Taylor

For those of you that hadn’t heard, print journalism is dying. Venerable institutions like the New York Times are scratching their heads, figuring out how to adapt, whilst upstarts like Buzzfeed and the Huffington Post eat its digital lunch. The NYT’s Innovation Report was the result of six month’s worth of head-scratching, and fortunately for anyone interested in the future of journalism, it was leaked to Myles Tanzer of Buzzfeed (oh the irony — a paper copy of a report on the need to shift to digital being scanned and uploaded on the website of one of your biggest competitors in the digital space!). As incisive and candid as the Time’s own journalism, this internal report makes for a fascinating look inside a famous institution struggling (as many companies are) to adapt to the digital age. As a digital marketer the report was a treasure trove of interesting stats, insights and anecdotes that I found interesting.

Only 10% of NYT traffic comes from social

This was a remarkable revelation for a brand with such a large following on Facebook and Twitter. It is especially crazy considering social is responsible for 60% of Buzzfeed’s traffic. Social media is the new SEO — if you don’t figure out how to leverage it, you’re leaving free money on the table for your competitors to pick up.

No Comment

Just 1% of Times users write comments and only 3% read them. This is despite all the time and effort that goes into moderation and replying to commenters. The lesson here is — don’t expect comments to drive a lot of engagement with your site (and conversely, don’t be too hard on yourself for only getting a low number of comments). A digital strategist at the Times provided a very good analogy — Think of the internet as a cocktail party. You very rarely want to talk to strangers, just your friends (Facebook) and important people (Twitter).

Adding structured data led to a 52% increase in SEO traffic

This really drives home the importance of tagging — without structured data like theme-based #tags, location, descriptions of images and article type, the Times had a huge archive of essentially useless content. Adding tags, as well as improving discoverability on search engines, also helps internal discoverability and feeds into many of the useful features being developed for the digital age — for example you can’t show someone a review of a restaurant in their area if you don’t tag the review with geo-coordinates. You also can’t easily help users follow breaking news stories like ‘benghazi’ or ‘ukraine crisis’ or analyse what types of stories users like to predict what to show them next. Aparently it took over 6 months for the NYT to add a tag for 9/11. The report warns that tagging is a painful and costly (but necessary) process — after spending ‘a huge sum’ to retroactively categorise all of their recipes they have made it a requirement to properly tag every new article, even if that means hiring more staff to take on the extra work.

There’s no place like homepage

Producing a story that makes it onto the front cover of the New York Times was every reporters dream — naturally this obsession was carried into the online world. At the Times reporters are promoted based on their homepage contributions and hours are spent every day deciding what goes on this holiest of pages.

Steadily declining readership of the home page of the Time

Oh wait… what’s that? The vast majority of your readers don’t go to the homepage because they come to your site via social or search? In an era when competitors like Quarz don’t even have a homepage and most people get their news through their automated Facebook timeline, obsessing about homepage placements seems to have gone the way of the dodo.

Knock down those walls

An important part of the New York Times credibility hinges on the “separation of church and state” — what the Times calls its clear (almost hostile) division between its Advertising team and its Newsroom. What was made clear by the report was that this division was behind almost every major issue at the Times (and conversely is a competitive advantage at companies like Buzzfeed who rely solely on ‘native’ advertising). The NYT, to be fair, has experimented with sponsored content and has found that journalistic ideals don’t need to be compromised. In fact, one of the elements that led to the firing of executive editor Jill Abramson was that she opposed native advertising. Perhaps the most important thing to realise — too often readers don’t know or care where an article came from. To them, your website is one entity and who ‘owns’ what section makes very little difference to them.

Poor collaboration between the newsroom and the business departments has had another (perhaps bigger) casualty — lack of innovation. Because the Development, Design and Data teams at NYC count as ‘business’ rather than reporters, they are treated like “second class citizens”, not even allowed to attend reporter lunches. This has seriously harmed the NYT’s ability to build innovative new journalism formats like BuzzFeed and Quartz have, and has led to difficulty attracting and retaining talent. Indeed, the report states that the central reason that organisations like the Huffington Post and BuzzFeed have succeeded with “lacklustre content” is because of their excellent analytics, product and technology teams being fully integrated with the newsroom.

Packaging and Promotion get Pageviews

The report is full of a number of examples of other media outlets repurposing New York Times content and getting MORE pageviews than the NYT. The examples ranged from Gawker promoting 161 year old news article on 12 years a slave that originally appeared on the Times, to the NYT “getting crushed” by an aggregation of its own content around Nelson Mandela’s death appearing on the Huffington Post. On a whim a reporter at the Times created a Flipboard magazine of the most important obituaries and it became the best read collection in the history of the platform — such a project wasn’t available to be built on the NYT website due to an 18 month development cycle.

This time it’s personal

Personalisation is a hot topic — particularly for content sites like the Times. They already employ subtle personalisation, like showing a locally relevant story on the home page (based off your IP), or graying out stories you’ve already read, but it was their research into their competitors that surfaced the cleverest personalisation ideas. Buzzfeed and the Washington Post analyse what channel a user is coming from, for example Twitter, and in real time surfaces stories that have been popular with other users from that channel — this practice significantly increases the likelihood that a user will keep reading.

I don’t want to miss a thing

Social networks have given users the expectation that they can ‘follow’ interesting users or content and not miss anything they have notified you is important to them. The New York Times (and many other sites) just don’t have features that allow for this and are therefore missing a trick. In fact, a feature to follow your favourite stories via email gained 338,000 users despite being buried in the comments section and requiring multiple signup pages. Some tech-savvy users even written code to send themselves emails when certain stories they were watching were updated.

Know your enemy

One of the more interesting insights was how much the NYT’s competitors had leveraged their relationships in the industry to figure out what works. Adam Moss from Slate is quoted as saying that half of the decisions he makes come from ideas he got from discussions with the leaders of Gawker and Slate, amongst others. As well as acting as a warning against blabbering too much to your competition, it’s definitely a clear case for spending more time on networking to find out what is working and what you can safely ignore (though you should obviously take any advice from competitors with a pinch of salt).

Contact me on Twitter with any questions / feedback @2michaeltaylor

On Digital Marketing

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    Michael Taylor

    Written by

    @2michaeltaylor — growth marketer, founder, data geek, travel addict, amateur coder.

    On Digital Marketing

    Finding valuable users, helping users find value. Learn more about the wide wrold of digital marketing: PPC, SEO, Social Media, Display, Retargeting, Affiliates, Email, A/B testing, Virality, Growth Hacking, Tracking, Analytics and more!