Web Notifications, Part 3: Key Events

Crafting a narrative through successive notifications.

Photo by Alicia Canter for The Guardian

In addition to testing brand new formats and technologies we are also interested in incrementally innovating on existing news notification paradigms, for example, through key events.

The key events notifications we sent on primary nights and in the day leading up to the EU referendum results are not much different in content than the type of notification that newsrooms routinely send: Each notification is independent of any other, and each notification is a self-contained piece of information.

We have looked at key event notifications as a way to tell a piece of a story, or editorially lead readers through an event with a bit of reported information that complements the other forms of notifications we’re sending. They have all included links to articles or live blogs including greater context.

They also played the important role of filling a gap in time during our experiments. We sent out key event notifications in between the other types of notifications as a way to try to craft a narrative arc or tell a story beyond the statistics reported in auto-updating notifications, or the conversation generated by live-polling notifications.

We’ve tested key event notifications twice so far:

For the June 7 primary night, we sent a series we called “In the Room.” Having learned from the newsroom which reporters would be at each candidate’s event on the night of the June 7 primary, our plan was to create a set of two notifications for each candidate that would give participants a sense of what it was like to be there.

In advance, we asked the reporters — Amber Jamieson with the Trump campaign in Westchester county in NY, Nicky Woolf with Bernie Sanders at his rally in Santa Monica, and Lauren Gambino at the Hillary Clinton rally in Brooklyn — to make sure to share some tweets about the atmosphere and mood of the events.

We then sent the six notifications pulled from reporters’ tweeted observations, beginning at 7 pm EST as results began to come in in New Jersey and Donald Trump learned he had won there, and ending around 2 am EST after Sanders gave his speech in California. We used emoji-like illustrations of the candidates as icons for each of the alerts and made sure to include, in at least the first alert for each candidate, “In the Room” in the title.

We also used key event notifications during the EU referendum on June 23. These we drew, appropriately for the name, from the key events which appear in the left rail of a Guardian live blog on desktop or on the mobile web version of the live blog. We sent notifications starting at 12 pm EST or 5 pm in the UK, and continued until the referendum polls closed at 10 pm BST and we began our live results notifications.

Newsrooms looking to experiment with web notifications may find it easiest to begin with key events notifications because they are the closest editorially to the type of notifications they send already. Drawing from existing content also makes crafting the chosen narrative easier.

It’s still early, but an interesting finding thus far has been that users view these types of alerts as the least critical. From the data we have collected thus far (more to come on this) users have rated this type of alerts as those they are most ambivalent about. After the US primaries, 53% of users said they would sign up for an “In the Room” type alert again, but 37% said they would not, and 9% said maybe. Following the EU referendum, users were overwhelming positive about all the alerts, but 30% said the alerts (in total) didn’t tell a story. It may be that key events notifications work best on a very specific subject that we know the users wants to hear specifically about.

More in this series about web notifications: