Whenever The New York Times breaks a big story, within 24 hours, up to 60 percent of all global traffic to that story can typically come via push notifications, particularly if it breaks over a weekend. That’s not due to the magnitude of the news alone but a carefully crafted push-alerts strategy executed by a dedicated 11-person team in the U.S team. Now, the publisher is ramping up how it tailors push notifications to be more locally relevant to its international markets, starting with the U.K. and Australia.
“For a long time, push notifications were really a broadcast experience. You hit the publish button, and it lights up on millions of phones. But people expect more granular control now,” said Andrew Phelps, New York Times product director. “The Times is trying to become a truly global news organization, in the way that we became a truly national one. Push notifications are a natural extension to how we reach new audiences.”
Although it’s rare for the Times to send a push alert that’s limited to the U.S., there are some news alerts which naturally just won’t generate the same cultural resonance or interest in other countries, like an update on a baseball star, for example. That’s why in June the Times ran a monthlong test campaign in the U.K., comparing users who received up to three extra weekly, targeted push notifications versus a control group who received standard global push notifications — of typically two to three a day.
Timing-wise, the experiment was pegged to the EU Referendum. “We were lucky in that respect. We had a lot of fertile ground there,” said Eric Bishop, a Times assistant editor. London-based reporters visited small cities across England, talking to locals to get a sense of the mood in the vote aftermath, some of which were distributed via alerts. Other breaking-news alerts related to major local news such as the murder of Labour politician Jo Cox.
Diversifying alert formats
Differentiating from rivals’ breaking-news push alerts is hard. That’s why The New York Times diversifies a good chunk of its alerts to include features, major investigation updates, or infographic-based explainers. Some of the non-breaking-news alerts in the U.K. trial did best: a piece of news analysis detailing the outcome of the vote for former prime minister David Cameron’s career, was among the most successful, according to Bishop.
The main metrics the team tracks are tap-throughs and opt-outs. Those who got the U.K. pushes increased their daily app usage by 4 percent, and there was no increase in push opt-outs. The number of users that returned to the app the following week rose 3 percent for those receiving the additional alerts.
A Slack bot was also used to notify editors of what news alerts were doing well in the U.K. and might be worth a push. The story “Britain’s huge investment in summer Olympic sports pays off” was flagged by the bot, saying it was 13.6 times more popular in the U.K. than in the U.S.
Push alerts set to device language settings
The June tests were just the start for how it plans to tailor international alerts. Australia will likely be the next country to receive the same tests. The aim is to appeal to a wider audience outside of U.S. expats. “In so many markets, there may be people who think the New York Times is not for them, but part of our effort to show people we’re producing news related to their countries, and push is one of the ways we can reach people on our terms and remind them of our values,” said Phelps.
The publisher has also experimented with pushing alert translated in French and Spanish to users’ devices that are set to those languages. Phelps wouldn’t reveal specific numbers but said there has been a “dramatic” uplift in traffic from those who receive alerts in their native language.
In the last 18 months, the Times has radically changed how it conveys news via push notifications. Previously, the team would send just headlines of the story. “That didn’t feel like the right tone and strategy for the lock screen,” said Bishop. “You’re just as likely to get a text message from a friend, as a news alert, on a lock screen, so we wanted to write ones that fit in better with that space,” he added. Now all its alerts are written as a one- or two-sentence summary of why that particular piece of breaking news is important. “Even if people don’t swipe, that gives value to the push,” said Bishop.
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Editorial judgement is crucial in determining which stories get alerts. Tools are used that geo-target alerts, sometimes to individual countries, more often to regions like continental Europe or Asia. U.S. editors will liaise with international editors in London, Paris, Hong Long and Latin America. In London, there’s one editor dedicated to push alerts permanently, though it’s not the only part of her job, with an additional three other staff providing input.
Judging the right level of personalization and frequency of local alerts is tough, though. Often in the U.S., if a user doesn’t swipe into a story via the alert, the next update won’t be on that same topic. But overseas, the teams are still getting to grips with the exact road map and more experimenting will be on the cards.
“As we evolve, thinking how our journalism meets certain readers’ needs will be an interesting question we have to grapple with,” added Bishop.