‘An election night that could last weeks’: How news publishers are updating their digital strategies for the results long haul

Election night could become election month as more Americans seek alternatives to voting in person.

As of this week, more than 65 million absentee ballots have been requested or sent to voters across the country for the general election, according to The New York Times. And 60% of registered voters plan to vote early either in person or by mail in ballot for this election, according to the NBC SurveyMonkey weekly tracking poll.

But despite more people having the chance to vote ahead of November 3, a large portion of those ballots legally cannot be counted until election day, according to Lindsey Cormack, an assistant professor of political science at the Stevens Institute of Technology. What’s more, depending on the state, some mail-in ballots are still valid if postmarked by the election day itself, further delaying the finally tally.

It’s likely we will know who the next president is by the December holiday season, Cormack said. But that means news publishers have upwards of a month-and-a-half before they are able to make their call. It also means that they have a month-and-a-half to compete for traffic as audiences search for the latest election updates online.

“We are planning for a long election night that could last weeks,” said Paul Volpe, executive editor of Politico.

Broadcast news publishers like CNN, Fox News and NBC are focusing on making their digital experiences during that time more engaging and interactive, with the expectation being that most people will not be glued to their televisions for weeks on end. Digital publishers like Politico, Reuters and The Washington Post have started testing new strategies for driving audiences to their respective sites, including launching new platforms and leaning further into a social media strategy. Some publishers, including The Economist, expect election coverage will be a boon for overall growth.

“One of the centralized themes for this election cycle is personalization,” said Anna Brand, senior editor for news projects at NBC News.

To accomplish this, she said her team has begun testing localized news alerts and emails based on the state that audiences are in, including app notifications promoting the publisher’s Plan The Vote interactive telling people where and how to vote this year.

These mobile state-by-state push alerts had total open rates of up to 16% for each notification, which is three times the normal total open rate for push notifications, according to a company spokesperson. And to continue that engagement hike, Catherine Kim, global head of digital news for NBC News Group, said her team will double down on local alerts as the election nears, and likely, passes November 3.

Reuters has been leaning on a tailored social media strategy for each of its channels to drive traffic back to its election content, with The Economic Dream Team Twitter poll series and its Instagram Stories being two highly performing areas within that strategy for garnering viewer engagements.

According to the publications’ digital news director, Arlyn Gajilan, posts around the time of the primaries on the mobile-based social media platforms were the second-highest source of traffic to U.S. election stories from February to April. 

And for Politico, the publisher soft launched an interactive content product that is sent to readers via a link in an email called Politico Minutes around the time of the conventions with latest updates in a “swipeable” format optimized for mobile users. That platform will be picked back up during the election as well, according to Volpe.

“Easily more than 60% of our users will come to us on mobile for election night,” said Manav Tanneeru, CNN’s senior director of product. And those users will be looking for very specific results out of the more than 500 national, state and local races that will take place on Nov. 3.

Tanneeru said that with that in mind, both CNN’s Election Center, which houses everything from polling data to election results, and its Facts First fact-checking platform are prioritizing simple, state-by-state and issue-by-issue navigation that works for mobile as well.

Aside from personalization, publishers are building out more interactive digital products to inform readers of the possible outcomes and boost engagement.

NBC News and CNN are giving its audience the chance to control over the presidential election’s outcomes — hypothetically. Both publishers have a “Road to 270” map that allows audiences to test different scenarios for how states will vote. And NBC News has a “Swing The Vote” interactive interface where viewers can play with the possibilities of outcomes based on the turn out rates from various demographics.

In all of this, news publishers “can show their chops” with the new and interactive ways to display election results, said Stevens Institute of Technology’s Cormack. “The competition for views will be steep,” but this is a way for publishers to keep people engaged on their site compared to the endless number of sites reporting on the results and getting updated information all at the same time, she said.

The other major focus for news publishers during this election is clearly outlining basic information. Several publishers have built out their own voting hubs with information on where and how people can vote based on their state.

The Washington Post, for one, created an information hub with 51 unique URLs for its readers to share state-specific voting information with their friends and family, said Cameron Barr, a managing editor for The Washington Post.

Cormack added that unlike past years’ debates and election nights, people will be unable to or discouraged from attending viewing parties and election celebrations as well due to the coronavirus.

Knowing that its audience found that to be a significant part of the election experience, Fox News launched a second-screen experience that connects the network’s live broadcast with its digital platform, which was first reported by Deadline. The experience will include both a cheer monitor and an audience monitor that allow viewers to connect with each other and the broadcast hosts. Audiences are also able to track the most important races to them personally with its My Races function, and share those links with their friends and family.

Fox News Digital editor-in-chief Porter Berry summed up the sentiment of the 2020 goal for news publishers: to “offer the most personalized hub yet for the American people on election night.”

And likely beyond.

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