How NBC News’ vertical sites became audience engagement laboratories

On Saturday, NBC News’ Think newsletter subscribers got an entry that looked very different from what they’re used to. Instead of a simple digest of previously published content, subscribers found exclusive commentary from authors of the week’s Think content, an interactive poll on the value of the Electoral College, and reader-submitted letters to the editor. The newsletter also featured links asking for readers to submit their own letters and commentary for future use.

The rebooted product is a small part of NBC News’ larger effort to become more responsive to audience needs. A trio of vertical sites launched in 2017 — Mach, which focused on emerging technology; Better, focused on health, wellness and productivity; and Think — have led that charge, helping NBC News experiment with new features and tactics and to figure out what types of content it should be producing for different pockets of its audience.

The results so far have been encouraging, NBC News said. The vertical sites, which live as pages within the NBC News domain, now attract a combined monthly audience of around 15 million unique users, according to a spokesperson, double the 8 million the verticals attracted in their first year. For context, NBC News’ site attracted 67 million unique users last month, per SimilarWeb.

That growth has been partly driven by increased output: The vertical sites now publish around 200 pieces of content per month, up from 150 in their first year. But it’s also because the verticals have established regular audiences. The verticals’ newsletters boast the highest open rate of any that NBC News distributes; its weekly Think newsletter, for example, has an average open rate of 40% this year, along with a click-through rate of 25%, according to a spokesperson.

“I think we’ve had an incredible amount of success just in terms of growth of the audience,” said Catherine Kim, executive editor of NBC News Digital. “We have to develop that kind of feedback loop in that relationship. I think Mach, Better and Think are the leads on that strategy.”

NBC News has conducted several product experiments using the vertical sites since they launched two years ago. For example, Better tested out a site redesign designed to increase the amount of time people spent on the site without forcing them to click on anything; that same redesign also debuted a custom display unit that the vertical properties are still selling.

Those tests helped NBC News eventually migrate the design over to NBC News and sister properties MSNBC and Today last year. But successful content formats and learnings from sister brands are passed along to the verticals as well. For example, this year, Better began publishing commerce content, which became a seven-figure revenue stream for The Today Show’s site last year.

But the key focus for the brands is figuring out new kinds of content, both text and video, that will resonate across NBC News’ audience. Kim said that the sustained success of pieces written about arts and culture, particularly reviews of popular music and TV, has led to NBC News covering more arts and entertainment news. “The success that Think has had with criticism and analysis has, on the news side, triggered this kind of ‘we’re going to respond to the news event’s response,” Kim said. “I don’t think we would have covered Lil Nas X spending 17 weeks at #1 on the Billboard charts if it weren’t for that.”

The sites also hunt for opportunities their sister brands might seize on. Every month, the vertical sites conduct an analysis of the top-performing content, where one area of focus is outlier pieces of content that do well. The hope, Kim said, is that an unexpected success on one vertical might be more consistently replicable on another.

That works both ways. “Part of Think’s mandate has always been to advance and complement the excellent original journalism that is published every day by our colleagues on the news side,” Meredith Bennett-Smith, Think’s senior editor, wrote in an email. “While always careful to avoid blurring the lines of opinion and news, we view the news side as a valuable resource when it comes to analyzing what stories resonate with our audience, where there is room for editorial growth and how we can use opinion, analysis and essay to add additional contextual layers to NBC News’ coverage.”

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