How The New York Times is using interactive tools to build loyalty (and ultimately subscriptions)

The New York Times’ lofty goal of getting to 10 million subscribers is an all-hands-on-deck mission — involving even its Interactive News desk, the group charged with interactive elements that support the paper’s long articles.

In recent months, the team has launched calendars to integrate into readers’ Google and Apple calendars to inform them of content produced by the paper. Later this year, it will launch a modified version of a text message experiment it ran during the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio. It’s also helping the Times’ recently formed Reader Center find more ways to connect more tightly with its reader base. The idea: Foster loyalty and habit, the key pathways to subscription.

“When I first started, interactives were kind of imagined as an add-on,” said Ben Koski, director of the Interactive News team. “We’ve started the shift toward better engaging readers. It’s around reader interaction, rather than one-offs.”

Koski and his team report to multiple departments, including the news design division and the graphics department, and the team’s job is to help the newsroom’s desks find new ways to tell stories.

Sometimes, that interactive work winds up front and center with readers, as it did with the real-time chat it deployed during Trump’s state of the union speech. Other tools are built for internal use, like a program to tally election results data in real time.

But lately, Koski and his team have begun working on things to build habits in readers with products that can be replicated across verticals and areas of interest for Times readers. One example is a space calendar launched in August that informed users about major events happening in the world of astronomy. It amassed over 80,000 subscribers, so Koski and his team replicated it for The New York Times Book Review.

While the team doesn’t have internal metrics that show a correlation between the use of its products and subscriptions — like the ones it has for newsletters — its mandate is to find more ways to encourage regular reader engagements.

These products do have to be cost-effective. For example, the interactive team ran an experiment during the 2016 Olympics in Rio, which allowed readers to get text message updates from a Times sports reporter from Rio. That experiment, along with a program designed to deliver texts from the host of its podcast, “The Daily,” drove a promising amount of engagement, but it also proved costly. “SMS is very expensive,” Koski said. “We’ve thought a lot about making something that’s more scalable.”

Koski’s team also is working more closely with the Reader Center, an initiative launched last spring to involve readers more in the paper’s coverage and distribution. The goal is to help the Reader Center get readers to share information and content the Times can use to get them to subscribe.

“Historically, we’d think of [reader requests] as a transactional thing: collecting reader photos or reader comments,” Koski said. “One of the shifts we’ve been making internally is thinking of these reader callouts as a point of invitation.”

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