How The Outline used 3-D to increase time spent per session by 30 percent

The Outline is making the most of having its own proprietary content-management system.

Along with comics, video games and Snapchat-like “card” stories, The Outline is venturing into other flashy areas like 3-D and choose-your-own-adventure-style content to get people to spend more time on-site.

Over a month, developers built a 3-D tool for The Outline’s CMS. Two weeks ago, the publisher embedded a 3-D object into one of its articles for the first time. The top of a story about drug-related deaths at music festivals featured a 3-D pill that users could spin around using their mouse, as seen in the video below.

The Outline’s average user session is about three minutes, but for this article, users stayed on page about 30 percent longer than usual, said Josh Topolsky, CEO and founder of The Outline. Users spent a disproportionate amount of their time at the top of the article where the pill was located, which led him to conclude the 3-D object drove the increased engagement.

Because The Outline controls its publishing software from soup to nuts, it can experiment with new media formats that are difficult to integrate into an off-the-shelf CMS, Topolsky said.

Since embedding a 3-D object led to more time spent on page, The Outline expects to use 3-D more frequently. In its CMS, the 3-D tool works similarly to how photo or video embeds work. An editor uploads a file for the 3-D object, and the CMS integrates it within the article.

“It isn’t like, ‘Holy shit, I can’t believe someone built this,’” said Topolsky, while downplaying the difficulty of embedding 3-D objects into stories. “It is more of a cool asset that has been underutilized on the internet, and it is part of the process of figuring out how to tell stories in a new way.”

For now, The Outline’s developers will create the 3-D files that get loaded into its CMS. But as it begins to use 3-D objects more frequently, it will experiment with getting files for 3-D models from third-party firms like TurboSquid.

Having the option for 3-D allows the publisher to tell stories in an interactive way. For example, if it did a story on chair design, it could embed 3-D files of various types of chairs for users to click on rather than listing the information in a block of text, Topolsky said.

The Outline is also working on a choose-your-own-adventure feature. The idea is that users will receive a question and several answers they can click. Each answer the user clicks on will serve a different piece of content. After the content is served, the user will get another prompt, which surfaces another set of answers, each of which elicits its own piece of content.

“We aren’t just re-creating a magazine on the internet,” Topolsky said. “We’re at the next step of trying to use data to see how [new media formats] impact an audience.”

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