The drive for 100 million uniques: Inside The Telegraph’s extreme digital makeover

Last week, British national newspaper The Telegraph put 15 months worth of beta testing, staff research and product development to the test with a fairly radical overhaul of its 10-year-old website.

The result is more than just a digital facelift. In some ways, it’s a design of two halves: Its new CMS (created in-house) has been designed to make uploading content quicker and easier so as to free up its journalists, amd the reader experience has been made less cluttered and more consistent across mobile (the site was previously unresponsive).

The publisher is in the midst of testing anti-ad-blocking methods, and ad slots have been standardized across the new site.

“The Telegraph returned to growth last year, and 90 million uniques a month has become the new normal for us. I want to be over the 100 million mark consistently by the end of the year,” said The Telegraph’s digital media director, Malcolm Coles.

He spoke to Digiday about some of the priorities. Below are the takeaways.

Automating live blogging
The new site launched just days after another major national newspaper, The Times, revealed its own digital overhaul, which will see it pull back from breaking-news formats like live blogs to focus on cultivating an editions-based model for publishing digital content.

The Telegraph is going in the opposite direction. The title runs a couple of live blogs a day and has made this format more prominent on the homepage. The new CMS has made setting up pages for live blogs less labor-intensive. “It took about 10 seconds to set up the Panama papers live blog,” which went live yesterday morning, said Coles.


These changes have arrived just in time to capitalize on major forthcoming news events in both politics and sports, with the “Brexit” referendum pending in June, and the Olympics and Euros also approaching.

Next, Coles wants to step its live-blogging capabilities up and is exploring how to automate the aggregation of multiple live blogs into a single stream. “If there are five journalists live blogging from five football matches on the last day of the season, we’d like to find a way to aggregate all of those, without needing a sixth person to curate it and write it into a new feed. We’d like to automate it,” said Coles.

It’s just won funding from Google’s Digital News Initiative to investigate new ways to pull in live data and content and fashion it into sports graphics on an automated basis.

Differentiating on social platforms 
The site gives more prominence to specific, high-profile commentators as well, which include London Mayor Boris Johnson and Tory politician William Hague. That’s an important differentiation, according to Coles. “We know we have big names that resonate with people on social media. Facebook Instant Articles may be open to everyone with a WordPress blog now, anyone can publish there, and anyone can create a Google AMP page. But they don’t all have such major commentators. That’s what people value The Telegraph for, as well as our news teams on the ground.”

The Telegraph is on Apple News, Facebook Instant Articles and Google AMP. Social referral traffic has increased 17 percent since last February, with 3.1 million of its desktop visits that month coming from social media sites, according to SimilarWeb data.

It’s not on Snapchat, but it’s been testing WhatsApp for sports content for the last few months and has attracted a couple of thousand WhatsApp followers by posting full-time football scores and links through to match reports of all major sporting events.

“WhatsApp messaging apps are interesting, but it’s early days. They don’t all have good tools yet for publishers, and the audience can be quite young, so there aren’t a lot of ways to monetize them other than getting them to come back to our site,” added Coles.

Driving digital subscriptions
The publisher operates a hybrid subscriptions and advertising model, though, so it, therefore, must balance driving scale with providing the kind of content people are willing to pay for.

The Telegraph doesn’t publicly disclose how many subscribers it has, but it has a metered paywall, so any reader can access eight articles a day for free before hitting the paywall. For £10 ($14.30) a week or £100 ($143) a year, readers can access the entire Telegraph website, as well as smartphone apps; £15 ($21.45) a week (or £150 / $215 annually) buys you that plus tablet app access.

The Telegraph’s business model is praised by some analysts. Enders media analyst Thomas Caldecott said the publisher’s hybrid business model of metered paywall and advertising is among the most promising in the market. But he added that the publication has been “quite far behind the curve” in terms of developing its digital products. “The new site is more a sign of it catching up to where it should be,” he added.

Coles said the redesign is just as much geared toward attracting more readers via major breaking-news stories and then finding ways to keep them on the site and eventually convert them into paying subscribers. “Like most news organizations, we get one-hit wonders and aim to convert them,” said Coles. “Social or email or getting them to sign up: All steps toward converting them to paying subscribers.”

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