USA Today’s Facebook-like mobile site increased time spent per article by 75 percent

The USA Today Network is taking a page out of Facebook’s playbook by reformatting its digital properties to give users more personalized webpages.

Since April, USA Today has tested a personalized design on its mobile website that serves users different content depending on whether they regularly visit the site or not, landed on an article organically or via search, their location and their viewing habits. Last week, all of USA Today’s mobile web users received the new layout after it was initially only available to 25 percent of users.

Users who got the new site design spent about 45 seconds on each article they read, while users with a traditional design spent about 25 seconds on each article, said Jason Jedlinski, USA Today Network’s head of digital product. Users with the new design were also more likely to scroll completely through an article, which led them to click through its internal circulation widget at the bottom of its articles about 5 percent more often than users with the old design, according to the publisher. USA Today wouldn’t provide raw numbers and said it doesn’t track visit duration.

As people continue to flock to social media for their news and information, USA Today wanted to adopt what works on social platforms by serving content in a way that is “sort of tailored and gets smarter the more you interact with it,” Jedlinski said.

USA Today’s attempt to boost engagement through personalized webpages comes at a time when social platforms are taking up people’s attention. Users spend more than 35 minutes per day on both Facebook and YouTube, according to influencer agency Mediakix. Meanwhile, most publishers are happy when users spend five or six minutes in their app per day.

Session length is also becoming increasingly important for publishers as high time spent on-site has become associated with premium offerings. To keep users glued to their properties, publishers are experimenting with various tactics. Bleacher Report got people to spend more than five minutes per day in its app by introducing a tab for Vine-like video loops. The Outline increased time spent per session by 30 percent by embedding 3-D objects into articles. Forbes increased its average session length by nearly 40 percent by redesigning its mobile site to include Snapchat-like cards.

One example of how USA Today’s new webpages work is that users who rarely visit the site and are referred to it from search have their homepage organized by trending topics like North Korea’s missile test and Hurricane Harvey, while users who regularly visit the site receive a more traditional layout organized around topics like news, sports and money. Another example: A user who regularly reads articles about the same sports team will see articles about that particular team on the homepage more often.

The new layout was created using the open-source JavaScript library Polymer, which was built by Google developers. Polymer allowed USA Today’s tech team to code elements of its webpages as separate components so that they can be reconfigured on the fly in endless combinations to suit a specific user’s tastes. For about 90 days, a team of 10 developers and engineers spent 60-80 percent of their time working on the launch of this product, Jedlinski said. That same team then spent another four months testing and monitoring the product’s features.

In the next six months, the company plans to roll out the product to all users across desktop and mobile for not just USA Today but also its local newspaper affiliates like the Detroit Free Press and The Des Moines Register.

“Our goal is really to build a foundation for experimentation and for an adaptive experience that isn’t one-size-fits-all,” Jedlinski said.