The second coming of personalized news
Online news media’s new mantra: building user loyalty
This column appeared Aug. 2, 2001, in the Online Journalism Review. Here’s the version on the OJR site.
For an in-depth backgrounder on personalized news services and a look at the industry’s rocky track record, see the companion article, The Promise of the Daily Me.
By J.D. Lasica
Personalized news — a dream that has greatly exceeded online media’s grasp over the past five years — is getting a second look at major news organizations.
The Washington Post and Los Angeles Times unveiled ambitious new customized news features during the past two months. CBS SportsLine has introduced a slick set of personalization tools. The New York Times and Better Homes & Gardens are planning significant personalization projects this fall. The Wall Street Journal Online plans to overhaul its Personal Journal with a revamped personalized news site early next year. And an inventive new Web-based news site called the FeedRoom is basing its business model on users’ thirst for news they can choose.
Personalized news and information services have been around since the mid-1990s. Remember PointCast’s spectacular flameout? Following close on its heels, My Yahoo, My Excite and the other portals launched handsome “My” services beginning in 1996. Today, Amazon sets the gold standard for personalization services in the Web retailing sector with its collaborative-filtering recommendation technology. But, with a few exceptions like the Christian Science Monitor or CNN.com — which ditched its extensive personalization service last week (see below) — online news sites have done little in the way of personalizing their content, other than a nod toward so-called “pick-and-click” personalization: cookie-cutter local weather, stock prices, horoscopes and local news from affiliates or partners.
Today, we’re glimpsing the next stage of Net news. Stage one consisted of building elaborate, if unwieldy, news portals to attract a mass audience. This new stage involves forging deeper customer relationships with users to build customer intimacy, spurring more frequent visits and, eventually, enticing people to open their wallets. Interactivity, practical business services, networked applications, streamlined navigation and personalized content are all part of the mix.
If, as some of us believe, the Web is not a one-to-many mass medium but a many-to-many medium for the masses, personalization will play a key role in forging this new bond between publisher and user. The nirvana of one-to-one communication and marketing has not yet arrived, but by recognizing the importance of serving hundreds of different readerships simultaneously, online publications are moving toward a higher order of individualized news. No longer can they afford to treat readers as undifferentiated, generalized, lumpen masses.
Traditionalists fret that the trend will further fragment the news audience and create a society where even neighbors are increasingly disconnected. CBS News anchor Dan Rather worries that too much choice can shatter our common bonds, and once told Internet executives, “We risk walking and talking past each other with virtual blinders on.”
Nonsense. My take on this is that those who personalize their news experience tend to be among the most voracious consumers of online news. We swim in data today, and those of us who want a greater say over how we consume our news are hardly shielded from the bombardment of news and information that assaults us from all directions.
Personalization is about funneling in, not screening out. It’s about increasing the signal-to-noise ratio. (For more on different kinds of personalization, see The Promise of the Daily Me.)
Here’s a look at personalization efforts now underway at several major Web news operations:
The Washington Post
The Washington Post, which keeps piling up industry honors as the best news site on the Web, launched its personalized service, MyWashingtonPost, on June 5. Given the site’s multiple readerships, personalization made eminent business sense.
“One of our challenges as a news site is that we have an audience that’s local, with general-interest needs, and another audience that’s unbounded by geography with very deep and specialized needs,” says Tim Ruder, the vice president who heads the Post’s personalization efforts. A quarter of the site’s traffic comes from local residents, the remainder from readers absorbed by politics and national affairs.
Like other portals and information sites, the Post uses a gradual approach to capture information about its users, both at registration and in subsequent interactions. When a user registers, a process that’s far less painstaking than at many other places, the Post captures your birthday (presto! instant horoscope), geography (thus serving up local weather and, more important, letting the system know whether to dish out national news or local content), and other news preferences that you specify.
After registering, a user can fine-tune the settings on his personal news page to customize further. Says Ruder: “Someone interested in live music can get live music recommendations surfaced to the top, or have museum schedules appear on his page.” In all, the Post offers an all-you-can-eat news buffet of “considerably more than 500 choices,” Ruder estimates.
‘We start with the idea that if we can better engage our audience — and that means more frequent visits, more depth and breadth of use — then our business gets to be stronger.’
– Tim Ruder, VP, washingtonpost.com
Online newspapers have found that users have a strong appetite for news about their communities, and MyWashingtonPost offers an impressive suite of local news tools, giving users access to data about neighborhood home sales, school report cards, interviews with school administrators and principals, crime reports and local traffic conditions — a priceless gem for locals tusseling with D.C.’s sometimes-nightmarish gridlock.
The Post, which doubles as a news site and city guide, takes a broad view of its mission to serve its readers. “We try to touch the local audience on a daily basis that extends into news but also into leisure activities and sports,” Ruder says. So: Find a job based on criteria you set. Buy a movie ticket online, courtesy of the Post’s partnership with Movietickets.com. Find a weekend road trip with recommendations on lodging and cool little stops along the way. Drill into the site’s entertainment listings (produced in partnership with Citysearch) with its scores of festivals and events, honed to your stated preferences.
None of this is revolutionary — many of these bits and pieces have bounced about for years — but taken as a whole, the scale and breadth of the Post’s offerings are truly impressive.
So why all this effort, and why now?
“Several things have happened,” Ruder says. “Yes, the technology has improved to the point where we can make things easier, more useful and more intuitive for our users. But more significant is the underlying business proposition that we need to focus heavily on the relationship with our users. So we start with the idea that if we can better engage our audience — and that means more frequent visits, more depth and breadth of use — then our business gets to be stronger.”
Washingtonpost.com has roughly 3 million users and 120 million page views a month; it recently overtook USA Today as the No. 5 news site on the Web, and among online newspapers it now trails only the New York Times in traffic. But like other Net-based businesses, it has seen that audience reach doesn’t necessarily translate into profits.
But increasing user loyalty — building deeper and more intimate relationships — just may. Meet the new mantra of business on the Net: We wanna hold your hand.
Ruder says the reaction of readers has been exceptionally positive and that MyWashingtonPost has been “almost dead on” in hitting its registration targets. “It’s been gratifying to hear the feedback we’re getting from people who say it’s helped them discover things they didn’t know was there,” he says.
“There’s a lot of stuff on the surface of washingtonpost.com, but there’s even more when you get deeper into the site,” he says. “Before, if you wanted news about our national security community, it took you six clicks to get there, and unless you know your way around you might not find it. Now, you can personalize your settings so it’s right there on your personal page to greet you each morning.”
Does Ruder think other online news publications should follow the path of personalization? “Yes. The medium lends itself well to this,” he says, but adds this warning: “The resources and time and commitment required for this are not small. You need to do it in a way that it’s not roped off as a section of your site but tied into the underlying infrastructure in smart ways to improve the overall experience for users.”
What’s ahead? Ruder says they plan to add live webcams and still photos to the traffic pages, staff photos (now sorely lacking on the text-heavy page), and audio and video components down the road.
Longer term, a personalized news page is only part of the equation. “This kind of functionality starts to weave itself throughout the entire site,” Ruder says. “The start page captures only one part of this. It’s all about deepening the relationship with the audience as they express needs to you and you serve up trustworthy content and services that meet those needs. There’s a lot of theorizing about whether you can, in an economically smart way, leverage those relationships right down to the one-to-one level. Nobody knows yet, but the markets will tell us that as we move forward.”
The New York Times
The big news here is that the New York Times plans to jump into the personalization game in a big way. The bigger news may be that the Times plans to break with the so-called My News approach, opting for an approach that centers on personalized services.
“Most of the ways to approach this have been in place for years,” says Martin Nisenholtz, CEO of New York Times Digital. “First out of the gate were the granddaddy My services, where you can customize a set of incoming streams on a Web page. MyYahoo does it well, and it would be hard for any small Web site to compete with that. But ultimately, that’s not a very exciting idea. To come in in the ninth inning of a game that’s essentially over is kind of stupid.
‘The user needs to be able to do things with the content, not just read it.’
– Martin Nisenholtz, CEO, NY Times Digital
“The more recent thing happening in this area is the notion of Web services — anything from My Calendar to My Documents to My Notifications to My Web Pages to My Content. Microsoft is onto something pretty interesting with its .Net effort. I think that’s an important and exciting new form of personalization because it fills a real need in the marketplace. People have work machines, applications, calendars, docs and passwords all over the place and nobody to help them bring it all together.”
Nisenholtz hinted that the Times may signal to both Microsoft and AOL Time Warner its interest in discussing ways to integrate its staff-generated content into a personalized applications-centered approach with a fee component. Beyond that he wouldn’t go into specifics, other than to say the Times hopes to launch its new initiative sometime this fall. The personalization effort is being spearheaded by Robert Larson, the company’s information architect.
Nisenholtz says he sees little value in launching a Times version of customized Web pages as the Post and Los Angeles Times have recently done. “Whatever we do has to be distinctive and offer value to users that only we can offer,” he says. “We don’t think the me-too My product is going to do that. Just increasing costs without any kind of return on investment is no longer an acceptable mode of operating.”
The Times may be targeting professionals and business users who could benefit from the Times’ daily news feeds as well as its rich archives. Such a robust content service could be wrapped into a mobile information application and networked from desktop to desktop to facilitate collaboration in the workplace.
“We’ve been doing a lot of work here to figure out what we can offer that we might trial in the fall and that people would view as a valuable pay-for service,” he says. “Whatever we offer will be the news content at its heart, but we need to offer application value on top of that. The user needs to be able to do things with the content, not just read it. I can’t tell you more than that because it’s not baked enough. The thing is still very much in its product planning stages.”
The idea behind the FeedRoom is pretty simple, really: You watch the news you want when you want it.
Yes, I said watch. About a half million viewers a month watch 1.6 million streams of video on the FeedRoom from its 30 television partners, including local NBC and Tribune Broadcasting stations.
“People visit three times longer on our site than on text sites. I could never fathom why television stations would hire people to write text for their Web sites. They’re not going there for text!” says founder and CEO Jonathan Klein.
Klein was an executive vice president at CBS News, overseeing “60 Minutes” and other prime-time programming, when he left to found the FeedRoom in the fall of 1998. “I thought what the Web really needed was showmanship and the packaging of information in a more inviting and enticing way,” he says.
‘Five years from now you’ll take for granted that you can watch the latest news video at any time from wherever you happen to be, on a PC, set-top box or handheld portable device.’
– Jonathan Klein, FeedRoom CEO
At its core, the FeedRoom is built on a premise of personalized choice — something viewers of TV newscasts aren’t used to. “It’s personalized because you get to choose which video to watch,” Klein says. “It shouldn’t be Dan Rather deciding that he doesn’t want to report to you about Chandra Levy.”
Visitors to the site don’t have to customize their preferences. “Sites have learned that people don’t really want to fill out a long questionnaire in advance to predict what kinds of news they’ll want,” he says. “Most news consumers want to know about news across a whole range of categories. You don’t want to miss out on something important.”
Klein says too many of the Web’s personalized-news sites were based on the medium’s technology rather than on what consumers want. “A lot of these sites are run by people with technology backgrounds who know next to nothing about consumer preferences,” he says. “Just because I haven’t checked the little box next to politics or law doesn’t mean I don’t want to know that the Supreme Court is going to decide the presidential election.”
So what do consumers want? “What they mostly want is some measure of control and choice,” Klein says. “Five years from now you’ll take for granted that you can watch the latest news video at any time from wherever you happen to be, on a PC, set-top box or handheld portable device.”
A news aggregator, the FeedRoom receives video clips from its 30 partner stations, digitizes and encodes them, tags each clip with 75 identifying pieces of information, stores them in a database video management system, and serves the video on demand.
“We define news to fit the public’s need — anything that I want or need to know to get through my day,” Klein says. Because the format is freed from the typical newscast’s strictures — local or national news followed by weather, sports and a feel-good soft feature — users can essentially build their own newscast based on their own interests. Viewers can choose from categories including Entertainment, Tech, Health, Life and Home, World, Sports, Most Popular, and “Search for Chandra.”
Says Klein: “We want to change the way viewers experience and use information. There’s been a beta test going on for 50 years called television, and that tells us people want to watch, rather than read, their information.”
Unlike media companies such as the Washington Post and New York Times, which must grapple with converting their print content to the online medium, SportsLine is entirely a creature of the Web.
“And if you’re worth your salt on the Web, you’ve got to offer a customization capability and, in the longer term, a personalization capability,” says Steve Snyder, vice president of production. “People are so used to the media telling them what to do that they’re eventually going to demand having a greater say over their content experience.”
MySportsLine.com, revamped early this year from a more basic offering, made its hard launch during college basketball’s March Madness, giving users the freedom to customize almost every aspect of their entry into the site. That’s refreshing. With today’s mobile society, you may live in Phoenix and root for the Chicago Cubs, Dallas Cowboys and Oklahoma Sooners, not to mention the players you drafted in your office’s fantasy baseball league.
Sports lends itself readily to organizing content into discrete buckets of data — player stats, league standings, team news and so on — and SportsLine has decided to position itself as the dominant player in the field of personalized sports.
The old MySportsLine had just over 100,000 users, while the robust new version has seen “well over a quarter million” users register since its public splash in March, Snyder says. Those who customize return much more often. The site attracts 4 million to 7 million visitors a month, placing it behind the behemoth of online sports, ESPN.com. “If ESPN tries to get in this game, we’ll try to stay one step ahead of them,” he says.
‘Personalization takes into account not only explicit preferences but also a user’s implicit behavior.’
– Steve Snyder, VP, SportsLine
“Personalization is really a killer app on the Web,” he says. “On any sports site you’d have to click around a half dozen times to get to your different areas of interest. Here, we bring you a several different product offerings under one roof. Users tell us they love being able to look at football scores and how their fantasy-league teams are doing right on the same page. As we get more mature with this, you’ll see a lot of killer integration capabilities.”
Like the Post’s Ruder, Snyder sees customization as one stage in a fully personalized user experience. “I tend to think of customization as letting the users tell us explicitly what they want to do and see. But that’s only the first step toward real personalization, which is all about embracing a customer relationship. Personalization takes into account not only explicit preferences but also a user’s implicit behavior. It says, ‘We know you, we’ve seen what you like through your surfing patterns or the polls you’ve taken or the content interactions we’ve had with you, and we’ll offer you choices and personalize your experience to serve you even better.’ ”
Toward that goal, the site is seeing users visiting the site more often during the month while the number of pages they access is actually declining. “We like that,” Snyder says. “It tell us they’re finding what they want and coming back more often. The ultimate goal isn’t page views, it’s consumer loyalty, increased overall hang time, and customer satisfaction.”
SportsLine will be approaching the next stage of personalization gingerly. “Right now we don’t do anything based on a person’s implicit behavior,” Snyder says. “We don’t want people to think we’re Big Brothering them. We’re not watching you, we’re watching the overall patterns based on people’s choices. We’ve definitely seen the red flags raised about privacy, and we’ll have to walk that line when we come to it.”
The Los Angeles Times
The LA Times has had personalization of a sort since the mid-1990s when it unleashed Hunter, one of the earliest customization agents. The Times offered users a buffet of 60 pre-selected categories along with an eager-to-please virtual golden retriever that sniffed out matches to search terms chosen by the reader.
On July 9, accompanying its new redesign, the Times rolled out MyNews, an expanded set of customization features that doubles the number of available news categories to 120, with more coming soon.
“Before, we offered business headlines. Now we offer 11 business subcategories — personal finance, taxes, career advice, coverage of the entertainment industry — and a dozen different technology news subcategories,” says product manager Matt Nakano. “We’ve found a way to break out a lot of our content into smaller, more narrowly defined categories.”
The Times’ site lets readers slice and dice their news in dozens of different ways: Foodies can choose from among 10 different subcategories, from wine to quick-fix meals to expert culinary advice. Travelers can pick from 23 selections ranging from Mexico to cruises to hot deals of the week. Follow health news? Users can winnow down their medical reading by choosing from a dozen different topics. Local news is broken down by region and community. By year’s end, the paper plans to add its entertainment listings — movies, theater and the arts — to the mix.
‘People are coming in for relatively specific things. Certain users follow favorite columnists. Others want California news. Some are into the Clippers, Lakers, or college sports.’
– Matt Nakano, product manager, latimes.com
“We’re learning more about our audience and starting to realize that even when we do these high volumes of traffic, people are coming in for relatively specific things,” Nakano says. “Certain users follow favorite columnists. Others want California news. Some are into the Clippers, Lakers, or college sports at USC or UCLA and can’t get that depth of coverage elsewhere.”
Personalization makes visiting a large site like latimes.com a friendlier experience. “Fundamentally, we wanted to make it easier and more efficient for people to find what they’re looking for,” Nakano says.
Then there are the user-defined topics: Pop in a specific term, subject or company name and MyNews will return all the stories containing the search term. The user interface leaves a bit to be desired: Right now, you can see your topics on the MyNews page but can’t see whether the search bot found any matches.
MyNews’ Business section doesn’t let you customize a stock portfolio. Sports seems a weak link, too. Unlike the Washington Post, at latimes.com you can select only Los Angeles teams, golf and tennis. Even fans of neighboring San Diego’s pro sports teams are out of luck.
“Sports is a tough one, especially because we have a lot of transplants who’ve moved here,” Nakano says. “But where do you draw the line?”
The biggest benefit of customization, Nakano suggests, is that it exposes a lot of the rich content that’s buried deep in the site. “Food and health take up only a tiny part of the real estate on the front page of the site, and this product helps float those things out to people who hunger for that information,” he says. “Our goal was to create a product that reflected the breadth and depth of the site.”
Nakano says MyNews is still a work in progress. The site is considering partnering with a high-profile, credible financial news site to offer stock quotes, for example. User reaction and suggestions over the coming months will influence elements of the site. And customized advertising or marketing may be coming down the pike.
“We’re discussing that,” Nakano says. “We’re trying to strike a balance between creating new revenue streams but at same time not crossing the line that invades people’s privacy. We know that it’s a very fine line we have to walk and so we’re going to err on the side of being conservative.”
The Wall Street Journal has offered its subscribers a Personal Journal for some time, letting users select keyword terms and customize portfolios, financial news, favorite columns and the like. But its customization features were fairly limited, and it was shunted off to the side, as if the editors didn’t know what to do with this strange beast called personalization.
Early next year WSJ.com plans to roll out a more ambitious personalization effort that integrates users’ customized choices with the biggest news stories of the day on the site’s front page, says the site’s publisher, Neil Budde. “You’ll still get the benefit of editors selecting the top news, but you’ll also be able to track topics you’re personally interested in and have them compiled in one place along with the rest of the day’s top stories,” he says.
Better Homes & Gardens, flagship site of Meredith Interactive, plans an even grander foray into personalization. By this fall, the site hopes to recognize each returning visitor by name and then tailor both its editorial content and advertisements to the person’s specific interests, according to Entertainment & Media Direct.
Meredith seems to be following in Amazon’s footsteps by wedding a consumer database of 65 million names, each containing up to 300 data fields, to each dynamically rendered page of the site. Love al fresco dining, woodworking and puttering in your rose garden? Meredith will try to turn its content into a personal journey by parsing your dataset right down to the level of the individual and then serving up relevant content, links and products.
One company that seems to be playing the role of contrarian is AOL Time Warner. Last week MyCNN.com shut down and its million-plus registered users were shuttled over to corporate sister site My Netscape. Five phone messages and three e-mail requests to the Netscape public relations department went unanswered.
I was fond of CNN’s personalized news. CNN Custom News launched in June 1997 and changed its name to MyCNN in 1999, when I interviewed Dave Rickett, the CNN senior editor who headed up the site’s personalization efforts. He told me the most popular feature on MyCNN was the world section, where a user could follow the news originating from any country in the world. “People like the ability to follow news from where they came from or where they’re living now,” Rickett said.
Not anymore. The 300 different news categories — fine-tuned to niche topics like wireless communication and sorted by dozens of different countries — are gone. Instead, My Netscape offers a grand total of six general-news categories (top news, health, politics, U.S. news, world, technology) and four business-news categories.
“I imagine it’ll be missed,” Rickett said this week from Atlanta, where he’s now an independent journalist.
As many as a million CNN users probably agree.