Secrets of Success from an Optimization All-Star in Online News

Image source: Adobe Stock / chinnarach.

Wendy Melemed, A/B testing manager for online news publisher McClatchy, submitted a story that earned the finalist designation for the Best Audience-Driven Experience in the Adobe Experience Maker Awards contest. The contest captures stories of practitioners creating exceptional digital experiences for their customers using Adobe Experience Cloud solutions. Wendy’s team used Adobe Target, Adobe Audience Manager, and Adobe Analytics to boost conversion rates for digital subscriptions by testing personalized call-to-action messaging and offers to audiences based on customer history and engagement. The activity yielded a whopping 430% increase in traffic to the subscription landing page from former subscribers and a 46% increase from all non-subscribers.

Wendy joined McClatchy seven years ago at the start of their optimization program. She came to the job with a traditional marketing and merchandising education and having previously worked in marketing, advertising, and digital analytics. She generously shared the following valuable advice and best practices that she’s discovered through her work with Adobe Target at McClatchy.

Online news and media — always in a state of change

Wendy has seen the world of online news shift from offering experiences that mirror the traditional and static print newspaper to offering more dynamic and personalized experiences. “No media brand can offer the one-size-fits-all experience anymore and survive,” she says. In fact, online news and media is probably the industry with the most dynamic digital content. With news breaking 24/7 and consumer expectations that they’ll have access to it instantly — even as a story unfolds — the digital experience is in a state of constant change.

“Once you accept that one size does not fit all, you need to strategize how to meet this demand for dynamic digital content,” Wendy says. Then you have to make that strategy work while recognizing that online news needs to be different things to different people.” For example, a sports enthusiast wants to fulfill their craving for up-to-the-minute sports scores and stories about their favorite teams or players. World news aficionados want the latest breaking global news, perhaps about specific areas of the world or a specific topic like a humanitarian crisis. These are key aspects of optimizing and personalizing in the online news world.

Three important steps when optimizing an online news or media website

By helping build the optimization and personalization program at McClatchy, Wendy has learned what works and what doesn’t. She suggests taking these three steps first when starting to optimize an online news site:

Step 1. Determine and clearly state your goal

For example, are you optimizing and personalizing to increase circulation and, therefore, revenue from ad views, or are you doing it to drive subscriptions? The methodologies you apply will differ depending on that goal.

Step 2. Look at the data

Not all the data. That would be overwhelming. Instead, Wendy says, “Look at data based on your stated goal. If it’s to increase circulation, look at your most popular content categories and what people are reading in them. Find out if your readers are local or not because that influences the content and who you market to. Consider if visitors return to your online news site daily, weekly, or monthly.” McClatchy found that behavior patterns differ between first-time visitors, frequent visitors, and subscribers. “Subscribers visit the homepage a lot, while the other two groups only visit it once in a while. That means you can personalize homepage content to subscribers as much as you want,” Wendy says. Data like this informs your strategy.

Step 3. Develop your optimization strategy

Depending on your goal and data analysis, devise a strategy to meet your goal and then develop and prioritize test and personalization ideas that support that strategy. For example, McClatchy had a goal of converting sports viewers into subscribers, so they developed a sports fan subscription product — Sports Pass — and prioritized their Adobe Target activities and marketing around meeting that goal. (Spoiler alert: Sports Pass was a huge hit!)

Best practices for just about any organization

Wendy shared the following best practices and tips for testing and personalizing that optimization programs for just about any brand or industry can apply:

Prioritize your tests

“With so many things you could test and pressure to test everyone’s idea, you have to zero in on what really moves the needle. Identify and stay focused on your testing priorities,” she says. For example, this year McClatchy is focused on driving subscriptions, so they want to get more people into and converting within the payment flow. This leads to tests like changing the copy on subscription forms or, because people behave differently depending on their payment method, targeting based on the payment method used. When increasing circulation was a focus, they prioritized Adobe Target activities designed to increase ad views and page views.

Uncover the opportunity in Adobe Analytics

McClatchy uses a data layer to bring additional visitor data from other systems into Adobe Analytics. They unify this data to get a more complete view of the customer — their on-site behavior, which Analytics natively captures, and data such as what subscriptions they have, payment methods they’ve used to pay in the past, and other product touchpoints.

They then look at this data in Analytics to discover valuable audiences to target, create those audiences in Adobe Audience Manager, and then use them in Adobe Target activities.

Do A/B/n tests, not just A/B tests

Wendy says you learn more by testing more than two variations. For example, McClatchy had a module with clickable headlines for the latest news stories. Someone wanted to test having six headlines in the module versus having 11 to 13 (the number of headlines could vary daily from 11 to 13 depending on how many top stories the site had that day). But what if the best number of headlines was some number between the minimum of six and the maximum of 11 to 13? They tested having six, eight, 10, and then 11 to 13. It turns out that 10 was the best number for desktop and phone users, and eight was the best number for tablet users.

Look beyond the click

“In media, we think more clicks means a successful test. That’s not always the case,” Wendy says. Sometimes you can measure the wrong thing or increase one metric at the expense of another. While it may seem counterintuitive, that can sometimes be what you actually want. Wendy shared the example below to illustrate this situation.

McClatchy’s “Read next” module at the bottom of each story links readers to the next story in the section like Finance or Sports that they’re in. The module was so large that Wendy’s team believed readers might mistake it for a feature story, so would return to the section or newspaper front page to get the next story. They believed that reducing the module size would make it look more like a suggestion to read more stories, so people would read more stories. They reduced the module’s size to test that hypothesis.

Overall page views, their usual success metric, dropped — but the number of views of stories pages in each section stayed the same. This was actually a good thing because viewers were getting to the content they wanted more directly — without going back through the section or newspaper front page to the next story. Ultimately, McClatchy believed this translates to a more enjoyable experience for its readers, a more important goal in this case than increasing page views.

Try “big sky” ideas occasionally

Wendy advises iteratively testing what’s working for quick, short-term gains. She also suggests, “Every so often, try big sky ideas. Maybe a whole new design, a brand-new type of content, or an entirely new marketing strategy. Big sky ideas won’t work often… but when they do, you’ll get a massive gain.”

Align systems to deliver a consistent message

McClatchy engages with customers through multiple touchpoints like its online news site, off-site ads, and emails, but also in multiple places on those touchpoints like the paywall page or homepage of the news site. It’s important to align the systems that deliver this content so that customers receive a consistent personalized experience and offer no matter where they touch the brand. For example, if the customer clicks an off-site ad for a subscription to The Sacramento Bee, the landing page for the offer should have the same offer as the ad.

Collaborate with other teams who touch on testing

Beyond its A/B testing team, McClatchy has several different teams involved in optimization and personalization — for example, Audience Development, Digital Advertising, Acquisition, and Retention teams. Similar to the previous piece of advice, these teams need to work together to ensure the visitor receives a consistent experience and offer no matter where they show up — emails, off-site ads, on the paywall, and others.

Build your personalization and optimization expertise

Tapping into the experience and advice of Wendy and other seasoned personalization and optimization practitioners provides a great way to gain knowledge and build up your expertise. We’re fortunate that Adobe Target users like Wendy so generously share this knowledge. We also provide other ways you can learn about using Adobe Target.

Consider using these valuable resources:

_And don’t forget to submit your story to the _Adobe Experience Maker Awards contest when it launches later this year.