When Janni Frederiksen Kalafatis, the User-Experience Lead at VG, took the stage at last month’s Digital Media India conference in New Delhi, he did something remarkable: He talked about a failed app aimed at younger readers that VG had discontinued three years after they launched it.
While everyone says you can learn as much – if not more – from your failures as your successes, few publishers tend to publicly address things they’ve tried that did not work and they’ve stopped doing.
Kalafatis’ discussion of the failed app, which was called Peil, clearly showed that not only had VG learned a lot from the experience but also that there was a great deal other publishers could learn from it as well.

Taking action after a drop in young readers

The app had come about because, like all publishers, VG wanted to increase the number of its young readers today to help ensure that it has audiences for the future. However, a few years ago, VG’s editors discovered the number of these young readers coming to them on a regular basis had dipped sharply compared with just three years before.
Specifically, in 2013, VG had more than 300,000 daily readers between the ages of 18 and 25. By 2016, that number had fallen by about a third, to just over 200,000, Kalafatis said. While still an impressive amount for a country with just 5.2 million people, this drop concerned VG’s editors.
“We decided to do something about that,” Kalafatis said.
They started by setting up a 10-person team to address the question of “How can we get young people back to VG?”
Realising that “we cannot understand what the users want without actually interacting with them,” Kalafatis said the app was developed based on the results of doing 100 interviews, 50 surveys and receiving over 800 feedback emails from users.
“When we launched Peil, we were trying to make it easier to understand what is happening in the world,” Kalafatis said. 
By any standard, there was much to admire about Peil. It provided readers with a clear hierarchy of a limited number of stories they could quickly get through to be – and feel – informed and up-to-date with the day’s major events.
“It was a tight selection of news stories,” Kalafatis added. “They were visual and focussed.”
Specifically, every day Peil provided what VG’s editors considered to be the 10 top stories of the day.
One of the most important items of feedback they heard from users was that “News feels endless,” and “I just want to know when I’m updated on the most important stuff,” he said.
However, he added that also ended up becoming a burden because some days there aren’t that many top stories, so they were adding in some non-essential stories just to come up with 10.

An unsustainable workload

The main problem with Peil was the workload required to produce the content for the app.
“One of the big issues that we had with Peil was the big burden of work because we had to maintain all the different platforms,” Kalafatis said. “We still have Instagram and Snapchat, which are very important for VG, where we have very good user base among younger users. And we weren’t able to maintain a workflow that was sustainable with the staffing we had, especially in these later years when TikTok was also introduced to our portfolio.”

“For this to work,” he continued, “we would have had to make a CMS that was able to cross-publish and monitor all different platforms.”

There was also a distribution issue, because VG is the top brand in Norway when it comes to news media, and Peil was a new brand, Kalafatis said.
“Launching a new brand is not easy in the mediasphere. If we had to do it again, we would try to launch it within the VG universe, and possibly also in the VG domain. So that’s something we’re looking into now,” he added.
Ultimately, after three years and almost 100,000 daily users, Kalafatis said they had to shut the app down.
That does not mean they gave up on young readers though. They have just redirected their efforts into areas and platforms such as Snapchat and TikTok where they are seeing higher levels of traction.

VG has nearly 600,000 Snapchat subscribers.

“Every day we have over 200,000 users who read our top stories of the day on Snapchat,” Kalafatis said. “These numbers can go up to over 300,000, and on Snapchat, 60 percent of the demography are users younger than 25.”

“So we are meeting them, but we are not converting them to our front page,” he said.

To this end, VG is testing something they are calling retargeting, Kalafatis said.

He added that they conducted a successful experiment last autumn with audience-specific content that they are now implementing and scaling.

In this experiment, VG published articles on its home page that are targeted towards selected user groups, such as younger women. When they did this, he said, they were able to substantially increase the percentage of readers who clicked on those stories compared with the average for stories that usually appeared in the same position of their homepage.

“That means if we actually offer them the right content, they will read it,” Kalafatis said.

VG’s goal with this, he said, is to create a habit that whenever people come to VG, they find news that is for them.

“The key takeaway here is that if we target young women with content for them, we can more than double their click rate. So we’re scaling this up and automating it, and right now we are seeing an over doubling of clicks,” he said.

5 rules to consider for every story

Kalafatis also described some other ways VG is working to bring more young readers to their brand.
For example, earlier this year, they introduced five easy rules for every journalist to think about when they write a news story, he said.

Write clearly and simply, give young people easily digestible content otherwise, they will lose interest.

Provide context, background and an overview. “Don’t make the readers feel stupid,” he said. “Provide them with necessary background information so that everyone can understand the issues and why they are relevant.”

Include young people within stories. The idea here is to get users to care by showing them how the issues affect them, he said. Furthermore, they encourage the use of young people as sources and cases for stories.

Capture attention. Here, the aim is to get journalists to think visually, he said. “Many people like the mix of text, video and images. Interactive elements like quizzes and polls. Don’t just give them a bulk of text.”

Make it searchable. “What we see is that young users’ journey to find news are through Google. So we need to make it accessible by Google,” he said.

A poster featuring these rules is now placed throughout VG’s offices, Kalafatis added.

“We need to think about these five tips every day. And this needs to be hammered in from all the leaders, from your co-workers, every day,” he said.

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