The New York Times, which now has more than 10.5 million subscribers, has found there is a strong symbiotic relationship between products, such as their popular games, and news, Withrow told participants during WAN-IFRA’s World News Media Congress in Copenhagen.

Withrow spoke as part of a panel session on to news products that improve user experience, drive conversions and build loyalty.

“The news cycle goes up and down, and what we’re seeing is the path from news to games is very well trodden. If there’s not a lot of news that day, we’re still seeing people coming back to play Wordle or Connections. They are also engaging with the journalism so we’re using the whole product portfolio to not just fill the needs of our audience but also to keep them coming back every day,” she said.

Connecting Games with Editorial, on its homepage, The New York Times makes it easy for readers to go back and forth from their journalism and their games offering.

Aiming to meet the news and lifestyle needs of consumers

“It’s important to understand the product-driven growth is really a means to an end. It’s a tool in a toolkit. It’s not a strategy itself. The strategy itself is all around elevating editorial independence, elevating journalism and then of course, we’ve done a lot of research on our audiences and markets and have now a whole suite of products that allow us to meet the lifestyle needs – not just the news needs – of our audience. Games is a really good example of this in our portfolio,” Withrow said.

In order to ensure The New York Times keeps meeting the needs of their audiences, she said they are continually working to find out what those needs are.

“We’re out there talking to our users. We’re doing research. We’re showing them prototypes, and we ask them to play with the prototypes so we can see how they’re interacting with it. And then we’re looking at any qualitative analysis that we can do to help identify opportunities,” Withrow said.

Cooperation, buy-in from newsroom essential for product success

Many new product ideas at The New York Times start out small, at the team level.

“One of the things that is so important is that our teams feel comfortable taking risks. And every time we do that, we are learning more about our audience and their needs,” Withrow said.

A key element of their on-going success has been the cooperation between the products team and the editorial side, so after a new product idea has been identified, the product team begins discussing it with the newsroom.

“The newsroom is a critical partner for us in all of this,” Withrow said. “I don’t want to oversimplify the complex problem of pulling a newsroom into the mindset of subscribers and engaging them. But so much of it is really about framing what we’re doing because we’re trying to get more people to engage with our journalism, to find an audience for each of our stories and a bigger audience.”

Knowing that many people are either avoiding news or consuming much less of it is a challenge that The Times teams are trying to tackle, and the newsroom has been receptive to what the product team is doing.

“We’re finding they really want to be part of solving that problem,” Withrow said. “So for many of our products, our newsroom partners are there from the very beginning, working with us, collaborating so we’re really never introducing a product that doesn’t have a newsroom partner behind it.

Ultimately, she said, it comes down to knowing as much as possible about your audience and your market to then be able to build the product offerings that can help publishers penetrate that market.

Changing user behaviours, and helping facilitate content discovery

A further issue The New York Times is taking into consideration is changing audience behaviours.

“We’re really seeing people’s use of technology change,” she said.

Attention spans and use of mobile formats are also contributing to changing behaviours. These can each lead to special challenges around making sure people find the kinds of content they are interested in.

“We’re exploring different ways to help people discover the content that they are looking for,” Withrow said. “Our live coverage is a good example of this: We’re bringing people into those stories as they develop. We’re bringing them to the scene. We have reporter feeds and updates. We were sitting with the elections team a couple months ago and saying ‘What about our more casual readers?’ because we do see a lot of news fatigue right now. We have people who are avidly following a given story, but we also have people who just want to dip in and get highlights. So how do you serve those two audiences at the same time?”

As a result, The Times has been doing research on casual readers.

“We’re working to understand what their needs are and develop products that can serve both audiences. We have so much value and we have these rich histories. We have the archives. We have so many stories the newsroom is producing every day that one of the main problems is discovery,” she said.

“You have everyone coming to you for slightly different things, and so how can you work on getting the right things to the right people at the right time?” she noted.

Balancing engagement with results

Something The Times has done to help here is to develop algorithms to incorporate an editorial engagement score.

“Our packages are very carefully crafted to balance the importance of engagement with results,” Withrow said. “So we’re looking at engaged clicks and not just someone just clicking on a headline but also if it’s valuable to them, so we’re looking at the time they’re spending.”

While the size and scale of The New York Times often seems to put them in a league of their own at many levels, Withrow noted during the audience question-answer session, that there are also many things that smaller news publishers can do to improve their work on many of the issues addressed during the session.

“I worked for a very small organisation before coming to The Times and we were able to do a lot of things,” she said. “User research was going out and talking to people and bothering folks at a coffee shop and showing them my phone and asking them their opinion and pulling people into Google hang-outs to interview them. I’ve spent a lot of time talking to users and understanding what they were doing. And there are a bunch of really great free analytics tools that you can use and spend a little time learning to put things on the website so you can start to track usage, and things like that.”

See highlights from the first day of our World New Media Congress in this video:

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