How The New York Times Is Thinking About Its Push Notifications Strategy
On the episode they released in September 2016, media business podcast Recode Media had two very interesting guests. Sam Dolnick, a possible future chief of the New York Times, and the two time Pulitzer winning Times veteran Clifford Levy were on the show, being interviewed by Recode’s Managing Editor Edmund Lee. They were talking about how the 164 year old newspaper is modernising for the web, and it was worth listening to. They had been working together as part of the team that was reimagining the New York Times as a digital brand, and the ideas they put forth should be engrossing for anyone thinking about branding and communication in the internet age.
One of the things they repeatedly came back to throughout the conversation was the how they were trying to make it easier for their readers to consume their content. This did not necessarily mean cheaper, they pointed out.
And this meant that the way they communicated with their audience became more important than ever before. In an age where you can reach your readers in so many ways, it was important that the best balance is struck.
The discussion automatically led to the NYT Now app – a pared down version of the original New York Times mobile app – the early success of which was a huge shot in the arm for the newspaper’s digital efforts.
It was when they were talking about how the NYT delivers and expresses its journalism that they touched upon how they went about evolving push notifications for the paper.
Though the context is that of the mobile push notifications, it is easy to discern how the top brass of the Times is thinking about them.
I’m reproducing the conversation with minor edits to make up for the spoken style.
Clifford Levy: “A year or so ago, push notifications from the New York Times were simply headlines. They were written in a particular voice that was almost like the voice of the print front page. Sam and I and some of our other very very talented colleagues in the Newsroom said that that’s not how the lock screen in the phone works. The lock screen is where you get texts, the lock screen is where you get very personal communications. We need to evolve a new voice for push notifications.”
Edmund Lee: “ It needs to be more conversational, it needs to be more within the context. See, now that’s an interesting thing that you bring up: It seems like a small thing but it’s actually a pretty big thing, if you think about that’s how a lot of people are first experiencing the Times in the morning, or maybe in the afternoon, or whenever, so that’s almost like they are the front page, so you really have to start thinking in those terms. At the same time, you guys have had, you know, there’s been a lot of criticism of notifications, especially of the New York Times, either for stories that really are not breaking news, that don’t matter, why are you pushing these notifications to me. You know, it’s a perfectly good story, but it’s not push notification worthy. Or the Olympics are coming up, and I think a lot of people, especially for sports, you know, I didn’t see the game yet, I have it on DVR or whatever it is, don’t tell me who won or tell me what the score is.
Sam Dolnick: “The Olympics are a crazily divisive thing.”
Edmund Lee: “Yeah, how are you guys doing that?”
Sam Dolnick: “You know, when we first started doing push, it was big, 3 alarm siren breaking news, We think that the way people are engaging with their phones has changed, and their expectations have changed. So for instance, I listen to a lot of podcasts, I listen to this podcast. I never open my podcast app, I expect my phone to tell me when a new podcast is there, and we think more and more, that’s the relationship people have with their phones or with media in general. They expect things to come to them. So we are evolving our theory anyways that push notifications aren’t going to be just for breaking news, they are going to be, if you are really interested in basketball we gonna tell you when there’s a great basketball story. Cliff’s really interested in football, we’ll tell him about a football story. And then notifications become a way for you to connect with the Times. But that’s our theory, we are paying real close attention to our audience and if that’s wrong, then we are gonna change.”
It’s in the above passage that we get a tangible sense of how the Times is thinking about push notifications. Sam Dolnick is careful not to give too much away, but there are a few gems we can glean from the conversation:
1. Think closely about the way your audience is interacting with your push notification. Here, the Times is thinking about a new voice for itself. You too must think carefully about the copy, the time, and the CTA.
2. That push notification you send may be the first thing your consumer is looking at from you in the day, it is the way they are experiencing your brand. It might as well be the front page, as Edmund Lee puts it.
3. The tone has to conversational, contextual. There has to be continuity. Without any context, push notifications are just vague annoyances, easy for your consumers to dismiss.
4. Notifications need not necessarily be for big announcements. They can be for anything your audience is really interested in.
And lastly, the two most important points:
5. Dolnick says that the notifications become a way for you to connect with the Times. This cannot be stressed on enough: Notifications are a communication channel that can carry your brand and its values to your audience.
6. The New York Times says that it’s constantly watching how the audience is reacting to things, and is ready to use the feedback/data to change. This is imperative, as more and more interactions with push notifications will give you more data which you can use to optimise the way you send push notifications and engage your audience.
How are you thinking about your push notifications strategy? What have you learnt from this conversation? Do let us know, and we will publish the best of them in a blog to benefit the PushCrew community.