Hearst Papers Tested to Perfect the Vital ‘User Experience’

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Esfand Pourmand, SVP for Revenue at Hearst Newspapers Digital, quite naturally wants the group’s 17 dailies and 57 weeklies to maximize their revenue potential. But he knows they have to do something else first and every second of every day — enrich thousands and millions of “user experiences” on multiple and very different platforms.

How Hearst Newspapers Digital will meet this challenge was outlined by the company’s president Rob Barrett in October in a strategy he developed with his team after he came aboard a year ago next month.

In this Q & A, Pourmand, who came to privately owned Hearst from the New York Times almost a year ago, talks about initial results of the testing of that strategy at three Hearst dailies. He also emphasizes how technology is instrumental in setting in motion user experiences that will, under the Hearst model for local news, inform, educate and entertain — and generate revenue.

Let’s start with your idea of the “user experience.” What is it exactly?
It is any moment that a reader engages with our brands either on our core assets, off-platform through social media or other distribution channels. The quality of the content experience becomes key in growing our digital reach, deepening engagement and building loyal readership. Improving user experience and bringing value proposition to our content allow us to build relationships with our readers, grow our digital subscriber base and take advantage of premium advertising/sponsorship opportunities.

What’s an example of a desirable user experience?
A perfect case is our “Texas Sports Nation” product, an in-depth analysis and expert opinion of all things Texas sports at the Houston Chronicle. While digital engagement is high and we are seeing sales momentum, we want to deepen engagement even more and enhance our coverage. We know we can grow loyal readership by developing moments and creating the right experiences on the right platforms for these sport fans.

You talk about the “value proposition.” If a newspaper article is well reported and written or a video well produced, are the article and video delivering value propositions – or is there more at play here?
At the heart of our product is the quality of our content. But yes, there is more at play. We continually strive to understand our audience by tailoring and targeting the right product features and experiences for specific audience segments, all with the goal of building habits and engagement.

What’s technology’s special role in creating the right user experiences?
The beauty of today’s technology is that it cuts through all the layers of the customer’s journey and really allows us to understand our readers behaviors, engagement habits and predictive activities, which we can leverage to offer up a personalized content experience or maybe the right marketing messages to allow for deeper engagement or potential subscription. The technologies that we are testing will provide our editors and other content creators with the right tools and products with the goal of reaching our audience at the right place, using the right format and at the specific moment of consumption. To do all that, we are developing product experiences that will open up channels for us to understand and communicate with our readers at every level.

What about understanding your audience?
This is where our data initiatives come into play. We know our audience consumes our content through variety of different mediums and platforms. We want to know how best we can serve our readers and tailor the correct content experience to them. It’s important for us to understand whom we are trying to reach, where we can reach them, what type of content they want to read, and how best to deliver that experience to them. Our data initiatives and investments will allow us to provide the right product experiences for those specific segments of users and we’ll deliver moments that will inform, educate and entertain our readers.

You refer to content as “product.” Are editors comfortable thinking of their work as a “product”?
Our product approach is to bring another layer of added value to our readers –delivering quality content through desirable experiences that we know our audience values the most. Doing this, we believe we can increase engagement and broaden our loyal readers. There is alignment across the newsroom, technology, marketing and product teams — a genuine cross-team excitement and belief that we are on the right track.

You’re testing different components of the new strategy at three dailies – the San Francisco Chronicle, Houston Chronicle and San Antonio Express-News. What’s happening at those papers?
We have rolled out our metered paywall at the San Francisco Chronicle and are in the process of gathering data and continually improving that experience. We believe and through data we’ll confirm that the metered paywall functionality will allow our existing and new audiences to sample and build habits around our premium content, deepen engagement, support advertising, further our journalistic mission and grow our digital subscriptions. In addition, we have started to centralize our data. We are moving our data onto the Google Cloud Platform and utilizing Google’s BigQuery. We plan to build intelligent and predictive products with the goal of enhancing the experience users have with our brands.

In our Houston and San Antonio markets, we’re well underway in testing marketing technology features that will help our consumer marketing efforts, all with the hope of building relationships with our readers. The initial goal is not to convert them into subscribers but to build a relationship with our readers based on trust – the trust that our quality content delivered through the right experience will ultimately convert these readers into subscribers.

Esfand Pourmand
Esfand Pourmand

What’s your target in digital subscriptions?
Ultimately we want our digital subscribers to be one of our main pillars supporting our journalistic mission. We have ambitious goals for 2017 and we believe doubling our digital subscribers is well within reach.

You’ve talked about engagement and consumer revenue as two of the main goals at Hearst Newspapers Digital. What else?
We want to optimize the user experience through faster load times without any barriers to consumption. We have a dedicated team lead by Fergal Carr, our SVP of Consumer Products, that’s focused on improving site performance by providing high-quality optimized front-end and premium advertising experiences.

How is Hearst addressing the ticklish question of what kind of relationship it should have with the giant distribution platforms, where the most recent hot issue is how they have become carriers of fake news?
Some publishers limit the number of articles or content they offer on these platforms. They tend to be the national brands that have a large reader base, so they can afford to take a cautious approach. Some publishers use these platforms much more aggressively. At Hearst Newspapers we are experimenting to find the right balance for each of our markets and brands.

As our audience shifts to these alternative platforms, we know we have to figure out a way to coexist, but it all comes back to the user experience. As part of our product development process, we’ll provide the right experiences specifically for readers who want to consume our content on these alternative platforms. As we make a case for and build value around our content, we have an opportunity to “entice” a much larger audience base by building daily habits around our brands on our own sites.

To an outsider, the big distribution platforms can look like a numbers game, where bigger is better. But is bigger better?
There is definitely value in the scale of the audience. We know Facebook, Google and Apple will be critical for us in driving reach and engagement. Monetization of this audience is a bit more tricky. We know if we can convert a small percentage of the traffic back to our premium sites there is potential for revenue growth.

Tom GrubisichTom Grubisich (@TomGrubisich) writes “The New News” column for Street Fight. He is editorial director of hyperlocal news network Local America, and is also working on a book about the history, present, and future of Charleston, S.C.