Now working with Dow Jones’ Wall Street Journal in New York, Mary-Katharine Phillips talks of the “huge transformation” member messages have undergone.
After heading home to the US, following a role as media innovation analyst with Twipe in Belgium – where News UK was among clients – she shares learnings in an INMA blog with fellow engagement manager Sasha Tanghe.
When the engagement team was first created, new ways were sought to communicate to our existing members that went beyond standard marketing channels. “In collaboration with the product team, we created on-site ad placements on WSJ.com to promote member benefits and ‘healthy habits’ we identified as actions that can increase engagement and product usage to prevent churn,” they say.
But with years of testing and advancements in technical capabilities, on-site member messages have undergone a huge transformation. “We now have the capability to encourage members to take thousands of relevant actions each month.”
Focussing on improving the overall design helped optimise and make the most of on-site real estate. Three on-site ad slots allocated to engagement include ‘candy bars’ – skinny pop-ups that appear at the bottom of the screen – right-hand side tiles (under a user’s name in the top right corner); and membership tiles which appear three quarters down the page on the homepage and article pages.
After gathering data on performance, the focus moved to optimising overall designs, with the look and feel of on-site ad placements key. Small, incremental changes to the design would deliver valuable increases in an ad’s click-through rate (CTR).
With the candy bar placement, for example, a plain-text version often had a higher CTR than a version with an image and other, more visual, design elements. This example to promote the launch of a WSJ podcast Bad Bets, trialled both, with the plain text version’s CTR 33 per cent higher than the more designed version.
“Throughout our testing, we have discovered that a simple, clean design is often more engaging to users,” they say. “One working hypothesis for this is that overly designed placements can start to closely resemble paid advertisements, which might result in users unconsciously skipping over them.”
Once the ad creative had been adjusted to present a simpler design format, the WSJ team experimented to see how we make the most of the real estate on each ad slot. One test added a secondary CTA to the membership tiles and candy bars – leveraging the ‘Hobson’s Choice +1’ effect, in which giving users a choice between two options increases overall engagement.
Here, a test of a specific email challenge – a series of weekly emails users can start at any time – provided an opportunity to learn more about other email challenges.
Membership tiles featuring the dual CTA variation had a 70 per cent click rate uplift compared to our control with just one CTA. Similar results are being achieved on a test of dual CTAs on the candy bar placement.
Phillips and Tanghe say continued testing is needed to understand the best way to leverage on-site placements. “Do not become complacent – there will always be elements that can be further optimised, whether it’s a design change or simply adding another CTA.”
And having uncovered what is performing well with on-site placements, the focus has shifted to reaching scale through automation. An example from previous research that the first 100 days in a subscription are crucial for member retention, has led to the creation of a special ‘on-site experience’ for new members. Leveraging automation technology has made it possible to show specific on-site messages to new members every day that encourage the adoption of healthy habits to prevent churn.
Dynamic capabilities are also being leveraged to set up automated candy bar campaigns that pull in content from feeds. By setting up a candy bar once, it can then show the latest content going forward, without our intervention.
The feature is being in a variety of ways, including promoting a trending podcast episode; highlighting a new column from a weekly series; and making personalised article recommendations based on a member’s reading habits.
“Through automating our routine campaigns, we are delivering more engaging and personalised experiences, while also giving the team time to improve the ad placements overall,” they say. “Since we can set the automatic campaign once and let it continue to run, we are also able to create super specific segments to target – something we would not have had the resources to do every week.
“In just the first two months since these tactics were implemented, we have seen a 200 per cent increase in clicks.”
A new project has been to automate targeting as well. Instead of simply relying on “best instincts”, partnering with operations and data teams led to the creation of look-alike models that identify people who look and act just like our target audiences.
Instead of promoting recipes to members thought to be interested, the WSJ can now target it to members who have similar behaviours as members who already engage with recipe content.
Channel preference models have also helped establish where to reach members on an individual basis to increase their likelihood of engagement with a message. “There are some members who might just never engage with on-site placements, even with all our work to optimise them,” they say. “Instead, we need to reach them through other channels such as via email, in-app messaging, or paid media.
By leveraging these two models, the ultimate goal is now to scale audience size and appeal to members where they are most likely to engage.