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April 18 2012

13:51

In the Age of Social Media, the Customer Really Is King

The following is a guest column by Kevin O'Connor, the president of User Insight, a user experience strategy firm.

The idea of putting customers first is not a new one. In fact, it was the start of the 20th century when Harry Gordon Selfridge coined the phrase "The customer is always right."

But customers have never been as powerful as they are today in the social media age.

The potential damage that can be done to a reputation on social media raises the stakes higher than they've ever been. A new era means new ways to collaborate with and serve valuable customers. It's time for companies to stretch beyond customer satisfaction surveys and stop relying on demographic research to determine how their brands should interact with their customers. It's time to start talking to customers, one on one, in order to understand who they are and how to wow them with a product or service.

Today, more and more companies realize they must spend time and effort to really get to know their customers. If one person has a bad experience, news travels at lightning-fast speed. They will post their woes to their friends, contacts and Twitter followers.

"If we knew someone had 50,000 Twitter followers, our call centers would escalate their call for support," someone once told me.

That's certainly understanding the power of social media, but the goal should be larger: to make sure the customer experience is as good as it can possibly be to avoid all complaints in the first place, whether public or private.

the case of Qwikster

Netflix clearly underestimated its customers last year when it announced it would rename its DVD-distribution service Qwikster. Creating separate charges for DVDs and streaming video would almost double prices. Plus, a high schooler already owned the Twitter handle @Qwikster, indicating even worse foresight.

The day Netflix announced Qwikster, online conversations spiked almost 300 percent. Seventy percent of the chatter was negative when emotion was tied to the posts. Netflix stock dropped 20 percent. $2 billion in value evaporated in eight hours. Hundreds of thousands of subscribers canceled their service. The customers had spoken -- Netflix abandoned the idea, and the CEO apologized.

On the flip side, if consumers love a product, store, brand or experience, they will shout it out into their vast digital networks. Take for example, musician Tommee Profitt, whose love for Target led him to record a music video using his iPhone 4S.

A new take on 'user experience'

Since today's customer truly is king, with powerful communication tools right at their fingertips, companies have to pay more attention to the overall "user experiences" they are creating for people. User experience, or UX, is a broad term used to describe all aspects of a person's experience with a system or brand.

User experience research and testing helps companies "put the customer first" in all aspects of their businesses.

In today's many-to-many world, consumers group themselves, especially online, largely based on values, interests and aspirations -- not by sex, race and age. In this scenario, companies must understand their consumers' behaviors and motivators -- the why behind their actions.

An example: A company in the financial services industry came to my firm, User Insight, to get to know its customers better. Based on the demographic and segmentation information, this client believed that people chose banks according to life stage. After spending hours one on one, in consumers' homes, interviewing them on how they choose a bank, we discovered that it wasn't about their sex, age, race or stage of life at all. Instead, we found three groups based on values and behaviors: customers who preferred to bank online, those who like a branch nearby, and those who want a banker who knows them by name and handles their complex finances.

Getting insights from the customers who will actually use the product at the end of the day allows a company to focus on the core experience these customers are looking for. It's not about "if" someone can use a product; it's about "will" they use the product. The key today is serving up the right content at the right time in the right way. Consumers have many ways to interact with a brand; understanding how they want to do that will make the brand successful.

Smart companies should be willing to seek out and accept the tough love they need to serve consumers and manage change well. They also need the right people to guide them who are passionate, pleasant and collaborative. Putting time and effort into quality user experience research can mean healthier businesses, happier customers, and fewer reputation-flaying diatribes online. Because in today's social media age, user experience matters.

Kevin O'Connor is president of User Insight, a user experience strategy firm providing research and consulting to more than 300 clients in 25 different industries. User Insight, an Inc. 5000 firm, is headquartered in Atlanta, Ga.

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July 04 2011

00:34

How far should loyalty go?

To say I am a rabid Apple freak would be an understatement. My first computer (1981) was an Apple IIe…followed by a Performa, then an iMac (tear-drop), another iMac (monopod), and Macbook. And while I’m a Mac freak, I generally run my computers until the times force me to move on to a faster, sleeker, more current machine.

My love of Macs has only been rivaled by my love of Apple’s software. The OS has generally be easy to work with (one painful period during the forced switch from Classic to OS X). The video editing software – my personal weakness – is what kept me a firm supporter of the company. iMovie, Final Cut Express, Final Cut Pro. The latter always a bit out of my reach as a high school teacher (with teeth – also a three decade survivor of TV news).

You know where this is going.

My dream of a post-retirement gig has always included a good solid camera with professional controls AND a computer that could go anywhere with me with all of the features and software necessary to field produce anything from a youtube video to full production of a movie.

Until this week, that would have been a Macbook Pro and Final Cut Studio with the latest, best version of Final Cut Pro.

Last week’s unveiling of Final Cut X didn’t faze me…initially. I figured I could do as Apple recommended and run both the old FCP and new version on my screaming new Macbook Pro. But two things happened. Apple PULLED all on-shelf copies of FCS 3…effectively eliminating any possible purchase of a new copy. Then the bidding on auction sites went from three or four hundred to double that and more for used versions…even academic versions.

That’s when I began to reconsider my loyalties.

And that is why I found myself an hour ago researching Windows based laptops and appealing to friends for recommendations for a new (non-Apple) laptop that would allow me to take advantage of some pretty good discounts being offered by AVID and Adobe.

I’m not sure where this is heading…perhaps my heart will rule and I’ll remain an Apple supporter…or my head and pocketbook will turn me to what I’ve always jokingly called “the dark side.”

I do know, having used FCP, that it IS the software I want. But I don’t necessarily want to support an orphan. I want to know where Apple is going with Final Cut X – so I can make my decision easily. In lieu of that…perhaps a late life shake-up is in order.


October 28 2010

16:00

Engagement: Where does revenue fit in the equation?

Our post earlier this week about philly.com’s seven-part equation to measure user engagement has sparked a lively debate in the comments. The central question: Should a news site’s engagement equation factor in revenue? If so, how?

To recap, Philly.com’s equation puts a numerical value on user engagement by calculating what percentage of the site’s users fulfill certain criteria, including viewing multiple pages, spending more than six minutes on the site, leaving comments, sharing content through social media, or returning regularly. The equation allows philly.com to track how the site is doing in terms of these individual categories of engagement, as well as averaging them out to obtain an overall engagement percentage.

But several people, starting with Sonia Meisenheimer of the St. Petersburg Times in the post itself, questioned the usefulness of an equation that doesn’t take into account how user behavior affects the news organization’s bottom line. Ravi Pathak propsed adding revenue as a coefficient, and Ophir Prusak suggested that factoring in banner-ad clickthrough rates might be a good way to do this. Jim Novo put a different spin on the question, asking:

Another way to say this: does it matter more to you what kind of content engaged visitors in the past, or what kind of content attracts visitors who are likely to remain engaged in the future?

He suggested focusing exclusively on “recency,” or the likelihood that a user will visit the site again, as an engagement metric that speaks more directly to revenue.

But Eric T. Peterson, the author of the white paper upon which philly.com’s engagement equation was based, jumped in to defend the idea of keeping revenue calculations separate from engagement:

Even in the media and publishing model, engagement and revenue are different aspects of consumer behavior. A consumer can be very engaged with your site but not be tremendously profitable…but you still want a way to measure their engagement independent of profit. Same for satisfaction and engagement — they are different aspects of the consumer experience…Work to understand what my (or any) engagement metric can tell you about your audience first, then go looking for the relationship between engagement and money.

More than a dozen people have chimed in on the issue, and the debate is still going on. You can read the full thread here.

October 26 2010

14:00

Getting beyond just pageviews: Philly.com’s seven-part equation for measuring online engagement

As web analytics reports become a mainstay of news meetings, there’s a lot of nervousness about how attention to clicks will affect news coverage, and about the perceived incentives to produce high-trafficking junk news. Earlier this week, a web research company released a good-news study arguing that stories about substantive issues like unemployment and mortgage rates can actually bring in more revenue per pageview than celebrity crotch shots.

But two months ago, philly.com, home of the Philadelphia Inquirer and Daily News, began analyzing their web traffic with an “engagement index” — an equation that goes beyond pageviews and into the factors that differentiate a loyal, dedicated reader from a fly-by. It sums up seven different ways that users can show “engagement” with the site, and it looks like this: Σ(Ci + Di + Ri + Li + Bi + Ii + Pi)

I spoke with Chris Meares, senior data analyst at Philly.com, about how the equation works, and what it’s revealed so far about the newspaper’s users on the web. The first step in measuring engagement, Meares explained, is identifying which web behaviors show that users are “engaged.”

Working off a white paper called “Measuring the Unmeasurable: Visitor Engagement” by Eric T. Peterson and Joseph Carrabis, Meares sat down with Ryan Davis, the president of Philly.com, and Wendy Warren, the vice president for content, to hash out the meaning of engagement.

One possibility they considered was measuring engagement simply through how many visitors left comments or shared philly.com content on a social media platform. But that method “would lose a lot of people,” Meares said. “A lot of our users don’t comment or share stories, but we have people — 45 percent — [who] come back more than once a day, and those people are very engaged.”

They ultimately decided on seven categories, each with a particular cutoff:

Ci — Click Index: visits must have at least 6 pageviews, not counting photo galleries

Di — Duration Index: visits must have spend a minimum of 5 minutes on the site

Ri — Recency Index: visits that return daily

Li — Loyalty Index: visits that either are registered at the site or visit it at least three times a week

Bi — Brand Index: visits that come directly to the site by either bookmark or directly typing www.philly.com or come through search engines with keywords like “philly.com” or “inquirer”

Ii — Interaction Index: visits that interact with the site via commenting, forums, etc.

Pi — Participation Index: visits that participate on the site via sharing, uploading pics, stories, videos, etc.

Those are largely the same as in the Peterson/Carrabis white paper, although they use a Feedback Index (“captures qualitative information including propensity to solicit additional information or supply direct feedback”) in place of Philly.com’s Participation Index.

The next step was to track the percentage of overall visits that satisfy each of these categories. What percent of visits to the site lasted at least five minutes? What percent included a comment or other interaction? For instance, in a recent measure of the Click Index, out of 3.9 million total visits, 698,000 were visits where a user clicked through at least six pages — which comes out to a 17.9 percent engagement rate.

As well as paying attention to the engagement rates for each category, Meares also averages the seven individual percentages to create an overall engagement score — the average percent of visits to the site that broadly qualify as “engaged.”

Because the engagement percentage typically goes down as total site pageviews go up (new visitors are, by definition, not loyal ones), Meares multiples the overall engagement percentage by the total number of pageviews to get a estimate of the total number of engaged visits.

Last week, the overall engagement was 31 percent, which translates into an estimated 1.221 million engaged visits.

Month to month, the overall engagement score for philly.com has hovered around 35 percent, Meares said. He also tracks the levels of engagement for different areas of the site, including news, sports, and living. While he said the sports score isn’t actually as high as the 73-percent figure a Philly.com exec gave us last week, it is higher than the average engagement level across the site. In September, sports page visits were 46.6 percent engaged, while news page visits were only 34.4 percent engaged.

Tracking site visits with this level of specificity is time-consuming — Meares says he devotes about a third of his full-time job to analysis of the engagement equation — but it has produced some interesting information. For instance: “We’re definitely seeing the impact of social media and how it provides engaged visitors.” While Google and Yahoo provide a lot of traffic, the visits that they send to Philly.com don’t tend to be engaged. Only 20.34 percent of visits that come through Google are engaged visits. In comparison, 33.64 percent of visits that come via Facebook are engaged.

More broadly, Meares said, tracking engagement allows Philly.com to put traffic data in perspective. If overall traffic for the site is down, but the number of engaged users are up, that still means the site is doing well, Meares said.

Newspapers in other markets have come to Philly.com for advice about measuring engagement on news sites. “It’s a really big challenge,” said Sonia Meisenheimer, digital marketing strategist for the St. Petersburg Times’ tampabay.com. “There’s not an expressed moment of loyalty. You have to basically be a diviner with a divining rod and go around and tap on all these different things.”

Meisenheimer said she found philly.com’s engagement equation “fascinating” but impractical for her requirements. “They can do this because they have a web analytics person full time looking at ‘how do we measure success?’” she said. “We could never sustain the reporting and tracking.”

While the equation might provide interesting feedback to editors, Meisenheimer said she thought the results it produced were too complicated. In a competitive market, businesses want to compare different web outlets on apples-to-apples factors like total audience and local audiences. She said tampabay.com would measure engagement in a much simpler way, focusing on registration numbers and their brand index, or how many people come to the site through a bookmark or by searching for terms like “St. Pete Times” or “tampabay.com.”

Internally, she said the most important number for tampabay.com is simply revenue per unique visitor. “My question to philly.com is: how does this help you make more money? Because I don’t see that in the equation.”

September 20 2010

17:30

In a hamster-wheel world, is there room for journalistic creativity? Evidence from The New York Times

The essential question facing newsrooms today is this one: Does more speed and more content come at the cost of creativity? Does the “hamster wheel,” as described by Dean Starkman in this month’s Columbia Journalism Review cover story, reduce journalists’ capacity to move stories forward instead of playing catch-up online? And does the demand for speed and the hunger for clicks come at the cost of thoughtful editing and crafting of stories?

This question is at the core of my (almost written) dissertation — when news is made in an online newsroom, what happens to the invention process? But it is my contention, after having the privilege to spend five months, day-in and day-out at Business Day at The New York Times, is that even though many journalists there often feel like wire reporters, many also feel that writing a story five times actually makes their work better.

But that division in sentiment is not the heart of the argument. My sense so far is that there are five factors that encourage creativity in newsrooms even at a time when journalists are producing more with less.

— Newsrooms, recognizing that news is everywhere, need to differentiate their content.

What makes a story in The New York Times business section — even if it the third time it is written by a staffer — different from the same story in The Wall Street Journal? The hope and aspirations by editors, at least, and the goal expressed to me by the close to 50 journalists I interviewed on the business desk, was that the intention of every story was to provide “added value” — something that other newsrooms wouldn’t have.

Most journalists referred to the news that everyone else has as “commodity news” — the news that you can get anywhere. But if newsrooms are to survive, newsrooms as they produce multiple iterations of the same story throughout the day must provide something different than their competitors. This challenges the journalist further to provide a different take, and the most successful journalists will be able to distinguish their content. Those who win that battle will also win the click battle, eventually.

— Newsrooms that still have a print cycle have to pause and think about the day ahead.

If print newsrooms are to remain competitive, there is necessarily a point at which journalists must think about what’s going to be in the paper. If a developing news story has been up on the web all day for readers, newspapers won’t maximize their return by just plopping that story into the next day’s paper. At The Times, the story in the print paper was viewed much more as a “second-day story” — even if the event had taken place the same day the story was written. A few staffers said that The Times in print was become more like a daily news magazine than a daily paper, giving people a step back from the daily hubbub of the news to provide a deeper and richer story.

Take, for instance, a Goldman Sachs earnings report. In the morning, it might be a routine earnings story with the numbers. Over the course of the day, a reporter might differentiate that story with different questions asked to bigwigs at Goldman, different snippets of life from the trading floor, and perhaps proprietary reporting gleaned from sources, or even takes on the earnings from academics. At a certain point in the day, the rewriting of the story stops and it becomes time to look for the big picture — there has to be enough that people who haven’t been following the story all day have enough to understand the story, but there will be a larger tale, perhaps about the broader significance of the numbers, or what larger trends at the bank might mean, or other take-outs that make the story different from competitors.

And don’t forget: This final print story is the final story that ends up online.

— Speed only applies to certain kinds of stories.

Only certain stories lend themselves to the kind of developing coverage that would require multiple rewrites. Hearings on Capitol Hill might lend themselves to something like the attention of a live-blogger plus the attention of a reporter tasked with covering the take-out stories as they develop, from pre-written statements to the actual question and answer period. On the day Apple’s iPad was introduced, I saw multiple stories being written as the story developed — and the attention of everything from a live-blog to all-hands on deck with Twitter and The Times’ Bits blog. These stories require constant updates because something new is happening as the day develops. There is more to add to the story. And determining which updates are worth including is the careful task of editors and reporters who must again decide where added value comes in.

But it is my thinking that newsrooms, even those with increasingly limited resources, also understand the importance of pacing and managing staff. A newsroom that has everyone devoted to playing catch-up will not have the substantive stories that will distinguish their news from all the other products out there. Thus some reporters have to be taken off the breaking news bandwagon — this may be for particular days, or it may be that some reporters simply do not have to do regular breaking news. This is one way to keep coverage fresh and inventive. A newsroom that can figure out how to allocate resources will be a newsroom that continues to remain creative and one that ultimately will keep readers coming back.

— The audience does want more, now more than ever. And journalists can listen, too.

Presuming a developing story will go through multiple iterations, it is reasonable to suspect that audiences will be checking back. Or that since the audience is fragmented, there are different audiences checking in at different points of the day. Shouldn’t we have something for audiences that choose to follow the story over the course of the day? And shouldn’t we have something for audiences that choose to read just once, say at 3 p.m., instead of the moment that the news is breaking? My thinking is that the audience wants more from journalists because journalists can provide more; the voracious news consumer (and ultimately the news consumer who will be most valuable when news organizations switch to paywalls or meter models) will be checking the site frequently. And for those drop-in audiences, people who maybe check once in the morning and once in the evening, don’t they also deserve something new?

But there’s another element here: Developing stories also are also the ones, I’ve observed, to be most likely to be open to comments. Though not all journalists have gotten the hang of reading comments or monitoring Twitter, they are definitely reading reader email as it comes in. And this audience feedback provides journalists with new opportunities for direction for stories, and a sense of how their stories are being received in a way that they never could have had before. This sense of instant feedback on a story’s progression has the opportunity to shape reporting. This is still early in its development, and at this point most likely to affect reporters who can monitor Twitter and check comments as part of their regular routine. But I see great opportunity for audience feedback shaping developing news in the future.

— Speed also means more attention has to be devoted to more than just the text of the story.

If a story is going to be big enough to merit multiple rewrites — if it is a developing story all over the web — you better hope that the story isn’t just text. The room for creativity does depend on the capacity of newsrooms. At The Times, the newsroom is privileged to have an amazing staff of web producers, graphics folks, photo staff, and videographers who can create a multimedia package to go along with a developing story to make that story stand out. But the lesson is true for newsrooms that do not have the same depth of resources as The Times (which, it must be said, often can’t do everything it wants, either).

There are other ways for stories to become more than just stories. Without multimedia, reporters even as they go about collecting their moment-by-moment updates, can also be engaged with conversations on social media platforms. This is an adjustment for reporters, and it certainly adds another layer to the concern about speed and burnout, but it inspires, as I noted before, creativity — and it adds further interest to the story. I have seen reporters working on intense deadline pressure on competitive stories use social media to enhance their work — extending the story beyond text. For those looking for some inspiration, check out what Michael de la Merced, Brian Stelter, and Micki Maynard (who has since left the paper) have been able to do on big stories.

So am I setting up an unfair example?

Certainly you could argue that a place like The Times is an outlier and an unfair place to start talking about creativity under pressure. But I don’t think that The Times is doing anything that other newsrooms aren’t, except for perhaps the amazing multimedia opportunities. The Times is still in fierce competition to distinguish coverage, reporters are still writing multiple times during a day on developing stories, and the challenges on journalists to do ever more are common to all newsrooms. But I see incredible opportunities for the hamster wheel to produce even better journalism — it just might take some time to figure out.

January 22 2010

15:37

Trying to Create the Stickiness Factor for CityCircles

CityCircles is a website and mobile app providing hyper-local news, events, promotions, fix-it projects, and other information for stops along Phoenix's light rail system. As we progress towards launching our full site (we're currently in beta), we face the challenge of making sure our site has the "stickiness factor." We need people to visit -- and to keep coming back.

Our site is a collaborative enterprise that incorporates an aspect of social networking, and relies on user-generated information for news and events. We're taking care of the stop-specific promotions by working with local merchants, and we hope this creates an initial "sticky" factor by keeping users coming back to check for a new deal each day. Fix-it projects for local communities seem to be a big hit as well, and we're hoping they add to the stickiness of the site.

Why do I keep talking about stickiness? Activity on our site is crucial. We've taken steps to generate stories and event listings from freelance journalists and local entities -- however, we need to get users to start using the site and generating buzz.

We've laid the groundwork in our efforts last year by hosting events in local neighborhoods around the rail in order to gain support and demo our site. During these events, we met individuals who will most likely be our new adopters and influencers. Now we've got to take the example from social media sites such as Facebook and MySpace and spread the word to as many people (within our target audience) as we can to get users on our site!

Here we go...

November 20 2009

20:00

How Steve Brill has adjusted his pay-for-news pitch

Because it’s my job, I’ve followed pretty much everything Steve Brill has said in public about Journalism Online, the pay-for-news firm he launched in April with Gordon Crovitz and Leo Hindrey. From the start, they’ve been offering infrastructure and consulting for news organizations that want to charge for access to their websites. But as you’d expect with any new venture, the pitch has changed over time. Here are some tweaks I’ve noticed:

Ditching the term “paywall”

Brill has always been clear that he isn’t advocating a subscription-only approach for news sites. Some content will be free, some will be available only to those who pay. But whereas Brill used to use the term “wall” to describe subscription content, he’s now abandoned that language. “We’re not putting up any kind of a paywall,” he’s been saying, most recently in a heated interview on WBUR. “It’s not a paywall,” he said at a Yale conference last week.

That’s a semantic distinction but one that naturally raises the question: What type of stuff will be subscription-only? I posed that question to Brill at Yale, seeking specific examples, but he wouldn’t say much beyond “unique” and “premium” content. (Steve Outing recently prompted an interesting thread on what, exactly, premium content is.) I didn’t come away with a clearer idea of what his clients intend to charge for, just that I shouldn’t call it a paywall.

Embracing the metered model

Journalism Online will power any type of payment system that publishers choose, but Brill’s thinking has shifted on which strategy is best. Last year, he drafted a memo for The New York Times that championed micropayments and subscriptions for the newspaper’s entire website. In June, he told me, “We don’t think micropayments are going to be a huge part of this deal.” These days, he’s been talking up the metered model employed by The Financial Times, which offers 10 free articles a month before users are required to pay.

Brill’s firm claims trademarks on the names of six models — he calls them “dials” — that news publishers could employ:

— High Activity Pay Points (metered model)
— Selected Content Pay Points (partial paywall)
— Time-Based Pay Points (charge for new content)
— Enhanced Service Pay Points (charge for special features)
— Market Access Pay Points (charge based on user’s location)
— Preview Activity Pay Points (allow previewing of paid content)

Broadening the target audience

In the spring, Brill told me the goal was “to get the 5 or 10 percent of your most committed readers to pay.” This summer, he expanded that target in an interview with CNN: “The idea is that a newspaper probably has 10 or 15 percent of its audience who are the most engaged, who come to that Web site all the time. Those are the people who will be asked to pay a small portion.”

At Yale last week, he said “10 or 15 or 20 percent” of a news site’s unique monthly visitors might be willing to pay. I don’t presume to know what a realistic goal is, though that’s obviously crucial to the success or failure of paid-content plans. I do know that one study found “core loyalists,” who visit 2 to 3 times a day for 20 days a month, represent 25% of visitors to newspaper sites. So if you’re probing Brill’s estimates, there’s your starting point.

Exaggerating his firm’s success

“We now have over 1,200 affiliates,” Brill said on the radio yesterday, making it sound like 1,200 publications are ready to charge their readers for digital content. Asked to clarify, he said, “Companies representing or owning over 1,200 publications have all signed letters of intent.” We know that includes Guardian News and Media, which doesn’t appear likely to charge readers. Most of the other companies that have signed non-binding letters of intent remain a mystery, which makes the whole thing increasingly mysterious.

Brill is certainly under no obligation to disclose his clients, but the more he touts a dubious figure, the more skeptical I grow. Here’s a harder statistic, reported by Poynter: Between 5 and 15 publishers will start testing Journalism Online’s infrastructure “in the next month or so.” The firm’s own business model is dependent on at least some of its 1,200 affiliates pulling the trigger: Journalism Online is taking a 20% cut of subscription revenue.

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