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Experiment with platforms where your audience may be going or want to be

Experimentation is essential because existing digital platforms evolve; new ones emerge; and, how to use digital platforms to publish content and build loyal audiences demands continuous improvement and innovation.

This is an excerpt from “Table Stakes: A Manual for Getting in the Game of News,” published Nov. 14, 2017. Read more excerpts here.

Experimentation and learning are essential to growing your target audiences through building the best possible portfolio of digital distribution. Why? Because existing digital platforms continue to evolve; new ones emerge; and, how to use digital platforms to publish content and build loyal audiences demands continuous improvement and innovation.

For example, consider a messaging app that may have value today to zillions of users in general but not yet for users who consume local news. That might change. For example, you might observe or hear about local news consumers going to the messaging app. Or you hear about a use on that app that could induce local users to use it.

Here are the basics for any experiment applied to digital publishing:

  • A clear idea (hypothesis) of what’s being tested, including your specific performance and learning objectives.
  • An outlined “lab” procedure: what will be done, what and who is needed to do it – and a commitment to deploying those resources.
  • A set timeframe and defined criteria for deciding whether the experiment succeeds, fails, or must be continued a while longer.
  • A plan for what happens when an experiment succeeds.

Beyond these basics, you should customize your efforts based on whether the experiment involves existing platforms or new platforms.

On existing platforms

Conducting ongoing experiments to improve the performance of an existing platform is an integral part of managing a platform. And it’s a natural part of the platform owner’s role to identify, shape and conduct the experiments in collaboration with audience teams and others in the newsroom (and beyond, e.g. an outside content partner).

Most experiments on existing platforms are likely to be aimed at continuous and incremental improvements in platform performance. These experiments might occur as a regular part of the content production, publishing, monitoring, and promotion process (e.g. headline A/B testing). Or, they might involve innovation with greater uncertainties and risks (e.g. experimenting with Facebook Live to grow younger, more visually oriented audiences).

On new platforms

When you are experimenting on new platforms, it’s important to distinguish those that could be brand-wide mainstays versus those for narrower, target audience possibilities. Here are suggested approaches to keep in mind:

  • Make sure either an individual or group is responsible for scanning for trends and opportunities. This could be a platform owner, another individual with the right experience and inclinations, or the collective responsibility of the platform owners as a group. Whoever has the charge must focus on emerging usage within your local market in addition to the buzz in the media and tech trade press. It’s paramount to look beyond direct news competitors: many businesses, nonprofit organizations and units of government use digitally distributed content to reach customers, patrons and citizens. They have talented staff – folks with knowledge and experience to share. Hence, you should reach out regularly to these individuals as part of your informal “platform network” and find ways to follow and befriend them (e.g. look for local chapters and members of ONA).
  • Consider where your newsroom wants to be on the adoption curve. Every innovation follows an adoption curve with different stages of adopters, from innovators (experimenters) to laggards. While there are advantages to entering in the early stages in terms of establishing market presence and share, there are costs of being too early (e.g., bigger expenses in being the first to figure out how to make it work, time to wait for the rest of the market to develop, and greater risks of failure). Your choice for when/where to enter on this curve can vary by different platforms. Still, it’s a choice you must make – and do so with particular attention to where the platform is on the curve in your local market vis a vis your target audiences.

  • Have a process and use criteria to select platforms for experimenting. Start with the same criteria you use to assess any platform, as discussed above in 6b but apply them more lightly since there’s more uncertainty with new platforms and you don’t want to over-screen at an early stage. There may also be some additional criteria to include based on unique characteristics of the platform or the nature of its potential appeal to target audiences.
  • Apply the concept of a Minimum Viable Product (MVP). This well established, proven product development stresses getting to trials as fast as possible with product versions having just enough features to gain some valid learning about the product itself and gather enough customer feedback to know whether or not to proceed with further development.
  • Don’t be afraid to put something in front of audiences. One of the advantages of the web and digital media is low expectations by customers of permanence – something there today isn’t necessarily expected to be there tomorrow. There’s also an acceptance of early trials and beta versions. So, short of doing something that is blatantly brand damaging, there’s little risk involved in experimenting in front of real audiences.
  • Engage audiences and experts in the experiments. Another advantage of experimenting in digital media is the openness you can have with audiences and the informal tech and user community devoted to a platform. They can be directly engaged from the start in the fact that you are experimenting and why, and asked directly for feedback by survey or direct contact.