Publishers: Take a Lesson from the Louvre
"You don't make a great museum by putting all the art in the world in a single room. That's a warehouse. What makes a museum great is the stuff not on the walls. Someone says no. A curator is involved, making conscious decisions about what should stay and what should go. There's an editing process. There's a lot more stuff off the walls than on the walls. The best is a sub-sub-subset of all of the possibilities."
—Excerpt from Rework by Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson
Fried and Hansson weren't talking about newspaper websites or tailored content experiences, but they could have been: The logic is the same. Like art aficionados, readers want a trusted source where they can easily find things that are most important and relevant to them. And they want someone taking out the things they don't care about, and content that they already have consumed. For example, I might want new information on what's happening in the Ukraine, so don't show me articles I've already read about Ukraine. And, please de-emphasize content you've presented to me several times but in which I've shown no interest-such as celebrity gossip.
So, for readers, it's as much about what the publisher doesn't show them as what it does show. Being someone's newspaper of choice means becoming a destination that knows its readers—without stalking them or needing to know all their personal information—and helps every reader discover content she/he will love. Fried and Hansson could have called it an "individualized sub-sub-subset of all of the possibilities."
Today, few premium publishers can compete with the rest of the Internet. Fighting for single page views from web searches doesn't gain a publisher the kind of loyalty that will convince users to subscribe. But being the most trusted source of news and information for each of its users, and being able to funnel to readers the content that interests and engages them—now that's something.
So how do publishers make that leap?
Tools like black-boxed recommendation engines can be part of the solution, but their focus typically is on gaining the highest click-through rates at any cost. These engines recommend whichever content is in their inventory—from any of their publisher customers—that currently is delivering the highest response rates. Although they may produce some content marketing revenues, the downside is they deliver significant expense by driving users off the publisher's site. While solutions like these also partly provide a chance to engage with readers around the publisher's own content, it is problematic also because the content sources are typically out of the publisher's control. In fact, recommendation engines that are optimized on click-through rates alone will erode a publisher's brand. Sure, publishers might gain more clicks by showing provocative pictures or having sensational headlines, but at what cost? For most of us, that's not true engagement with our brands.
Here's a better means to an effective engagement strategy: Control. Start with your content, your brand, your judgment, your users' experience and your audience. Then you, as a publisher use the tools available in the market to gather, analyze and act on your own data to define what is recommended on this page, in this position, and control how articles are presented. It might sound like a difficult task, but today the technology is out there to help publishers take back the control they desperately need.
Helping users find the right content on an individual basis requires formidable technology that lets publishers mine their big data using powerful analytics. By using analytics tools that provide real-time content insights, user-specific information and audience insights, publishers can filter out the things that don't matter and push the things that do to their readers.
One size does not fit all situations, so publishers need the technology to be flexible and tunable for every situation. Leveraging real-time data on users, content, and traffic, publishers can curate the content for each individual user based on the context of where they are.
In the end, we all want to provide each of our readers a Louvre-like, personalized experience without losing the joy of discovery. And now the tools exist to make it a reality.
Dr. John Markus Lervic is the CEO of Cxense, a software company that provides audience data solutions to build better online user experiences.