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How The Times drives habitual digital use with an editions-based approach

It’s just over a year since British newspaper The Times abandoned the online breaking news cycle and reverted to three digital deadline-driven editions a day. At the time, industry insiders frowned on the move but now the Murdoch-owned paper is claiming wholesale success. We ask why the ‘editions approach’ to digital publishing seems to be working for The Times and how this could apply to others?  

The Times HP ()

Since setting down three daily deadlines for its online editions in March last year, The Times of London are claiming some interesting gains in the past year:

• Pageviews on their mobile app are up 300 per cent;

• Subscribers to the mobile app and website are up 20 per cent;

• Users of the app grew by 30 per cent;

• Articles read per website visit are up 110 per cent; and

• Even the paper’s print edition circulation is up 9.5 per cent.    

Digiday quotes The Times’ head of digital Alan Hunter as saying that when they first introduced the move to digital editions “people thought we were crazy… but it’s working”. Aside from some design changes to increase simplicity, Hunter credits the new publishing schedule for the increase in the engagement on mobile apps as well as the website. “We have a big jump on the evening papers going to press at midday. We go at 4.59pm.”

Even after last month’s Westminster terrorist attack, The Times resisted the temptation to revert back to rolling news or liveblogging. NiemanLab.org, the website for the Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard University notes that although The Times posted a breaking news “best knowledge” story within 15 minutes of the attack, the site reverted back to its 5pm (4.59pm) deadline edition two-and-a-half hours later. 

Both The Times and Sunday Times have structured their app and website editions to be published on peak traffic times, which are set at 9am, noon and 5pm. The two newspapers’ chief marketing officer, Catherine Newman says this change has been “revolutionary” because both the editorial team and the marketing team now have “appointments with subscribers and registered users that we didn’t have previously”.

The Times 5pm ()

In addition, editorial staff can warn marketing staff what they are planning for editions. Decisions can then be made on what kind of content will work for driving free registration or subscriptions, says Newman.

Commenting on these early successes with editions-based digital publishing, Jonny Kaldor, co-founder of publishing platform Pugpig, says the editions-based approach by The Times creates a regular habitual engagement with their audience.

“This is one of the key things about apps that work really well with consumers.

To be there on a mobile device in that ‘stolen moment’ when people want to engage and you have something for them to consume. What The Times are doing with their editions-driven publishing is perfectly designed to feed a daily habit.”

On top of this, the knowledge that each digital edition has been freshly updated is also pushing that habitual behaviour, says Kaldor. “It’s predictable. People know they can get something new every morning, lunchtime and evening.”

One of his key clients - Metro - has adopted a similar approach using the Pugpig platform, which is also used by major publishers such as The Economist and Condé Nast, to provide their audience with only two digital editions a day - during the morning and evening commutes, "and it seems to be really working".

Another argument in favour of less digital content is the growing criticism of the 24-hour news cycle in which news items are being regurgitated without there actually being new developments.

Kaldor says this is why weekly journals such as The Economist and The Week are being so successful. They are responding better to the 24-hour news cycle by offering readers “measured feature-led content, which provides the antithesis to clogging up people's news feeds. It’s there once and it’s there at a time when you want it - periodical packages rather than a constant feed”.    

Yet, he says, it’s a fine line that publishers have to tread, and for many magazine media brands, which make up a large percentage of his client base, they really need to engage more than they do today. Many of them have a weekly or monthly publishing cycle which doesn't provide them with opportunities to talk to their audience often enough. They need to break that cycle and try to create a daily conversation. "With mobile, if you have a brand that people relate to, you have to engage with them regularly otherwise you are going to lose them.”

He references The Economist, which, despite its measured approach, still drip feeds up to 260 updates onto Facebook each week. “Successful publishers are working out how to balance the traditional model of delivering periodical packages of content with one where they are engaging multiple times per day to ensure that they not only remain relevant but also create that illusive habitual behaviour that mobile does so well.”

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