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Dec. 11, 2017, 10:02 a.m.
Mobile & Apps

With “My WSJ,” The Wall Street Journal makes a personalized content feed central to its app

“We don’t have to ask you anything. We just know, by virtue of you being a Journal reader, what you’d like to read and what you should read. You don’t have to tell us anything.”

When you think about the apps you most commonly use on your phone, a lot of them have one thing in common: They need you to be any good. Facebook, Spotify, your email and calendar apps — none of them are really of any use without your login.

“Take you out of these apps and they become useless,” said Phil Izzo, the deputy chief news editor at The Wall Street Journal. And so when, in recent months, the Journal began redesigning its mobile app, personalization was one of the most important considerations. The ultimate result, released in an iOS 11 update last month, was My WSJ, a feed that’s the second panel after the homescreen and that uses AI to offer a customized list of stories based on users’ previous reading habits.

“We wanted to see how we can thread general app trends into the Journal’s app,” said Jordan Sudy, the Journal’s iOS product director. “People are used to scrolling feeds; the dwell time in the feed has gotten longer — we see people spending a long time in the feed now, relative to what they used to do. People are also getting more and more accustomed to AI recommendations, and we’re seeing that the core Journal reader is interested in AI-generated content, as long as it doesn’t get in the way of what the newsroom is giving them.”

The AI is a big part of the strategy: The Journal really wanted this to be passive personalization. “We were trying to avoid, as much as possible, some Apple News–type screen where you have to select your topics before you jump in,” said Izzo. “Any time you try to get people to set things up, it’s a barrier.”

“This is not the whole Flipboard model where you have to click through five screens [to get your customized feed],” said Sudy. “We don’t have to ask you anything. We just know, by virtue of you being a Journal reader, what you’d like to read and what you should read. You don’t have to tell us anything.” Journal parent company Dow Jones has for months been undertaking the process of tagging content across all of its brands and using those tags to create links between stories; it’s the technology that powers the “Related Stories” feature on desktop, for instance. But this was the first time that the personalization had been brought into the app.

When a user opens the Journal’s app, the first thing they see is the News feed, which looks the same for everyone and is curated by editorial. The My WSJ feed, meanwhile, is populated entirely through AI and doesn’t include human curation. “We wanted you to know very quickly that [News] is what editors are recommending, and [My WSJ] is recommended based on your habits,” said Sudy.

One of the questions that the team had was whether the addition of the My WSJ feed would cannibalize or enhance the presence of the human-curated News feed. Would readers simply swipe past News to get to the stuff aimed directly at them? Though My WSJ has only been around since November 1, data so far seems to suggest that it’s been an enhancement. “It’s not cannibalizing anything. It’s been completely additive,” said Izzo. “There aren’t fewer people going to other sections. They’re just going to this section in addition. We’re seeing increased pageviews.”

The app is the only place where the Journal offers a customized feed. There’s no “recommended for you” section on desktop, at least not yet, though the team is working on tracking logged-in users across web and app, so that the My WSJ feed in the app will ultimately be able to serve up content based on things users had read on the web. The Journal’s app attracts “the corest of core readers,” Izzo pointed out, who are already interested in going to sections and landing pages, whereas a lot of web traffic comes sideways from search, so maintaining a personalized feed for them would be more difficult. “The app is that playground where we can try things that somebody coming in from social wouldn’t be interested in,” he said. (The New York Times, meanwhile, is taking a different approach, doing more subtle personalization on desktop.)

In addition to the passive personalization offered in My WSJ, the team is looking cautiously at some forms of active personalization, though Sudy remains wary of making users do too much work. Users can now follow individual Journal journalists and receive notifications when they publish new stories; with the relaunch of the paper’s Markets Data Center, the team plans to let users get alerts on news about individual companies, as well.

One big challenge for news companies is how granular they can or should get with push notifications. Are there any plans to send out push alerts to readers when new stories come up that they, specifically, might be interested in?

“We have not yet done automatic push alerts based on reading behavior, and we’d tread very lightly with that,” said Izzo, who is wary of overloading readers. Still, he and Sudy said it wouldn’t be a difficult feature to build. “We could probably make it happen pretty easily. We’ll think about that.”

POSTED     Dec. 11, 2017, 10:02 a.m.
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