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March 26, 2018, 11:28 a.m.
Audience & Social

Recirculate! Vox Media’s new structure for story packages gives readers context (and helps them stick around)

With Facebook turning down the traffic firehose, it’s more important than ever to convert those all one-pageview visits into two- and three-pageview visits.

Getting someone to click over to an article on your website is one thing. Getting them to click on another story once they get there? That’s harder. As social media has grown more dominant as a content discovery tool, news sites’ bounce rates — one lonely pageview, then right back to Facebook or Twitter or wherever — have remained stubbornly high. And as publishers shift their audience models toward loyalty and away from fly-by traffic, getting that second (and third, and fourth) click has grown even more important.

Vox Media’s product team has built a new template they think will help connect readers to related stories. And they’re seeing positive signs, including increased pageviews on story packages built with it.

“Our editorial teams were basically creating and thinking about these packages and were already using tools that weren’t entirely suited for it and just kind of working around it. So they had this notion of a tightly coupled, holistic group of stories that needed to be published mostly all at once,” said Mandy Brown, Vox Media’s new head of Chorus (their CMS), who previously focused on publishing-side tools within the product team. (She joined the company in its Editorially acquisition.) “The packages oriented around moving users through these different stories — and knowing if you’re interested in one of these pieces, you’re going to be interested in the other one, and trying to drive users through that and give them a breadth of content on a topic that they were really interested in.”

Grouping related stories together isn’t new, but Vox Media spent months developing this template with an emphasis on presenting related stories in a cleaner, more context-focused way, which also happens to be a way that drives more recirculation within the site. The product team took on the project in July and over the past few months has been rolling out the template for packages across the brands, starting with Recode’s annual end-of-year Recode 100 people list and recently with Polygon’s guide for the Monster Hunter: The World game.

“A package is a collection of related stories. Those related stories could be articles, features, could be any sort of individual page,” explained Sanette Tanaka Sloan, a senior designer on Vox Media’s product team. “They’re united by the landing page — that’s the homepage of a package. It can have links to all the stories that are in a package. A lot of our users don’t even come through that page. They come directly to the package stories themselves. What we wanted to do with that page was provide a route for people to get to stories as quickly as possible.” The landing page also exists for SEO and for reporters to have something to share, she added.

By providing the template for projects like the Recode 100 list, the packages tool is meant to provide a consistent option for collecting stories in the future. And not every package has to be fully published all at once, Brown said; reporters and editors can add stories for an ongoing series like “Understanding Trump’s America” or Vox healthcare reporter Sarah Kliff’s project on audience-sourced healthcare bills. But it’s not quite just a category, either: “We started with this notion that a package should be a really tightly coupled group of content. If you’re interested in the first story, you should be interested in the other 12 stories that are in there, or at least a bunch of them,” Brown said. “You’re probably not going to move around a broader category page in a really concerted way. You might check out the latest things and then move on.”

A package’s landing page houses a visually appealing cover, a list of links to all the stories in the package, a short introduction to and context around the topic, and lastly a prominent button to prompt readers to enter the first story in a package. Those are the main components, but they can be emphasized or softened based on the needs of the site (like increasing story density for Curbed or visuals for Vox Creative).

Brown pointed to Eater’s packages as exemplary uses of the template with its travel guides. “It’s a mix of content around a place if you’re thinking about going there and want to see everything about that place in terms of food and culture and where you might eat,” she said. “I think it’s a really lovely introduction to some of those places.”

Are news organizations refocusing on their own sites rather than social media platforms after Facebook’s news feed changes? While some orgs were busy pivoting to Facebook’s money/algorithm last year, Vox Media reaffirmed that they wouldn’t. And in a world where Facebook sends publishers less traffic than it used to, investing in story-to-story recirculation makes a lot of sense.

“We definitely think about recirculation as a key metric across all of our networks and a way of understanding our users getting a lot of value out of this,” Brown said. “That was the primary use case around packages, thinking about ways to bring tightly coupled content.”

In a post about the package template’s design and development process, Sloan and fellow senior designer Katie Kovalcin shared numbers on the package template’s impact:

For Recode 100, the average pageviews per session was high compared to our other Recode content (2.4 pageviews for package stories vs. 1.2 pageviews for articles). This means users on package stories consumed one page more than users on our standard article stories. In addition, users on package stories were more likely to scroll halfway down the screen.

Not every stat was rosy. Time spent per page was lower than on our articles (folks spent 1 minute, 43 minutes, on average, on package stories, compared to 4 minutes on articles). In fairness, the Recode 100 stories tended to be short, which may have contributed to the less time spent.

Images courtesy Vox Media.

POSTED     March 26, 2018, 11:28 a.m.
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