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Aug. 25, 2021, 12:01 p.m.
Aggregation & Discovery

Should you turn your “read next” links into a game? There’s a widget for that.

“The technology is complex but, if you think about what we’re doing, it’s incredibly simple. People come to a news website to gain knowledge about something.”

A reader comes to your site, maybe through search or a post on social. Metrics like time-spent-on-site suggest that converting them into a dedicated reader is difficult. Many publishers use recirculation links — ones that guide users to stories they might like to read next — to try and convince readers to stay awhile. But what if you could make a game of it?

Crux, a startup built on natural language processing technology, has something that could help. Launched in 2018 by cofounders Barak Ronen and Roie Amir, Crux has developed a widget that calculates a user’s “knowledge score” on a particular news topic and nudges them into bettering that score by reading more articles.

The Crux cofounders, who attended high school together, are based in London and Tel Aviv. (We’re not talking about the Catholic news site, also called Crux.) Amir, who serves as chief technology officer, is a search and natural language processing specialist and — not incidentally — a board game fanatic. Ronen has a journalism background, and has held the top news job at Walla, one of Israel’s largest news sites, and led search visualization at Dow Jones in the past. With the rest of the Crux team, they’ve build a gamification widget they call the Knowledge Tracker.

Here’s how it works

Sifted, the news site backed by The Financial Times that reports on entrepreneurs and the startup scene in Europe, is among the handful of publishers that have signed on to experiment with the technology. You can see the Crux-powered widget at the bottom of any Sifted article, including ones on the Parisian startup growing foie gras in a lab, a smartphone game that monitors users for depression, and how venture capital money finances an unjust “servant economy.”

The Knowledge Tracker, using natural language processing, makes two key determinations: how important an article is relative to the full collection of articles on the topic, and how much novel information the story contains for a specific user. Using those, the widget shows a knowledge score based on a user’s reading history on the site.

If a user clicks on an article about, say, a quantum technology company and they’ve read many articles on Sifted about the topic, they would see a high score and a mostly filled-in bar. They’d also be presented with a selection of articles they haven’t yet read, labeled with the number of points they would gain if they read ’em. Those who have yet to read much on the topic would see a lower score, as well as recommendations that cover a lot of ground, along the lines of “Everything you need to know about quantum technologies.

“The more an article contains elements that you have never read before, the higher its score,” Ronen said. “What happens there is essentially rewarding the user — and choosing the articles — based on bursting your filter bubble. It’s the opposite of what the old world of engagement and personalization and clickbait did. It’s ‘Oh, Sarah read about robots, so let’s give her robots and robots and more robots.’ It’s, ‘Sarah read about robots so let’s show her, I don’t know, an article about the singularity.” (Yikes.)

The game is never finished, either. The Knowledge Tracker encourages readers to keep up with the latest articles, especially if recent pieces contain information and concepts the reader hasn’t encountered in previous articles.

“It tells you, ‘You used to have 60%, but you’ve been missing out on some key articles,” Ronen explained. “Your relative knowledge has dropped. Here are the two to three best articles for you to catch up.”

Is this what readers want?

“The technology is complex but, if you think about what we’re doing, it’s incredibly simple. People come to a news website to gain knowledge about something,” Ronen told me. “We show them how they’re progressing. We close the feedback loop on reading. They see where they started, and they see how they’re making progress. In many ways, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out why this is very beneficial for engagement.”

One of the ways that Crux thinks about its widget is like using GPS or Google Maps, making articles more navigable and giving readers a sense of progress.

“What does a Google Map do for you? Number one, it gives you the optimal route to your destination from where you are. We do the same thing, our recommendations — wherever you are in your reading journey — say read this, and then that, and then this other thing. That’s the best way for you to cover the topic,” Ronen said. “The second thing that the GPS does for you, is that it tells you how far away from a destination you are. That’s, essentially, the knowledge score that you see.”

Crux sees the tracker as a way for news publishers to meet newsroom desires and address business needs in one go. The widget helps to resurface important work — Ronen used the example of a deeply-reported feature that got bumped off the front page after three hours due to breaking news — as can’t-miss pieces on a topic. In theory, the widget also generates clicks and increases reading time as users seek to earn points, up their score, and be deemed well-read on a topic.

So … is it working?

Sifted is the only publication that has fully deployed the Knowledge Tracker widget on its article pages thus far. Engagement from users who saw the widget increased by 55%, Crux told me. In other words, if the control group read an average of 10 articles, the group that saw the Knowledge Tracker read an average of 15 and a half, Ronen explained. That was across all users; the most active users tripled their average weekly article reads, he noted.

That’s good news for Sifted, which launched a membership program only six months ago, putting up a metered paywall for unregistered users and roping off some content as available only to subscribers. The engagement numbers were promising but they were, naturally, interested to learn if the Knowledge Tracker would help them convert readers. That’s unclear, but users in the group that saw the widget were more likely to become a registered user — often seen as a first step in the subscription pipeline — than those who did not. Registrations increased by 16% for Knowledge Tracker users over a two-month period, Ronen said.

It’s not hard to see why Sifted was game to try the technology. The news site caters to entrepreneurs and investors, and one can picture a founder wanting to know everything about their potential competition or a researcher highly motivated to make sure they’re not missing any emerging trends in a particular market. Are general news readers as focused — or exhaustive — in their reading habits? I’m not sure. I’ve definitely clicked on headlines — “Help, I Can’t Stop Watching This Video Of Elon Musk Breaking His Cybertruck Windows” comes to mind — without needing to know a single other thing about the larger topic.

Ronen, though, said users have reported liking the “focus” that the widget prompted in their reading habits. Instead of sitting down to learn about the situation in Afghanistan only to find themselves reading about the acrobatic abilities of squirrels or national politics, again, they told Crux they enjoyed feeling like they “accomplished something” on a news site.

He also said it might not be that complicated. “At the most shallow level, we’ve heard the word ‘fun’ a lot,” Ronen said. “Lots of people just enjoy clicking and engaging with the widget.”

What’s next?

Crux, naturally, is looking for more publishers to work with. Ronen told me they’re looking for “hungry” news product teams willing to experiment with ideas that Crux thinks will help boost reader engagement.

They’re having discussions, for example, with sports-centric news sites that could reframe Knowledge Tracker into something more playful: a widget that asks, in essence, “How big of a fan are you?” instead of “How much do you know?” In that version, a user who reads stories about, say, the Brooklyn Nets will earn points toward being considered a serious fan of the team.

Ronen also showed off an early version of a dashboard that allows readers to see their knowledge score across multiple possible topics, showing them where they’re currently paying their reading attention and how their scores compare to other users. (“It’s a little bit like a FitBit for knowledge,” he said.)

Customized alerts and newsletters are also a possibility and you can see some of these ideas mocked up on the Crux site:

Looking farther ahead, Crux sees an opportunity to connect publishers with businesses. Decision-makers working in law, consulting, or banking, as Ronen sees it, are less likely to be concerned with a subscription price than how to best allocate their reading time.

“These people have nothing blocking them from accessing any site, any publisher, any source of content whatsoever. Their problem is classic information overload. We think that quantified knowledge can be the way to bring publishers’ content into those worlds of enterprise, because it can create exactly that individualized or personalized triage between, essentially, an unlimited amount of information and that professional that needs to make a decision based on a high level of knowledge,” Ronen said. “I think we will be going in that direction in the future. Publishers going on the journey with us can go with us there. It’s a good place for publishers to be, I think.”

Photo by Ben Neale used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     Aug. 25, 2021, 12:01 p.m.
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