“A journey into the New York Times mobile and tablet strategy” - Alexandra Hardiman at #TAS12

Martin Belam by Martin Belam, 8 November 2012

I recently spoke at WAN-IFRA’s Tablet & App Summit, which formed part of the World Publishing Expo in Frankfurt. You can download all of my notes from the day in an ebook for iBooks, for Kindle or as a PDF.

Over the last few days I’ve also been blogging all my notes from the event — and this is the last of the set.

“A journey into the New York Times mobile and tablet strategy” - Alexandra Hardiman

“I know the word process is not a sexy word, but we’ve been working on it a lot and it has made a real difference.” - Alexandra Hardiman

Alexandra Hardiman is Director of Mobile Products at The New York Times, and whilst her home was busy being wrecked by Hurricane Sandy, she was in Frankfurt gamely telling us about the paper’s mobile products and strategy. I was delighted to hear lots of talk of it being user-centred. She admitted that the shift to a UCD approach was “a huge challenge”, but talked about how they’ve done a great deal of cross-platform research and developed mobile personas to help them shape their projects.

She said that most people in the room could easily imagine a product development process where the requirements of the editor or of the advertiser were at the top of the pile — it is much harder for businesses to consistently put the needs of their users first. There is a real bonus for older news organisations though if they do, as she explained that their research shows that mobile users tend to be much more loyal to traditional established media brands, than those which have sprung up as internet-only operations.

More than a third of New York Times traffic now comes from phones and tablets, and she said that when you add mobile into the traditional mix of where people get their news from (TV/radio/websites/paper), you really do add it. The presence of mobile increases consumption, rather than cannibalising it from another platform. In particular they notice additional usage in the evening, which is fantastic for an organisation that traditionally reached the audience first thing in the morning, and then didn’t see them again until bright and early the next day.

Alex said that the new digital subscription bundles the company had introduced around a year ago had exceeded expectations, and that between the NYT, International Herald Tribune and the Boston Globe, they had 592,000 digital subscribers. One question from the floor queried the extent to which these were fully paid up members, or people taking trial periods, but it was pointed out that most overall print subscription figures also include an element of people being on trials or introductory offers, and nobody queries that.

Alex was, as far as I recall, the only person on the day to mention switching anything off. She explained that a three monthly review looks at how well NYT mobile products are performing against a matrix of measures including reach, engagement, revenue on both subscription and on ads, the value to the paper’s journalism and the level of innovation involved. She said that sometimes it just becomes clear that there are apps you need to get rid off, and once you have put them through the “sunset” process, you need to keep the lessons fresh in your mind to avoid making the same mistakes again.

The mobile team at the NYT are now fully co-located, and have shifted entirely to agile development. Alex boasted of having done 55 app releases in the last 12 months, which I think judging from the questions and some tweets, some people in the audience took to mean that the Times had 55 products, rather than having issued 55 updates. Their portfolio is still a mix of native and HTML5 apps, and Alex said they are not planning to abandon the iTunes store or native apps anytime soon. Their HTML5 iPad app being used as a “sandbox” for design ideas.

She showed some experimental interactives the paper has produced as part of “mobile first journalism”. This isn’t, she stressed, the act of cutting down articles into smaller words, but the act of commissioning and presenting stories in ways that are suited to the form factor of the smaller screen. An election predictor, which shows Obama and Romney alternately grinning or grimacing as you choose which swing states are going to end up declaring for them was the kind of fun interactive she couldn’t imagine the paper having developed for anything other than the mobile context of use.

One point I whole-heartedly agreed with was Alex’s assertion that app design needed to reflect the native features of the phone. Like many people, she said, the New York Times initially thought it was easier to take their existing iOS designs and do a retro-refit of them for Android, but the experience just wasn’t satisfactory. They ended up hiring specific design talent for the Android platform. As I said in my own talk on the day, know your devices.

Thank you

I’d like to thank all of the speakers at the event for being so generous in giving their time and their willingness to share their knowledge and stories. I’d like to extend a special thank you to Valérie Arnould and Nick Tjaardstra at WAN-IFRA for their work in not just putting together the conference programme, but in looking after me whilst I was in Frankfurt.

This is one of a series of blog posts about the WAN-IFRA Tablet & App Summit at the World Publishing Expo in Frankfurt. You can download all of my notes from the day in a free ebook for iBooks, for Kindle or as a PDF.

“The UX of publishing for tablets and smartphones” - Martin Belam
“Taking Stern magazine to the iPad” - David Heimburger
“Condé Nast place value in digital reach over digital sales” - Jamie Jouning & Jamie Bell
“Behind the curve - the media and the new App economy” - Stijn Schuermans
“Brazil’s newspapers close ranks against Google and Apple” - Caio Túlio Costa
“Launching ePresse to challenge Apple and Amazon in France” - Philippe Jannet
“Optimising the FT using HTML5 and customer data” - Stephen Pinches
“Windows 8: Opportunities for publishers” - Frank Wolfram & Johan Mortelmans
“Toronto Star’s Ad Lab for digital advertising innovation” - Kate Collins

Keep up to date on my new blog