For some time now, news sites have been trying out different ways to offer personalised experiences across platforms, placing the reader and their interests at the heart of the content in question.
Personalisation, in its more usual forms, might be determined by a reader's geographical location, their reading history, chosen areas of interest or even their social network. And news services may include personalised homepages, personalised areas in a mobile or tablet app, or completely personalised social reader apps. Another form of personalisation can be found in the interactive content being increasingly produced by digital news outlets.
But for those offering such features, what does personalisation bring to the table for reader and news outlet? And what lessons can others take away from this experience about the value of such offerings?
Growth in the 'demand for relevance'
In the online world, we are faced with an abundance of information. As a result, "demand for relevant content is increasing", digital strategist Nic Newman told Journalism.co.uk, suggesting there is a positive environment within which personalisation could blossom.
People may already come to news sites for specific reasons, perhaps the outlet covers a particular location or subject they are most interested in, or they just value the brand. Either way, personalisation can help a local or niche site to further appeal to the reader, or by larger news sites.
"People feel overwhelmed so they really feel they need tools to help filter out the noise," Newman said, adding that today "personalisation is easier to do, cheaper to scale and deliver".
"It was hard to do personalisation in the past at scale. That's the other reason we're seeing more of it."
He added that the provision of a "personal addressable device for the first time" in the form of mobile phones, as well as the growth in site registration, are increasing the opportunities for personalisation, or simply the delivery of "more relevant content".
The balancing act for news outlets
But personalisation requires a balancing act on the part of news outlets, with many adopting a combined approach, mixing in some personalisation, but with a significant role still played by the news outlet in sharing content which editors believe the reader should see, regardless of their location, reading history, interests or social network connections.
And this is something readers are asking for, Bede McCarthy, group product manager for content at the Financial Times told us, reflecting on the feedback they received while planning the latest version of the FT web app.
"A strong theme that really came through for us was that people did want to know what the editorial take was on the important stories of the day, but they also then wanted to go straight to the content that they were really interested in."People did want to know what the editorial take was on the important stories of the day, but they also then wanted to go straight to the content that they were really interested inBede McCarthy, Financial Times
The latest version of the app includes a 'MyFT' section, featuring an archive of 'recently read' content, a 'portfolio', a place to store 'clippings' and 'recommended reads'. "The more you use the app, the better that page gets," McCarthy explained.
And personalisation is also a part of the FT's main website, which offers "customised alerts" to highlight stories to readers who sign-up to the service.
But for news brands like the FT, it is important not to lose sight of its role as a news and information provider, McCarthy added, as"still express a strong desire for editorial judgement". And so the balancing act begins.
"We're trying to still be the FT, to keep that trust, keep that heritage and keep that judgment about what are the stories that really resonate on a wider level throughout the world, but also try and recognise that media is becoming a much more social and more specific browsing experience and we really need to satisfy both of those requirements if we're going to actually make great products."
Similarly, there is the question of how personalised the content should be, particularly when looking at personalisation based on geography. According to Anthony Sheehan, founder of Near You Now, Xylitic, which offers a service for news outlets to deliver content based on location, readers want to engage with personalised news, but in a way which fits into a "shared local news agenda". So taking personalisation too far could prevent this from being achieved, he explained.
"People's interest in local news is to participate in a shared local news agenda, so they want to be aware of the things that are happening around them that either directly impact them or that they can see or hear, or that involve people perhaps they know or locations that they know, so that they can share information and discuss that information with colleagues and neighbours and friends and family.They don't really want something that's so personalised to them they're the only people that know about itAnthony Sheehan, Near You Now
"In much the same way as a major national political story creates that shared news agenda, people are looking for local stories to do the same. So they don't really want something that's so personalised to them they're the only people that know about it. They actually want to be brought up to date with all the things that people in their neighbourhood and their district will know about, will see, will hear and be discussing, so they can play a part in those conversations."
Personalisation technologies are also performing a balancing act between the role of the technology and the newsroom's editors. Earlier this year Outbrain, for example, outlined new personalisation technology which, when launched, will be applied within parameters set by an editor.
Speaking to Journalism.co.uk at the time, Dennis Mortensen, general manager of Visual Revenue, now owned by Outbrain, said that the idea is to "incorporate the editors into the conversation".
"So you can actually inject editorial instructions into personalisation," he said. "So all of a sudden they become perhaps more of a personalisation maestro than really just an editor who surrendered to personalisation and said 'oh, I'm not a participant anymore'."
The power of passive personalisation
One way to differentiate between types of personalisation is by looking at how much involvement is necessary on the part of the reader in building their own experience.
Approaches to this vary. On Near You Now, for example, it is recommended that readers share their location, and "from that point on our service is completely passive", Sheehan said.
"We just take a latitude and longitude from the publisher that locates the user or locates the user's house, and use that to figure out the news stories that are breaking and happening around that location now and return those."
Research into the field of personalisation in news has found that passive personalisation appears to be on the up. However, a news site study into personalisation carried out by Dr Neil Thurman in 2011 found that 'active' types of personalisation "had not tended to be particularly popular".
His colleague, professor Steve Schifferes, who Thurman worked with on a follow-up report into this area last year, added that personalisation features "which were particularly passive and easier for them to, just with one click or two, seemed to grow quite quickly".
An interesting case study can be found in Italy, where local news site network City News introduced the ability for users to create a personalised homepage earlier this year. This is based on certain choices made by a reader in terms of areas of interest, be it location, subjects or people, arguably an example of more active personalisation, and co-founder Luca Lani told Journalism.co.uk that while it is in its early days, it appeared that "people prefer the traditional homepage".
The impact of social, search and mobile
Of course, the rise of social media means that any user of Twitter, Facebook or the like, effectively has their own personalised homepage of content available.
This presents somewhat of a challenge to news outlets, only heightened by the fact that social discovery of content is on the rise. So how much of a role is there to play for personalisation on a news outlet's own website?
"Twitter and social changes the game in a way because just by following smart people your timeline fills with content from many different publishers," Newman highlighted. "What is even better is that it gets over the other problem with personalisation which was the 'fear of missing something big'. With social media you never miss a big story and you get your niche or personal news."In most cases news sites can't compete with Twitter in term of serving up great content from many sources, but they can do something else; provide great writing, analysis, comment, a tone that connects and do a much better job of recommending other relevant materialNic Newman, digital strategist
He said that research by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism found social was a bigger news discovery tool than search for those under 35 in the UK and US.
"We are getting more personalised news recommendations than we used to," he said. "On the other hand pretty much all of these people are still using mainstream media too, so it is the gateways that are changing".
Therefore, news sites should look at what they can do to stand out in this field, and focus on offering a quality content service, he said.
"People don't want personalisation from news sites they want relevance", Newman said. "In most cases news sites can't compete with Twitter in term of serving up great content from many sources, but they can do something else; provide great writing, analysis, comment, a tone that connects, and they can do a much better job of recommending other relevant material".
Thurman agreed that "the fact that more and more people are on social media platforms probably does, to some extent, dull the demand for personalised content on news sites", but still feels there is a place for it for readers who are not active on social media.
"Some people don't want to be on Facebook, some people find Twitter too confusing or too distracting to use on a regular basis, and therefore there will still be demand for personalisation on sites as well as on these aggregating sites too."
And search, as Thurman pointed out, is effectively already the definition of personalisation, in that it is centred around a service which aims to deliver results and information in response to specific questions by individuals. And the personalised nature of the service is only developing further in the way it caters for more than the user's search query alone, he added.
"Where it used to be the case that when you did a Google search, from Google.co.uk or Google.com, whether you're in London or whether you're in Newcastle you'd get the same result depending on your search term," Thurman explained. "Now, search is becoming personalised. Google's algorithm takes into account where you are and your previous searches in order to return a different set of search results to you.
"Search is personalised, social media is personalised, we've got to take that into account."Search is personalised, social media is personalised, we've got to take that into accountDr Neil Thurman, City University London
And on mobile platforms, the opportunity and potential impact of a personalised news service is also significant.
One argument is that the smaller screen effectively demands more stripped-back content delivery, which clearly caters for a reader's needs and interests. The Circa news app, for example, lets users track stories they are interested in receiving updates about.
Bede McCarthy from the Financial Times added that for some users, "there's less time and a little bit less tolerance" when it comes to navigating around a website on a mobile device.
"I think personalisation comes much more to the fore in the mobile area," he said.
When it comes to smaller screens, news outlets outlets need to consider how they transfer or translate "some of the fancy personalisation features that went on homepages", Schifferes added. But more generally, a mobile device "does lend itself to personalisation", Thurman said.
Is personalisation limiting the news diet?
One concern which has, in the past, been associated with the field of personalisation, is the fear that it could limit the range of views and content readers have access to or are likely to come across organically.
In practice, many news outlets work to avoid this by offering the partly-personalised service already discussed. And the result seems to be that users of personalised news services do not feel their news diet is too limited or restricted, according to the report by Thurman and Schifferes.
"Our research didn't completely back up that fear, because we found that people were still actively choosing a number of things they wanted to see," Schifferes said.
"It's giving them a different experience and a different range, so I'd be skeptical that at the moment people are in their own walled garden and not looking around for other things."
He also explained that audiences are "not that loyal to one site" anyway, meaning that even if they had a very personalised experience on one online outlet, it is unlikely to be their only source of information.
Again, finding a balance between personalised content that deemed important by editors, helps to prevent what could otherwise be a "concentrated view of the content", McCarthy said.It's very important to use the technology to make sure people are seeing more of the kind of content that they're interested in, but also keep an element of serendipity and an element of discovery within the apps or within the websiteBede McCarthy, the Financial Times
"I think it's very important to use the technology to make sure people are seeing more of the kind of content that they're interested in, but also keep an element of serendipity and an element of discovery within the apps or within the website, so that people are finding content they didn't expect to find, but is nevertheless interesting, and being surprised and delighted.
"And there are some ways you can do that with technology, but some of it also just involved good, old-fashioned human judgement."
Impact on engagement and shareability
For news outlets struggling online, and keen to reignite advertising revenue, engagement and "making news sites stickier" became key, Schifferes explained, with personalisation part of this equation.
And the opportunities to achieve engagement through personalisation are wide-ranging – certainly able to go beyond just recommendations, as Nic Newman outlines.
"In an increasingly crowded news marketplace you have to make your brand feel relevant to an individual, so that inevitably means knowing them better and starting to express that in the interface.
"Offering relevant content is the key thing and much of that will continue to be editorially chosen, but there is much scope around the edges to communicate personally in a number of other ways that offer value and drive brand loyalty.
"Personalisation is also about personal messaging, viewing preferences, ad preferences, offer preferences, platform preferences, push preferences from breaking news."
Another space in which the pull of personalisation can be seen clearly is interactive content, where news sites offer ways for readers to apply a story or scenario to themselves.
Sean Clarke, head of interactives at the Guardian, said personalisation within interactives helps to boost the shareability of the content, with users not just sharing the interactive, but their personal slant on the story.
"That's hugely valuable in driving social sharing," he said. It also appears that highly-personalised interactives can also help act as incentives for site registrations.
Clarke said in one case, which involved an interactive which looked at how fast people could run 10km, and showed users how they ranked in the country based on data they would input, was "very shareable" and saw 10 per cent of users continuing to sign-in "to be able to enjoy all the features that were there".
Schifferes and Thurman's research actually found an interesting link between personalisation and people's attitude towards paying for content.
The research seemed to "suggest at least, that a lot of personalisation is something that people would expect if they're paying for sites, and something that might encourage them to end up subscribing to sites", Schifferes said.There's a suggestion that there's a relationship between giving people more and different types of features that they can make the site their own, and their willingness to pay for itSteve Schifferes, City University London
"It's not absolute proof, but there's a suggestion that there's a relationship between giving people more and different types of features that they can make the site their own, and their willingness to pay for it."
The disparity between sectors
Of course when it comes to making recommendations about other content readers might be interested in, many may look to the online retail sector, in particular digital entertainment platforms, as an example of how this works effectively in another industry.
But both Thurman and McCarthy highlighted some differences between the sectors which may need to be considered, based on the different way consumers move from one product to the next in the news industry.
"News is so dynamic that some of the techniques that are used to personalise in other industries just don't work very well for technical reasons in a news context," Thurman said. "People's taste in music or movies tends to be fairly static over time, fairly predictable, and so you can look at what people's friends are looking at, or other people who have listened to the same album or watched the same movie have been listening to, and that's a fairly good predictor of what you might like.
"But with news our interests change very dynamically, and it's very difficult to predict on that basis, partly because news changes so fast but also what we're interested in changes."
Again, this highlights the importance of having a balance of personalised and non-personalised news, to ensure that certain news stories still reach audiences, no matter if there is any precedent to suggest they should be of particular interest.
But McCarthy added that "while the differences between the content are much more subtle" in the news sector, the technology has improved and is now "good enough to show decent recommendations on a media site, whereas I think a few years ago that wasn't necessarily the case."
And with technology moving forward, and many newsrooms looking to save costs where they can, personalisation is "not going to go away", Thurman said.
"It's not all about giving the user what they want, it's also directing them to commercially interesting parts of a site for the publisher," he added.
The data leak question
But for those news outlets looking at ways to offer personalisation, be it in editorial content or through advertising, Thurman advises that they consider how they wish to share data with third-party platforms (something we have written about here).
"I think the problem for news providers is that it's very attractive perhaps to buy into some of this technology that's coming out of the targeting of advertising, because it might make your advertising more effective, it might allow you to target content in new ways, but when you plug into that kind of technology then you are giving away a lot of data about your visitors," he said.
"When you do that and when you buy into these technologies, then in return for a more efficient target adverts and return for content personalisation, you're losing part of your margin that you would have made if you'd been selling the advertising directly."
He advised news outlets to think carefully about "the extent to which news publishers should be giving away that kind of data that they have on their user and reader behaviour", and how much to do "in-house in order to sell advertising more directly".
"I'm sure they do consider that," he added, "but it's not an easy one to answer."