UsVsTh3m and Ampp3d were described as "niche areas [with] very high costs for the volume of traffic" by a Trinity Mirror spokesperson. Both have been credited with driving growth to the Mirror site since launch in 2013.
What were originally launched as stand alone sites were folded into Mirror.co.uk as they became more successful, and their effects can be seen in the polls and quizzes which now populate many articles on the main site.
Here are five ways the sites have pushed the boundaries of digital journalism.
Work fast and lean
UsVsTh3m launched as a Tumblr site with a skeleton team of five people employed on three-month contracts back in May 2013, aiming to work as a startup within the wider Trinity Mirror publishing machine.
Embarking with the attitude of "if it fails, it fails quickly", the site set about its allotted task of creating short, social media-focused content (Us) and aggregating the best of the same from around the web (Th3m).
That September it received more than 1 million unique visitors. By November, the monthly total was 7 million.
By December, socially-shareable data journalism site Ampp3d was launching under the same remit: work fast, learn fast, iterate and grow.
"If it doesn't work on mobile, it doesn't work" is a quote attributed to NPR's Brian Boyer but became the mantra among Trinity Mirror's new formats teams, especially in building Ampp3d's simple and effective data visualisations.
One example from May 2014 detailed the number of workers who had died building the venues for the 2022 World Cup in Qatar as almost double the number of people to play in World Cup 2014.
How Ampp3d visualised the story of workers dying building venues for the 2022 Qatar World Cup
The story was the number, but the visualisation drove the message home in brutal fashion – while remaining mobile-friendly.
At launch, UsVsTh3m set out to target people "bored at work or bored in line", with all of the games, visualisations, quizzes and lists catering explicitly to mobile. Traffic soared.
Meet the audience where they are
As with many popular websites now, social media has been the main traffic driver for the new formats teams. And as with the focus on mobile, this relied on identifying an audience and going to where they already are.
The UsVsTh3m growth was massively driven by facebook mobile usage. There is a lesson here for us all. News = mobile. Mobile = facebook.— Malcolm Coles (@malcolmcoles) December 2, 2013
Like BuzzFeed before them, the UsVsTh3m staff identified key factors in what drives people to share articles online – personal identity, nostalgia and humour being chief among them.
Many list articles relied on a combination of these factors to touch a nerve with the readership at a stage when other publishers were still despairing over their declining homepage traffic, and these lessons were quickly applied to other types of story.
Making data journalism socially-shareable was a more challenging pursuit taken on by Ampp3d but the same quick, clear graphics that worked so well on mobile could make a point just as easily on social media.
Make the news enjoyable
Although much of UsVsTh3m's output focused on driving traffic through social media with evergreen 'social content', it also had a strong line in acerbic political commentary and current affairs. The sense of humour remained, however.
When Owen Paterson MP said badgers had "moved the goalposts" when his marksmen failed to reach the quota in culling the animals, the UVT team had an 'Owen Paterson Badger Penalty Shootout' game up on the site within hours.
Elsewhere, the 'Iain Duncan Smith Real Unemployment Simulator' gave players an idea of the hoops job seekers had to jump through to receive their benefit payment under new government schemes, all while the disembodied head of the Department for Work and Pensions Secretary barked orders.
Iain Duncan Smith's Realistic Unemployment Simulator
A scan through the hundreds of games built over the last two years is testament to the lack of imagination that can go into digital storytelling sometimes, and the fact that jokes can be just as effective in making a point as a straight-up report.
Don't stop experimenting
Key to the rapid growth in traffic for both sites in the early months was in constantly trying new ideas, new formats and new ways to tell stories. The set-up for UsVsTh3m played a big role in that: a tiny team of writers, designers and developers meant ideas could be bounced around and built quickly.
That trio of roles is now central to many a digital arm of news organisations, making sure different elements of a story have been catered for appropriately.
The desire to experiment, fail and learn is central to those publishers that are moving forward with their online product, and that's precisely what the new formats titles were set up to achieve.
Much like Owen Paterson's badgers, when technology is constantly moving the goalposts for news organisations the only way to react quickly and succeed is to be flexible enough to experiment regularly.
When UsVsTh3m launched, Martin Belam, who spearheaded the new formats titles at Trinity Mirror, told Journalism.co.uk "the targets are more about demonstrating audience growth".
After two years, Trinity Mirror have stuck to their word and taken on board all the lessons in mobile and social publishing they could muster, leaving a talented team potentially looking for work and a richer news industry as a result.
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