How USA Today is using targeting technology beyond ads

News publishers have had an on-again, off-again relationship with personalization. But for USA Today Network, it is very much on, thanks in part to the targeting and taxonomy infrastructure it’s built to target ads.

The local news publisher, which operates over 100 different sites in local markets, has been suffusing personalization into its digital product — from its article recommendations to its mobile app to its advertising delivery to its subscriptions. While it gathers data signals from a lot of areas, it’s used the technology stack for natural language processing, tagging, categorization and sentiment scores to develop signals it uses to personalize those areas.

USA Today sees its investment in personalization technology as being in an early stage. But as it continues to diversify its revenue streams, it recognizes plenty of opportunities that could use the technology to help grow subscriptions, deliver branded content and even make recommendations to advertisers.

“Subscriptions, ad yield and engagement … we’re going after all three,” said Jason Jedlinski, svp of consumer products at Gannett. “I’d say we’ve just started.”

While many of its experiments are small — confined to one or two markets — a lot of the product tweaks it’s piloted, either with its national brand, USA Today, or with smaller ones, have been implemented across all its local titles. This month, it will begin testing a module called My Topics, which is filled with content personalized to each user, in the mobile apps it’s launched for markets in Bergen, New Jersey; Reno, Nevada; and Redding, California. A test designed to put more branded content in front of readers was rolled out across all its markets in the first half of this year, where USA Today is using the kind of story a reader has clicked on to determine whether they should be recommended a piece of branded content.

The priority common to all of USA Today’s efforts is getting people to consume more content, principally by taking cues from user behavior. For example, the personalized video and photo gallery modules it recently launched in its local market apps only appear for users who have watched at least three videos, or viewed at least 75 gallery images, respectively, over their last five sessions in the app.

Over 25 percent of the mobile app users who saw these modules interacted with them in some way, either by scrolling through its contents or clicking on them, Jedlinski said.

If people don’t respond to the modules or get sick of them, they can easily remove them. “We’re not going to draw a giant conclusion [from past behavior],” Jedlinski said of those thresholds. “But it’s enough for us to plug more videos in.”

It can be easier to personalize an app experience, where a publisher can store information about an audience and what its members like. But for areas of USA Today’s product frequented by anonymous users, the sites use information about where audiences are coming from — mobile search versus a social media referral, for example — as well as the kind of article being read to figure out whether that person is likely to read next.

It is also testing whether that information can inform who should see USA Today-produced branded content as they browse its sites, both on desktop and on mobile.

Most of what USA Today experiments with is so-called passive personalization, in which a digital product decides what to show a user, without their input. Jedlinski said that it’s prioritized that while also trying to maintain a measure of transparency. Users who are shown the recommended video modules, for example, are told that they are seeing the module because they’ve watched videos in the app in the past. “We didn’t want to get the creep factor,” he said.

In recent years, publishers have turned to personalization to optimize everything from display inventory to the placement of native advertisements. Though the gains are sometimes marginal and remain out of reach for many smaller publishers, observers expect personalization features to become more commonplace among publishers as they continue to focus on driving consumer revenue.

“When you think about the distribution strategies that a publisher has to have today, converting that referral traffic into a loyal customer is paramount,” said Claudia Page, svp of partner product at Dailymotion.

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