by Sarah Sluis
NBC News wanted to mix up its news coverage to include more “near news”: content someone reads after they get their fix of breaking news and politics – or as a relief from it.
NBC News’ strategy to create content aligned with passion has been popular among publishers lately. HuffPost created content for introverts, for example, and distributed to its social followers. Mic launched nine new content channels in March tailored to micro-interests.
“Publishers have an opportunity to tap into passion points with content that small sections of a broader audience can attach themselves to from an identity and interest perspective,” said NBC News executive editor Ashley Parrish. “Writing about tech and innovation as a siloed vertical allows us the resources build out a separate team and for editors to hone in on topics.”
NBC News chose to create content around technology and wellness because those areas historically performed well with its audience. Readers trusted NBC News to report on those topics, Parrish said. Mach started out as a subsection on the NBC News website in November, and Better joined in March, before getting a completely new look last week.
Since the beginning of the year, traffic on Mach grew 100%, making it the fastest-growing section across all of NBC News. Better, which started creating content in March, has grown 60% since launch.
After making the sites look as clean as possible within the existing design, NBC News product head Moritz Gimbel created a new design for the sites. To speed up the process,the internal team collaborated with outside agency Code and Theory.
For these near-news content sections, NBC News created a cleaner, faster user experience that more seamlessly incorporated ads.
The redesign anticipates the IAB’s shift from 300×250 ad units to flexible, ratio-based ad units that work across screen sizes.
“Instead of having pixel-based ads, we are preparing for the IAB’s ratio-based ads, which can more flexibly integrate into a grid of the page,” Gimbel said.
The redesign also puts video first, with fast-loading players that run using HTML5, the latest standard. Clicking on a video launches a full-screen experience.
“We care about video deeply because that’s our heritage,” Gimbel said. “It has to be a frictionless experience, and we have no autoplay.”
The redesign gave Gimbel a chance to test out a new site look in a low-stakes way. “Something I’ve learned the hard way is that if you start with the biggest-priced vertical in the family, you have a 50% chance to fall on your nose,” he said.
Instead, he’s learned that it’s better to start a redesign in a less critical part of the site. Testing a new look on a brand-new site allows the product team to make tweaks and test without alienating readers who might be used to consuming content a certain way.
Besides a cleaner, more viewable ad experience, which will soon incorporate more native units and branded content, near-news content is safe for advertisers, making the pop-up sites a good business decision. Some brands shy away from the unpredictable nature of news.
Near news “allows advertisers to be in a compelling environment that’s a little bit more brand-safe,” Gimbel said.
NBC News is monitoring how Mach and Better resonate with readers by looking at engagement and loyalty. Metrics like overall time spent, scrolling, view time and articles per session give more insight than page views.
As Mach and Better gain readers, NBC News is eyeing how it can replicate success with new pop-up sites using the same design.
“Now, we have the beginning of a system we can extend to our parts of the site,” Gimbel said. “We have a flexible platform and can spin up one, two, six or 12 verticals without too much upfront investment by reusing components.”