The Telegraph has made a number of changes to its home page with reader experience, depth, and engagement in mind. The news media company has made it easier to find the most important stories and opinion pieces of the moment, plus introduced four new areas to keep readers abreast of the full spectrum of its journalism.
The changes were the focus of an INMA Webinar on Wednesday, presented by three Telegraph team members:
- Dan Silver, head of digital publishing.
- Mathias Douchet, director of product.
- Eoin Tunstead, product design director.
The previous home page of The Telegraph was designed in 2015. And when Mathias Douchet opened the folder to look at designing the home page, the first slide of requirements was advertiser requirements — not those of the users. Because The Telegraph was in the process of moving from an advertising-based revenue model to a subscription model, that had to change.
In 2018, the business strategy of The Telegraph then became:
- Purpose: to champion, through quality journalism, our core beliefs of enterprise, fair play, and enjoyment.
- Vision: to pioneer new ways to serve at least 10 million registered customers and one million subscribers through quality journalism and experiences, bringing them closer to us and each other.
The plan was to achieve this by 2023.
“This would allow us to be financially sustainable in the future, even without advertising income,” Douchet said. When a media company is thinking about a subscriber-based revenue model, it has to think about how its products reflect that. All of The Telegraph’s products now revolve around subscribers.
“We had to move away from this ad strategy to a more user-engagement, user-centric strategy with our own products,” he added. To do this, The Telegraph started with its Web site home page for a few reasons, Douchet said:
- The Telegraph home page is a core product that many subscribers use regularly.
- The company wanted to prove its business model to its stakeholders and building a strategy for engagement was the right approach.
“It was risky, but we did it just to prove that the concept was right and it was the right thing to do with our strategy,” Douchet said.
This new strategy then had to come with a new product vision. The Telegraph reaffirmed its Web site’s purpose: To give readers the best possible experience and promote The Telegraph’s compelling journalism, to form habits, and drive subscriptions.
This vision was then applied across all the different platforms, not just the Web site. The three key words, Douchet said, are readers, experience, and journalism. “I think for a bit too long, we forgot about these three things. We focused more on scale and on advertising. And when you have a subscription-first strategy, you need to change the way that you do things, and you need to focus on these key things more than we have in the past.”
The Why: The Telegraph platform was burning
Dan Silver explained what was wrong with the Web site home page and why an overhaul was necessary. The existing home page was, in fact, called the “interim home page” internally because it was only meant to be a stop-gap to begin with.
“Stop-gaps tend to become full-gaps as priorities and resources get shuffled around and reallocated,” Silver said. He led Webinar attendees through some of the main issues with The Telegraph’s existing home page at the time:
- The old home page offered hundreds of stories but very little in the way of editorial curation.
- It was difficult to group content around a theme.
- It was difficult to create impact and make content stand out.
- It had to serve many masters — commercial concerns as well as non-curricular products such as podcasts and newsletter sign-ups.
The old home page was far too long; only the very top area was curated, and every time new content or a new department or section was added, it would simply be stuck onto the bottom of the page. This was especially problematic for mobile scrolling. The page was designed for desktop, lending it to not appear well on mobile. It was also very rigidly designed with the layout not having evolved from day one.
The difficulty of grouping content around a theme made it difficult to showcase the incredible journalism The Telegraph had in areas such as culture, the arts, travel, and sports as opposed to breaking news.
“It was very hard to showcase the full breadth of our journalism,” Silver said. “It was a very unsatisfactory experience for our journalists, our home page editors, and also for our users.”
Another downsides of the old home page was that the editorial desks came to rely on the portal as a crutch: “Because there was very little curation going on outside that top area, the desks knew that pretty much whatever they published would end up on the home page at some point.”
Eoin Tunstead then jumped in to discuss how the home page problem was resolved and redesigned. The key driving factor was to put journalism first.
“Simply put, we needed to give our users more reasons to stay,” Tunstead said. “We needed to create flexible and hand-curated packages, sell stories, and represent our journalism in the way it deserves.” This would ensure readers would return more frequently to see how the page was updated throughout the day.
The team also needed to drive subscription-inducing content, which meant putting habit-building drivers much further up the page than before.
The answer was packages, a flexible modular layout. “We achieved this by creating a flexible design system that allows for an entirely editorial presentation, giving a much higher density of stories.”
Packages allows The Telegraph team to package and group stories in a specific hierarchy. Large, medium, and small modules can be used to reflect the best stories of the day. Being able to change the layout on the fly was also key. The design team took a lot of inspiration from the layout of its traditional newspaper over the years.
The design allows for six slots into which the packages can be placed in a variety of combinations. It has also been optimised for mobile and loads much faster than the previous site.
“We continue to iterate on these components, and enhance and improve them as we go,” Tunstead said. “By creating these lists, we learned a lot about how users interact with our site and how they move around it.”
Those lists became the core building blocks for the bottom half of the page:
- Headlines: Updates on the most important news of the moment, hand curated.
- Downtime: Recommendations, reviews, interviews, and real-life stories to inspire readers.
- Inside story: Articles that go behind the headlines and give perspectives.
- Better living: Advice on topics such as health, finance, careers, and relationships.
- In depth: Deeper coverage of topics.
The lists that comprised the bottom half of the page represented the biggest cultural change for the newsroom, Silver said. “This was quite a conceptual change as well as we moved, as a site, away from this idea of topics and more onto themes.”
The research on user needs informed this in large part, identifying many other topics aside from straight news that readers were highly interested in. It also influenced how the news desk thought about content and pitched for editorial to be featured on the home page — essentially creating a more competitive environment for the best content to be featured.
The system is designed for flexibility so when a major story breaks, the Web site is ready for it. The team can get the ball rolling on layout even before there is content or imagery to put into it. This needed to be something that can be used on all kinds of news, from stories as diverse as a royal wedding or a terrorist attack. And it needed to be versatile and easy for editors to use.
The team also built a utility bar as a new area for editorial engagements at the top of the page for content that wasn’t core to the main Telegraph journalism. “It’s an area that sits at the top of the home page,” Silver explained. “It’s manually curated and is a dedicated area for newsletter sign-ups, for podcasts, for social media groups, and for all the things that are great editorial engagement initiatives but that we don’t want to interrupt the flow of our curated journalism.”
From a design perspective, Tunstead said this entailed creating more than 100 branded assets that rotate through the utility bar component.
On the right-hand side of the home page is the opinion block. “Essentially, we wanted to be able to showcase our key writers higher up on the page,” he said. “We know that these are all major subscription drivers, and that’s why they’re given the prominence they are.”
Smarter, premium advertising
Although the new Telegraph home page was reader and subscription focused, of course it still needed advertising. “Our ambition was to have smarter and more premium advertising that would suit our new, beautiful home page,” Tunstead explained.
One of the biggest goals was to have more integrated advertising that felt natural and native to the content around it — while still remaining commercially viable.
Development approach: Iteration as a key principle
To get there, the team spent about six months defining what the new home page should look like, Douchet. One of the first things they did was to define the go-live product.
“We looked at everything, discussed it with product, editorial, and technology, and tried to find some compromise where we could.”
This approach helped the team to have the new page up and running as soon as possible while retaining a high quality and being able to make changes as they saw the impact of the new design.
The team also began to track the performance of the home page more closely. Some of the improvements were:
- The new page takes 5.5 seconds to load, versus nine seconds with the old page.
- The performance score from Google Lighthouse is now 86 over 100, versus 57.
- First content is two seconds faster.
- Images load improved by three seconds.
- Advertisements come in two seconds faster.
“One thing we tried to do was make the performance as good as the quality of the design,” Douchet said.
What they learned and what’s next
The positive aspects to come from the home page redesign include:
- All consumption and engagement KPIs are up.
- Increased readers’ propensity to subscribe by 49%.
- Increase in advertising revenue with fewer ads.
- Positive and sweeping change in the newsroom.
The next steps for The Telegraph include transforming the products from scale to brand, quality, and audience.
INMA: It seems like the home page is the same for everyone, subscribers and non-subscribers alike. Is this correct, and if so what led you to do so?
The Telegraph: Remember, this is the first iteration of the new home page. So you’re right, it’s the same for everyone. The content at the top is not something we are thinking to customise. We think the people who come to us do so for a reason. The top stories should always be the same because people want to know what is important in that sense. Personalisation isn’t something we are doing at the time but something we may want to do in the future.
INMA: What was the involvement of desk editors in the process?
The Telegraph: They were involved a lot since the beginning of the project. We’ve updated them with the latest design and how we’ve approached it from a development side as well. Since we launched our freemium model three years back, it’s always been this way. Everyone was very engaged and very receptive about what we wanted to achieve. There has been some pushback, but by and large the decision makers in the newsroom have bought into this because it’s centred around journalism.
INMA: Did you use any kind of A/B testing during the cycle of the home page redesign?
The Telegraph: No, we didn’t. We talked about it, but there are two reasons why we didn’t do it. First, because of work flow of keeping two home pages at the same time. And also from a product and engineering point of view, it was difficult to make it happen. I’m not saying everyone should do that, but if we found that the new home page was not performing as well as the previous one, what would we have done about it?
INMA: Are you designing for super users or the big middle?
The Telegraph: I think we’re designing to create the behaviour that will turn the middle into the edge. A big part of our thinking, and how it’s changed over our subscription journey, is focusing on reader behaviour and what leads to quality subscription. The kind of behaviour that’s exhibited by our super-subscribers is what we’re designing to encourage.