3 lessons for newsrooms from UsVsTh3m and The Guardian’s Firestorm project

Jon Henley talks about Firestorm

Jon Henley talks about Firestorm. Photo by Ania Mendrek via Twitter

The Guardian’s ambitious Firestom interactive project has so far generated 750,000 views online and sees an average time on page of roughly 17 minutes, according to a presentation given yesterday at the monthly meetup.

Guardian feature writer Jon Henley and developer Robin Beitra gave a talk that shared background on how the project — which was an online interactive, ebook and large print feature in the paper –  came together. (Poynter’s Sara Quinn wrote more about it here.)

The other main presentation of the night cam from Martin Belam, who offered details about the launch and focus of UsVsTh3m, a startup being incubated at the major U.K. publisher Trinity Mirror. (Disclosure: I gave a quick three-minute talk at the event about what we’re doing at Spundge and, earlier in the day, I demoed for editors at The Guardian and Trinity Mirror. Neither are currently paying customers.)

What was clear is the two closely-watched projects are in many ways complete opposites in their approach and execution. Yet both have thus far exceeded expectations, with Firestorm racking up traffic and praise, and UsVsThe3m hitting its traffic goals as a pilot project.

Here are three takeaways from the evening that highlight the contrasts and lessons from each project.

1. The difference between meeting a new audience where they are, and bringing them to you

UsVsTh3m is an attempt by Trinity Mirror to connect with a younger audience than the one currently served by its publishing brands. Rather than build a new site using existing Trinity Mirror resources and tech, they simply launched a Tumblr. Why?

“It’s fast, free and has a pre-built community of young people who like funny stuff on the internet,” Belam said.

Tumblr has built up a user base of the exact people the project wants to attract. Belam also noted that its native reblogging functionality also helps their content spread. The other big reason they went with Tumblr is the project is a pilot and needed to get up and running in just a few weeks. (Plus, Tumblr’s free.)

For UsVsTh3m, leveraging an existing platform was the perfect way to move quickly, connect with the right audience, and start getting feedback right away.

Firestorm was built to coincide with the launch of Guardian Australia. So it was in a sense also meant to help the publisher connect with a new audience. But in this case, the new audience was geographic rather than demographic, and The Guardian was looking to expand its brand, rather than launch an entirely new one.

As a result, it instead built something unique as a one-off custom project to help draw people into its platform. That was the right call given the need to perpetuate the Guardian brand, rather than work to establish something new.

2. Deep, unique skills versus overlapping skills

UsVsTh3m is radically different from that of Firestorm in terms of the makeup of the team, and how they work together.

For Firestorm, The Guardian assigned a seasoned journalist, Jon Henley, to write a story. It sent him and a video producer to Australia so that Henley could focus on the text and the video producer could gather images and sound. 

Back at the offices, a team of designers and developers did their part to create the interface and interaction for the online project. Each member of the team had a specific skillset and they each did what they do best. Together, they built something that attempts to combine their contributions into something whole. To make that happen, each person has to do their job really well, and also in a way that works with all the other parts.

UsVsTh3m takes the opposite approach by having a small team with overlapping skillsets. Everyone has to do a little bit of everything, and be more self-sufficient.

“All of us can write, all of us can be Photoshop monkeys, all of us can code a little bit,” Belam said.

For something fast, short and agile, overlapping skillsets are a good fit. For a big, ambitious project, you need people with depth in their respective skills who can work together in harmony.

3. Different lenses for judging user experience

The Guardian team used a variety of lenses to think about how they could offer people an optimal experience with the online version of Firestorm.

One lens was the amount of time people had to spend when viewing Firestorm:

The project was designed with navigation to enable people to jump to the parts they found most interesting, and to be able to appreciate each section on its own. The use of video and stills also enabled someone with little time to grab onto something memorable.

Those with more time, or who followed the story’s progression as intended, were rewarded with at each stage with something visual, and with new details.
The team also thought about technical elements that can affect user experience:

They also, of course, thought about people accessing from desktops and tablets, and underwent user testing to see if the navigation made sense to readers. Beitra said the testing “helped us see past what we had assumed people would see.” They changed some elements as a result.

At UsVsTh3m, the experience is all about being simple, social and snackable:

They are an ever-evolving project, so they measure and adapt constantly based on audience reaction:

Two interesting projects, two talented teams, two very different approaches.

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