How The New York Times created a 404 page that aims to turn frustration into satisfaction

When portions of The New York Times website went down for about 40 minutes last Wednesday morning, people who stumbled upon the 404 "Page not found" message were pleasantly surprised by the creative approach to the experience. The message read:

We’re sorry, we seem to have lost this page, but we don’t want to lose you.

The page included links to archives and a list of the Most Popular/Recommend stories with the gentle hope, "you’re bound to find something of interest here."

The page told a story, as written by Laura Billingsley, senior marketing manager for digital marketing at The New York Times. Billingsley has worked at the Times for 21 years. Prior to digital marketing, she worked in marketing on the print side of the business.

I emailed with Billingsley about her work.

Julie Moos: When was the message originally written?

Laura Billingsley: Leading up to the launch of digital subscriptions, we were identifying creative ways to more deeply engage users with the site. The reinvention of the 404 page was a prime candidate for one of these projects. We saw an opportunity to turn a frustrating user experience into something more positive. The new 404 page went live on on July 27, 2011.

In 16 words you convey regret, responsibility and appreciation. How did you decide on the overall tone of the message?

Readers who hit the error page on have come to us seeking a specific piece of content. Whether they arrived at the 404 page via a publishing error or an error from an external referral source (search, blogs, social media, etc.), we believe it is important to acknowledge their frustration in not finding that information. In order to connect with these readers, the messaging needs to be personal, succinct and accessible. The page also needs to serve its primary function of helping users find that specific link they were looking for.

Did this sentence go through multiple drafts/revisions to shorten it, or has it evolved in any other way over time?

The messaging on the page has not changed since the page went live on July 27. We will be monitoring the page exit rate and post-click page views and will optimize messaging if needed. We also have other creative concepts for this 404 page that we look forward to testing in the future.

Can you give us a preview of what sorts of things you're considering?

Part of the appeal of our new 404 page is that it is unexpected and we would like to keep future creative concepts a surprise. We won't be launching any new creative until after we are able to adequately test the performance of the existing page.

How did you come to write the message?

The launch of the new 404 page was a team effort. Sarah Namini, our talented intern, did background research on other 404 pages from across the Web, as well as an analysis of the abandon rate from our own 404 page.

We believed that incorporating the Most Popular/Recommend module on the 404 page would deliver a dose of serendipity in providing users with quick links to other compelling content.

Marketing Director Cynthia Collins and I wrote the messaging during a brainstorming session in which we played off different “lost and found” and “discovery” concepts until we arrived at this statement. Elliott Malkin and Heena Ko designed the page, and technical development was overseen by Adam Falk.

What lessons did you learn from the other 404 messages? How did your previous abandon rate affect your approach to this 404 message?

We were surprised to find that the majority of 404 pages we found provided the standard, technical “page not found” language ubiquitous across the Web. We believe there’s a real opportunity to connect with users at every entry and exit point of a website.

We did find a few pages that we thought worked well in providing a personal tone as well as a lil’ bit of humor (e.g. Comedy Central, Twitter’s fail whale, NPR, etc.) We aimed to provide a similar experience to give our users a smile.

What are your goals for the 404 page and how will you know if you've accomplished them?

Our primary goal is to decrease the site exit rate from the 404 page. We will evaluating the page performance over the next few months.

With so many writers on staff at the Times, I'm intrigued that this copy came from the marketing department. Was there any internal discussion about that?

There is an internal executive committee comprised of leaders from both the business side and newsroom that approves and prioritizes new projects. This project was conceived of in the Marketing department, we presented our proposal to this committee and we received approval for Marketing to take the lead.


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