In January, 2014, ODDI and the VOA French to Africa team set the wheels in motion to build a responsive site aimed at the young, mobile enabled African demographic that would tell the story of the World Cup in real time through game scores, lineups and live play-by-play commentary, as well as through shareable animations, illustrations, video, and text commentary. We also put together an extensive marketing plan to help spread the word about the site and we were committed to react and pivot according to metrics that we were monitoring regularly. What follows are some of the lessons we learned along the journey through the group stages, the quarters, semis and finals of the 2014 games in Brazil. (Note: the site is live at voabresil2014.com and we also created a sister site for VOA English at football.voanews.com)
Our data showed high mobile usage of our VOA apps and Web properties across Africa, so our main goal was to create a site that would be optimized for a range of phones and tablets. However, our data also showed us that device type and bandwidth capabilities varied widely throughout Africa, making it hard to target a single experience that would work for the entire region. Additionally, this effort marked one of the first forays into a dedicated site that focused on sports for VOA. With that in mind, we knew that there would be questions whether non-smartphone users with ‘pay as you go’ plans would be willing to use their hard earned money to view World Cup coverage on their devices. Still, the team was determined to create a digital property that loaded quickly and would be flexible enough to optimize for display on low-end mobile phones, as well as on higher-end mobile devices and desktops. Another key goal for the team was to focus on creating shorter, non-traditional news content (examples: memes, illustrated stories, fan badges for Facebook pages, etc.) that would appeal to active sharers on social networks.
Surprise! Desktop and Ethernet/Wifi Users Dominate
Based on our research, we knew that a large amount of mobile use in Africa comes from low-end phones that can’t render java script or rich multimedia elements. We did see a surge of visitors at the beginning and end of the Cup coming in on “unspecified devices,” which we interpret as low-end mobile devices, but we were surprised to see that the majority of the visitors throughout the Cup saw the sites via Windows desktop machines or higher-end Android/Nokia devices. Although we do see big consumption of our standard VOA news mobile web site on lower-end devices, the trend did not hold true for our World Cup offering as these devices were outnumbered by desktop and higher end phone/tablet users by a ratio of about 3:1. We also saw that 70% of the users coming in from Africa used LAN/WiFi connections, but it is important to note that LAN/WiFi connections overseas may not match the high speeds that we are accustomed to in the United States. Connecting to LAN/Wifi might be attractive for low-end users because it doesn’t eat into data plans, but the experience may still be slow due to massive network sharing. Knowing that we were catering to a plethora of user capabilities, we adjusted our content strategy by offering a mix of media formats that would match our users’ varying levels levels of device, platform and connection sophistication.
Marketing Paid Off Big
Another key strategy for the team was to leverage the radio, TV and digital programming that we controlled to market the our World Cup property. We partnered with VOA’s Creative Services team to create :15 and :30 radio, TV and digital platform ads that would promote the World Cup desktop and mobile Web site. Those ads (see video promotional spot below) ran over 200 times on French and English speaking air during the duration of the campaign. Since 35% of all visits to the site came from users who manually typed in the site URL, we can assume that the advertisements were effective. Additionally, lower third animations ran in VOA TV programming throughout the Cup and drove additional visits. We were also very pleased that our Google AdWords performed with a high engagement rate of 1.9%. Our search engine optimization preparations also helped drive referral traffic to the site, which grew as the Cup went on. In total, Google was responsible for 17% of our referral traffic.
Team Up And Be Relentless On Social Platforms
Facebook is very popular in Africa, so succeeding on that platform was a huge priority platform for our team. Facebook provided not only a place for us to promote our most recent editorial offerings, but it was also an area to interact with our users, test out new content types and get instant feedback. In the end, Facebook was our biggest referral site, accounting for 35% of the overall referral visits. On a daily basis, and sometimes in real time, we monitored performance reports and adapted to drive our Facebook engagement higher. For example, we saw early that posts with photos drove more engagement than text based posts, so we posted more photos. We then noticed that our photos, when clicked inside of Facebook, simply opened a larger version of the photo instead of sending users to our site. Since the photo is the largest ‘hit’ area, we worked to ensure that visitors went to our site when they clicked on photos inside of Facebook. When engagement and ‘likes’ of our Facebook page began to flat line, we reached out to Brila.FM, the VOA News FB page, Sonny from Sonny Side of Sports, and the Indonesian and Khmer Facebook teams to help amplify our messaging and drive users to our Facebook properties. We also began to repeat some of our Tweets in case users might have missed our original posts and researched the best time to engage with our users, which turned out to be before and after the live matches. Still, we did see that as the World Cup went on, we were seeing less and less traffic from Facebook which we assume was because: a. the African teams were eliminated from the Cup and b. more and more World Cup content began to flood Facebook feeds and Facebook’s algorithm might have put our content at a lower priority, making it invisible to followers. The big lesson learned here is that going it alone on any social platform is difficult. Looking at this great read from Marketingland, you realize how few of your followers actually see your posts on social platforms, so teaming up with others to help amplify your message is essential.
A Like Could Be As Good As a Page View
Our team tried hard to create content that broke out of standard news reporting and we were delighted to see ‘non-traditional’ content get the most likes and shares of all of our offerings. A surprise hit was the ‘like this if you’re rooting for…’ image badges that were produced by our graphics team. These badges resonated with our users on social platforms in a visceral way: users saw a striking image of the team they were rooting for and liked/shared that content. News organizations normally fixate on page views and time spent, but we began to appreciate likes and shares as a parallel metric to measure user engagement.
Beyond the World Cup
The World Cup project provided so many learnings, but in no way do we see these lessons set in stone. Mobile device pricing is constantly falling, making more and more smart devices available across the African region for lower cost. Efforts like Project Loon could make higher speed connections available in remote areas. And who knows what the next developments on social platforms might be? In the end, despite all of our research and preparations, it was our ‘learn as we go’ philosophy that helped us to adapt to user capabilities and desires that made the project successful.
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