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Tips & Tricks for Building Your Experimentation Program

Publishing websites engage audiences with content aimed to keep users on the site longer, encourage users to read more pages, and turn users into loyal subscribers. To improve these sites, companies need to A/B test ways to enhance user interaction with the content. By optimizing, they’re able to maximize the influence of each article, photo, video, and more to provide a more captivating site experience.

These experiment-worthy tactics drive readers to interact with your publishing site:

Remove Text from the Trending Section

Displaying trending content together is not a new method, but testing its presentation can affect your readers greatly. Users are generally already drawn to this section and testing presentation can get even more clicks. Specifically, if your site provides interesting visual elements, try removing headlines and displaying photos only.

For example, Buzzfeed goes against the norm by listing its trending articles without headlines when you land on the homepage. Instead, users see a list of photos related to the article. Title text does not show until a user hovers over each photo, encouraging intrigued visitors to get closer before clicking through.

Buzzfeed Trending Tactic

Titles of trending articles do not appear (left) until a user hovers their cursor above the photo (right)

  • A/B test the removal of text from your trending section
  • Measure the behavior of your audience to determine if they prefer this tactic
  • Continue testing presentation of text, such as its appearance only when a users hovers

Give Filtered Options for the “Most Read” Section

Beyond design, companies can also test added functionality to their popular or trending sections. Some sites with multiple types of audiences segment the section by user personas. For example, a content site about food could add tabs for types of cuisine onto its trending section. Analyze the behavior of your audience to see what type of filters enhance their experience.

Pitchfork, a music news site, realized that a majority of users click articles under “Most Read News”. The company provides a weekly, monthly, and 90-day filter to accommodate both frequent and infrequent visitors who want highlights of past news:

Pitchfork Most Read News

Now, users can find the most recent popular articles or catch up on ones they’ve missed. This improves the functionality and makes the section more relevant.

  • Analyze how your visitors consume your most read content
  • Test different filters such as time frame and category type

Display Number of Views, Shares, or Other Interaction

Anytime you use a section that aggregates your most viewed, shared, or commented content, users attract to it. Cement their interest by showing the actual number of previous users that interacted with it. It provides a more accurate sense of how interesting that content seems. If a photo has over a million views and the next highest one only has a couple hundred thousand, the audience is more convinced to check out the popular choice. It’s a similar effect to how a crowd gathered around a performer draws in even more people.

This is how Upworthy does it in their most viewed section:

Upworthy Number of Views

While Buzzfeed shows number of responses on their regular article listings:

Buzzfeed Responses

For both these examples, there are links to articles that have significantly more interactions, which insists new users to join in.

Show Time Expired from Publication

The time when content is published plays a major factor in attracting readers. Visitors, especially returning ones, want the latest stories. Publishers, especially those dealing with timely content, should test ways to leverage recency. Try marking new content with exactly how much time has expired since it’s publication.

CNN is the ideal type of company to use this tactic since they report on world news and events. Many loyal readers use the site as their main source of journalism and check it multiple times per day. To highlight the freshest “Top Stories” to their readers, they include how much time has passed since the article was first published:

CNN Time Passed From Publlishment

Visitors are attracted to newly published content and now locate it easily before needing to click into an article. Users are also driven to find out the latest news because it seems more “breaking”.

Present a Content Piece On Your Header

There are many areas on your homepage to emphasize content. Don’t let traditional design standards prevent you from testing alternative placements that are potential sweet spots. The header typically holds the publisher’s name and logo, establishing trust and recognizability when visitors enter. A/B test the display of content near it to immediately drive interest to an otherwise buried article, video, or other piece.

Grantland, a subsidiary of ESPN, has a niche following of sports fanatics who enjoy the company’s unique take on sports writing. But their video content channel is one of their newer and lesser known sections. So they’ve implemented the left side of the header to promote a specific video:

Grantland Content at Top

By presenting a title and a photo for the link, they’ve lured users’ curiosity about the video. Now the video channel is more visible and directly associated with the rest of Grantland’s quality content.

CBS Sports uses this tactic similarly to drive visitors to its Superbowl landing page:

CBS Sports Superbowl Promo

The company is one of the biggest sports sites and places promotion of its Superbowl landing page right next to its logo. It functions to segment those only interested in Superbowl-related news as well as drive existing traffic to try a newly created content section.

Show Progress Bars To Affect Readers’ Visit Time

A reader’s time on page and time on site is an important metric of user engagement. The longer they stay on a piece of content, the more likely they will continue on to another page and become a loyal subscriber. To keep users engaged, test progress bars for the content they’re viewing. By showing the status of how far they’ve completed an article or slideshow, they’re driven to finish it.

The Chicago Sun-Times uses this tactic effectively by placing a well-designed progress bar near the navigation:

Content Progress Report

As you see, the first portion of it shows the user’s status on the current article they’re reading. It then continues to list the articles that seamlessly follow it as you scroll down. This acts similarly to a “table of contents” view that drives readers to continue on to the next chapter. By doing this, the Chicago Sun-Times engages users to finish the first content piece because it seems so easy and quick to do. It also shows a preview of what’s next if users stay on the page longer.

The Daily Beast similarly does this with a “Read This List” placed on the right rail. It shows the progress of the article you chose to read and follows it with current trending pieces. Again, they’re framing these articles as if it were to be consumed consecutively like a digest:

News Read List

Provide Option to View Slides in One Page View

Many successful digital content pieces utilize a numbered or list format that incorporates photos and blurbs. This is often presented in a slideshow for each section, but not every user finds this a friendly experience. Give your audience the option to change the traditional slideshow presentation into one page view. This way, users are able to load everything in one view without having to click through multiple times to finish the article.

See how Business Insider does it:

Slideshow versus One Page

The slideshow is now gone and each section is listed on one page for easy scrolling. Users can change it back by going to the top right again.

Use a Ticker or Header That Highlights Live Content

Many publishing companies provide some form of live content on their site, whether it’s breaking news or updated sports scores. Emphasizing this type of content encourages users to frequently return as well or stay on your site longer because they want to track events. A/B test ways to quickly communicate a live feed at the top of your homepage.

Under Huffington Post’s navigation, they emphasize the content on their live video feed next to a moving ticker that communicates upcoming segments:

HuffPo Live Content

The ticker draws in visitors immediately with its movement and encourages them to engage using short headlines and specific broadcast times.

For sports content publishers, it is typically a necessity for audiences to keep up with live sporting events. Returning visitors need to know up-to-the-second scores and access them quickly. ESPN does this nicely by placing a scoreboard header above the navigation:

ESPN Live Scores

By default, it shows the most popular events occurring, but can be segmented into specific sport types. Users do not have to click through the navigation to find their live updates.

Here are some ways different types of live content for various publishers:

  • News and journalism: breaking news
  • Sports: scores and recent victories
  • Entertainment: Newly announced releases, tours, or news
  • Fashion: Coverage of events like Fashion Week, runway shows, or releases

Identify & Prioritize Significant Social Share Buttons

Social shares are important for content publishers because it means that audiences are spreading it across networks and increasing views. By providing social share buttons, they enable users to take this action. But the presentation and number of social share buttons need to be tested to determine which ones your users actually use.

For example, a news reporting site may have an audience that primarily uses Facebook, Twitter, and email . Providing additional social platforms could decrease total shares and overwhelm users with choices. But a fashion news site has avid visitors who love the photos published, thus sharing it to Pinterest. Not only would this site A/B test (and likely win) with the addition of a Pinterest button, but they should also iteratively test its presentation by making it the first button choice afterwards.

See how Buzzfeed, a leader in publishing popular shared content, is constantly testing its social share buttons:

Buzzfeed Social Buttons

After testing the effectiveness of a bookmark button that adds articles into user accounts, they got this:

Buzzfeed Social Buttons

Then, when I last visited the site, they were testing the presentation by rearranging its order for some visitors:

Buzzfeed Social Buttons

  • Identify which social platforms that your audience uses to share content
  • Test the addition of those social platforms and track performance of total shares and platform shares
  • Test the order arrangement by prioritizing platforms with the most average shares
  • Test different designs of buttons


Continuously A/B test ways to optimize the experience of your audience and improve how they interact with your content publishing site. If you’re already providing quality content, it’s time to further engage them by gaining learnings that tell you how they consume and share it. Use these tactics as potential experiments to help your site keep up with the constantly evolving needs of your users.

To learn how Experiment Engine can help optimize your content publishing site, please request a demo.

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