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Creating a Push Strategy for Your Web Site

Creating a Push Strategy for Your Web Site

Introduction
What if you built a Web site and nobody came? Or they came once and forgot to check in again to see all the latest stuff you built? One of the problems with the Web is that it has been hard to get people to become regular users of your site. You're either on the Favorites List or you're not. And even if you're there, there's no promise that people will think to call up your site each day.

Push technology allows you to reach back out to individual users and give them content without them remembering to come and look for it. If you do it right, you'll also remind them to come back to see the rest of the great stuff you've been working on.

Push technology has been around for a few years on the Internet. PointCast delivered the first broadly successful solution in 1995. They created a custom Internet application that ran on the user's machine and pulled material off the server. But the system was proprietary and there was no way for you to participate without working directly with PointCast.

Now, the leading browser vendors are bringing the power of Push to site producers everywhere. Both Internet Explorer 4.0 and Netscape Communicator have great solutions that allow you to deliver your content directly to those who want it.

Push technology comes in a number of different forms. At MSNBC, we've been experimenting with a number of these technologies for the last year. In this article, I'll share some of what we've learned and provide some tips and tricks for making Push technologies work for you on your Web site.

Personalized Content
Push technologies are very tempting for site producers. You have so much to tell customers that you just know they are dying to hear about. The idea of a system that automatically forces your message down your customer's throat - willing or not - seems like a great idea. That's why telemarketers have so many companies paying them to call you when you're at dinner.

But before you interrupt the user's day with your message, you'd better have something interesting to say. Users quickly tire of interruptions that are irrelevant to their needs. That's why we've focused so much attention on building elegant personalization into our site. Users can easily tell us what their preferences are and we can use that information to deliver only the news they want to see.

MSNBC centers its personalization on the Personal Front Page. This is a server-side script page that assembles the user's choice of leading news stories from around the world, sports scores, stock tables, weather and local news. Users can customize this page to their preferences. We use the Active Server Page (ASP) system in Microsoft's Internet Information Server to build these pages for each user. The ASP script checks a cookie on the user's machine to find the correct customization settings. These settings are kept on the server in a SQL Server database. The ASP script then assembles a page of HTML from a series of "mini-pages" and text files to produce the final Personal Front Page.

A Range of Delivery Options
Push technologies are intrusive. To a greater or lesser extent, they interrupt the user's daily work flow and try to grab attention. We manage these interruptions by creating a range of tools with different levels of intrusiveness.

One way to characterize these tools is by how much they interrupt the user:

  • Low - The site can construct pages on the fly that appear when the user chooses to come to the site. This is still "push" in the sense that particular content is being given to the user, but it only happens once they've decided to come to your site.
  • Medium - Sites can send e-mail. This will wait in the user's Inbox until they choose to look at it. This level also includes some forms of cached content where the material is read from the site and kept on the users' local hard drive until they are ready to read it.
  • High - There are separate applications that constantly scan for information and interrupt the user immediately when something interesting happens "out there".

    We give the customer the ability to select the tools they want to use and the opportunity to personalize the news that is delivered through each of those tools. Delivery options and Personalization work together to provide the customer with the highest value for the interruptions that we create.

    Let's look at these delivery options in more detail.

    Cached Content
    Push technology is driven by cached content. Content is read from a server and stored on the user's local machine. Then the viewing tools can spend more time on formatting and presentation. PointCast is the most common early example of this.

    Last year, MSNBC built a similar system - MSNBC News Off-line - that relies on HTML for the presentation. The user loads a custom client application and then can select what types of stories to keep current. These choices are managed down to the sub-category level (e.g., golf and baseball within the broader category of Sports). The client runs in the background and loads new HTML pages from the site on a schedule selected by the user. Instead of getting the standard front pages authored by the editorial staff, MSNBC News Off-line presents a view by category, sub-category and story.

    This system has been in place for seven months. It is about to be supplanted by a more general implementation provided by the upcoming Internet Explorer 4.0 release. IE 4.0 manages an off-line cache based on the notion of channels. Sites can easily author a channel by maintaining a single index file. This index file uses the new Channel Definition Format to describe the parts of the site that should be downloaded to the user's local hard drive. The Channel Guide then allows the user to see when new material is loaded and easily switch among the channels to which they have subscribed.

    The IE 4.0 Channel Guide model has advantages for both the site producer and the end user. The producer doesn't need to maintain a separate tool or do much unique authoring for the system. Users have a single model that organizes all the content they care about the most and allows them to browse it quickly.

    Personal Delivery
    Many sites already use mailing lists to "get the word out" about their site. Pathfinder, the LA Times, Berkley Systems and Microsoft's Slate magazine are all examples of sites that use standard e-mail list servers to tell users when material changes on the site. The advantage of this approach is that it's easy to set up. It's also easy for the user to ignore. Text-based e-mail doesn't provide much opportunity to grab the user's attention. Also, since the material is usually simple promotion, users quickly learn to ignore them unless they are deeply interested in the material.

    MSNBC has a different approach to using mail, called Personal Delivery. We built a series of proprietary server-based solutions to deliver individual HTML pages to each user at the time they want it. A scheduling application keeps track of users who have signed up for the service and when they want to receive their pages. At the appointed time, a second server application builds the HTML page, encodes it as a standard MIME e-mail attachment and mails it to the user. The user is given a custom decoder application that reads the attachment, breaks it into a series of HTML pages and opens the browser of choice on the page.

    The advantage of this solution is that it brings real HTML-based content to the user directly through the tool many people use the most on the Internet - e-mail. The material is pulled directly off the real Web site so it is current and doesn't require a separate editorial process to maintain. Also, since the entire page, including graphics, is encoded, users can read their news even when they are disconnected from the network. Since it uses regular MIME attachments, it works with any modern e-mail reader. In the next year, many e-mail readers will handle HTML directly so the extra encode/decode step will not be necessary.

    One disadvantage of this solution is that it requires extensive server code to implement. Internet Explorer 4.0 provides an easy way to replicate almost the same behavior as part of a Channel implementation. The site producer can set which pages from the site should be e-mailed directly to the user. This is handled on the client side so that no additional server software is needed.

    News Alert
    MSNBC News Alert is a small Win32 application. It runs all the time on the user desktop and every ten minutes (or at an interval selected by the user) goes out to the Web. It checks the timestamp on a text file that we maintain that is an index of all the stories currently on the site. If the file has changed, it copies it to the user's machine and scans it for stories users have said they care about.

    When a story is found, News Alert triggers an animated icon in the Win95 Task Bar. If the user clicks on the animated icon, a small window appears with the headline. The user can dismiss the box, cycle through any other headlines that News Alert downloaded or just click on the headline itself to go on to the Web to see the full story.

    The stories that appear in News Alert are selected in three different ways. MSNBC editors select the top stories in each section of the site all day long. By default, News Alert brings these headlines to the user. Even more interesting, editors have a tool that allows them to immediately place a breaking news headline into the central index file. Users who have News Alert running on their machines will see that headline at their desks the next time News Alert checks the file. This allows us to deliver breaking headlines as soon as they happen, instead of just when the user remembers to check the site.

    The Microsoft Investor Web site uses News Alert to announce major moves in stock prices to their users. The user selects the stocks they want to track and the percentage movement that is significant to them.

    News Alert also delivers an ad with each alert delivered. News Alert loads the ad in the background and reports back how many times the alert ad was presented. MSNBC sells the spot on a daily or weekly basis to premium advertisers who are looking for new ways to capture attention. In this way, News Alert draws users to the site and creates its own revenue stream.

    Tickers
    MSNBC maintains a ticker of the latest sports scores and sports headlines. This ticker appears in the MSNBC Sports section and, if the user has Internet Explorer 4.0, it can be pulled off the Web page and placed directly on the user's desktop. This same engine will be used for news and business headlines in the future.

    For portability, this ticker is implemented in Java. The applet makes a straightforward get call to a fixed URL. The URL is a server-side script that accesses a SQL database which receives a constant stream of updated scores. The server-side script builds an HTML page with all the latest scores. The Ticker applet reads and formats these scores.

    Think Like the User
    Now let's talk about how to put these all together.

    One of the first rules in any site design is to think like the user. What does your customer want and need? Because you are so close to your site every day, it's easy to imagine that your users want everything dropped right onto their desktop. After all, you went to a lot of trouble to produce that material, shouldn't they do you the courtesy of studying it all? You have to take a more detached view of your product and understand it from your user's point of view. Build a model of your users' behavior. How often do they come to the site? Once a day? Once a week? Once a month? Do they return regularly? How many pages do they look at? What do they look at? There are a number of tools on the market that can interpret your site logs and give you detailed information on what your users are doing. We've used these tools along with regular surveys on the site to gather an understanding of how our users behave.

    Now, imagine what information you have that the user most wants. How often does that information change and update? How urgent is that change to the user? Stock prices are an obvious example of changes that are urgent to some users, but even the most dedicated stock follower can't be distracted by every hiccup in hundreds of stocks. Determine what level of information and what degree of significance it will have for your user.

    We've designed our most intrusive applications, like News Alert, to deliver quick snips of information that are truly important. This is both a technical and editorial issue. The editors must have the discipline not to mark every new story as a breaking headline. We've found that when we interrupt with anything less than truly breaking headlines our users complain. We've also found that customers love to take control of the News Alert application and set their own keywords to tune the headlines to their own tastes.

    Think Like the Producer
    Successful product design starts with the user in mind. But still, you have to remember what the goals of your organization are as well. As a news site, MSNBC feels strongly that there are some stories that people just need to hear about. We reserve the top part of our Personal Front Page for our editors to lead with the top five stories of the day. Sometimes these are news-driven headlines and sometimes they are the most interesting and elaborate features we've built that day. By combining this editorial sensibility with the user-driven personalization, we build a product that is tuned to the user and still has the unique voice of our editorial staff.

    At MSNBC, we're trying to run a business. We get most of our revenue from advertising. All this Push technology is wasted if it doesn't somehow drive up these advertising revenues. In some cases, the relationship is very obvious: We sell a special advertising slot with News Alert that runs at a premium because it comes up when headlines are breaking. Most of the increase in revenue comes from increased customer loyalty, increased return visits and our ability to drive people from the push-delivered news back to the full site.

    Summary
    Until now, it took a strong development team to design, implement and maintain a push technology solution for your Web site. With the latest round of browsers, these tools are now available to sites of all sizes. Therefore, it is now more important than ever that a solid strategy accompany the use of this technology.

  • More Stories By Keith Rowe

    Keith Rowe is the Director of Technology at MSNBC on the Internet. He has worked at Microsoft Corp. for seven years, starting in Language Design. In 1994, he transferred to lead the prototyping and development efforts for Microsoft's interactive television applications. As Director of Technology, Keith is in charge of the creation of tools and platforms for creating and distributing MSNBC's new products on the Internet.

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