Experiments in viral journalism: Trinity Mirror launches Ampp3d for sharing data-driven stories

As we pointed out recently, everyone seems to be trying to come up with an Upworthy or BuzzFeed-style portal that does “viral” content, and that includes media outlets like the Washington Post, with its Know More project. One of the more recent experiments comes from Trinity Mirror PLC in Britain, and launched on Monday — it’s called Ampp3d, and its focus is on trying to blend viral or socially-shareable content and data-driven journalism.

Ampp3d is actually the second such project from Trinity Mirror: the first — which, like Ampp3d, was created by former Guardian journalist and designer Martin Belam — was UsVsThem, which was launched in May and is a similar kind of site, but focused more on pure entertainment rather than serious journalism. In an interview on Monday, I talked with Belam about the rationale behind Ampp3d and what he has learned from the success of UsVsThem.

One of the most impressive aspects of Ampp3d — as a project that was built inside a major mainstream media company — is how quickly it went from concept to reality: Belam said it was less than three months from the pitch to the CEO to Monday’s launch. “We did a pitch document to the CEO with four potential sites and services, and from him saying ‘do that one’ to finding the team, doing the design and launching was eight weeks,” Belam said.

Understanding social sharing for journalism

The idea behind Ampp3d is to use social-sharing methods — snappy headlines, emotional content etc. — in the service of data journalism, Belam said. So where the Mirror recently did a feature on new pay raises for British MPs, with a big splash on the front page and multiple posts inside, Ampp3d came up with a single chart that shows the increase in a typical MP’s pay compared to that of a nurse, a teacher and other average British citizens.

Ampp3d chart

Belam said that one of the lessons he learned from launching UsVsThem is that people like to share things that are fun or interesting, but that also have a point of view related to issues that they care about such as politics. So some of the most popular content on UsVsThem has been games or interactive widgets with a kind of satirical political edge to them.

“They’ve done well because it allows people to share some of their political beliefs without being the sort of boring political guy… so the question is how do we find those stories that resonate with people that they will share a chart or a graph about, not just because it says something about an issue but because it says something about them? I like a lot of data journalism, but I think there’s some low-hanging fruit there in optimizing it better for social media.”

Like UsVsThem, Belam said the new site is an experiment with a fixed life-span: the idea is to try a service for three months and see whether it strikes a nerve with enough readers to make it worthwhile to continue. “If we can build an audience then great, we’ll keep on doing it, if we haven’t then that will tell us there isn’t the market for what we’re trying to do,” he said.

Belam said that some of what he is doing at Trinity Mirror is informed by lessons learned with projects like the “social reader” or “frictionless sharing” app that he helped develop while he was at the Guardian — an app that relied on Facebook for the distribution of content. While the app itself failed in the end for a variety of reasons, Belam said it taught him that the market for an article is sometimes much larger than editors assume it to be, if it is promoted properly.

Ampp5d chart

Finding new ways of telling stories

Belam said that UsVsThem and Ampp3d have both been driven by a desire on the part of Trinity Mirror (which publishes the Daily Mirror, one of Britain’s largest dailies, as well as a series of regional dailies and weeklies) to broaden its potential audience online — particularly outside the aging readership of print newspapers. And it has also been an experiment in trying to determine what readers want to share and what they don’t:

“The idea is to launch some new sites and services that can reach audiences that the Mirror brand can’t or the regional newspapers can’t [and] UsVsThem was kind of an experiment in seeing whether we could do that kind of social traffic. Trinity have been very good at SEO traffic, but not so much the other kind — not so much can you make things viral, but can you build stuff that people specifically want to share.”

Belam said his original target was that the site should be able to get about 10 percent of the existing traffic to BuzzFeed’s UK site, which is about 10 million unique visitors a month — but after a little more than six months, it has about 70 percent of that number, or about 7 million. This is “a bigger audience than I could ever have imagined getting,” Belam said.

Ampp4d chart

Growth can often come in waves

But that readership of UsVsThem didn’t come all at once, according to its founder: after a strong start initially, with several items that really took off on social networks, the site hit a bit of a lull and Trinity Mirror actually considered killing it:

“We went through a fallow period of about six weeks without anything catching fire, and we did actually sit down and say on the balance of things, if you had to make the decision right now would you switch it off — and there was a point at which we said yeah, maybe we should switch it off. But then we persevered a few more weeks and stuff caught fire again.”

Belam said that the way he thinks about sites like Ampp3d and UsVsThem is that they’re not really any different from the other forms of content that newspapers often include because they are interesting to or useful for readers, such as horse-racing scores and TV listings. And in turn, those things help to subsidize the “serious” content (whether they do so by perpetuating a harmful pageview-driven business model is a separate question).

The other thing that Ampp3d reminds me of is how some aggregators such as Business Insider and the Huffington Post take a single chart or a single paragraph from a much longer news story and use that as the basis for a popular post — in much the same way that Forbes blogger Kashmir Hill did with a long story in the New York Times last year. Why shouldn’t a media outlet do that with its own content instead of waiting for someone else to do it?

As for mixing the “viral” nature of social content with serious journalism, Belam says it remains to be seen whether that will work or not (the Washington Post‘s site Know More has similar goals and has had a considerable amount of success since its launch). Said Belam:

“I suspect the general internet market for cat GIFs is larger than the market for charts about British politics. But in the end, basically, if we produce good content that people want to share then it will work, and if we don’t then none of the other stuff will matter.”

Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Shutterstock / mj007