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As the 2019 General Election results approach, the frenzy and anticipation continue to build. Digital news publishers have the opportunity to engage with audiences on their digital properties as users go online to learn of the outcomes and developments surrounding the elections. In the first chapter of the blog series we listed a few trends on the role of the internet and the millennial voters followed by the second chapter of the series, that discussed a few challenges and corrective measures for digital news publishers around optimizing scale, performance and efficiency along with maintaining a secure online presence.

Now the question is - What do digital news publishers in India need to be prepared for to ensure a high-quality viewing experience for their end users? The answer to this is creating interactive, engaging and informative content around elections. However, for the content to be available and the experience to be seamless, the primary need is to be technologically prepared. In this edition of our blog series, we will look at some of the best practices from countries abroad and conclude an Election readiness checklist for digital news publishers to ensure high-quality online experiences as viewers expect today.

A Sneak Peek into Elections Results & Content Online for the US

It's no surprise that Election coverage brings record traffic to publishing websites and apps in other countries. What happened at polling booths? How was the turnout? What are the experts saying? All these discussions and content add up quickly to build traffic.

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In order to attract eyeballs and enable better engagement through digital platforms, digital publishers in the U.S. have been using various, innovative methods on the night of the results.

Last year, Gannett[1], the largest U.S. newspaper publisher as measured by total daily circulation, decided not to print election results in most of its physical papers[2]. The idea was to use the print medium for big-picture analysis and storytelling and use the online platform for real-time news and updates. On its digital properties, visitors to Gannett were able to interact with a chatbot that delivered real-time election results or take up an interactive political quiz.  In its physical editions, readers would see stories on topics including local turnout or the issues at stake in local contests[3].

During the 2016 Presidential elections in the U.S., digital publishers used the opportunity to explore other creative ways to cover the event[4].

  • BuzzFeed teamed up with Twitter to live-stream an Election Night show in line with terrestrial broadcast
  • Washington Post, Huffington Post, and the New York Times all had their versions of reporting live data including live maps, live trackers and dashboards, and live updates on their websites
  • A few publishers like, CNN and Guardian[5] introduced dedicated elections apps and live blogs[6]
  • New York Times announced[7] the intent to publish one 360-degree video each day with its new "Daily 360" series for viewers to experience polling places with 38-second-long 360-degree videos.
  • Other publishers also leveraged social media features like Facebook Messenger's Bot and Slack Channels for communicating real-time with visitors. USA Today also introduced its own Elections Chat Bot[8]

During the 2018 Mid-Term elections in the U.S, a key observation around viewership on the Akamai Platform was the audiences' preference to watch results live as they unfolded via OTT (or over traditional broadcast) while the traffic on news sites spiked the day after the elections. Below is a representation of data points and highlights around the 2018 US Midterm Elections on the Akamai platform.

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The Election Readiness Checklist for Digital News Publishers

As mentioned in the second part of the blog series, digital news publishers might face issues with scaling up their infrastructure to support the massive traffic load generated by users. They also need to be cognizant of the load time of their digital properties as it is a significant factor in webpage and app abandonment as well as search engine rankings. The third very important factor that they need to account for is online security. Digital news content is a prime target for hacktivists and bots, as digital news is fast becoming the primary source of content distribution, breaking news and alerts; with viral content getting millions of eyeballs. Publishers need to keep an eye on the five factors mentioned below to ensure uptime, performance and a seamless user experience:

  1. Planning for Origin Downtime: Origin downtime can occur due to connectivity issues, emergency maintenance, DDoS attacks, traffic spikes and more. Digital news publishers should be prepared with an automated failover mechanism (DNS-based or Layer-7) to ensure one less thing to worry about, anytime, but most importantly on the day of the results.
  2. Planning for Flash Crowds: Planning for flash crowds or sudden traffic spikes is important. This may not necessarily result in downtime but can degrade the overall performance of digital properties. Degraded origin performance could result in pages not loading or videos re-buffering among other issues. Publishers should load test prior to the election day event to understand how to scale the origin infrastructure, irrespective of whether it is an in-house data center or on a public cloud. The key is that the number of hits to be expected at the origin, based on the popularity of the content, can vary wildly and is difficult to predict - making load testing a critical component of the readiness phase.
  3. Planning for Online Security: Online publishers are often targeted for attacks if and when they publish content that is not in consensus with a certain group or community. Often, we see XSS (Cross-site Scripting) attempts aimed at defacing the brand or volumetric attacks to bring down the publisher's infrastructure. Publishers need to ensure that they have a robust security mechanism in place to defend themselves against an ever-evolving plethora of online security and cyber threats. Proper rate controls need to be implemented and cyber security rules need to be up-to-date to block malicious traffic before the online infrastructure is compromised.
  4. Planning for User Acquisition: These events provide a great opportunity to acquire new users or readers as people are more likely to keep checking for updates on the go. It's important to be able to provide, especially new, users a consistent experience in terms of performance and availability of content across different devices and types of network conditions. With respect to third party content on digital properties like ads, analytics beacons, recommendations, social media integrations, and beyond; publishers should make SYNC calls (in case the third parties do not scale) or move content that could potentially block a page from rendering to the bottom of the page or provide fallback options to ensure the end-user experience is not hampered.
  5. Planning for Monetization: An important part of monetization is to understand user behavior to get a pulse of the business by providing data and insights to retain, track, monetize, and further engage. Publishers should definitely look at deploying tools that would help with data on performance, quality of experience, and audience behavior to power their business decisions. Real-time insights would also help publishers quickly identify if performance is degraded in specific geos, or ISPs or platforms so that there can be quick fallback options to address these issues.

Elections are perhaps the biggest event for mainstream media in India and news publishers ought to do their best to get the most out of an event of such magnitude. Since the elections decide the next government and the near-term future of the country; there will definitely be a constant and ever-growing interest around it. Reporters talking to people on ground, 24/7 live streaming of news, instant and real time updates on websites, mobile apps and social media, in news channel studios, anchors along with panelists discussing the buzz surrounding the latest polls - election coverage has it all. And not to forget, interactive content like website polls, predictions, live blogs, all play their part.

The readiness checklist above is a humble attempt from us at Akamai to guide publishers in providing an engaging and seamless user experience leading to more eyeballs, spending more time on the digital medium, and ultimately opening up incremental monetization opportunities ...

It is really the time to Get, Set, Election Go!