Election 101: Lessons learned

TV-news Web sites discover on the fly how to handle an election that doesn't want to go away
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In many respects, the 2000 presidential election was a coming-out party for TV-news-related Web sites. After all, in 1996, their online plans were based on much smaller staffs and much smaller anticipated audiences.

Needless to say, after days, of chad, dimples and debates over exit polling, it'll be interesting to see in 2004 how the 2000 election affects online coverage and traffic control. Obviously, one thing going through everyone's mind will be to expect the unexpected.

"We couldn't dust off the last presidential-election plan because there was none and the user universe has exploded in four years," says Steve Jones, executive producer, ABCNews.com. "We honestly had no idea what sort of traffic to expect, but, technically, we did well."

Scott Woelfel, president and editor in chief of CNN Interactive, says that, if there was one overriding lesson that came out of the election coverage it was that planning must be the priority, including planning for all types of scenarios. "Even when unpredictable news breaks out, you need to have a plan about how to deal with it.

"Second," he continues, "simplify the content. In addition to making it technically leaner, you need to make it easier to understand so that your audience can skim and digest it."

Woelfel's last lesson concerns the issue of "stickiness" and the need to demonstrate why your site is better than the competition and why the user should come back when the big story is over. "If the first steps are followed, however, this should be the result," he points out.

"We never expected the rush of visitors to maintain this pace, or the election process to take this long," says MSNBC.com General Manager John Nicol. "We've implemented a number of longer-term enhancements instead of the short-term election-night modifications in order to handle the on-going traffic."

One specific enhancement he cites is the integration of additional data-center servers into a second data center. But he gives much credit to the network's publishing system, Windows 2000 server OS, and partner relationships.

MSNBC.com sent more cached content than usual out to partners like Akamai. "That reduced our server load and our load on our connection to the Internet," Nicol says. "We can take ASP story pages, which are pages produced on the fly by pulling many sub-components into the story like Live Votes or stock quotes, and convert those pages to HTML files, flat pages that take little processor time."

One of the solutions ABCNews.com implemented tapped into ESPN.com's servers to help alleviate the load. Also, more headends were dedicated to election traffic. According to Jones, ABCNews.com dedicated 54 servers to election traffic, where they usually would use 15. The other Walt Disney Internet Group properties, and their servers, came in handy in a pinch: "We split that access across five networks to provide additional redundancy."

This election also saw a jump in demand for streaming video for MSNBC.com. "On Election Day, more than 2 million people accessed our live video page," says MSNBC.com Editor-in-Chief Merrill Brown. "To us, that demonstrates that, when big events occur, consumers are coming to their PC for a converged experience in significant numbers."

Nicol points out that there is somewhat less flexibility in dealing with adjusting bandwidth requirements for streaming content vs. Web pages. "But, actually, handling streaming video isn't any more challenging than flat content, because the same concepts apply when it comes to adding servers on the backend and distributing the load to partner providers around the Internet, like iBeam."

Since the launch of MSNBC Cable and MSNBC.com in July 1996, Brown says, there has been an enormous amount of energy focused on the development of video products. "Media streaming is a critical part of the convergence mission of MSNBC, critical in our ongoing invention of Internet news, critical for our efforts to build savvy promotion strategies, critical to building audience, and fundamentally at the heart of our mission. The PC is a huge market for video news that never existed before."

ABCNews.com's e-mail feature also saw a jump in popularity, typically sending out two e-mails a day. "E-mails are a terrific way to enhance our relationship with our audience," Jones says. "They serve to keep our users updated on major stories, and I emphasize the word 'major.' We don't barrage our users with irrelevant developments."

The breaking-news e-mail has been offered for a couple years, but it was only recently that ABCNews.com upgraded the service and emphasized its value to users.

One great thing about the nature of the Internet is that it allows the network to get a much stronger handle on how the viewer demands the content. Where the television side of things can't tell if someone is watching the program intently or watching while ironing, the same can't be said of the Internet. "When any significant announcement was made by NBC News or MSNBC Cable, we would see a sudden influx of visitors to our site," says Nicol. "It was apparent that people were both watching TV and checking the Internet, very much in parallel."

He adds that MSNBC also realized that visitors tended to hit "refresh" over and over, greatly increasing page views and site load. "There are ways that we could create an even better experience for our users under those conditions. Success on the Internet is all about learning and evolving. We will continue to do both."

Learning and evolving aside, if the election and the days that followed demonstrated anything, it was that the Internet is already established as a leading information medium.

"The election offered an opportunity to demonstrate just how well it can convey certain types of information," says Woelfel, "despite the ready availability of similar information in other media, including television."

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