This Q&A has been edited for space and clarity.
Andrew Pinzler is the head of innovation labs at Today Digital at NBC News where he and his colleagues develop ways to engage with Today’s audiences. Sometimes the solution is a mobile web app or an interactive video. His most popular is a bot activated by Twitter hashtags.
Previously, Pinzler worked in a business development role at NBC News. He says the previous role, along with his business and computer science degrees, helps him look at and evaluate projects from both angles. The head of innovation labs is part of the editorial team.
What’s your role as the head of innovation labs?
On any given day I could be planning new ways to involve technology in our stories and segments or building that technology. I’ll often meet with producers and editors to hear their ideas or pitch them on mine. I keep in constant contact with a lot of our partners and vendors, keeping them up to date on the projects we’re working on using their technologies. And I spend time writing the code or building the hardware that make these projects happen.
In our lab, we approach every project as an experiment so we can quickly and inexpensively build, measure and iterate on new technology that supports our brand. I’m in a unique position to evaluate ideas from a business and technical standpoint, then I try to execute on the feasible concepts relatively quickly given my background and experience.
What are some of the tools and technologies you have experimented with to engage with your audience?
From the technical side, the experiments have sort of naturally fallen into three categories: on-site, off-site and Internet of Things.
On-site projects are where we have been able to embed the product directly into our today.com website. A great example of this would be the interactive image tool. We used this on a story for the Today Parents section on Operation Refugee Child, a grassroots organization that distributes backpacks stocked with supplies to refugee families and children fleeing to Greece from violence in Syria and other countries. To show what was inside those backpacks, we created an interactive visual.
We have also used a new video platform called Wirewax to build out an interactive tour of our studio.
Off-site projects are the experiments we do on other platforms. Sometimes that can be a simple microsite quiz like WhatKindOfGrilledCheeseDoIWant.com that we launched on National Grilled Cheese Day. Other times it can be a more complex project like our Today Food Bot on Facebook Messenger, which leverages our extensive recipe database to give our users a fun new way to discover new dishes to cook at home.
IoT projects are where we can integrate our digital and broadcast platforms in some really fun and interesting ways. Some examples of this would be the Winebot, our Christmas Lights Battle, Facebook Counter Button, Dancing Pumpkin Man, Voice-activated Candy Machine, Trending Topics Bubbles and — hopefully soon — a project involving our new “Puppy with a Purpose” named Charlie.
What has been your most memorable experiment and why?
The Winebot has probably been the most memorable project so far. Other than the fact that it is the most well-known execution that has come out of the lab, it really captures the spirit of what I am trying to do in this role by finding interesting ways to leverage new technologies that enhance the great work our editors and producers are already doing.
Our audience was already familiar with Twitter hashtag battles from the earlier hours of the show and during our light-hearted fourth hour hosted by Kathie Lee Gifford and Hoda Kotb, so we created the Winebot. It works like this: Kathie Lee and Hoda debate a topic of the day and invite viewers to choose sides by tweeting under one of two possible hashtags. Each tweet automatically activates the bot technology to pour a small portion wine into one of two glasses live on air – white wine for Kathie Lee’s viewpoint and red wine for Hoda’s – providing a fun and visual way for viewers to gauge responses to that topic throughout the broadcast. This was so popular, we now do it almost every Wednesday.
Can you can tell me about an experiment that didn’t work out like you had hoped it would?
Since people visit our Today Plaza during the show, especially during our outdoor concerts, we wanted to see if there was a way to enhance the engagement of this audience with technology. Since everyone likely has a smartphone with them, we wanted to create an app that when activated, could be controlled by our producers. For example, right before our daily Orange Room segment we could show a shot of the crowd holding up their phones and make them display the color orange.
We built a simple mobile web app called “PlazaShake” and then tried it out with a small section of our plaza audience during a Coldplay concert this summer. While we thought people would want to shake their phones around when instructed, instead we realized that when you ask people to take out their phones at a concert, instead of waving them, they want to take pictures. We learned a lot from this experience and still want to find interesting ways to engage that plaza audience, so we’ll continue to experiment.