Keep them coming back (how?)

What do the people want? To a lot of journalists, this is SO the wrong question. WE KNOW what’s news, those journalists say. WE KNOW what’s best!

And what does that mean? It means: To hell with the people; we don’t care what THEY want!

From this simplified view, is it any wonder that newspapers are in trouble? People don’t want a product that doesn’t have what they want. Doh — it’s not too hard to figure that out.

Angela Grant points us to a recent post by Rob Curley that talks about experimenting with NEW ideas for what the news organization should provide — and then measuring whether the people like those ideas as implemented. Whew, you’d think that would be a pretty obvious strategy, wouldn’t you? But I have neither seen nor heard about many (if any) news organizations doing this in a structured way.

Now, Rob is apparently not a fan of the inverted pyramid, so his nut graf is No. 16 out of 40, but it’s worth your while to read and think about what he’s saying. It’s kind of the same thing he’s been saying for seven years now — and I’ll be among the first to note that his own implementations (e.g., Studio 55 at The Naples News) have not all been stellar successes — but his basic idea is sound:

There are certain things that will make people come back to you again and again and again, and these are things you must MAKE SURE to provide and do well and make EASY TO USE on your Web site — and soon, in your mobile applications.

And he’s not talking about Britney Spears gossip, because we can get that at 10,000 sites online, so I don’t need it from my local news organization.

It isn’t just the journalism that made the printed newspaper work. It’s the comics and crosswords and movie listings and the product reviews and the sports stories and Dear Abby. And especially the ads.

The problem with Rob’s initial examples (above) is that I already get all of that from Google (except Dear Abby, which I don’t read anymore). The new GoComics widget in iGoogle is fantastic — easy to use, and fast too. Google provides the BEST movie listings anywhere; I use them at home and also when I travel. (Just type the name of your town and the word movies into Google.)

But the gist — that serious hard news and journalism are NOT what drove people to pick up their newspaper every morning, back when they still did — is solid. The strategy needs to be this: Brainstorm about the kinds of unique, locally tied CONTENT that will make people WANT to return to your site for more, week after week and day after day. NOT MEDIA — not video, slideshows, games — but content.

Look at how the Las Vegas Sun has been applying two of Rob’s “five P’s”: passions, practical, playful, personal, and porn (no, not that one) — links are in his post. The proof that it’s working:

Our site’s overall traffic has increased by almost 300 percent in the last six months, and that’s with almost no marketing at all.

Now, they’re not saying the traffic was really great six months ago — but 300 percent growth does indicate they’re doing something better than they used to. And that’s what you need. You need to do better.

You need to brainstorm, implement, test and measure, adjust, test and measure — and then kill it if it’s not getting results. You need to do this again and again and again — forever. The Web never sleeps, and it never stands still.

We’ve benchmarked the effect of nearly every single change we’ve made to lasvegassun.com so we know exactly what is working and what isn’t.

Perhaps most useful is when Rob talks about what has NOT worked. Lots of journalists think there’s a gold mine in high school sports coverage online, but maybe the work hours required negate the ability to make it pay. In other words, too much labor, not enough community interest to balance that effort. Maybe you can tackle (heh) the challenge from a different angle and figure out how to minimize the labor and maximize the community participation.

I also liked reading about the disappointing result for a Cirque du Soleil package. Not because I’m glad they had a disappointing result, of course, but because it’s useful to speculate why — for example, Cirque du Soleil is not local to Las Vegas at all; it’s an international franchise, and has a damn fine Web site of its own, which naturally comes up first in Google searches.

Perhaps the most neglected area for potential success is the fourth of Rob’s P’s — personal communication. I think we’ve seen some good success stories with some (not all) of the news sites’ mommy-blog sites, such as IndyMoms.com from the Indianapolis Star (which was so successful, it was recently remade into a national site … hm, good or bad idea?) — and we’ve seen a lot of horrendous weak attempts at building community and UGC sites that are just plain embarrassing (I mean, I’d be embarrassed it that were my newspaper).

This is probably another area that’s ripe for serious brainstorming and testing and tweaking — what kind of personal connections would work really well in your local area? Singles and dating come to mind — Craigslist does a great “business” with that, but couldn’t a truly local site create and build a more interactive virtual singles scene?

Yeah, that’s not journalism. But neither are the comics, the crossword puzzle, and Dear Abby.

4 Comments on “Keep them coming back (how?)

  1. Journalism should reflect that America is the OPEC of knowledge, but right now it is as disoriented as the rest of the economy. Anytime a person picks up a newspaper it should be a learning experience. After one year of reading the business section of a newspaper, especially the large metro papers, a reader should have gained a MBA knowledge of the subject. Right now that is missing.

  2. This argument is pretty straightforward surely? Of course you have to give people what they want – and lots of it. But the point about information is that people cannot know whether or not they want to know something before they know it.

    So sometimes, being a journalist is about using your best judgement to decide whether people will want to know something.

    There is also a small element which is about providing a record of stuff that is dull but important.

    It’s about getting the balance right in the mix you provide.

  3. @Danny L. Mcdaniel – You’re right, the sense of being educated about the world is missing from a lot of North American newspapers today. Oddly, that’s one of the things that really strikes me when I am in countries where the press is tightly controlled, like Vietnam — there is much more INFORMATION in their newspapers. Yes, a lot of it is propaganda, but nonetheless, one learns about agriculture, education, foreign trade, border disputes, etc.

    @Czech Neck – Of course, journalism has a responsibility to give people what they NEED to know, even when it is dull stuff. But the foremost mission must be to keep the products of journalism alive, financially.

    I think U.S. newspapers have been giving people a combination of frivolous stuff and important stuff in recent years — but the frivolous stuff they have chosen is the wrong stuff. It’s not interesting, and it’s commodity — you can get it anywhere. Thus the newspapers made themselves irrelevant to their market.

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