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Get Smart About Your Readers: Ideas & Insights
Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Build a network, not a destination

(Rich Gordon)

For most newspapers, the average reader spends more time with a print edition on a single day than the average user of the paper's Web site spends in an entire month.

According to recently released Readership Institute research, the average newspaper reader spends 26 minutes with a weekday issue of a print paper, and 57 minutes with a Sunday edition. By contrast, at 46 of the 50 most popular newspaper Web sites, users average less time in a month than this 26-minute average for a single weekday print edition.

What should we make of this disparity? My colleague Limor Peer suggests newspapers should work harder at making their Web sites into destinations. But newspapers have been trying to build Web destinations for more than a decade now, with little real success. Maybe it's not a matter of poor execution -- maybe it's the strategy that's wrong.

I'm going to suggest a different approach: Instead of trying to build the best destination, build the best network.

The kind of network I'm referring to is a web of interconnections -- links between content and between people. In essence, I'm arguing that on the Web, news organizations -- perhaps, all media -- should focus on building themselves "into the clickstream." The goal: make your Web site a network hub that connects content and conversations.

The distinction I'm making between a destination and a network might not seem immediately clear. In fact, in the traditional media world, the two were pretty much the same thing. A great local newspaper was a destination, in that it was a place people turned to regularly to satisfy their need for information and entertainment. The newspaper was also a network hub, in that conversations revolved around its content (which is why the Readership Institute found that the "gives me something to talk about" experience was such an important driver of print usage). The same was true of TV networks and local TV stations.

The World Wide Web, however, changed the rules of the media game. In the physical world, technological, financial and regulatory constraints limited the number of newspapers, TV networks or TV stations in a single market. But in the digital world, anyone can start a Web site. In the physical world, once you've got a newspaper in your hands, you're not likely to pick up another one. Once you're watching one newscast, you're unlikely to switch over to a different station. But in the digital world, other sites are just a click away.

Traditional media companies see these digital differences as problems, whereas a network-building company would see them as opportunities. A site that becomes a network hub would take advantage of what makes the Web unique. It would attract users from many different Web sites, retain some of them for a while by offering good contextual links, route people to relevant material elsewhere, and capitalize on conversations that take place on the Web -- on blogs, on discussion boards, and in user comments.

The best bloggers do all of this already. Successful bloggers link constantly to other Web sites, especially other blogs, and can build enormous usage. News site managers know that one link from a "superblogger" (Drudge Report, Instapundit, Daily Kos, BoingBoing, etc.) can drive a remarkable amount of traffic. As I wrote a couple of months ago in describing newspaper blogger Dave Oliveria, a strategy of linking out and cultivating user comments can build substantial usage even at the local level.

The argument for a network-building strategy can also be found by observing another hugely successful online genre: social networking sites. Social networks enabled by sites such as Facebook and MySpace also drive enormous traffic by enabling connections among people, and between people and content. That's how MySpace came from nowhere to become one of the most heavily used Web sites in the world.

It's worth pointing out that social-networking sites are an outgrowth of one of the most active areas of academic research in recent years: network theory. If you've heard about "six degrees of separation" or read Malcolm Gladwell's "The Tipping Point," you're somewhat acquainted with network theory. A relevant Wikipedia entry and this Strategy+Business magazine piece republished on CNet News.com also provide a good overview. For now, suffice it to say that researchers in a wide variety of disciplines are exploring how and why networks form and, in social networks, how ideas are transmitted and personal connections made.

I don't pretend to be an expert on network theory (though researchers here at Northwestern University are among those delving deeply into it). But I've read enough to conclude a couple of things. First, in any social network, certain people are essential to the spread of knowledge because they are well-informed and make recommendations to others. Gladwell calls these people Mavens. And second, network hubs -- people with connections to many other people and diverse groups of people -- are critical to the transmission of information from one group to another. Gladwell calls these people Connectors. Both types of people have disproportionate impact on the spread of information and ideas.

Web pages, and the links between them, are a type of network that many researchers are studying. Links are not distributed equally. Some sites are link magnets and, consequently, get more attention and traffic than other sites. Sergey Brin and Lawrence Page tapped into this realization to develop Google. The reason Google does such a good job of delivering relevant Web pages in its search results is that relevance is defined by the number and quality of links to those pages.

What I'm proposing, essentially, is that news Web sites should strive to be Mavens and Connectors. How would they go about it? And how would a site built using that strategy be different from most news sites today? Here are some ideas:

Link out -- a lot. A decade plus since most newspapers began publishing on the Web, it's still stunning how rarely news Web sites link to relevant information elsewhere. In some cases this may be due to a misguided fear that people won't come back -- even though many ultra-successful sites (Google and Yahoo! come to mind) built loyalty exactly because they helped people find relevant information elsewhere. The journalists who cover any story ought to be experts on where to direct people for related content on the Web. Why can't a set of related links be published for every online article?

Link, especially, to blogs. This might be a more controversial idea, because mainstream journalists tend to look down their noses at bloggers. But linking out to blogs that address the subject matter of an article will accomplish two goals. First, these links will help interested users find commentary about news stories they're interested in. Think of it as "covering the conversation." Just as important, because good bloggers are constantly monitoring their server logs, links to blogs will often generate links from blogs.

Link IN -- to related content of your own. It's a little more common for news sites to provide internal links to related material than to content on other sites. But this practice is still surprisingly rare. One reason for this is that Web content management systems don't make it easy to find and link to previously published content. Beyond that, many news sites -- particularly newspapers -- retain Web content only for a week or two before putting it behind a pay wall. This leads to my next recommendation ...

Open up the archives. Precious few news sites are making enough money from archive access to justify keeping old articles behind a pay screen. If previously published material were routinely linked from current articles, I strongly suspect old articles would generate more income from ads than they are now earning from per-article download charges. Much of the link building could be done, or enabled, via smart application of technology to index old content and attach keywords to it. Furthermore, opening up the archives to all users will generate more archive searches, which can serve as a vehicle for targeted advertising based on search terms.

Use Web technologies intelligently. Many news sites find that a third or more of their traffic comes from search engines. And many people who arrive at a site via search engine links visit a single page, then leave. That's why I'm a huge fan of what News.com does for visitors who arrive from search engines. Because Web site logs capture the search terms that brought people to that site, News.com can present other relevant articles along with the one the visitor came to see. Suppose you search Google for "microsoft privacy" and you find a link an article on News.com. When you click on the link, News.com presents you the article, a "Welcome Google User" message and a set of links to other articles about Microsoft and privacy.

Cultivate conversations about your content. In this area there has been a lot of progress in the past couple of years. News sites now routinely host blogs (though it's surprising how many of the ones by newspaper staff members rarely link outward). They also use discussion boards and article comments to generate online conversations. Sites generally find that hosting conversations will increase the frequency of visits and the time spent per visit.

Distribute your content widely. Again, there's been progress on this front in recent years. Many news sites now make their content available via RSS feeds. And they're increasingly comfortable distributing selected content -- headlines and summaries, even selected full stories, via aggregators such as Yahoo! News. But most news sites have barely begun to consider how to put their headlines in places where users who might be interested would congregate. For instance, I bet many news sites could generate a headline feed oriented to teens or young adults that could be made available on MySpace personal pages.

Partner with the portals. The announcement this week that 12 newspaper companies and Yahoo! would collaborate on site search, ad sales and content distribution is, potentially, very consistent with a network-building strategy. Worldwide, Yahoo! is the most-trafficked site on the Web. Newspapers need Yahoo!'s traffic as well as its search and advertising technology. Unfortunately, though, I see nothing in the announcement that addresses connections between the newspapers and Yahoo!'s extraordinary array of community building sites and tools (including Flickr, Del.icio.us, Yahoo! 360, Yahoo! Groups, Upcoming and MyBlogLog).

Build your own social networks. Several traditional media companies are trying to create their own social networks that revolve around news content. The most prominent is USA Today, which recently launched a new design that allows online users to create profile pages, upload photos and post comments. A much smaller paper, the Bakersfield Californian, now uses its homegrown social networking software to power a site for young adults, the paper's main news site, three hyperlocal publications, a business directory and its classified advertising.

Encourage use of ranking/rating sites. A small but influential group of people regularly uses sites such as such as NewsVine and Digg to rate articles published all over the Web. Articles highly rated on these sites can get a huge boost in traffic, so encouraging your users to "Digg This" can pay off.

Build shortcuts across the Web. Back in 2001, researchers found that, on average, any Web page containing links could be reached from any other page by making 19 clicks. A network-building strategy should seek to reduce the number of clicks needed to reach your content. Syndicating your content via RSS is one way to do that. Another technique, for audio and video, is to syndicate the content as well as a media player. This is how YouTube grew so rapidly -- by making it easy for other sites to publish its video. Finally, you can make "widgets" -- snippets of HTML code that can be published on other sites but draw content from yours. A good example comes from the Allentown (Pa.) Morning Call, which published an investigative project on "puppy mills" and made its searchable database of kennel inspections accessible via a widget other sites could publish.

The idea of a network strategy for journalism-based sites isn't really new. To some extent, I'm making the same arguments that have been heard in recent years from advocates of "citizen media" or "citizen journalism" -- involve the online audience in conversations about content, and encourage them to contribute their own ideas and commentary. Over at BuzzMachine, Jeff Jarvis has even been using the term "networked journalism" as a substitute for "citizen journalism" that better "takes into account the collaborative nature of journalism now."

But I'm also trying to think more broadly about how to build audience on the Web, taking advantage of the unique capabilities of this relatively new medium. Research here at the Readership Institute has determined that there are several key "online experiences" that drive Web site usage and have no direct parallel in traditional media. Three are particularly relevant to network-building: "connects me with others," "worth saving and sharing," and "guides me to other media."

Add all these network-building ideas together and I think a news site can increase its site traffic significantly -- attracting new audiences, making current users come back more frequently, and increasing the time spent and pages viewed per visit. Beyond that, there are at least two reasons why this approach makes particular sense for newspapers.

First, a network strategy takes advantage of deep local content that only newspapers currently produce, and that in most cases includes years of electronic archives. Newspapers simply have more content to link to, and to link between, than other online information sources.

Second, local newspapers inherently have an unusual ability to extend their networks beyond the Web into the physical world. I'll argue that these kinds of network connections -- from virtual to real world, and back again -- are particularly powerful. Consider these examples:
  • The Fort Myers News-Press is developing a staff of "mojos" (mobile journalists) whose job is to cover hyperlocal news from within those communities, as well as to recruit local residents to contribute content to the paper's Web site.
  • Morris Communications has rolled out its "Spotted" photo-sharing tools across all of thecompany's newspaper sites. The papers send photographers to community events, take pictures of people who attend and then hand out "You've Been Spotted" cards to photo subjects, encouraging them to go online and see themselves and their friends.
Newspapers can make these connections between the Web and the "real world" better than other information providers because in any given market, they have the largest staff of journalists. They also have the largest local staff of ad sales representatives, which creates other Web-to-print-to-Web networking possibilities. For instance, imagine a site featuring user-contributed restaurant reviews and an advertising package sold to restaurants that includes a "rate us on newspaper.com" card that the restaurant can hand out to customers at the front door. You've now built a web of connections that links the restaurant, its customers and the newspaper's Web site -- with potential benefits that include both Web traffic and advertising revenue.


By Rich Gordon (richgor@northwestern.edu)
Rich Gordon is Associate Professor and Director of Digital Technology in Education at Medill School of Journalism, Northwestern University.


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Posted at 4:05 PM
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Comments:

Great post Rich. In 1998 I was speaking at Bocconi University in Milan and the title of the speech was "Newspapers are in the connecting people business" (it is online as well as a later, better version. The key point was the belief, "that a newspaper that realizes that its prime strengths lie in connecting not only information with context but also people with each other, will come up with exactly the right strategy for the Internet."
This belief has not changed much. Nor has the industry's resistance to recognize online (or digital networks) as the single most powerful tool to support what it traditionally has been doing best anyway. Your post will help to push it another notch up. Thank you. Norbert Specker

Posted by Blogger nspecker at April 20, 2007 at 10:09 AM



 

Your comment reminds me of Phil Meyer's recollections in his book "The Vanishing Newspaper."

He recalls a conversation with a Knight Ridder executive, Hal Jurgensmeyer, who says newspapers aren’t in the news business, or even in the information business. Newspapers, Jurgensmeyer said, are in the influence business.

He goes on to quote Jurgensmeyer:
“A newspaper produces two kinds of influence: societal influence, which is not for sale, and commercial influence, or influence on the consumer’s decision to buy, which is for sale. The beauty of this model is that it provides economic justification for excellence in journalism.”

“This is true because a news medium’s societal influence enhances its commercial influence. An influential newspaper will have more readers, be more trusted by those readers, and be worth more to advertisers.”

Posted by Blogger richgor at April 20, 2007 at 10:48 PM



 

Rich, these are excellent points, and will be new to many newspaper publishers, but I have to note that they were all made in The Cluetrain Manifesto, the first book to be "reverse published" from a Web site, in 2000. (The site, cluetrain.com, still up as a read-only "Web landmark" dates from 1999.) I think the problem is that newspapers (and journalism schools) are too self-referential. Benchmarking, as practiced by leading companies, looks within and without the industry for best practices.

Posted by Blogger Michael at April 23, 2007 at 1:44 PM



 

Rich – thoughtful and comprehensive post. I agree with many of the points you made about the benefits newspaper Web sites can reap from turning themselves into network hubs. I’m not so sure, however, about your characterization of the contrast between a destination and a network hub.

Your post defines a destination as “a place people turned to regularly to satisfy their need for information and entertainment.” It is the be-all-and-end-all place that satisfies all (or many) of the users’ needs. I don’t think anyone is arguing that a newspaper site could, or should, be a destination in this sense.

In my post, I explained that a site can become a destination in the sense that it engages users in a meaningful way and keeps them coming back. In other words, it is a “go-to” place because it offers users something that is valuable. That “something” may be a point of view, breadth and depth of coverage, or connecting buyers and sellers. That “something” can also be “offering good contextual links, [routing] people to relevant material elsewhere, and [capitalizing] on conversations that take place on the Web.” If newspaper sites do that – and if in so doing they provide something people want (e.g., connections, network) – they will be a destination. It’s not either / or it’s both / and… You can’t be a network hub without being a destination.

Posted by Anonymous l-peer at April 25, 2007 at 3:00 PM



 

I believe that for the internet to take news to the level that Rich talks about there will eventually have to be a basic, "erasing" of the lines between news orginizations. These companies or networks that are trying desperatly to make more fees or member's only type acess need to realize that closing people into your site through charges will not help you in the long run.
In this arena the number of "clicks" will be the field's cash cow. The idea of networks, eternal linking, and all of the connections and sidetracks equal much more heavy traffic than an interesting piece that you have to pay for.
We will basically just have to jump in head first to be able to tell if this holds true for the next few years. Just seeing the success of Google and the announcement made by Yahoo recently is enough to ensure more than a gambler's odds that the idea of a complete netowrk giving and taking without limit will be the future of successful, internet-based news gathering and recieving.

Posted by Blogger Iris at April 26, 2007 at 8:29 AM



 

Rich’s has a good point when comparing traditional media companies and network-building companies. Traditional media definitely view digital differences as problems, while network-building companies see them as opportunities. Traditional media are too concerned with having the largest volume of readership rather than providing individuals with as much information as possible. They fail to realize that providing information is the reasoning behind the success of Google and Yahoo. Plus logging on the internet is very much like joining a community. When you’re online it’s very much like joining a community. When you’re online it’s not the same as reading a newspaper. You have other options and these options such as links, archives, social networks, and feed backs are what make the web so interesting. Traditional media should embrace the possibilities available on the web and when used to their advantage, increase returns to their site will take care of itself.

Posted by Anonymous Anonymous at April 29, 2007 at 1:12 PM



 

I think that Rich makes an excellent point about making newspaper sites more of a “network”. I think that it would be great to be able to immediately get links to the days top news stories, blog postings and competing network websites.

People want their information fast and easy. I like being able to click to somethingand find out more information of a topic I am reading. I like to be able to watch video, music and interviews about that topic. If that means that I have to go to a different network’s website, then that’s OK. As long as I can get the best/most information, then I’m happy.

Having to pay for an old article in archives is very annoying and I usually never fool with it. I think that Rich’s idea of connecting old articles with new ones and adding more advertisement would work well.

I think people are becoming less tolerant of sites that charge you for access to special features such as video, certain stories and comments. I think focusing more on advertising is a better idea. We shouldn’t have to pay to see information.

Trying to limit where the media goes is almost inevitable. At some point everything will be interconnected and things really should be just a click away. Why not go ahead and make that transition now so that everything is at your fingertips?

Posted by Blogger Carrie at April 30, 2007 at 12:52 PM



 

And one more thing~
newspaper-affiliated websites have a huge advantage that they can offer the connections between readers and pro jurnalists.

Posted by Anonymous doudou.tang at May 3, 2007 at 1:48 PM



 

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

Posted by Anonymous joel at June 15, 2008 at 8:44 PM



 

This is a really very interesting site. The idea of Rich is nice.
---------------
lauran
Link Building

Posted by Blogger lauran at October 20, 2008 at 12:37 AM



 

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