Friday, 13 April 2007

Keeping online news fresh

What do people want to read about? Newspapers can tell when their front page leads return big sales spikes, or particular issues or campaigns elicit a lot of letters and feedback. Newspaper websites have far more understanding and hard figures backing up their decisions.

Online, the options are endless, what works and what doesn't, where, how and when your visitors arrived at your site can be measured in minute details. Most popular stories can be recorded, eye tracking enables designers to produce layouts tailored towards the sites audience preferences.

Measuring trends and activity

At work we are getting an upgrade to our WebTrends site analytics software, which will greatly enhance our ability to track success stories amongst our site structure, layouts and page elements.

I can see it being fascinating to pinpoint what choices we make are working across the site, but coupled with the danger of getting too caught up in the statistics and forgetting to get on with keeping the site fresh.

One of the key methods of keeping the site fresh in terms of content is breaking or updated news at pivotal times of the day. This needs to be habitual, keeping your regular visitors returning when they know there will be something new. Jodie Hopperton describes The Telegraph's similar strategy at

The Telegraph in contrast has 'touchpoints' throughout the day which are in essence mini deadlines to ensure news is fresh at each of its peaks: before work (9am), lunchtime (1pm) and leaving work (6pm).

Landing pages

It is important to remember, unlike newspaper readers who more often begin their read via the front or back page, not everyone of your site visitors comes in through the front door. So it is important to make use of site navigation and to create relevant mini hub pages where more content can be found, encouraging more clicks from passing 'trade', Jodie Hopperton again:

The pattern of usage is different from print to web and many people come through search engines looking for specific content/stories rather than browsing whats on offer as you would normally do in a newspaper.

Another vital key for first time or passing visitors, particularly to localised news sites is a sense of community. Local issues and campaigns should be prevalent, and opportunities for visitors to get involved and have their say should be easily accessible, Hopperton once more:

Creating a community ensures that these readers come back to the site as a central point, it's a good way of guaranteeing a base readership (assuming that the site continues to provide the same level of quality).

Online content doesn't go out of date the same day

Stories online can become or stay popular for days after they were first published. Anne Spackman, Editor of Times Online comments: "even after 2-3 days, old news is still alive, particularly with multimedia."

We have frequently found popular stories, in terms of page views, several days after a story went live, when it was buried lower down headline lists. This gives more valuable feedback on what an audience prefers, it's certainly not a mandate for leading stories, but remembering topics and issues that generate interest is part of the editorial process in a digital news-on-demand environment.

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