The problems with second-guessing our online audience

Trying to second-guess what a newspaper’s online audience wants from its website is a tricky business. Apart from those who come to our sites for information there are huge numbers there purely for commercial services, and who find our sites through searches, not unflagging loyalty.

The second most viewed news article on the Echo site so far this month is a beauty contest semi-final; at the time of writing, it’s more than 5,000 hits ahead of (and two rankings higher than) an exclusive interview by the sports editor with the CEO of Liverpool FC, a club that can truly claim to be a global brand with fanatical followers around the world. In short, that was an article you’d have put money on securing the number one spot in the rankings, but it’s being beaten by a local beauty pagaent which is generating thousands of page views (possibly from proud relatives…)

The phrase ‘We Know What They Want’ is a kissing cousin to ‘If It Bleeds, It Leads’; murders sell papers and a news editor is always going to put the big crime story at the top of the newslist, but… a violent death isn’t always the best story of the day, and not all readers appreciate being served up a diet of crime.
They tell us so, in surveys, on forums, in phone calls, comments under articles, and on blogs. We can’t risk doing the same thing online – a YouTube video of some TV singer might do wonders for hits but considered retrospectively I’d say it’s a false positive and gives a skewed view of what our core audience values.

A slideshow presentation into the US news industry brought home to me the risks that accompany assuming you know your readership well. It details the results of a survey of 2,400 U.S. newspaper executive and was presented to last week’s American Press Institute’s Newsmedia Economic Action Plan Conference by Greg Harmon, of Belden Interactive, and Greg Swanson, of ITZ Publishing.

I discovered it via Steve Outing’s blog and I think the slides illustrate how out-of-touch some of the newspaper executives who took partwere. The survey shows the majority incorrectly assumed readers found their content very valuable; they also stated a belief that readers would struggle to find adequate replacements – the reader response was that they wouldn’t find it difficult.

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About Alison Gow

I'm a journalist, particularly interested in story-telling, networks and digital innovation.
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6 Responses to The problems with second-guessing our online audience

  1. “The survey shows the majority incorrectly assumed readers found their content very valuable…”

    So, it's not a matter of newspapers having trouble to sell content then; it's a matter of newspapers having trouble to sell shit content. An excusable mistake for a rookie in the content-selling business?

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  2. Seconding what Dilyan says.

    And, also, the local beauty pageant picking up more page views than the football tells its own story. Football fans can read about Liverpool FC anywhere – the football blogs, the sports pages on the nationals, as well as the local paper. But that beauty pageant story is only going to get coverage in one place. That's why local news published by local serving the local community still matters. Need I say more?

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  3. sarahhartley says:

    What a fascinating set of slides – thanks for introducing them to us. I found the one on the perception of how easy it would be to find an alternative to a publication the most startling.
    Hard to believe there are no viable alternatives in these editors' localities or that viable alternatives wouldn't spring up in the face of lack of service or content being hidden behind paywalls.Perhaps it's more the case that those participating don't yet take into account the small enterprises springing up all around? Or perhaps they haven't factored in that a 'small' site can potentially achieve the same reach as a multi-million pound enterprise.

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  4. Interesting that reader surveys come back with the result that readers don't want a daily diet of crime and murder, but there's nothing that sells more than a 'good' murder.
    Online, I get very nervous when news organisations simply chase traffic. If we all did that, then there would be nothing but showbiz and girlie galleries on our sites.
    We may as well just call ourselves 'The Star' and have done with it.
    Good news organisations need to concentrate on what they do best – good journalism. That means comprehensive coverage of local issues, including politics. The issues that affect the readership need to be the issues which get the attention.
    It may not be sexy, and it may not get the traffic that a cheap and cheerful gallery of the local soap opera may get, but it's journalism which the readership will respect.
    Hyper local, is hyper niche, is hyper interest.

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  5. Alison Gow says:

    @Dilyan yep; it does indeed hark back to us wrongly assuming we have content that is of value when we really need to be asking is: If our content adds value for our readers, what can we (as newspaper businesses) sell alongside it that would be valuable to them as well. We think because we create something people will pay for it – I think consumers are willing to pay for services and goods, but not, on the whole, for journalism.

    @Louise and Kevin I agree we need to do more with hyperlocal news models – I think at TM http://www.journallive.co.uk/northumberland-sites/ is interesting – and I feel community niche sites are mutually beneficial for a newspaper and an area. They allow a newspaper to re-establish its (discarded?) links with an audience; I'm not sure hyperlocal sites could add vastly to a paper's revenue but I'd argue that doesn't matter.

    @sarah “a 'small' site can potentially achieve the same reach as a multi-million pound enterprise” – it's so true. Social media can make a marketeer out of anyone who wants to promote their site, at a tiny cost. I thought it was very worrying that so many execs figured their products were unique and impossible to duplicate and improve on. It shows an arrogance that the events of the last few years really should have hammered out of them by now.

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  6. robinbrown says:

    I think the trick to online publishing is figuring out what your targeted audience wants and expects from you, and understanding that following some metrics can be a false economy and even reader feedback misleading – as Kevin Matthews intimates.

    Traffic for its own sake can be worthless, similarly ramping up content that's solely focussed on pushing calls-to-action can be a dead end too.

    It's a balancing act, but knowledge is power. As long as you have a sound understanding of the knowledge you, er think you have. As it were.

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