As the mainstream media industry tries to weather what we all know is the biggest storm the industry has faced in recent memory, journalists who are on the leading edge are trying to figure out ways to build new audience. There have been some breath-taking innovations, from great news iPhone apps, to social media, to amazing interactive graphics.
One thing that news organizations need to do as they continue to innovate: make a serious push to build brand loyalty. There are so many places a news consumer can go, so now is the time to hook them for good. Much like the previous generation read the paper every morning, we have to find a way to gain customers who will check us online every morning from work and then check in on their mobile at lunchtime before checking again in the afternoon. We need to be such a part of their lives that when a storm breaks out, the first thing they do is go to our sites (or better yet, take a picture or video and send it to us).
How do we build that loyalty? Here are three ways that don’t take too much effort, but can go a long way toward pulling in return visits.
Provide timely news. Yes, we’ve mostly all figured out that Web sites have to be updated throughout the day. Now we have to take it a step further: We should be giving them information they feel like they have to know to continue their day. Is there going to be a traffic snarl downtown because of a demonstration? Post a short item about it hours (or even a day) ahead of time, with a map. Don’t wait to report on it once it has already started. Know about a City Hall meeting that is going to draw a crowd? Post a good advance story in the morning to give people a chance to decide whether to go. Post frequent weather updates, with an angle on how it will affect commutes. In other words, be in the advance-story business. This takes a change in thinking when stories are assigned.
Listen to readers. With the social media tools available to journalists, there’s no reason to ignore what our readers are saying. It takes a willingness to understand social networks and someone who will monitor what’s being said out there. Poll your readers to see what they want. Ask them on Twitter. Invite some of them to beta test new features on your site. They should feel like a part of your site as much as you do. If a reader asks you why you run Eagle Scouts honors in your metro section, have the editor respond. Respond to sitewide comments and comment yourself on blogs about your organization. This all sounds so time-consuming. It does take some effort and resources, but it is worth it. In the past, an editor could hang up on an irate reader without trying to help and lose one customer. In the new media world, that one unhappy customer could broadcast his or her feelings out to a pretty large audience. If you go out of your way to listen, they’ll also broadcast that out.
Aim to make your Web sites more user friendly. Nothing will cause people to abandon ship quicker than a poor user experience. Visit your site from the point of view of a reader. Are the photo galleries hard to navigate? Is the type too small? Are good stories buried? Does the video pre-roll commercial make you want to throw your laptop through the window? How easy is it to submit a comment, or a user-submitted photo? Is there an easy way to contact the organization’s staff with a story idea? Does it take too long for your pages to load? Is your mobile app not up to snuff? Not everything can be fixed at once, but you should constantly re-evaluate your site. Also, ask your users from time to time about what they think of the site (in the form of a question posted on Twitter or Facebook or a more formal survey done by your marketing department). When you get the results, be sure to tell your readers that you heard them and explain the things you can and will fix.
None of these things are difficult, but they all take at least some level of commitment to our users. If we’re not willing to put in that effort, though, we’re never going to make it through this storm.
Robert Quigley, the Internet editor at the Austin American-Statesman, writes a media blog with Daniel Honigman at http://oldmedianewtricks.com.