Why newspapers must get personal

I recently attended the eCommerce Expo at London’s Olympia and it reminded me that newspaper publishers still have a lot to learn.

James Candy, of Red Technology, gave a talk about the need for personalised content online, the basic premise being that the more relevant you make your site, the longer a visitor will stay, the more they will do and the more likely they are to do what you would like them to. It is no longer sufficient to have a common landing page for all users.

The personal approach is likely to increase the user engagement that every website craves. This is not news and we have all experienced the technology in action, but I was struck by how sophisticated the methods have become and how effective they are.

The personalisation of eCommerce sites determines the content on three levels:

  • currency, language, differential pricing and regional content;
  • layered promotions, cross/up-sells, adverts and emails;
  • individual, group, session, location and behaviour.

In other words, the content of the page you land on will be determined by your location, interests, website interaction, name, age, sex, affiliations (e.g. social media), purchases and products viewed. Even your route to the site can help to personalise your user experience.

Tailoring the content of landing pages makes the user journey easier and more relevant, ultimately to the site owner’s benefit. This is backed up by hard data, showing that it brings merchandisers a 50% increase in customer conversion, an 88% increase in transactions and 94% increase in the number of products ordered.

These methods are so powerful that merchants’ online sales are growing despite the fact that the same products are often available at lower prices in supermarkets. One example that James gave was of a dietary supplement. Offers of muscle-building or weight-loss product were accompanied by diet-sheets and training routines, all personalised. Customers are happy to pay more for this online experience than they would be charged in a local store.

In stark contrast to this sophisticated approach, take a look at the online edition of one our national (UK) newspapers. The publishers still think it is enough to list all the day’s content on the front page (i.e. the universal landing page), leaving their readers to find whatever interests them. The same landing page greets both a retired policeman and a young mother. Although the site offers search facilities, readers often struggle to find content, even from the current edition. When searching a headline from today’s newspaper, verbatim, there’s no guarantee of finding the story as it may well have been rewritten to meet search optimisation objectives.

The editor will, rightly, argue that his objective is not for readers to find their content as quickly as possible, like a busy mum in a supermarket; rather it should be to stay a while and browse. We’ve all seen those crude aggregated personal newspapers that have been available for years, whereby you specify what topics interest you and these alone are delivered to your computer screen and I agree that this is nothing to aspire to.

Having said that, there is an awful lot that you could safely ditch from our online dailies without impacting on my reader experience. Why do I need the weather forecast or entertainments listings for anywhere but my local area? I don’t want to see the satellite TV guide if I don’t have Sky. Some readers might not be interested in celebrities, stock prices or horse-racing. If that is your personal preference their removal from your landing page will make it easier for you to find the content you are interested in; it will make your landing page more relevant.

It is often an unexpected pleasure to read an eye-catching article that you would not otherwise have chosen. Editors could easily tempt us to read stories outside our preferred categories by applying metadata tags to them if they are likely to appeal to a wider audience. In other words, if a horse racing story deserves a broader audience for some reason, add a generic ‘sport’ tag, or ‘general interest’ or ‘science’ if it crosses over into one of those areas.

Technology makes it possible for every visitor to a newspaper website to enjoy a unique experience, tailored to their personal preferences. A much higher proportion of the content on the landing page would be relevant and it would be easier for users to find whatever interests them. It seems reasonable to assume that readers would enjoy this experience more, returning more frequently and recommending that website to their friends, just as it has proved in the world of eCommerce.

I have argued before that newspaper publishers, in particular, should think of their publications in a more granular way, rather than as the traditional printed edition. Perhaps this blog is now the second in what might yet become a series.

Do you agree, or am I talking through my Trilby? All constructive comments appreciated.

© 2011

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4 Responses to Why newspapers must get personal

  1. Jeremy Bangs says:

    I completely agree with your thoughts here. I think the downfall of newspaper print products, from a content standpoint anyway, is that they try to be all things to all people while the rest of world the increasingly caters to niche interests. Traditional newspapers tried to define community based on geography. I live in the Denver and because I do Media News figures I need to get the Denver Post. But the amount of content in the Denver Post that I can really identify with is relatively small. My community is only partially defined by where I live, but it’s also defined by the amount of time I spend on home improvement projects, my interest in the outdoors, my favorite TV shows, the music I like. In other words, community is increasingly defined by affinity groups and those affinity groups are so diverse that no one publication can hope to accommodate everyone. Instead, newspapers need to find the affinity audiences they want to have and absolutely own them with the best content they can provide. customized wire service I can build with my Facebook and Twitter accounts (Both of which pull some content from the Denver Post, but not all), I have a much more efficient source of content than the morning paper.

    As an editor, the issue facing me is one of making our content accessible to people in the manner they want to receive it. If someone wants to read about high school sports and doesn’t want to read anything at all about local politics, that’s not only fine with me, but it’s up to me and my colleagues to find a way to deliver only the sports with none of the rest. If we do that, we will have met the need of a reader and built a brand with him or her. The stronger our brand, the easier it will be to monetize what we do as long as we’re willing to be equally creative in that strategy as well.

    We have more work to do than any of us realize.

  2. kurtsima5 says:

    How about making the printed edition more personal as well? A movement away from “what newspapers want readers to think”, and a move toward, “what readers want”, might be a step in the right direction.

    • pootering says:

      I just attended the London Media Pro Expo and heard several publishers say that they have to become retailers to make their business viable. None of them appear to have learned any lessons from the people who are doing this already. They have a lot of catching up to do.

  3. Pingback: Media Pro show, London | pootering

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