Thursday, 1 October 2009

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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