Solving the Problem of Drive-By Traffic
One of the basic challenges for today’s newspapers is this: The fundamental context around which their Web sites are built is broken.
In my last post, I offered a tongue-in-cheek tour of the pain of redesigning home pages. But that tour didn’t address a problem with which papers are still coming to terms: Many readers no longer come to them through the home page or the section pages, despite the amount of hand-wringing done by editors, designers, developers and business folks over such pages.
The very nature of the Web atomized newspapers, making the single article the basic unit of the newspaper. With the physical paper out of the picture, Web newspapers knew they had to create a new context for articles, and most soon grasped that making a paper work online demanded more than simply transforming print sections into navigation tabs. The online audience was different, and needed a different context. (Compounding this challenge was the fact that papers also wanted to cater to print readers making their way online. At the Wall Street Journal Online, we had to figure out a name for the paper’s “Weekend” section that was recognizable to print readers but also informed online readers that the section wasn’t just updated on Friday and Saturday. Good luck with that one.)
Such debates are beginning to seem quaint. Today the article remains the basic unit of newspapers, but the problem of context has utterly changed. Readers do still come to articles through a paper’s internal Web navigation, but the much larger audience that’s being pursued finds individual articles through search, or through third-party news aggregators, or through links emailed by friends, shared on social-networking sites, or tweeted as shrunken, transformed URLs.
The atomization of the article is now complete, and it’s left newspapers grappling with the unhappy realization that greater traffic may not translate into greater revenue or reader loyalty. Too many page views from searching, aggregation and sharing are “drive-by traffic” — instead of exploring a paper’s other offerings, a reader consumes an article and is gone, perhaps never to return.
The logical goal, at least within the traditional newspaper framework, is to convert more of those drive-by readers to repeat visitors and then to members of a vibrant community of readers. But reaching that goal has to begin with an understanding of the different ways readers arrive at an article — and that’s lacking. Most papers still treat all readers as if they’d burrowed down to an article through the home page, but that’s true for fewer and fewer of them. The old context is broken, to the extent that it ever worked, and needs to be replaced.
But with what?
I’ve been thinking about that this week, and I think the answer is with as many different contexts are there are different-sized audiences.
When it comes to devices and services, newspapers are realizing that they have to go whereever readers want them to be — whether that means Facebook, Twitter or the iPhone. But the same logic has to applied to readers’ arrival — they have to be treated in as many different ways as there are decent-sized audiences that produce them.
A reader who arrived at an article because it scored high in search results might respond to articles, pages or other content related to those search terms. A reader who came via a Facebook link might respond to other articles his Facebook friends have (publicly) shared. A reader who arrived through a Most Popular list might be enticed by snippets of other articles on that list. What works in one case probably won’t work in another — and few if any readers are going to be engaged by the default navigation of a newspaper site they may have never visited.
And in every case, the newspaper should offer dramatic, in-your-face branding for drive-by readers. I’d love to see a paper survey such readers — because I bet in a depressingly large number of cases, the readers won’t even have registered what site they were just on.
I firmly believe that the long-term strategy for papers adapting to the age of digital news is to rebuild the reader communities online that they once anchored in print. But that strategy has to begin with treating readers properly whenever and however they arrive.