Attract the College Set With Design, Interaction

By: Steve Outing

Mainstream newspaper Web sites often have a younger readership than their respective print editions — but still, they could stand to do a better job of attracting the college-age crowd that the newspaper industry is largely losing. Like newspapers themselves, newspaper Web sites need to figure out how to attract regular usage from the 18-24 set.

It’s well known that this demographic doesn’t typically find mainstream newspapers to be an important part of their lives. If newspaper Web sites don’t do some work to better position themselves with the college audience (a.k.a., your future adult audience), they’ll find themselves on equally shaky footing.

How can you adapt your site to be relevant to the college (and high school) students?

You Gotta Have ‘The Look’

This may sound superficial, but one of the most important things you can do to attract a younger audience is to make the visual presentation more flashy, bright, and engaging. Especially if you have a section of your site — or a spin-off Web site — that targets a younger demographic, the visual appeal is critical. Much more so than when you’re targeting an older audience that grew up on print, not computers.

Don’t believe an old guy like me? Then talk to Mark Bieganski, the 20-year-old editor-in-chief of the Northern Star student newspaper and Web site at Northern Illinois University. Northern Star Online was judged to be the best college Internet service in this year’s Editor & Publisher/Mediaweek EPpy Awards, and part of its appeal to EPpy judges was the site’s design and presentation.

The reason that just-the-facts content isn’t enough, Bieganski suggests, is that his generation has grown up using computers — for e-mail, instant-messenger services, Web sites, and computer games — all of which have become increasingly sophisticated, interactive, and visual.

At Northern Star Online, which made its debut in 1996, usage has “skyrocketed” especially in the last year — attributable at least in part to how Online Editor Jeremy Norman and his crew go about packaging the site’s best content. The idea is to use eye-catching colors, create strong visual packages to present stories, include graphics that quickly sum up key pieces of information, and overall make the content visually appealing.

Norman says that now it’s clearly OK to load up a site heavily with graphics, even if the effect is bandwidth-heavy. He estimates that 95% of his audience (mostly students on campus, and to a lesser extent alumni) have access to broadband Internet connections, so the Web staff tries to spice up its content visually as much as possible. The challenge, he says, is to not go overboard and create a site that’s too cluttered and busy.

Adrian Holovaty, the 22-year-old lead developer at the Lawrence (Kan.) Journal-World, agrees that design is one of the most critical aspects of any site that targets the college demographic. The Journal-World‘s online division, headed by multiple-online-news-award winner Rob Curley, has put much of its recent focus on creating spin-off Web sites that target University of Kansas students. is the company’s city-guide/local-entertainment site, and its design is “edgy” and “in your face.”

Holovaty thinks that mainstream news sites need to learn some design lessons from sites like his that cater to the college age group if they want to attract more usage from younger users. Be less “boxy,” he says, and get away from bland site navigation schemes and dull color usage. In short, loosen up; be less stodgy.

The Interactive Generation

Besides presentation, interactivity is key, say college editors. Northern Star Online’s Norman notes that at his site, interactivity — defined as letting users participate in the content and express their opinions — is consistently growing in importance. He notes that discussion forums have grown consistently, and despite some earlier problems with inappropriate content in some of the forums, the tide seems to be turning — with some conversations taking place that are downright intellectual.

Ben Cunningham, 21-year-old editor-in-chief of the Indiana Digital Student (a finalist in the 2003 EPpy college news site category) at Indiana University in Bloomington, agrees that interactivity is important, but he defines it slightly differently. Cunningham admires content that the online user interacts with, such as’s football-draft interactive packages, where users could participate in a mock draft.

That sort of thing is attractive to college users because it gives them something fun to do while taking a mental break from studying. A mind-wandering student is much more likely to seek out something enjoyable like that, rather than going to a traditional news site to read the latest news headlines in dull plain-text format.

The lesson for mainstream news sites: Offer young people plenty of opportunity to participate in your content, and converse with each other and your site’s editors and writers.

The Content Itself

There’s always the danger in an article like this of over-generalizing, but the young editors I spoke with also emphasized that news is of interest to the college crowd, but they want it in small, efficient bites — they don’t tolerate being inundated with words and information. If you can deliver it short and sweet, you can get this generation interested in online news.

But the content that the college audience is most likely to be drawn to is often not traditional news, but rather entertainment — especially local entertainment — and alternative, edgy content such as Web logs. At the Lawrence Journal-World, that was the thinking behind turning from a low-traffic, routine city-information Web site into a controversial and edgy local-entertainment site that has been growing substantially in usage primarily by word of mouth (in advance of a serious advertising campaign).

Among’s most popular features are its eight blogs, which are written by local personalities with a strong connection to the University of Kansas students (or at least, writers who would appeal to that age group). Only two of the bloggers are staff members. One of the most controversial bloggers is 20-year-old Sara Behunek, a KU student who writes a “sex blog” called Powder Room Confessions, which details her rather racy social life — and attracts a ton of user commentary which sometimes overshadows the original blog content.

That sort of content may well offend some editors, but I’ll contend here that it’s necessary to include some of it on more mainstream news sites in order to have something that the college-age crowd will find of interest. At most major newspaper sites, you won’t find this sort of “edgy” writing.

One site that does offer something a bit different is, the Web site of the San Francisco Chronicle. The site’s star columnist is a controversial fellow named Mark Morford, who writes an unabashedly liberal, pro-sex, bizarrely written column that probably appeals mostly to a younger audience. I interviewed Morford recently for, and he had an interesting response when I asked about his work being published only online, but not in the print Chronicle:

“I can potentially reach a huge new audience for [the Chronicle]. Maybe. It would be a delicious experiment. It might be a disaster. It might be a glorious success. But they’d have to let my column stand as it is now, minimal editing, especially of the racier, pro-sex material. This is what makes the column soar, I think.”

Bravo to for “loosening up” enough to present such content that has a chance of attracting a devoted younger audience.

The Older Perspective

Just how important is it for news Web sites to get in good with the college audience? Mark Witherspoon, faculty adviser to the Iowa State Daily student newspaper and its Web site, says: “This is the generation in which you’ll see people who prefer to read newspapers on computer instead of on paper.”

The behavior he observes in his students is markedly different from previous generations of media consumers: They consume content from multiple media; if they don’t find what they need or want on one Web site — or what’s there is inadequate — they simply move to another. They seem to prefer to read online, largely because of multimedia presentation, but still (at least on campus) pick up free printed newspapers to read in class. And they’re vociferous participants in online feedback areas and discussion forums.

Witherspoon advises his student online editors to make ample use of multimedia presentation and interactivity. For this generation of media consumers, it’s a necessity.

Letting Them Know

OK, so you’ve got a news site and you buy into some of the ideas presented here about catering more to a younger audience. If you’ve developed some killer college-oriented content, there’s still the tricky task of getting this group to visit you in the first place, and to keep coming back.

Steve Klein, coordinator of the electronic journalism program at George Mason University in Virginia, says college students are far less loyal to media brands than their elders. While an older online user will look to a trusted media brand, college-age people tend to seek out specific things that they hear about from a variety of sources. “My students find out [about interesting online content] from each other; I hear about it from them.”

It’s not enough just to figure out the college content puzzle (no simple task in itself). You also have a serious marketing challenge.

Klein suggests some out-of-the-box marketing to reach young people where they hang out. His advice: “Work with the media that they use.” That would be movies (buy ads on theater screens or on popcorn boxes promoting your Web site); put inserts into videos at Blockbuster stores; work with DVD mail-order rental services like NetFlix; etc.

Also recognize that “peer dispersal” is the most powerful marketer for your content. Create good stuff that speaks to a college-age audience and you may just be the beneficiary of a word-of-mouth (and word-of-Net) campaign that draws young people in.

No matter how you look at it, attracting a younger audience to your news site is a challenge — but if you’re successful, the rewards could pay off for generations to come.

Other recent columns

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Targeting Technology Should Boost Online Ads, June 11
Newspapers’ Taste Standards Get Loose Online, May 28
Profiting From E-mail In an Ocean of Spam, May 14
Online Business Model Progress Report, April 30
Web Shouldn’t Avoid Horrific Images, April 16
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