Don’t Hide Your Multimedia Content!

By: Steve Outing

Count me as an advocate of “rich” content — multimedia online storytelling using techniques and formats such as audio, video, (Flash) animation, slide shows, “immersive” graphics, interactive databases, etc. It’s these forms of content that make the Net a new medium — not just a computer-screen replica of traditional media like newspapers or television.

Rich or multimedia content is, of course, expensive and time-consuming to produce. So publishers that go to the trouble want plenty of their users to see it. Alas, this isn’t always the case — because links to such packages are often tucked away or presented in ways that Web users don’t easily see.

The majority of news sites, it seems, do a lousy job of highlighting multimedia material. A judge for the Online Journalism Awards told me recently, “What struck me is how often sites have multimedia offerings, but they’re set off in some inaccessible place — i.e., not integrated with relevant content. Also, with special showcase pieces with fabulous text, graphics and multimedia, these extravaganzas are frequently back in the corner someplace.”

The challenge for multimedia-producing Web publishers is to get people to click on the links that lead to this expensive content. So let’s look at how best to get users to click through.

Putting it in orbit

More often than not, especially at newspaper sites, multimedia content is included as part of an online package, rather than standing alone. The norm is that the main element of content is a long text story, probably accompanied by a photo or photos. Then there are links to other content — perhaps a video clip, an audio interview, or a database that supports the main story. In the newspaper world, such periphery content would be called sidebars.

In the online world, our sidebars come in many formats. Some Web designers use the term “content orbiting” to describe this supplementary content. Around a main piece, various other pieces of content orbit around it. Online visitors have to notice the links to these other elements of the story. Web page designers devise various tricks to get people to notice these orbiting elements — from simple word links embedded in text, to graphical teasers promoting the multimedia element.

MSNBC.com provides a classic example of this approach in many of its stories. The news site produces more multimedia content than just about any other competitor — and much of it doesn’t stand alone but rather is supplementary to a main text story. For example, in Monday’s story about President Bush’s efforts to gain support for his Iraq initiative, “Play Video” blurbs are included at various points near the text. These blurbs feature small photos and short text descriptions of what you see if you click on them.

The links to such content need — in a compact space — to catch the user’s eye and very quickly entice a click. Where many news sites fail is in instead simply having a “Video” or “Interactive graphic” link and expecting people to click on it without properly informing the user about what’s coming and why he should care.

Brian Storm, former MSNBC.com multimedia guru and now a vice president at Corbis, explains: “The key is to have a strong visual tease and call to action placed contextually in the story. A random text link won’t drive much click-through. A crafted visual cue with well written context placed appropriately in the story produced excellent results on MSNBC.com.”

Rule No. 1, then, is to let the Web user know what they will get if they click on multimedia links. Especially for video but also for Flash or other multimedia animations, there is legitimate concern by online users about how large such content is and how long it will take their computer to download the content and display it. If a low-bandwidth user, especially, doesn’t know enough about what they’ll get, they’re likely to hesitate before clicking.

Repeat yourself

When it comes to getting users to click on supplementary multimedia, it doesn’t hurt to repeat yourself. For example, in an article last January about a new roller coaster, Los Angeles Times writer Robert Niles‘ text article included a text link up top (right under the byline): “VIDEO: Take a Ride on ‘X’.” Halfway down the text there’s another blurb in a box with a photo — linking to the same staff-produced video. Not everyone who might view the video will be willing to click on that top link before reading the story, so this second blurb gives them another chance to view it. This story did not include yet another see-the-video blurb at the end of the story — but I would recommend it in such a case. The video is an important element of this small package, so you want users to view it.

That roller coaster package is fairly simple — a single text article and an accompanying video. But some online news projects contain many more elements. This can be a problem if you have too many elements competing for a visitor’s attention.

An example of this can be seen in another Los Angeles Timespackage, about institutionalized and foster children who have reached age 18 without ever finding adoptive parents. This originated as a print-edition package of stories, but numerous multimedia elements were added for the simultaneous online presentation, including video profiles of and interviews with several individuals, plus Flash slide shows and photo galleries.

The content of this package, especially the multimedia elements where you can hear the grown-up foster children in their own voices, is compelling. Alas, I fear that many readers of the package wouldn’t take the time to click on all of the multimedia pieces because of the way they were presented. It’s too much for the average reader to absorb.

Possibly a better solution would have been to intersperse photos of each individual — with links for each to a video profile, slide show, and photo gallery — within or near the text of the main story. Long lists of multimedia content choices won’t have as much impact if there are too many choices. It’s better to intersperse them in logical contextual places.

It’s the marketing that counts

Getting online users to view supplementary content is in large part about marketing. Canadian information architect Stephen Downes suggests that site editors focus on basic marketing techniques in trying to encourage clicks on multimedia content. When creating links and blurbs for multimedia, Downes says: “Describe what the reader will receive from what you offer. Give a reason to believe that the product will be of value. And quantify the benefit.”

Think, also, about what form this marketing message should take. In effect, blurbs advertising editorial content are not so different than paid online ads. To invite multimedia usage, you can pick up some tricks from the advertising world.

One thing we’ve learned about online ads is that sometimes, simple text links work better than banner ads and even rich-media ads. Placed in the right spot and worded powerfully, text links can draw users in. It’s worth testing. (Note that this contradicts Storm’s advice above.)

At the other extreme, consider employing innovative advertising techniques to encourage traffic to multimedia elements. For example, when users click off of a page featuring a text article, pop up a new window that invites them to view an accompanying Flash slideshow — copying the techniques used so often with pop-up and pop-under ads. Or create small, graphical, animated blurbs to help bring attention to supplementary content.

To take a slightly different tack, media organizations also need to do a better job of utilizing their off-line operations to promote outstanding multimedia projects, says Laura Ruel of the Estlow Center for Journalism and New Media, who supervises the multimedia-content competition of the Society for News Design, the “SNDies.”

Ruel cites MSNBC.com’s multimedia baggage-check interactive graphic from earlier this year, which allowed online users to pretend to be airport baggage screeners. It was an outstanding multimedia project that should have had wide publicity, such as mentions on “NBC Nightly News,” but didn’t. “This ‘silo’ approach to journalism does not work at keeping people aware of all their information options,” Ruel says.

Let it stand alone

More and more, we should see multimedia content stand on its own — and not be used solely as supplementary content. For major multimedia projects like The New York Times Magazine‘s recent “The Masters’ Plan: Regaining Ground Zero” (accessible via this page), there’s no longer the necessity to first present the online user with an HTML intro page from which to then launch the actual content. Increasingly, I’m spotting news sites (like NYTimes.com, which occasionally does this) include links on home and section-front pages that directly launch video or interactive multimedia content — sometimes without even noting that what’s ahead is something other than HTML content.

Earlier this week, washingtonpost.com highlighted a feature called “One Year Later.” The home-page link directly called up a Flash page, with no indication that the content would be in Flash. Likewise, USAToday.com recently has featured “interactive documentaries” placed in the main photo position of the home page.

Should news sites offer home-page links to multimedia without first alerting the user? Web content consultant and information architect Jennifer Kronstain says the general population is still not prepared technologically to support the multimedia that news Web publishers want to throw at them. She suggests that it’s still vital to identify the technology that the user is going to encounter and need in order to view the content — Flash, RealPlayer, Quicktime, etc.

Kronstain argues that “the way to get people into (using) multimedia content is to make it integral to the experience. Right now, it’s just window dressing. Make it interactive, make it part of the business of the site somehow.”

The future is multimedia

One thing is clear: Multimedia content is becoming popular with online users. At NYTimes.com, more than 100 multimedia features were produced during the month of April 2002, generating 3.2 million page-views (which rose to 4 million the following month). Particularly popular at that site, according to company spokesperson Christine Mohan, are the “Photographer’s Journal” features — interactive photo slide shows with audio narration by New York Times photographers. The first Journals were launched in October 2001, and the “Frontiers of War” episode has generated 450,000 page-views since then.

We’re in an evolutionary transition here. Multimedia content has become quite common and many Web publishers are eager to foist more interactive elements on their users. But news sites still need to learn how to better let their users know about and enjoy this rich and informative content.




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