Make This Your Mantra: 'Repeat Visitors'

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By: Steve Outing As much of the interactive newspaper industry gathers in Florida for the annual Connections new media conference put on by the Newspaper Association of America, there's a major concern that I hope will be addressed: How can news Web sites encourage consumers to visit them regularly.

The Web is, foremost, a medium that consumers use to seek out bits of information as they need it. It's not passive like TV; you have to interact with it. It's not delivered to your doorstep like newspapers; you have to remember to go visit a Web site. Yet most news publishers want consumers to visit their sites repeatedly and regularly; they are utilizing the Web as a delivery mechanism for news. Trouble is, it's better suited as a retrieval medium; it works better as a resource for the information-hungry than as a news medium for consumers who don't know specifically what they want, other than to be told what's happening in the world and in their interest spheres. A news Web site is not conducive to repeat readers in the way that is a daily newspaper.

(That's not to say that the Internet can't be an excellent news medium. The Internet is a diverse "place," and the technology of the Internet and the Web allow many different business models. But to make the Internet work as a news medium, publishers need to accommodate the characteristics that are inherent to the Internet.)

Haunting findings

Recent research by Eric Meyer of Newslink Associates, reported on in this column, indicates that the typical news Web site has very low repeat usership. His research isn't the definitive word, and it faces challenges, but Meyer's conclusions about today's news sites are disturbing. News Web sites have got to act in order to encourage and facilitate repeat usage by consumers. Having 300,000 unique visitors in a month is all well and good, but if only 5% visit your site more than three times in that month, are you really succeeding? My answer would be a resounding "no."

A few days ago I initiated a discussion on the Online-News discussion list, asking the assembled industry minds to come up with ideas for how news Web sites can increase repeat usage. For today's column, I am going to offer some of the list members' ideas, plus add my own. (At the end of the column, I am crediting those who contributed ideas. If you would like to read the Online-News list discussion threads on this topic, visit the list archive Web site.)

The answer is in the e-mail

The best way to encourage repeat traffic is to send e-mail reminders to users of your site, which is something that the majority of news sites still fail to do. I am of course not advocating that you "spam" your readers with unsolicited e-mail. Rather, allow them to voluntarily sign up to receive regular updates about content on your site that may interest them. Offer a daily update with headlines, story summaries and URLs for the top stories of the day on your site. Offer to send them e-mail bulletins whenever really important news breaks. Offer to mail them notices whenever a favorite columnist puts up a new piece online; or their child's school lunch menu schedule; or a roundup of the weekly city council meeting.

In short, use e-mail to send them something they care about and ask for. Each e-mail message is a reminder to come back to the Web site for a visit. It's a mystery to me why so many sites fail to do this simple thing to encourage repeats visits. It's one of the most powerful things you can do, and the cost is minimal.

What to offer as e-mail services is of course the big question. Besides the obvious (headline summaries, columnist alerts, school lunch menus), you can do a little "data mining" to determine what content on your site is getting the most interest. Then create opt-in e-mail services providing alerts when the content is updated, or delivering the content itself if appropriate.

Search string e-mail reminders

Another nice e-mail service is to support user-customizable search strings for your site, which are mailed regularly to subscribers. A site user might sign up to run a daily search on "Denver Broncos," then the service reports in with an e-mail message containing URLs to new articles or content about the football team. Another user might request to receive URLs to all new movie or restaurant reviews that are posted to the site. The recipients to these services are more likely to visit a site regularly in order to retrieve the content that turns up in the regular e-mail messages.

Original content

I realize that I and other industry pundits repeat this often, but nevertheless it's important. Consumers are more likely to become repeat visitors to a news site if there's content that they can't get elsewhere. This can be a hot comic strip that's exclusively online; a star columnist who writes only online; additional letters to the editor that aren't in the print product; etc. The key is that the original content must be high quality; don't put up "second-string" stuff just so you have original content. Online is not the place to put content that's not "good enough" to run in print.

More old-media references

Print promotion of online content is, of course, extremely important. The key to making it work is to refer print readers to specific content on the Web site. Pointing print readers to the generic Web site home page URL isn't as powerful a tool as pointing them to specific content.

Respond to your e-mail

One of the most important things any news publisher can do in the online environment is reply to reader e-mail feedback and inquiries. Readers who feel engaged with a site are more likely to become regular visitors. When a news site visitor takes the time to compose a letter about content on your site, they deserve at least a brief acknowledgement of their message.

Related to this suggestion, include contact information (e-mail and phone) and biographies for writers and editors of the site; make it easy for readers to communicate directly with the site staff. If readers establish a relationship with your staff, they are more likely to be repeat visitors.

Facilitate reader feedback

This again goes to the heart of creating a "community" on your news site. Make it easy for readers to contribute feedback to your site. A form at the bottom of every column allowing a reader to append his opinion to the bottom of the piece again fosters a sense that this is a community, not just a one-way news medium. Consumers are more likely to visit often if they feel they are part of a community.

Facilitate community discussion

Discussion forums are another major tool for getting repeat visitors. For those who truly get involved in a forum, daily visits to participate in the conversation are normal. But don't limit yourself to discussions about news topics of the day. Where a news site can build repeat traffic is in hosting groups and organizations within the community. Allow groups to run discussion forums on your site for free, but include banner ads on the forum pages to fund it. Every school PTA (parent-teacher association) can have its own forum, for example. And those pages can have navigation features that lead to the rest of the Web site.

On a related note, try to create an online environment where online users can meet others in your community who have similar interests. To do this, you need to get out of the mindset that what you provide readers is more important than what users make of the site by themselves. This is another avenue to higher repeat traffic.

Reader empowerment

Let your Web users post content about themselves -- photos of family, pets, cars, boats, etc. Again, make people feel that they are a part of the online community that is your Web site, and they'll visit more often.

Contests, surveys

Everyone likes to win something, so regular online contests are a great way to get repeat traffic. Most of us like to have our voices heard, so online surveys about topics of the day can be popular. Best yet, combine the two: Give prizes for randomly selected survey participants. You'll have people coming back every day on the chance that they might win something. (And here's a possible prize: A month's free subscription to the newspaper for print nonsubscribers, or a month's bill erased for existing subscribers.)

Avoid boring home pages

Static home pages featuring the same content and links every day hardly offer an enticement to visit a site regularly. Think about offering a variety of content rotating through the "front page"; the "lead" item might be a sports item one day, a news story the next, a columnist the next, and a new online game the next. Maybe even include a popular cartoon on the first screen of the home page; some people will visit daily just to read it.

Credit where it's due

The following people contributed some of the ideas above: David Conn of the Baltimore Jewish Times; Mark Edelen of Pilot Online (Norfolk, Virginia); Eileen Faucette; Jon Franklin of the Raleigh News & Observer; J.D. Lasica; Stu Lowndes; Eric Meyer of Newslink Associates; and Jon Morgan of Hometown Online.

Movin' On

Fred Schecker is now creative director for news and features at Tribune Media Services in Chicago, leaving behind his position as executive producer of Tribune Interactive. Tribune Media Services has now been split into two companies -- Tribune Media Services and Tribune Interactive. A replacement is being sought for Schecker's old position.

Steve

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This column is written by Steve Outing exclusively for Editor & Publisher Interactive three days a week. News, tips, and other communications may be sent to Mr. Outing at steve@planetarynews.com.

The views expressed in the above column do not necessarily represent the views of the Editor & Publisher company.

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