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July 28 2011

12:54

What the h... is ROIII? - Insights into USA Today's social media strategy

Omniture and Adobe produced a (promotional) webcast about how to create social media fans on Facebook & Twitter. The webcast part I was interested in, was the one covering insights into USA Today's social media strategy, introducing ROIII, or Return on interaction, influence, and investment. Before USA Today even started to turn to social media they set up an interdisciplinary team from various departments, including marketing, IT and editorial staff. Marketing took the lead and trained Editorial colunnists, reporters, bloggers, etc. But listen yourself or download the transcript of the webcast directly from their site. The webcast can be downloaded to watch on an iPod, or as Quicktime movie or mp4.

[Jeff Wiegand, USA Today, webcast, 31:00:] We really want to be part of the conversation now ... (instead of only publishing updates, which is old school journalism

Continue to watch the presentation www.omniture.com

Download a transcript of the webcast via www.omniture.com/download (PDF)

September 14 2010

17:30

Why SEO and audience tracking won’t kill journalism as we know it

[I'm happy to introduce Nikki Usher, a new contributor here at the Lab. Nikki is a Ph.D. candidate at USC Annenberg and, before academia, was a reporter for The Philadelphia Inquirer and elsewhere. Here she tackles the question of using metrics in journalism; later today, we'll have a different take on the same topic from C.W. Anderson. —Josh]

Last week, The New York Times featured the scary tale of how some newspapers, including The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal, are (shockingly!) changing their coverage after using online metrics to figure out what their audience wants to read. And Gene Weingarten, in an amusing takedown of search engine optimization, insinuated earlier in the summer that just by putting Lady Gaga in his column, he’d get more hits.

Jeremy W. Peters had another Times piece about much the same concern: young journalists doing “anything that will impress Google algorithms and draw readers their way” and the scary “big board” that Gawker keeps in its newsroom tracking the 10 most popular blog posts, along with pageviews per hour.

This concern that audience tracking, writing for Google, and SEO will somehow destroy the ability of news organizations to keep news judgment apart from audience demands is misplaced. Instead, being more attentive to audience demands may actually be the best thing that news organizations can do to remain relevant and vital sources of news.

With monetization tied to clicks, and real-time Omniture data a feature of more and more newsrooms, it’s easy to worry that audiences will dictate news coverage. But how about the opposite argument: that journalists, for too long, have been writing about what they think their readers ought to know, and not enough about what their audiences want to know.

Journalism has always depended on having an audience to consume its work and has spent much of the past century trying to figure out exactly what that audience wants to know. Now, journalists have better tools than ever to figure out who their audiences are, learn what they want, and in real time, track their behaviors in order to be more responsive to their needs. This isn’t a bad thing — it turns journalism away from the elitism of writing for itself and back to writing what people are actually looking for.

But what about the concerns that journalists are going to spend all their time writing about pets, or Lady Gaga? The truth is that many of the newsrooms I’ve spoken with are smarter than that. They aren’t abandoning journalism principles; they see metrics as a way to ensure their journalism will be read.

SEO at the Christian Science Monitor

In my academic work, I’ve been following the evolution of The Christian Science Monitor as it has moved from a print daily to a website with a print weekly. Over the course of this evolution, I’ve watched the newsroom grow increasingly sophisticated about audience tracking. When I asked John Yemma about his views on SEO, he had this to say in an email about its impact on the newsroom:

Search engines remain a powerful and preferred tool for online readers. We have no choice but to become adept at SEO if it helps us reach readers where they are. This is nothing new in the news business. In the pre-Web days, newspapers periodically redesigned and reformatted. Editors frequently admonished reporters to write shorter, to use simple and direct language, to “think art” when they were on an assignment — all in the interest of reaching readers.

SEO, at its essence, is about editors thinking the way readers think when they are searching for news. At the Monitor, as at almost every other publication, we work diligently to emphasize key words. But that is only one tool in the toolkit. We try to respond quickly when a subject we know well (international news, for instance) is trending. This gives us an opportunity to offer related links that invite readers to dive deeper into our content. If SEO is about acquisition, related links are about retention. In the past year, we have tripled our online traffic with this strategy.

Does that mean we just write plain-vanilla headlines or merely follow Google/Trends? No. A clever headline can still be a powerful draw, especially on our home-page or in social media. And we still report stories that we know are important even if readers don’t agree. But we are much more attuned these days to what readers will respond to. If our journalism is not read, our work is not effective.

Trend tracking at TheStreet.com

At TheStreet.com, the organization has hired a full-time “SEO guy,” John DeFeo, to monitor trends on Omniture, watch search terms, and optimize TheStreet’s content after it is written so it can be found via search.

The result: Traffic has improved. When I was in TheStreet’s newsroom conducting field research, I did see DeFeo make a suggestion that someone bang out a quick story on a children’s Tylenol recall after seeing it trend on Yahoo. But should we see that as being overly responsive to audience demands? Or should we see it instead as a chance for TheStreet to provide its unique comment on what such a recall might mean for Johnson & Johnson stockholders — and at the same time know that the story will have a chance at reaching an audience because it is trending?

Glenn Hall, Editor at TheStreet, defends SEO journalism as being the core of the basic principles of journalism itself. In an interview, Hall said:

Good journalism is not mutually exclusive with SEO. We have proven over and over again that our best journalism tends to get the best page views. SEO is a tool to make sure the best stories get noticed…SEO increases visibility where users are looking. People consume content differently than they used to through a newspaper.

Hall explains to his staff that SEO is in line with the best practices of journalism. He believes that simple declarative sentences, clear and to the point, makes good sense for both journalism and SEO. And, as he notes, SEO doesn’t have the final say on a story’s success or failure: “It doesn’t matter how good the SEO is if the content isn’t good.”

The new news is social

Nick Bilton, the Times tech blogger, writes in his new book, I Live in the Future & Here’s How It Works about the “consumnivore” — an information-hungry consumer who wants the latest news now. But for this new information consumer, information isn’t just a quest for information. It’s also a social experience, shared with people from Twitter, Facebook, email, or other social media. In other words, if you aren’t looking for news, the news will find you. Good journalism will still be found, even without the high-energy SEO pumping of a daily newsroom — largely, I think, because of the new power of news as a social experience.

This isn’t a myth. At the Pulitzer celebration at The New York Times on April 12, 2010, New York Times Magazine editor Gerald Marzorati noted the following in his celebratory speech for sharing the Pulitzer with Propublica for Investigative Reporting for a story about a New Orleans hospital during Katrina: “[Long form journalism is] our most viewed and most emailed…It does matter to readers. It stops the reader. It slows the reader down.”

Was Memorial Medical Center, the hospital in the story, a hot search term? Probably not. Were 13,000 words likely to produce the quick hits of information that the consumnivore hungers for? No. But the story still reached a substantial audience, person to person. And as it was read by more and more people, it likely climbed up Google’s rankings for those people who were searching for articles about Katrina.

So, if used properly, SEO and audience tracking make newsrooms more accountable to their readers without dictating bad content decisions — and it can help newsrooms focus on reader needs. What is a story if it is never read? SEO won’t kill journalism; it will only enhance how we find and use news.

March 04 2010

15:00

The Newsonomics of time-on-site

[Each week, our friend Ken Doctor — author of Newsonomics and longtime watcher of the business side of digital news — writes about the economics of the news business for the Lab.]

Parse out the numbers, and they’re quite puzzling.

The average news reader spends little time on newspaper-owned sites, from a 20 minutes a month or so on the New York Times site to eight to 12 minutes on most local newspaper sites. That’s minutes per month. Those numbers, as tracked by Nielsen and reported monthly by Editor and Publisher, are steady at best, showing, in fact, some recent decline. They are, literally, stuck in time.

Then, take the number of minutes Internet users spend on social sites. Nielsen’s January tally showed seven hours of usage a month on Facebook alone, in the U.S., blowing away all competition. That’s some 40 times more time spent on social sites than on any single news site.

Which is a bit deflating for those in the news business. So let’s try to get at what the numbers may be telling us.

Maybe that big Facebook number isn’t as important as we think. We all have long spent much more time in conversation, much of it idle, some of it about what we’re doing right now or plan to do (the “statusphere” of the pre-digital world) than we have in reading the news. So social-site time may replace water-cooler conversation time. Further, do those Nielsen numbers mean that someone is actively perusing Facebook walls (or Twitter feeds) until their eyes fall out — or that they are keeping windows open on their computers? Are they engaged in a way that advertisers care about?

Then again, if Facebook time is a proxy for our new information centers — where we go to find out what’s happening in the community and the wider world — then it is becoming the new home page. Recall how newspaper sites all put up “make us your home page” buttons more than a decade ago? Constructively, that’s what Facebook done, without the button. That’s not surprising; it’s the ultimate page about what we care about most: me. Sure, some of the posts tell us about the wider world, but a good 80 percent or more tell us something personal.

If social sites, including Twitter, are a new center — Nick Negroponte’s “Daily Me” morphed — that’s a new challenge, and maybe opportunity, for the news industry. The challenge: getting the news to where the readers are hanging out, and figuring out to monetize there. The opportunity: If properly seeded in the social sites, the readers themselves do the (free) marketing and distribution of the content. The early tests of Facebook Connect appear promising here, though too few news companies are experimenting at any kind of scale. (See “The Newsonomics of social media optimization“.)

Now, let’s look at the Newsonomics of time-on-site — how well such time is monetized.

We’ll do some extrapolating with Facebook, to figure out what 2010 might look like. Let’s start with January numbers of 113 million U.S. users and seven hours time spent. Let’s be conservative and say for the year, it ends up with 120 million users and the same seven hours. That’s 84 hours a year for the 120 million, or a little over 10 billion hours of time spent.

For newspapers, let’s use one of the higher-achieving companies for comparison. The New York Times has been averaging about 20 million monthly uniques. It’s time-on-site varies considerably, with the news (!). Let’s give it 25 minutes a month on average. That’s 5 hours a year, or in total, about 100 million hours.

So, in time spent, the Times is less than one percent of Facebook.

Now, let’s look broadly, and quickly, at revenue. The Times’ 2009 digital revenue: about $342 million. Or $3.42 for each hour spent on the site.

Facebook’s revenue numbers are unannounced, but smart industry speculators put its 2010 number at about an even billion dollars. Or about a dime an hour of time spent.

$3.42 vs 10 cents. The Times is monetizing its time on site 34 times better than Facebook.

The Times and other big established news brands will say that’s more than fair, given the attention of the audience, the premium nature of the content and the demographics of the audience. Facebook, and its financial and spiritual advisors, will tell you that’s all upside. They’d point to yesterday’s partnership announcement with (Adobe’s) Omniture on ad placements as just one small step to a large revenue future.

Photo by Robbert van der Steeg used under a Creative Commons license.

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