Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Good news: Folks are reading more... online!

A new survey says Internet usage by people in the top-fifth earning households in the U.S. more than doubled in the last five years. This is good news for news organizations. It means if you build it (correctly), they will come.

The survey, by market researcher Ipsos Mendelsohn (and reported by AdAge), determined that Internet usage had gone up from 10.7 hours five years ago to 22.1 hours today. The survey didn't give any indications of what these people read online or what attributes they particularly enjoy of the sites they visit. And of course, it's reasonable to assume that not all of that usage is spent reading. Some of it doubtlessly involves shopping. Some of it playing online games. But some of it is allotted to reading. So it's reasonable to assume that the amount of reading the affluent do online has gone up in the last five years.

This is good news for news organizations. It means online journalism does have a future. The key is to learn more about what sorts of sites people like visiting and then to dig deeper to understand what it is about those sites that make people keep coming back.

In tech design, we call this "researching user requirements." In other words: What are the attributes that a site has to have to build reader loyalty? Think about a regular phone vs. the iPhone, for example. They're both phones. But the iPhone has attributes that make it immensely more popular than other phones. Its aesthetics. The ways the user gets to interact with the device. The things it can do.

Just as not all phones are created equal, not all online media are created equal. But again, as I've said before, the locus of the inequality is not necessarily in the subject matter. Just because you're writing about city council meetings and another site is writing about Paris Hilton doesn't necessarily mean that you're going to get fewer hits. (OK, maybe that's a stretch, but you get the point.) It's not what you write about that will determine whether readers come to you. It's how you write and present the information.

When delivering their product online, news organizations need to get away from the methods they use to deliver their product (information, news) in print and instead think about which methods make consuming media online enjoyable. And once we get a handle on that, we then need to think about how we can present our stories -- whether they be about school board measures, local housing prices, or offshore drilling -- in a way that people enjoy reading--or, more precisely, experiencing--them online. How should we structure stories for maximum online enjoyment? How should we design the pages in which they lie? What functionality should we incorporate in and around the stories?

The answers to those questions don't need to be a mystery. The answers, as the X-Files used to say, are out there. It just requires a little user research to find out what people already like about online content. Once that data is collected, online editors can extract generalizable principles to guide the structure and design of future content. To get more readers. And thus more hits.

Photo courtesy of striatic. Creative Commons license.

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