Tuesday, December 18, 2007

How to turn anonymous page impressions into your loyal community of explorers

It is no longer enough to provide only text, however well written, on conventional news websites.

News sites now are effective when they know how to appropriately mix their multimedia content. The effectiveness of this mix depends, naturally, on the content at any given time.

For example when a hurricane story breaks, one of the most effective content sites is www.msnbc.com. Why? Because MSNBC have an excellent blend of vivid pictures, slide shows, animated tracking, satellite images and maps (or graphs) - and text of course - which in combination provide the reader with an excellent picture of what is happening.

It is a moot point: is a person who is surfing the net someone who ‘reads’ or someone who ‘views’? The answer is both. But net based attention spans are very short. You have 1 or 2 seconds to engage your audience, so you need to be as sticky as possible in terms of hooking into human eyeballs.

What works in print also works on the homepage: a vivid, colorful picture that tells a story in itself. The New York Times prefers a horizontal rectangle – a cinemascoping of the image. The BBC often uses the longitudinal image. Which is best depends on site design.

I’m inclined to go for the BBC look, particularly if the idea is to have readers eyes moving towards the text, from left to right and top to bottom.


The goal of the site and content designers (or editors, as the case may be) should firstly be to turn viewers into readers. This means instead of spending a few seconds on your site, their eyeballs will stick to some sticky element, and you will then hold their attention for a minute, possibly much more.

It is very easy in the cramped space of a webpage, where a foot or two of text has to be put down, for the reader to get lost. The fact that your reader (if you’re lucky enough to graduate your viewer to a more committed reader) has to use a mouse to navigate means reams of disconnected text float and scroll at speeds that his or her eye might find difficult to track. Here subheadings are not merely useful, but vital.


The Washington Post is an example of a site that recycles (basically through redirecting) the reader through its own archives, through its various sections using links. This is an example of the Web enabling ‘stream-of-consciousness’ browsing. Once you can engage the reader’s curiosity, if you place enough stepping stones around him, you’re likely to take him or her somewhere worthwhile.

Swiss Cheese Your Site

Think of 'Swiss Cheese' when you designing content and sites. Each portal should easily lead to another passage which can take you somewhere else. But there should also be textual and visual consistency throughout the site, for example, on different pages.

Logos can obviously reinforce this ‘sense of place’, but a headline picture can be repeated on other pages to reinforce and integrate the site and what it is communicating.
For slideshows, a black background provides a powerful framework to show off pictures to their best effect. They tend to have a classier look and feel too.

It’s important then also to state the obvious: caption all images, and provide links under these captions to other relevant sites. Use color in a consistent manner, unless you would like to differentiate a subsection (eg. the Multimedia page). Change font color and size to differentiate clearly what is ‘article text’ and sidebar ‘Lists’ or ‘Sections’.


A page needs to be colorful, but not overpowering. To my mind, CNN.com has too much ‘white space’, especially towards the bottom of the page. Time.com has a fine balance between all the basics: text size, spacing, color, photographs and overall use of ‘space’.

Other design features based on ergonomics:

- the searchbar is always placed on the right (when we seek new information, that’s where our eyes travel – to the right and up)
- Most Popular stories (or for Blogs, links or other navigational invitations) should be placed in the right sidebar, in the mid to lower level.
- When the viewer/reader has completed his gaze, the eye will more than likely be at the bottom right, the same place the eye will travel when reading a book: putting something like an ‘impulse purchase’ in the space at the bottom right (a competition, a poll, or as the BBC does – a podcast).

Additional features

Websites can add tremendous utility to bread and butter content but simply providing these in additional formats: For websites that are based on some other real world medium (newspaper or TV) behind the scenes footage or reporting can always be provided in a: ‘More on this story’ section.

The most catchy stories can be complemented with an audio version, particularly where the columnist is well known and well spoken. In the same way video interviews should be featured, but also have the option of having audio only, and also a transcript. Allow the viewer the choice to do/be what he or she wants to: to read, or to view.

To the extent that sites can constantly add and integrate multimedia, the site becomes not only more valuable but more useful, enabling the content provider and the content consumer to communicate and engage on the appropriate level.

Once this level has been measured and ascertained, there ought to be an implicit mutual understanding on what a site will undertake to provide, and the viewer will then commit, perhaps daily, to transition; to spend more time on your site, not merely as a reader, but as a curious explorer.

The basic analogy then is that the content provider is a forest designer, and the reader is Little Red Riding Hood. Now find a way to get her lost in the woods, not in a way that scares her, but in a way that is so much fun, she forgets that she's gotten herself lost in your world.

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