The last few weeks, I've spent a lot of time talking about connecting the dots for readers.
You'd think this would be second nature to someone who spent 20 years in newspapers, the last decade as an editor and the last several focusing on online projects. In my previous position, I once published a real estate database on a Friday afternoon -- a promo to a traditional Sunday print piece - that received so many hits in the first hour that it crashed a corporate server. Professionally, that probably wasn't the high point of my career, but it was a rousing readership success.
My point is, I have some experience in online content.
Still, since I took this job as an editor at an Internet startup (which launched its first Web site three months ago), I've learned that I wasn't nearly as good at giving readers what they wanted as I thought. I know this because, every day, I get a report that tells me where I didn't connect the dots for them. It shows me where they went to on the site, how long they stayed and at what point they left. When you know that, you can see where you need to focus your attention.
Over time, I've learned that by connecting the dots (from story to story, from writer to stories, from source to story and so on), I can improve the numbers. For example, I took one story on the site with a few links. I added links to other stories on the site, special projects and outside sources. The story kept readers engaged for more than an hour.
Yes, that was one story.
And yes, that was one hour.
And so, as you can imagine, lately I've been big into links. My e-mails with reporters go something like this...
Link it up…More links please…WHERE are those links?
This week, an editor (and friend) who manages a mid-sized newspaper in a cold state asked me why I had become the link queen. And I tried to explain what I've learned in a way I thought might be helpful for him - and for his readers. I used an example of a story about hockey that was published in his newspaper and on his Web site.
To keep this experiment all above board, I must make a confession. I am not a big sports fan even though I have overseen several sports departments in my career. However, I do admit I did enjoy tailgating as a student at the University of South Carolina. And when I lived near Philly, I did see the 76ers play, if you could call it that. And recently I watched the Dodgers beat the heck out of the Cardinals before the end of the third inning in a Spring training game.
So you know, I could have picked any sport for this little exercise.
The hockey story was no different than any other sports game story I have ever read. Here's what happened at game. Here are some names of standout players. Here's what the coach said. Blah blah. (PLEASE NOTE: For today, we're going to skip Marisa's lecture on good writing as the foundation for getting anyone to read your stuff, regardless of whether it's published in print or online.) Anyway, the whole story might have been 15 inches long. So I get to the end of it, and look around. But I can't find what I am looking for.
There is no "Click here for more about the team", which I'm sure has been written before. No "Find more stories by this reporter", who obviously has written them before. And no links to player or coach bios in the story, even though there are probably profiles in the newspaper's archives, somewhere. Nope. Nada. Nothing. Not a single link.
Ok, now imagine you're a hockey fan. (Big stretch for me but I'll try.) After you read this story, are you going to stay on the site? Are you going to come back to read news about your team? Or are you going to find a Web site that does more than offer surface information on your team?
Now, (Forgive the cliché) put the shoe on the other foot. Imagine you're a newspaper editor. You spend every day struggling to keep your readers as they drop your newspaper and head online to read about their favorite hockey team. What can you do to get them to read your hockey coverage, if not in print then online?
(If you still aren't getting it, here's a hint: Connect the dots.)
But wait, I'm not finished. I have one more thing for you to think about.You're a newspaper editor. You're still struggling every day to keep readers as they drop your print product and head online to read about their favorite hockey team.
Now instead of using the hockey story for this exercise, use the entire newspaper.
It's definitely something to link about.