Online media must adapt to new trends, learn from big players, and move their user experience strategy to a new level.
The way people consume online content is developing at a dramatic speed. We’re well past the times when there were few web sites and little content, when consumption was controlled by gatekeepers in big publishing houses, and when the Internet and computers were just fast enough to run a handful of sites simultaneously. After all, the most popular browser in the first years of the second millennium, Internet Explorer, introduced multiple tab support only in 2006.
We live in a time when there is much more content than we can consume, more than we can even click on. Each minute, 400 hours of video are uploaded on YouTube, 3.3 million messages are sent via Facebook, and over 3.000 blog posts are published. An average user keeps several (dozen) tabs open in the browser, supplemented by instant messenger notifications, Outlook emails, and a beeping smartphone right next to the keyboard.
An average user’s desktop
We face an overwhelming amount of content and technologies are so advanced that users can’t keep up and their attention span is shorter than ever before. This is corroborated by a Microsoft study according to which even a goldfish defeats the human in its capacity to maintain focus (9 seconds for the goldfish versus 8 seconds for the human).
Facebook and Google add fuel to the fire because they don’t want their users to leave for sites outside of their portfolios where they don’t make money on users and can’t control them. Quite the contrary, their aim is for users to stay on their platforms, where they’ll do with users as they please and where users will consume what they want them to consume. That’s why media invite and pressurize, by hook or by crook, everyone to use Instant Articles or AMP.
Big players are slowly but surely succeeding in their efforts. Surveys show that for people under 44 years of age, the main source of news is the internet, and people aged between 18 and 24 consume even more news from Facebook and the like than from TV.
Winners and Losers
Media and marketers have a particularly challenging task to solve, that is, keeping users in their portfolios. Two alternatives are available. One is to accept the dictate of international giants. That means to surrender their content, assume the position of uninvolved observers, and watch from the sidelines how their traffic flows away to places over which they have little, if any control. What remains for them is to hope that the interests of those at the steering wheel are unselfish because they have enough and don’t need to milk the market for even more profit. A good joke.
Two examples of big sites that have given up the steering wheel. Both have high traffic but are dependent on Facebook and Google.
The safer alternative is doing the exact opposite. Media shouldn’t focus on growing the proportion of traffic coming from Facebook and Google but on decreasing traffic from these sources. Media should offer such quality content to increase the proportion of direct traffic, that is, visitors who type their web address directly in the browser or search engine. Besides that, they should work on increasing the share of referral traffic from other publishers, who are happy to link to quality content. Dividing visitors among various sources will decrease media’s dependence on Facebook or Google and will allow them to regain control over their own fate.
An example of a publisher who has a firm control over its content.
A Dream World
If publishers want to keep visitors on their own sites and have a firm grasp over their content, they should offer the service that visitors expect and provide an environment where visitors feel comfortable. Let’s have a look at Facebook, which is doing a great job in this respect, and use it as our model example for inspiration, comparing it with what we are used to see in the media world.
Facebook is used by over 1.7 billion people each month. Every single user is approached by the site as a unique person with various interests and everyone is offered their own personalized homepage.
Traditional publishers typically present their content indiscriminately, irrespective of users’ behavior, location, categorization, what type of content they consume, or whether they have already read a particular article.
Usability is closely interlinked with personalization. Content served by Facebook is relevant, interesting, and the user wants to consume it. No wonder that the average time spent by users on Facebook is fifty minutes each day, and scientists compare scrolling through the infinite newsfeed to using cocaine.
Publishers who don’t personalize their content naturally can’t offer content relevant to everyone. This way they are wasting their valuable space and robbing themselves of the eight seconds of the visitor’s attention span.
3. Relevant, Nice Advertising
According to an IAB UK survey, users install AdBlock mostly because ads distract them, annoy them, slow down the page load time, and are often irrelevant. Even when ads are relevant, users are concerned about their privacy and security.
Facebook manages users’ aversion for ads excellently. It divides its users into 282.000 different groups. Individual groups can then be combined, so that ads served to users are highly relevant. Facebook also monitors how many users like the post, how many share it and comment on it, and the higher the engagement, the better (= lower) price the advertiser pays.
At the same time, all ads are served in a native form. Ads look like user-generated content and because they are specifically targeted, an ordinary user often can’t tell which content is sponsored. Even if users realize it’s a sponsored post, they don’t mind really.
The business model of the vast majority of publishers worldwide relies on classic display advertising. Targeting options are very limited and ad formats often stick out from the surrounding design like a sore thumb. The average CTR oscillates around 0.1%, so media and clients keep on inventing new tricks to increase the click-through-rates despite consequences of user discomfort, high bounce rates for the advertiser, annoyed users for the publishers.
In today’s digitized world, we want everything instantly. There is so much content that our readiness to wait for it to load decreases continuously. Studies show that 47% of users expect a page to load within two seconds, and if loading takes more than three seconds, then 40% of users close the tab. On mobile pages, one second more in loading time can result in a conversion decrease by 27%, two seconds can lead to almost 50% decrease.
Facebook’s Instant Articles utilize their user data to predict what the user will likely consume. Once Facebook has this information, even before the user performs any action, it starts downloading and preloading content. This way it gains extra time and so can serve its content faster.
Traditional media serve content ad hoc, that is, only after the user clicks on a specific link. The more rich media content (images, videos), the more various video/audio pop-up banners, the longer the waiting, the higher the bounce rate, and the less time spent on the site.
Source: Wikimedia Commons
Data Is the New Gold
What all the points above have in common is data. The ability to collect data, analyze it, and use the results in real time is the key to success in online publishing and marketing. With efficient data handling, the cost for user acquisition can drop and profits can rise. By the way, did you know that the Harvard Business Review suggests “data scientist” to be the sexiest job of the twenty-first century?
Usability for Content
In the past, publishers would implement Google Analytics, Gemius, or other data analysis tools, and at the end of the month, they would analyze the number of visitors reached, the number of pageviews generated, and they would find out that 51 % visitors were female and 49 % male (simply said). In addition to that, they might have invited visitors somewhere on their site to provide their name and email for delivering a daily or weekly newsletter. This is far from enough today.
In a modern world, publishers must closely track user behavior. What topics are users interested in? What type of content, when, how often, and how long they consume it? Which articles they have already read? Which articles and videos were viewed by users with similar behavior patterns? What was the engagement of the user – which content was shared, liked, commented on? Data must be analyzed instantly so that users could be served personalized and usable content, which must be loaded fast, even before users know they will want to click on it.
And if, at some point during this process, easily months or weeks later, users provide their contact details, publishers will pair anonymous cookies with a specific email address, to which, for example, a personalized newsletter will be delivered.
Usability for Advertising
Publishers who still stick to the business model of selling banners should at least offer as broad range of targeting options as possible, based on user data. But maybe even more important: publishers should move from banners to native formats. Instead of screaming out push messages, ads should have the same kind of narrative and tone of voice as regular content.
More appropriate ad formats and more specific targeting will increase users’ willingness to consume ads and consequently conversion rates and KPIs of clients’ campaigns will rise, along with their willingness to pay more money to publishers. A win-win simply.
Filip Kuna, MD Strossle Slovakia