Powerless Portals: How The News Is Leveraging Social Networks

By Patrick Courtney

chicagotribThe Nielsen Company issued an important news release late last week identifying a dramatic change in the behavior and general interests of internet users, indicating that usage has drifted away from portal browsing and towards social networking and video content sites.

Since 2003, interests of the average online user have shifted significantly. Categories that consisted of portal-oriented browsing sites…used to be the top categories for user engagement. However, today the active Internet user tends to prefer sites that contain more specialized content. This change in preferences is seen in the fact that video and social networking sites have moved to the forefront, becoming the two fastest growing categories in 2009.

This trend isn’t a surprise to most, but it is cause for some concern for subscription-free online news publishers who have relied heavily on portals to drive the majority of their page views for the past decade.  A story on the homepage of Yahoo! essentially meant a publisher hit their traffic quota for the day.  But as the general online population fragments as the release suggests, these ‘portal hits,’ which had the potential to drive hundreds of thousands of page views to a news publisher, are becoming less reliable as traffic drivers.

It’s unlikely any future online destination will develop the traffic-driving muscle of MSN or Yahoo! (even the front page of Digg won’t get you there) now that internet users have been empowered with the tools and resources to filter content and discover the information they seek on their own terms.  However, as CPMs plummet and traffic metrics begin to gravitate from quantity to “quality” (engagement, depth, etc.), what becomes more important now is for publishers to take a step back, rethink the kind of traffic they seek to garner, and adapt to the changing social media landscape.   A few large scale news organizations are currently experimenting with different approaches to leveraging social networks to drive consistent, incremental traffic.  A few examples:

1.    The Chicago Tribune created “Colonel Tribune,” a sort of brand mascot, in 2008 to serve as the social media mouthpiece of the news organization.  The colonel regularly updates Flickr, Twitter, and Facebook accounts, listening and sharing stories he finds interesting.  The Social Media Strategist behind the Colonel, Daniel Honigman, believes “The Colonel acts as a touch point for the Tribune and serves as our voice on the web…Who is kind of a goofy man about town but is an actual person. He would even answer questions that you might have.”  (via mashable)

2.    The Des Moines Register encourages their staff to tweet and interact with readers, and features their streams on the site to allowing readers to discover them more easily.  Engaging with staff offers a unique access point for readers, puts a human touch on the information served, and can often assist writers with stories via crowdsourcing.  (I chose The Des Moines Register as I am from Iowa, and Iowa rules.)

3.    The NY Times has gone a simpler route providing headline feeds only on both Twitter and Facebook, free of added personal voice or opinion.  The idea is that because Twitter and FB pages are opt-in, a user who signs up to receive updates is assumed to be more valuable than say, a user from Digg, and likely to produce repeat visits and spend more time on your pages.   This is likely the most old media style approach to social network marketing, but an approach nonetheless.

4.    BusinessWeek’s BusinessExchange is perhaps one of the best examples of a publisher bringing social networking to their turf.  Other initiatives include the NY Times’ Times People, CNN’s iReport, and WSJ’s The Journal Community.   These communities encourage readers to connect and share with the goal in mind to increase engagement and build loyalty, as well as facilitate the integration of existing social networks like Facebook through Facebook Connect or an application, as Times People has done, adding multiple access points across a reader’s social sphere.

These are just a few notable examples of how news publishers are trying their hand at social network marketing, and I would love to see more examples in the comments (or hit me up on Twitter @patrickcourtney).  The relative success of these initiatives is largely unknown, although the Chicago Tribune has claimed a 10% uptick in page views as a direct result of their social media strategies.  Whatever is the case, the fact is social networks continue to grow at a blistering pace, and the opportunity to capture and engage your audience is growing with it.

  • http://danielhonigman.com/ DanielHonigman

    Thanks for the tidbit on Colonel Tribune, Patrick. It’s been an interesting ride so far.

    Like your blog, by the way. Keep up the good work.

    Would you be so kind as to change my name to “Daniel”? Just a minor pet peeve of mine, despite the fact that just about all of my identities refer to me as “Dan.” I know, damn personal branding.

  • PatrickCourtney

    Since you referred to me as Patrick and not Pat, I’ll say that’s fair enough. Updated. Thanks for commenting!