WEDNESDAY, May 28, 2008



Jakob NielsenThink you know how the online audience behaves? Dr. Jakob Nielsen has new research that will challenge those notions, and may give us the shove we need to change how we design our sites well beyond the homepage.

I recommend Jakob’s site, useit,com, as an excellent place for insight on web design. The first thing you will notice is that it is shockingly spare. You’ll think “how can a guy obsessed with design have such little design here?” That’s because design is about usability, not about Photoshop acrobatics. And if the pictures get in the way of the information, you lose audience. It’s our top rule: The Web is not TV.

Terry alerted me to an article on the BBC news site about Jakob, a longtime design hero of mine. Jakob has been writing about the Web since before there was a “Web.” His book on “Hypertext and Hypermedia” was written in 1990. His seminal work, “Usability Engineering,” written in 1993, is still both influential and controversial. (Two signs of a work that holds up.) Jakob has a Ph.D. in human-computer interaction. He is someone worth listening to.

Jakob has a new report out, and it’s about user behavior. There are some wonderful nuggets in the BBC article.

Although the following paragraph is deep in the article, it’s one I’d lead with:

“In 2004, about 40% of people visited a homepage and then drilled down to where they wanted to go and 60% used a deep link that took them directly to a page or destination inside a site. In 2008, said Dr Nielsen, only 25% of people travel via a homepage. The rest search and get straight there. ”

25% of the online audience gets where they’re going via a homepage. That’s it. And it’s dropping. When you think about all the time that goes into designing a front page, that’s gotta be a little depressing!

It turns out Web users are not the time-wasting “surfers” many think. In fact, when we go to the computer, we’re usually looking for specific information. And they are, to borrow a word from Dr. Nielsen, “ruthless” about getting the information they want. If you don’t make it easy to find, they will go somewhere else.

“People want sites to get to the point, they have very little patience,” he said. “I do not think sites appreciate that yet,” he added. “They still feel that their site is interesting and special and people will be happy about what they are throwing at them.”

We hear a lot of discussions that start with “I think.” Those can be the two most dangerous words in the local web. We want Websites that are designed the way “we think” they should be. We think they should look like our TV shows or newspapers. We think they should have lots of stuff on them so people will spend a lot of time with us. We think we should separate a story out into lots of pages so we can rig the number of pageviews.

We are not the target audience.

Instead, we have to listen to what the audience is saying. What they are telling us, time and again, is this: give me the information. Give me the news story I want. Don’t add to the clutter in my life. Don’t try to trick me with things that game the system in your favor but add nothing positive to my experience.

And while many dismiss the importance of search, it’s clear that search absolutely rules. And that can sting. Because what does it mean for your brand if you’re listed 30 stories deep in a search? Not much. Your online brand is different from your TV brand. You really can’t brand your way to success online. The success formula is more like this:

(search result rank + trusted source level) x social use = success.

How you come up in the search result is first. Then, once people visit you, the story better be trustworthy. Multiply that by the geometric expansion possible from social networks, and you will have the most visitors. And, interestingly you’ll get the top results in search, where it all starts again.

Success comes when we listen to the audience, not when we decide how to build a site based on our own opinions or, worse, how we use the Web. We can’t afford to be the only business where the consumer tells us exactly what they want and we say “you can’t have it that way.”   Link>


Users are cutting the puppet stringsJakob Nielsen’s core belief is that users are in charge on the Web, and that’s something Steve and I have been preaching since Day One. When new things come along, the default position for media companies is “how can I use this to further my control of users on my site?” This is certainly an understandable position, but it can prevent us from seeing things as they truly are.

The problem, of course, is that the quest for online control of customers is a paradox, and the more we attempt to strengthen the puppet strings, the more likely users are to bolt.

For example, local media companies considering a social networking strategy should do so with their eyes open to evolutionary movement within the space. If you’re one of the companies that’s already creating social networking “memberships” for users as a way to keep them within your site, the end game of social networking is now shifting to one that allows for portability of member data.

The user logic of the move goes like this. I’m a “member” of many social networking sites, and I want to be able to interact with all my friends without having to bounce from place-to-place. If I’m on your social site, I want access to all my friends there, but if I’m on another social site, I want the same access. And if you don’t let me do this, I’m not going to be very happy with you.

The only question is who will provide such a tool?

In the past, many thought that the prize would go to Facebook, for the tech community was enamored with its “openness” as defined by the ability to create applications from outside using an interface provided by Facebook. This led to the development of many cool tools, but the problem was that it was still Facebook. You had to be a member there, if you wanted in on the fun.

But what about MySpace or Bebo or Okrut or Ning or any of the other thousands of communities that have sprung up in the Web 2.0 mania?

Open Social logoThe Open Social movement — led by Google, MySpace and Yahoo — is working hard to create the application, and it is increasingly making Facebook look like the walled garden that it really is. Think back to the AOL days, when their training wheels version of the Web was a satisfying experience for beginners. The longer you were an AOL member, however, the more you began to see its limitations, and the break from the training wheels not only shocked the bottom line of Time-Warner, but it also signaled the beginnings of connectivity for users beyond the walls of a gated community.

Now comes word that Facebook is moving to become an open source (not to be confused with Open Social) software platform, which means its software will be customizable by anybody (with a little hard work). This was a nearly inevitable move by Facebook in order to stay in the game. Just as consumer pressure has forced media companies to unbundle, so now do social networking sites have to do the same thing.

New York Times logoAnd in yet another example of the unbundling that’s all around us, the New York Times is releasing an API (Application Program Interface) to its database of content, which is likely to spur innovations from the tech community. Marc Frons, chief technology officer for The New York Times’ digital side, told MediaBistro that the aim is to turn the Times from a website into “a news and information platform.”

The goal, according to Aron Pilhofer, editor of interactive news, is to “make the NYT programmable. Everything we produce should be organized data.”

Once the API is complete, the Times’ internal developers will use it to build platforms to organize all the structured data such as events listings, restaurants reviews, recipes, etc. They will offer a key to programmers, developers and others who are interested in mashing-up various data sets on the site. “The plan is definitely to open [the code] up,” Frons said. “How far we don’t know.”

This is a smart, smart move by the New York Times, and I hope it’ll spur others to follow suit. J.D. Lasica agrees:

Terms like open APIs remain a foreign language in the vast majority of newsrooms.

That’s a shame. Because the salvation of the news industry — if there is to be one — will come not from corporate board rooms but in unleashing the pent-up power of the citizenry as part of a multipronged social media/participatory media strategy.

Newspapers remain the richest source of news and information, both current and archived, in any locality. For every journalist on staff at a mid-size daily, I’ll wager there are at least 10 data jockeys willing to dive into some aspect of its datastream to create an interesting new map, widget, chart, game, animation, virtual space — anything that feeds off a rich source of data. Not everyone can report the news, but large numbers of programmers are willing to share their coding prowess and inventive takes on political contributions, birth records, neighborhood crime, housing sales and much more, if we will only let them.

J.D’s right; the people leading media company digital efforts may have Star Wars dolls in their offices, but Silicon Valley (and it’s global legion) is writing all the rules of engagement these days, and we need these kinds of people in and among us.

Even though the Times effort maintains a degree of control, it is a significant step in the right direction. Openness and unbundled content are clear paths to tomorrow, and the smart leaders won’t wait until somebody else does it first.

The paradox of online control is that you have to be prepared to give it up in order to keep it.   Link>


Nielsen LogoCan we simply agree that the concept of “sweeps” is dated and dying? Not to mention inaccurate and unhelpful to our own future?

A quick review: the reason we have “sweeps” in the first place is because of a system of ratings that goes back to the 1940s. Sweeps is what happens when you tell TV “We know you’re on all the time — we’re just going to say it really counts at these certain times.”

Sweeps is mutually-agreed-upon cheating. It would be like a food critic telling a restaurant the date and time he’d be showing up, along with what he was ordering. Oh — and feel free to call in the chefs of your choice and replace your entire menu for me while you’re at it.

Every year for the past few years now, the “sweeps” audience has been declining, and people have acted shocked. TV execs have wrung their hands. Newspapers have, a bit too gleefully, written about the end of broadcasting. Commenters on the Web declare the networks are dying because their programming stinks and people have more choices.

I’d say that’s half true.

Oh — there’s lots of crap on the networks, to be sure. But garbage fills the cable dial and the Internet, too. I dare say network programming is not getting worse. (It is getting filled with more commercials. But my TiVo takes care of that, and the shows can be quite good.)

Compare the top shows from 1978–1979 to those from 2007–2008. I’ve included the ratings as well.

1978 — 1979:

1. Three’s Company ABC 30.1

2. Laverne & Shirley ABC 29.8

3. Mork and Mindy ABC 28.4

4. Happy Days ABC 28.3

5. Angie ABC 26.7

6. 60 Minutes CBS 25.4

7. M*A*S*H CBS 25.4

8. The Ropers ABC 25.2

9. Charlie’s Angels ABC 25.0

10. All in the Family CBS 24.9

Some shocking notes here. “Three’s Company” was number one? And it had a 30 rating? And its horrible, horrible spinoff — “The Ropers,” was number nine? Note also that “Laverne & Shirley” and “Mork and Mindy” are spinoffs from “Happy Days.” Remember these shows fondly if you want to. Most don’t hold up. At most, “60 Minutes,” “M*A*S*H” and maybe “All in the Family” are still watchable.

Now let’s look at 2006 — 2007’s Top Ten (2007–2008 not being complete just yet) and, what do you know, spinoffs and fluff:

1. American Idol — Wednesday FOX (17.3)

2. American Idol — Tuesday FOX (16.8)

3. Dancing With the Stars — Monday ABC (13.2)

4. Dancing With the Stars — Tuesday ABC (12.2)

5. NBC Sunday Night Football (10.2)

6. CSI CBS (10.1)

7. Grey’s Anatomy (tie) ABC (9.2)

7. Samantha Who? (tie) ABC (9.2)

9. House FOX (9.0)

10. CSI: Miami CBS (8.9)

What’s changed in the last 30 years? Quality? I’d say the best sitcoms are actually funnier these days, even though they don’t get the high ratings they used to. And the dramas seem better to me, as well. I’ll take “House” over 1978’s “Quincy, M.E.”

Then there’s the ratings. You could double “Idol’s” ratings from 2007 and it still wouldn’t be #1 in 1978. Show me the top shows this year, and I’ll show you a show that gets canceled thirty years ago.

The problem is not the quality of television. It’s the quantity of options. I don’t for a moment believe we have become more discerning.

The problem is also “sweeps.” Networks put a lot of their eggs in the sweeps basket, while cable chugs on with original programming, caring not whether it’s “supposed” to be airing repeats. Cable channels even have the nerve to put on original programs during the summer. The nerve! Turns out, people want options all year long, not just from September to May. And while broadcast turns up its nose at the 1.0, 1.2, 2.0, 2.5, etc. ratings that cable channels get… you add up those 1.0 ratings across dozens of channels and dayparts, and you suddenly see a lot of competition for advertising money.

This is why local media outlets need to offer more options. We need to produce a wide variety of content across the platforms. We clearly can’t depend on the networks to deliver the big numbers they used to. The marketplace has changed since 1978. We have to change as well.   Link>


Flowww logoA new web application called Flowww (warning slow loading) is out that’s generating discussion in the tech world, and I think it may have possibilities for media companies in the future. The developers are going to have to do a lot of work before it gets my full endorsement, but the nut of a really good idea is there.

Flowww takes the browser view of a page of content, turns it into a Flash image, and makes those images available in a simple click-and-flow experience. If you want more, clicking on a page image takes you directly to the page. Think of it as an RSS feed that looks at the actual pages of the feed instead of just a headline or headline and text. The beauty of it is that the ads come with the browser view, and that’s what intrigues me most. You have to use your imagination, but think of a page specifically designed to be distributed this way. Nice.

TechCrunch has an excellent write-up, and the comments are interesting, too. They’ve even created an example of what their site would like like presented this way.

I’ve been preaching unbundled media for a very long time, but the resistance has always been the loss of control over ad revenues. RSS advertising companies like Pheedo have helped with this some, but not enough to make it universally acceptable to distribute content in this manner. Flowww has the potential to change that.

As I said above, the developers have a lot of work to do before this can become viable, not the least of which is to fix the slow load time. Assuming they’re successful, this might be something to watch.   Link>


Customer ServiceI recently wrote to the editor of our local town paper. Why, I asked, does the paper only post stories on its site every four or five days rather than posting the stories as they’re written? We had two major town meetings during one week, and the paper didn’t post its reports on either until the day they went to press.

The email I sent to the editor was very matter-of-fact. Believe me — I’ve been on the receiving end of many “you people have no idea what you’re doing” and “I will never watch you again” nastygrams. I simply wanted to know why they have the policy they do. I didn’t throw in any “I’m a consultant and I think…” nonsense. Just the facts.

The paper invites people to contact its editors — and does so prominently. The “contact us” button is on the upper left of the page. That’s where Eyetracker studies show people look first. Clicking through, you’ll find editor email addresses and phone numbers. So far, so good.

Except they never wrote back.

And that’s a HUGE customer service blunder. If you’re going to invite people to “contact us,” you have to contact them back. Frankly, even a lame form letter doesn’t cut it, but at least that’s better than nothing. In this era of online conversation, the audience expects a two-way discussion. Inviting comments and then not responding only emphasizes the perception that we’re arrogant.

We have been given a perfect tool for communication. We can easily respond to our audience, and do so on our own time. We can have them communicate on boards with each other to see what their concerns are. We can have comments on each story so we can follow their interest. All the things we guess about when it comes to editorial judgement can now be informed by substantial input.

All of those benefits get wiped away by a single act of ignoring the customer.

My subscription to this paper will end shortly, and will not be renewing it. No — I’m not so sensitive as to cut a subscription based upon one unanswered email. But I’m ending the subscription because the paper hasn’t given me any sense that it cares about me as a customer. This is the challenge we face. When given lots of options, how do we stand out? One way — and a pretty easy one at that — is to give better service than our competitors.

Terry likes to remind me that we’re “consultants, 24/7.” (He usually does this when it’s a Sunday afternoon and I’m trying to put off writing something until the next day.) Newsrooms may understand they’re 24/7 news, but they also need to understand they’re 24/7 businesses.

The people who answer the phone in your newsroom have to understand they’re the public voice of your company. So sounding rushed and impatient is not allowed. The person who called your newsroom doesn’t care that you’re “on deadline and don’t have time for this.” I’ve heard newsroom personnel talk with callers in ways that would have them fired at any other companies, but instead their co-workers overhear them and chuckle.

Likewise with the web: this is the gateway to our audience. We have to encourage discussion and communication. Then — and this is the most important part — we have to reply and engage. If you’re at a party, and the person you meet talks and refuses to let you reply — how long do you think that relationship will last?

Great customer service is as simple as being the salesman who takes the extra step to find out what you want instead of telling you what she’s selling. It’s as easy as being the salesman who calls to find out if the TV you bought is working well. (Wait — has anyone ever, ever done this? What a simple way to make an impression.)

And showing your customers you care about their business is pretty easy, too. It starts by answering their emails.   Link>