Recently Chris Scott wrote an analytics report for a top UK university. In this report he presented his findings from thoroughly analysing the data on user behaviour. What Chris can extract from Google analytics is truly remarkable, but one section particularly caught my eye. This section was about the news stories found on the Universities homepage. Chris wrote:
Less than 1% of visitors view a news release.
We can see by looking at landing pages for visits that include a news release that, when a visitor lands on a news release page, it is typically a dead-end with most of those visitors leaving the site from that page.
This caught my eye because it validated a suspicion that has been growing in my mind for a long time. This is the belief that in most cases heavily featuring new stories on a website homepage is largely pointless.
Users come with questions not seeking news
Take a moment to think about this from the user’s perspective. The majority of users come to your site to complete a task. If your website promotes a service or product the likelihood of that task being to read news is extremely low. Instead they come to the site in an attempt to decide whether to make a purchase or to get support if they have already done so. News does not factor into either of these scenarios.
You may argue that news does help the user make a purchasing decision, because news stories typically trumpet the quality of the product or service. Although I can understand this position and accept that in some situations this is correct, I believe there are three reasons why that is rarely so.
News is too indirect
First, users come to your site with a set of criteria to judge the appropriateness of your product or service. A good website should address these criteria directly, which is not something news does.
News may address people’s buying criteria indirectly (such as emphasising the quality of your offering), but that requires the user to make the cognitive leap. It would be much better to address their criteria directly.
News fails to live up to its potential
Second, although new stories have the potential to provide useful supporting information, they rarely live up to that potential. Instead the news section of most websites seems to be where press releases go to die. Content is typically dry, un-engaging and focused on how great the organisation is rather than the needs of the user. It is not enough for example to write a press release saying how your organisation has won an award. Instead you need to clearly explain how that benefits the user.
Finally, because news stories are often useless, I have a suspicion (although I cannot prove it) that users are becoming blind to them in much the same way as they are to banners. I’m beginning to believe that users simply ignore news stories as an irrelevance without even reading them.
Please do not misunderstand me. I’m not suggesting that news should be entirely removed from the majority of websites. I’m just saying that I do not think in its current state it deserves the prominence and homepage real estate it so often receives.
Instead, I believe most organisations need to rethink how they approach news by making it more focused on user questions.
Given a choice, in most situations I would opt for a blog over a traditional news section. That blog should be aimed at existing customers and have a focus on providing excellent customer support, while building a sense of customer loyalty.
Still not convinced? Then why not look at your own analytics and see just how much (or how little) traffic your news stories are receiving. I suspect that despite having prominent homepage positioning very few users click through to read any of your carefully crafted stories.
"News On Mobile Smart Phone" image courtesy of Bigstock.com