How can we improve the news on our websites?

Let’s face it the ‘company news’ on most websites is terrible. It is dry, uninspiring and fails to engage users. What then can we do about it?

A while ago I wrote a post entitled “Do users care about your latest news?” In it I quoted an extract from an analytics review which stated that, on the website we were reviewing, only 1% of users clicked on the news stories. This was despite being heavily featured on the homepage.

Strangely in a followup survey we found that over 30% expressed an interest in reading relevant news. The problem is not with the concept of news but with its presentation.

In this post I want to throw out our preconceptions of what news should be and reinvent it as something more relevant, engaging and effective. To do that we need to start by asking why we want news at all.

Why add news to our websites?

As I see it there are four roles news can play on our site:

  • To improve search engine positioning. Relevant, well written, and engaging content will help your site rank well on Google. The regular updates will also encourage search engines to spider the site more often.
  • To encourage users to link to your site. We hope that people will read our content and share it via social networks and their own sites, so driving more traffic back to us.
  • Supporting sales. News has the potential to reinforce the sales messages on your site by demonstrating credibility and effectiveness.
  • Provide customer support. News is often seen as a way of providing crucial information to existing customers.

Unfortunately all too often news fails in all four of these roles. Posts are stuffed with terminology no normal person would ever search on and content gives users no reason to share. Instead of news stories supporting sales or existing customers they are often nothing more than self congratulatory press releases.

How then can we approach things differently? How can we make news more effective?

Focus on the user

We need to move away from thinking about what we wish to say and instead ask what users want to hear and what would engage them.

Prospective customers coming to our site are not looking for news. Nobody says; I am thinking of buying X and so will check out their websites news. We need to accept that our audience is indifferent to our news.

The only exception is if you are trying to support an existing customer base. In this case they may well come to your site actively looking for news. However, it is important to realise they are looking for a particular type of news. They are not interested in which clients you have recently signed or awards you have won. They are interested in stories that relate directly to how you are supporting them as a customer.

With this in mind, how does this shape what you write in your news section?

What you should be writing?

Obviously I cannot advise you on the specifics of what you should be writing, but I can suggest some questions you should be asking as you come to write.

Why would a user care?

If you have an idea for a news story it is well worth asking why anybody would be interested in reading it. It’s such an obvious question but so often it is not asked. Instead we just jump into broadcasting to the world oblivious to whether people want to hear what we have to say.

It’s important that we really consider our answer to this question. It’s easy to deceive ourselves into thinking that somebody might be interested when they wouldn’t be. It’s even easier to write news that we know that one or two people might care about, when in fact the vast majority of visitors will be indifferent.

Why would anybody share this?

Another way of judging the worth of a news story is to ask “would somebody share this?” If one of our objectives is for news to be sharable and linked to, then we need to make sure it is worth sharing.

We should write our news stories in such a way that they are crying out to be shared. They should contain quotes that are less than 140 characters, interesting statistics and inspirational content. Most news stories are too dry to justify the sharing icons they display.

What one message do I want people to take away?

Part of the reason many news stories fail to engage is because they are overly verbose. You need to communicate your key message quickly and move on. Of course to do that, you need to know what that key message is.

One way of identifying this is to ask what the key takeaway is. This will help you get to the core of your message.

What next action do I want users to take?

News stories are of no value in themselves (unless of course you are a news website). They are a means to an end. Either that end is to convince a prospective customer to purchase or to support an existing customer.

In either case you should have a clear idea of what next step that user should take. This will help focus your article on what really matters.

Although these questions will help better focus your content, it is not just content that needs to change in order to make news more effective. It is the format too.

Improving the format of news

In my previous post I suggested that users were becoming blind to news because they expected it to be terrible. If that is the case then simply writing better news stories is not going to be enough. We need to really shake up the appearance and our definition of what news content is.

One organisation who is doing this already (and who I believe we can look to for inspiration) is the University of Surrey.

University of Surrey News
The University of Surrey have introduced a range of different formats for news and presented it in a visually pleasing way.

They do two things that I love.

First, they mix up the format of news. News maybe a traditional written post, but they also use:

  • Video.
  • Imagery Galleries.
  • Image and short captions.
  • Quotes.
  • Interesting fact.

Second, they mix news with other “snippets” of information about the organisation. As a result, they don’t call it news, instead referring to it as a “discover Surrey” section. This makes the content more engaging and less likely users ignore it.

But why stop at what Surrey have done? You could use the same approach, but add more “snippets”. For example, what about:

  • Staff profiles (show the people behind your organisation).
  • Add audio as well as video.
  • Add stats that are easy to share.
  • Links to content you think your users will like elsewhere on the web.

The list could go on.

My point is that we tend to be narrow minded about what ‘news’ should be. We don’t think beyond a written article (like this one) when actually we could be do much more. It’s time we became more creative.

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