With more and more visitors arriving at a website “through the side door”, namely via search, social or a referring link, the days of homepage are gone. Say Media’s Lawrence Horne says articles are the new homepage and shares eight lessons to ensure you are striking the right design balance.
In recent years, we’ve seen an explosion in article page design pushing the envelope in terms of beautiful, rich, storytelling. Need I even mention the iconic article from The New York Times that kicked off the craze (here’s a clue – it sounds rather like “snow ball”) – which blended great editorial with beautiful digital artwork to tell the story of 16 skiers and snowboarders caught in an avalanche. Today, we see so many great examples of editors, artists and technologists collaborating to find creative ways to tell stories in a uniquely digital way.
Modern article pages are telling stories through big imagery, videos, animations, transitions, interactive elements and, of course, compelling editorial. These page designs are great for getting lost in a storyline and driving one-time visitors, but they don’t do a great job of creating a relationship with the reader or recommending the next article to read.
If that’s one extreme, the opposite is much worse. I’m referring to article pages that are trying too hard to ram the site’s features down your throat. They recommend so much content that it becomes meaningless; constantly trying to get you to sign up or follow. These sites, which are far too common these days, treat the story as secondary. They do not honour the reader or the content.
Once upon a time, a typical media site would spend 80% of design and engineering resources on the homepage and just 20% on the article pages. If you hadn’t noticed, those days are long gone. In today’s digital world, more and more visitors arrive at a site through the side door, namely via search, social or a referring link, and land directly on the article page. In fact, and many of us are already aware, research from analytics firm Parse.ly found that Facebook is now the top source of online news traffic. The social media sector as a whole accounts for 43% of all referrals, meanwhile Google accounts for just 38%.
This means that the article pages themselves, in addition to telling a great story, also have to perform the functions of a homepage.
They have to position the brand, set the site tone, merchandise content and calls to action, and even capture email to ensure future touch points. Every page is a new homepage (but don’t forget that it’s also still an article page).
If the article page is the new homepage, publishers must find the design that delivers the key elements of both. Here are eight key tenets on striking the right balance:
1. The story always comes first; other objectives come second.
2. Fancy rich media is great, but only if it is tightly coupled to the story. You may consider that some stories might not call for graphics at all.
3. The design must be scalable; the editorial team is making tens if not hundreds of these per month.
4. The header and top navigation are vital in setting the site tone and positioning it for new visitors – no matter where you are on the site.
5. Personalisation is key; leverage a visitor’s history or other data to recommend content or highlight new content they haven’t yet read.
6. Following and sharing should be present and frictionless, but not forced – sharers will share.
7. Recommended content should be curated; it’s as much about the best stuff as it is about related topics.
8. The right balance varies from site-to-site; one size does not fit all and your technology should be nimble enough to allow for this.
A real bugbear for me is the volume of “click farming” sites that have made their way back into the mainstream and are recommended as “interesting” further content at the foot of the pages of the “proper” websites that a reader initially visits. Surely websites should want to keep readers, understand their viewing habits and redirect them around their own site’s relevant content, not push them away to another to look at, for example, the “Top 10 fun parks that have closed down”!
What part of this is helping the ‘donor’ site drive traffic or views, even loyalty? This dreadful practice is rife throughout the industry at the moment and gives poorly designed sites huge viewing numbers – meaning that for some unknown reason they subsequently hold weight with advertisers. But is that really an engaged audience or even context for advertisers to wish to associate themselves?
Media is going through a constant transformation as it continues to digitalise. For media properties to thrive, it’s time to stop thinking about sites as top-down, homepage-led destinations and start viewing the article page as your brand’s first chance at building a potential relationship with a new reader, engaging with them and keeping them there!
By Lawrence Horne