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Undoubtedly, the media world is in disarray. Specially, traditional, old-school, newspapers and magazines. The purpose of this review is not to join the choir and tell printed publications that they must embrace the digital world. Rather, this analysis will provide best practices online newspapers and magazines should follow.

Target Audience

Who are the intended readers of the new website? What demographic, psychographic and other qualities define them?  What is their current online media diet? How do they differ from the existing audience of the printed edition? For example, as we can see from the sample information for three online publications, audiences cover a wide demographic spectrum—particularly, it is important to note how theonion.com and wsj.com compare. Thorough research should be conducted in order to define and understand the right audience for the online publication.

wsj.com

theonion.com

Visual Branding

In an increasingly crowded online media world, with sites like Slate and DailyBeast  attracting huge audiences, the online publications must have a compelling visual approach that immediately connects visitors.  Should the website share a visual style with the printed version, or should it appear completely different? What “personality” should the website project? Here are some best practices to follow:

Typography – whether online or in print, one of the most important decisions publications must make is that of typographic treatment and guidelines. While the visual look and feel of online publications can vary from the rich media driven (i.e. washingtontimes.com) to the typography focus (i.e. nytimes.com), recently online newspapers and magazines are striking a balance. Two publications that have re-launched with a more balanced visual layout are newsweek.com and popsci.com.

Color scheme – Choosing a color scheme is as important as choosing an online publication’s typographic treatment. Approaches vary from owning a color (time.com’s red) to no color (nytime.com) to using color as a wayfaring guide (usatoday.com).

Navigation – The one rule of thumb when it comes to navigation is that most publication websites place it at the top. Two notable exceptions are nytimes.com and msnbc.com.

Layout –  From a usability perspective there are, in fact, a few things we can learn from the printed world. In specific, how to layout information so it is easy to consume. Virtually all online publication use a grid-based layout for their pages. This approach not only creates a clean layout but it is also an effective way to present and manage content rich websites.  Good examples are telegraph.co.uk and theonion.com.

Content Strategy

Some publications face the daunting challenge of offering sufficient engaging content to attract the  loyal readership required for a sustainable business model. Thus, an effective yet feasible content creation roadmap must be at the core of an online publication’s strategy. Online publications should leverage technology and users to support and complement content created by its staff writers and/or bloggers.

Blog driven – Today, the lines between a blog and an online publication are blurred—with most magazines having a prominent blog section. The trend for online publications is moving towards a blog-driven model where traditional news and content take a supporting role. Best in class blog-driven sites include good.is and wired.com (also best in class for layout and visual feel).

Auto Content – Auto content generators are a good way to enhance blog postings and articles with other proprietary content or content from other websites. The San Jose Mercury News (mercurynews.com) uses such auto content generators very effectively. For instance, the page below was auto generated.

Auto Content for Blogs – Even bloggers can benefit from auto content technology. A product from TextDigger  allows bloggers to automatically generated complementary content based on the semantics of the posting.

Debates – A great idea for generating content as well as engagement from targeted audiences is to sponsor debates on relevant topics. Bloggingheads.tv sponsors debates through their website using a video format. However, I feel that The Economist Debate Series take the concept to a new level—using a social media approach to drive engagement and participation.

Inbound Syndication – Another trend in online publications is that of using syndicated blogs to enhance existing content. Sites such as reuters.com, statesman.com and foxnews.com use blog syndication services.

Tagging – Tagging articles and pages based on the semantic meaning of the content rather that on individual words is a great tactic to follow. This allows for publishers serve more meaningful pages by suggesting related content that is pertinent to the user. For instance, star-telegram.com uses semantic technology to create a web of relevant content that engages users.

Social Media

Online publications should leverage social media to engage and  create a true “conversation” with users. Research will uncover how the target audience prefers to interact online, whether through on site social features on the website or on social networks like Linkedin or Facebook.

Commenting – User comments are extremely important to blog-based magazine websites. For those publications that cover sensitive or controversial subjects, a structured approval process for comments can be put in place. At the same time one must take into account users expectations that their comments must be promptly posted—or their level of engagement will quickly dissipate. From wsj.com to foxnews.com most news organizations allow for near real-time posting with only the use of automatic filters to keep out profanity and/or specific words.

Sharing – Sharing functionalities are ubiquitous in online publications websites. Given the spread and fragmentation of social and sharing sites, we recommend that the largest number of sharing options be offered to users. Technology from ShareThis and TryThis allows sites not only to share content across social sites but to email, AIM and/or text content as well.

Leveraging a Community – the last thing that users want is to join one more social network. Rather than creating their own social networks, online publications should leverage existing social sites such as linkedin.com, facebook.com and myspace.com. Nevertheless, a social strategy must go beyond creating a fan page and ensure that fresh and relevant content is delivery through these sites. newsweek.com does an excellent job at engaging its users through Facebook by conducting live interviews. nytimes.com puts Twitter to good use.

Creating a Community – Although this is something that will not fit most websites, there are online publications that deploy their own custom made social sites. For instance, my.stltoday.com is an online community created by the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

Multimedia Options

Online publications should seize every opportunity to incorporate multimedia content. This might include audio podcasts, video or interactive graphics. However, the right multimedia strategy will depend on audience preferences as well as budget constraints.

Video, Webcasting and Podcasting – As users’ download speed increases, online publications are delivering more of their content through multimedia. I consider nytimes.com’s podcasting series to be best in class. For video, I like the format used by bigthink.com.

Interactive Features – another trend worth mentioning is that of data visualization to summarize and convey information that would otherwise be difficult to digest. Msnbc.com, nytimes.com, usatoday.com and even foundations such as rwjf.com publish interactive features on a regular basis.

Outreach Strategy

Building a compelling site with compelling content is no guarantee that it will attract an acceptable level of traffic.    The new online publications must be developed in concert with an integrated outreach strategy.  Content and syndication partnerships should be at the center of this strategy. Newsletters, emails, and feeds will help acquire and retain users.

RSS Feeds – while major news sites tend to minimize the use of RSS, niche publications make the most out of feeds. huffingtonpost.com and wired.com provide guidelines worth following.

Newsletters and Emails – the key to a solid newsletter/email strategy is quality of the list used. While we might have to initially use purchased a list, it imperative that the publications develop their own qualified list of users—most can start with their subscriber database, if they have one. Another way might be by requiring users to create an account if they want to comment or participate on forums. Always provide options to opt-in or out.

Platforms

A thorough technology evaluation must take place before a content management system (CMS) platform is chosen. For publishing purposes, CMS come in four flavors: open source, specialized, enterprise and custom made.

Open Source – When it comes to open source CMS there are three platforms that usually make to the top of the list.  The first two, Movable Type and Wordpress, were originally blogging content management systems that have evolved into full-fledge online publication platforms. For example, barackobama.com was built using Movable Type and the Wall Street Journal’s new magazine was created using Wordpress. The third option is to use Drupal. This option is particularly attractive since Drupal offers a plug-in from Open Calais that allows for semantic tagging—theonion.com, obsever.com, fastcompany.com and usmagazine.com are built on Drupal.

Specialized – There are several software companies that specialize in the publishing vertical. The specialized CMS is made by Nstein (ft.com). Vignette, now part of Open Text, offers the Vignette Media CMS . Ektron and CoreMedia also offer a products with strong publishing features.

Enterprise – There is no need to go into detail about enterprise level CMS platforms—as there are only a good fit for only a handful of organizations. Enterprise level CMS are offered by Oracle, IBM, Microsoft and EMC.

Custom Made – Another approach popular among online publications is custom develop their own CMS platforms. These are usually developed on either an open source or .Net framework. There are development shops that specialize in the publishing sector. The one shop that makes it into every short list is Optaros (note: I have no affiliations with this company. I have worked with them in the past, though). Optaros has developed custom CMS platforms for washingtontimes.com and nytimes.com.

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