One of the most interesting observations coming out of the leaked New York TImes Digital Strategy document was the observation that newspapers have lost the advantage of the home page, much as they already had lost the “above the fold” advantage. When newspapers went online almost twenty years ago, they modeled their web sites after their print products; the important things they thought readers should know about were on the home page, and above the fold, just like in the newspaper. For a while, that worked. That is, as long as readers searched for what was on the home page, or newspapers like The Times drew online readers from their print subscribers.
But in the two decades since “papers” became digital, much as changed in the way readers discover the news. The advent of social media in 2005 dealt the final blow to the home page. As Atlantic notes,
News publishers lost the homepage firehose, and gained a social media flood. This social flood corresponds with the emergence of another powerful piece of technology: audience analytics software that tells digital publishers what people are reading, and how long they’re reading it, with greater specificity than ever.
One theory is that the rise of twin technological forces—the social flood and the age of analytics—will (a) make the news more about readers; and (b) make news organizations more like each other.
Why should the death of homepages give rise to news that’s more about readers? Because homepages reflect the values of institutions, and Facebook and Twitter reflect the interest of individual readers. These digital grazers have shown again and again that they aren’t interested in hard news, but rather entertainment, self-help, awe, and outrage dressed up news. Digitally native publishers are pretty good at pumping this kind of stuff out….
Second, we should expect—and have already seen—an expedited clustering effect around news tropes, and this clustering is making news organizations more like each other. This goes back to technology. The better publishers can see what audiences are reading, the more they will be inclined to quickly serve up duplicates of the most popular stuff.
For advertisers, this presents a conundrum: just where IS the audience? And indeed, in an era of social referrals, WHO is the audience? The audience reading a NY Times article may not be the typical Times subscriber at all, but just an individual interested in a certain story reading all she can about it in every newspaper.
That’s why performance advertising must give way to brand lift, and advertisers must choose both articles and publishers. In turn, publishers must keep accurate data on what is being read and engaged with on their sites. Oh, and let’s never forget top-notch creative in high impact formats — ads that can be seen so they can be measured.