Friday, November 21, 2008

Bring Readers Back By Sending Them Away

There's a good post today on Publishing 2.0, on the virtues of link journalism:
Link Journalism Drives Page Views and Engagement
"Link journalism," in a nutshell, is publishing content that consists almost entirely of links to other content. Usually this sort of thing attracts two types of criticism: that it's a lazy substitute for actual content generation, and that it's a suicidal surrender of visitors to a competitor's site. I can attest to many meetings I've attended in which one idea or another was shot down for the sole reason that it would send visitors away from the site, rather than keeping them around. Let's call this the flypaper model of site design: it seeks to trap visitors on the site, whether they want to be there or not.

The article above notes how wrong-headed this was: it talks about a page on a Tennessee Volunteers fan site that gets twice as many page views as any other page, despite the fact that it consists entirely of links to stories on other sites. Partly this is due to the fact that the page in question focuses on a breaking-news topic of great interest to the site's readers, but to explain it away as an exceptional case would miss a valuable point:

Aggregating links to content on other sites solves a problem for your readers.

We work in an attention economy. There is far too much information out there for anyone to assimilate on their own. For people who are interested in following news in general or even developments within a specific topic, this creates anxiety: maybe something important or interesting is happening RIGHT NOW and they won't hear about it. That's a problem, and the site that solves that problem will immediately go into their list of favorite web destinations. We can call this the banquet model of site design, since it presents visitors with a tasty spread of content that tempts them to return the next time they feel hungry for information.

In short, there are two ways to send visitors away, one good and one bad. You can send them away in a fashion that leaves a lasting negative impression of your site, or you can send them away feeling that your site is a good thing that gave them what they wanted. If you're in the latter category, the visitors who leave your site via external links will probably come back in time. Solve a big or pressing problem, and they'll come back repeatedly (and maybe even bring their friends).