News Leadership 3.0

August 31, 2009

How to drive clicks ... 10 million clicks!

In a guest post, SwitchYard Media’s Gary A. Seidman sends a dispatch from the trenches of entrepreneurial journalism

Gary Seidman runs the Seattle-based multimedia journalism company SwitchYard Media. Prior to founding SwitchYard in 2007, Gary was deputy editor and political director of In this guest post, he breaks down development of a highly popular slideshow on MSN Money..

By Gary A. Seidman

When SwitchYard Media produced a slideshow story on discontinued products for MSN Money, the piece generated tons of traffic. No surprise. MSN is a vastly popular site that sports a wealth of content and consistently ranks in the top five most visited URLs. Still, our story was an anomaly, and its success offers lessons about producing Web content that resonates with readers, publishers and advertisers.

To begin with, we plucked the idea for that story right out of MSN’s message boards. MSN’s editors have taken pains to cultivate a lively message board community that is not shy about posting animated opinions and sharing them around the Web. We knew that if we could tap into that hyper-vocal, hyper-loyal crowd, we’d strike gold.

What surprised us is how much gold. Nearly a year after it first published, the slideshow still racks up millions of new page views month after month. “It’s the gift that keeps on giving. It hit a chord with our readers,” an MSN editor told me over lunch just before ordering two sequels on the subject.

His enthusiasm wasn’t only about the content. Hardly. Stories that drive that many page views are, of course, valuable platforms for delivering ads. Do the math: 10 million page views at a CPM rate of $10 per thousand ad appearances. That’s a tidy sum.

MSN has a deliberate content strategy designed to appeal to a mass audience. It offers a bounty of stories ranging from predictable celebrity fare to “how-to-shop-for-the-cheapest-credit-card-deal.” In the nutshell, the formula is: Relatable, Useful and Fun. We nailed two out of three.

We started by rummaging around MSN’s message boards before stumbling across a thread of hundreds of comments about consumer products that are no longer on the market. Truthfully, it was more a pop culture topic then a business piece, but it had potential. After all, everyone remembers some commercial product from their childhood that has inexplicably disappeared ... and wonders “what happened to that?”

Immediately we recognized the subject’s appeal. It had great promise to become an enjoyable “distraction” story, and it lent itself to interesting archival photos and entertaining trivia.  Because the topic was light, harmless and fun, it wouldn’t take much prompting for a reader—despondent over the loss of Planters Cheez Balls, for example—to post a comment on a message board and get another thread rolling.

BTW, the great thing about message boards (and social networks, for that matter), is that once someone posts a comment, they keep checking back for responses. That amplifies the buzz.

But to woo readers these days, you have to work all the angles. That old adage, “a picture is worth a thousand words,” has never been more true then in the attention-deficient Internet age. Our “Crazy Eddie’s-looking” caricature guy on the slideshow’s title page was specifically designed to lure in casual surfers. Once in, clicking through 10 slides—even if just to see the pictures—is not much of a commitment.

The engagement rate on SwitchYard’s slideshows is extremely high. Psychologically, clicking through a slideshow story—even one as long or longer than a newspaper article—feels like less work. It’s a mind trick. Publishers love stories told in slideshow formats because they generate multiple clicks and provide multiple opportunities to place advertisements.

While “discontinued products” was admittedly just a pop feature, its execution provides several lessons applicable to a range of online content:
#1. Think organically: How you present is as important as what you present.
#2. Bite-sized is better: Even complicated subjects can be boiled down to smaller, easy to understand chunks. 
#3. Visuals add value. Good imagery attracts an audience and lets you show a story rather than simply tell it.
#4. Monetization matters: (Most) publishers are in the business of making money. Design your story in a way that optimizes the prevailing metrics that advertisers care about.

One last thought. The Web is an active medium—you probably have your hand on your mouse right now. Take advantage of that tendency to click by producing stories that are clickable by design.

May 28, 2009

Social media class: Project development

Here’s a list of questions to ask when you’re developing a new product

Participants in KDMC’s “Using Social Media to Build Audience” class are going to start working on projects for their news organizations. Each organization’s team is assigned to develop a product or practice that takes advantage of social media tools to engage users. Here is a list of project development questions we are using to guide the class:



1. What is our project?

2. What problem will it solve or what need will it serve?

3. Who in particular is our project for? What do we know about the potential users? What do we need to know?

4. How do we anticipate people will use our service?

5. What else like it is out there? What ideas will be borrowed from our competitors? How will our product be different or better than the competition?


6. Who are the key people on our development team? What expertise do we have on board? What expertise do we still need?

7. What technology will we employ? Will we build or buy this technology? Is it available for free?

8. What is the timeline for developing our project? What are the major steps in achieving our goal?

9. How do we expect to make money from this project?

10. Who are the key people on the operations team? What are their specific responsibilities?

11. Will there be a beta test? Will users be part of the testing process?


12. What will the launch look like? What specific actions are planned to get the word out?

13. After the launch, how will users find out about our product? How will we continue to reach people and attract users? Who is responsible for these tasks?

14. How will the organization’s leadership help ensure success?

15. What is the worst thing that can happen and how will we deal with it?

16. What will success look like? How will we measure success?

17. If the project is successful, how can we determine the logical iterations?

18. If our project is successful, what will its impact be?

19. If the project does not meet our expectations, how will we decide whether to continue it, modify it or kill it?

20. What key lessons have we have learned in putting together this project and how can we apply them to other projects?

December 08, 2008

Our new leadership report is out today!

KDMC offers a collection of tips, tools and takeaways from seminar experts for newsroom leaders in the digital age

The Leadership Conference is a highlight of Knight Digital Media Center’s annual training calendar. Newsroom leaders come to the center to hear from experts in digital media, innovation and newsroom change. They return to their newsrooms with strategies and ideas for moving online.

Today, KDMC is pleased to release a report compiled from the July 2008 Leadership Conference and an earlier leadership gathering in 2007. The report is organized as a series of lists and bullet points—tools, takeaways, quotes and action steps, for example—designed to spark new thinking among newsroom leaders and link them to resources that will help them develop their ideas.

I hope you’ll take a look at the KDMC Leadership Report. Here’s a sampling:

From Takeaways:

Stacy Lynch, a consultant and project manager for the Media Management Center, warns traditional news organizations against “the sucking sound of print” as they transition to online while attempting to maintain the newspaper.

“Print will take over every ounce of energy you have,” Lynch said.  The brutal truth is there’s nothing in print that has no value. Everything has a little bit a value. Every cut hurts. You just have to figure out what hurts less.”

From Tools:

Key performance indicators provide more meaningful information on site traffic than simple counts of visits or visitors. Dana Chinn, a faculty member at the USC Annenberg School of Journalism, details KPIs and their uses:

Often, that KPI is not a simple number such as time on site or unique monthly visitors. Instead, the most meaningful information may be from a ratio or comparison of two different numbers.

From Culture changers:

Change will only come from the bottom up. Command-and-control hierarchical systems of management have worked well for getting the daily paper out on time, but executive pronouncements do little to build long term change. The old structure burdens top editors with making too many small decisions instead of working on long term strategy. Perhaps more significantly, it discourages initiative - and possible innovation - from the ranks.

Also see Quotes, Reading, Action Steps

We envision a report that can grow and evolve as the challenges of newsroom leadership change. Please add your ideas in the comments.

August 12, 2008

Tools for innovators

Leadership report:
First, decide
who decides

In newsrooms, often, everyone wants to be part of the decision and no one really wants to take the final step. So decision-making can be very slow (or occasionally too fast when one person decides without meaningful input). Also, decisions that reflect consensus can be so watered down that they don’t accomplish much. RAID is a process to clarify who is responsible for making a decision and who has advisory power on a given project.

Stacy Lynch, a consultant and project manager at Media Management Center, helped implement RAID as Innovations Director at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. This is one in a series of posts about presentations and discussions at KDMC’s annual Leadership Conference last month (more explanation here). Lynch’s presentation on speeding decision-making gave a snapshot of this tool.

The acronym RAID stands for different roles:
- Recommend: Part of the team to weigh options and design recommendation(s)
- Agree: Have reviewed, weighed in and will implement (this one has implicit veto power).
- Inform: Offer subject expertise and information needed to make a decision
- Decide: Chooses among options, makes final decisions


In her presentation, Lynch used the example of an organization looking at adding social networking to its travel site. In virtually every key part of that decision, typically, anywhere from three to five departments believe they are the decision-maker. For example, in Lynch’s “typical” slide (top), news, IT and the executive office each thinks it is the decision-maker on a final prototype. Everyone thinks they are deciding the launch date. That’s a formula for misunderstanding, conflict and delay.

The goal of RAID, Lynch says, is to have “one D on each decision. The (project development) team should have the D as often as you feel they are capable of making that decision.”

Lynch showed a better application of RAID (bottom) to the plan for the travel site. One department alone decides a given issue (the exec office decides on a final prototype, the project team decides the launch date). This model has a lot more Agree and Inform roles—which means everyone gets to have a say without bogging down the process.

Go to Lynch’s presentation for more detail.

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Exploring innovation, transformation and leadership in a new ecosystem of news, by journalist and change advocate Michele McLellan.

Get in touch with Michele at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

More Leadership at KDMC:
Leadership Seminars | Annual Leadership Reports

Support is provided by:

John S. and James L. Knight Foundation

USC Annenberg School for Communication

McCormick Foundation

Donald W. Reynolds Journalism Institute


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