This morning I followed a link from a tweet to an op-ed piece on a newspaper’s website, and was greeted with a demand to register or log in. It’s a newspaper in a state in which I don’t live, and whose site I don’t have a regular reason to visit. (I’m not going to out them, since this was far from a unique experience.) My interpretation of its demand? “You’re not welcome here yet.”
I realize my visit is useless to many of this site’s advertisers since I’m not local, so the newspaper is probably not losing a lot of sleep over the fact that I chose not to continue. I was sorry not to be able to read the op-ed, but I don’t understand what good my registration information will do for the newspaper, and I really don’t like leaving digital breadcrumbs behind in a place I am probably not going to be visiting again for a while. To me the message was, give us something we want even though it might not make sense to you, before we give you anything of value.
Which got me to thinking: What if newspapers made a real, systematic effort to welcome their first-time site visitors? Invited them in, showed them around, let them wander digitally and touch the merchandise, made an effort to discern why they were there, tried to offer them products that met their needs, and generally didn’t start right off by asking them for something? I for one would feel much more as though my time and presence were of value. I’d be more inclined to seek the site out in the future if I thought it might have something I was looking for. And if the site had some premium offerings for which there were a charge, I would be much more inclined to consider paying it.
This, I think, is one of the ways in which news sites can start to build communities, which is an issue of some currency lately. So what if I’m from out of state? Find out more about why I’m visiting, and see about offering me things that match those interests. If you do this, it’s much more likely I will want to belong to your community and I will keep coming back to see what’s new.
Here’s an example: I am very interested in the revitalization efforts of our smaller, post-industrial Northeast waterfront cities — places like Baltimore, New Haven, New London, Providence, New Bedford, Fall River, Portland. I visit news sites in those areas occasionally, when a link to a revitalization story reaches me. I discover which reporters are covering revitalization in those cities and I begin to follow them. I set up keyword-based RSS feeds and Twitter lists. But this is all very ad-hoc and I’m sure I’m missing things. Instead, what if the news sites in those cities understood that this was my interest, and could introduce me to a community of other readers, organizations, bloggers, experts, etc., plus their own reporters, and maybe even job opportunities, that are also focused on the topic? Would I be willing to register on the sites in return? Absolutely. I’m a member of a community now, and that has real value to me.
Some niche sites have started doing this; Next City comes to mind. But I don’t know of too many newspaper sites that do this, although there are surely many topics that lend themselves to it, and it seems like a lost opportunity. I’d love to be proven wrong.