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6 Simple Web Development Tips for Traditional Media

2010 April 7

With all of the excitement surrounding the Apple i-Pad, it seems like a new day for traditional media online.  Nobody knows what the true impact will be, but odds are that it will be significant.  Many media companies are rushing out i-Pad apps in order to get in on the ground floor.

However, it will be a while before i-Pads and similar devices achieve critical mass so this should also be a time for media companies to revisit their existing web sites, many of which need drastic improvement.

With that in mind, I put together a short guide to the most common mistakes.

Same Brand – New Media

Probably the most common mistake is to try to create a web version of an existing product, rather than focusing on how to best serve the consumer.  All too often, creative people try to adapt the medium that they know, without bothering to learn the new one.

Computer screens are not conducive to watching long videos or reading long articles.  Good print design is about beauty while good web design is about usability.  Traditional media is passive while online media is active.

A new medium requires new skills to engage the audience in new ways. A good web site adapts the brand, not the product.

To give an example, take a look at this excellent Ansel Adams feature on the New York Times site.  It is a companion to an article in the travel section that appeared in the newspaper.  However, they use the interactive capability of the web to create something new and exciting.

Some of the artists most famous photographs are accompanied by a voice over narrative by a woman who used to work with Adams telling the story behind each picture.  The subject is the same, the technology simple, but the result is interesting, informative and impressive.

Make Every Page a Home Page

They say that you can’t judge a book by its cover because that’s what most actually people do (or there wouldn’t be any point in saying it would there?).  For that reason, everybody puts a lot of time and effort into their home page, as if it was a magazine cover.

However, on the web, it’s quite likely that 50% of your audience never sees your home page (although this varies widely by site).  Search engines and social media generate a lot of traffic to specific content on pages that might not figure prominently into the initial planning process.

So it’s important to treat every page as if it were a home page and make sure that you are selling the site in general and the next click specifically.  You need to always be offering links to more content, even if it is outside your own site.

A good web site offers continual discovery. No page should be an end point.

Menu Navigation is for the Lost

Very often, old media people want to treat the menu as if it were a table of contents.  That’s a big mistake.  The truth is that people usually scan the page in an F-shaped pattern and don’t spend much time with menus.

Most often, people use menus for when they are lost and want to get back to some starting point or if they are loyal users who don’t see any interesting content yet are still willing to explore.  So it’s important to keep menus clear and uncluttered.  If you need to add more information, feel free to use a drop down menu, where there is little restriction on size.

And for God sakes, always put menu navigation below the top banner.  If I have to explain why, just take a look at MTV’s site.  The menu, while almost absurdly large, is still hard to find.  Those who are lost will most likely stay that way until they leave the site.

Seek Influence Before Audience

The web runs on influence and you do things on the web that you would never do in traditional media.  Don’t be shy about providing links to competitor’s content, inviting guest bloggers, etc.

A great example of this is the Atlantic Wire, which is a site run by The Atlantic magazine that directs people to top quality commentary around the web, very little of it from the Atlantic’s own bloggers, (which are excellent, by the way).

It shouldn’t be a surprise that The Atlantic’s web site far outperforms the print edition.  While the magazine has roughly 1/10th of the circulation of Time or Newsweek, the web site is increasingly competitive with both.

Original Design is the Original Sin

Very often when people start thinking about making a new web site, they want to think about how they can “break the mold.”  This usually leads to an original design that’s so confusing that nobody can figure out how to use it.

This goes especially for using internal brands for menu navigation.  A great example is the Runner’s World site, where for some reason they thought putting things like “The Penguin: No Need for Speed” on a sub-menu is a good idea.  Who the hell knows what that means?

And don’t even get me started on flash intros.  Suffice it to say, that no matter how cool you think it is, while it’s loading users are leaving.

To see how it should be done, take a look at Vogue’s siteVogue, for those who don’t know, is one of the most beautifully designed magazines in the world.  Meanwhile, their web site design is very conventional, although extremely well done.

The site works well because of Vogue’s original and opinion forming content.  The design makes all the great stuff easy to find and enjoy.

Test, Re- Test and then Test Again

Probably the biggest mistake that traditional media companies make is to create a web site, walk away and then come back in a few years.  Web media is about optimization, there is actually very little strategy involved.  You just need to keep constantly improving.  Silicon Valley types call this the “perpetual beta.”

In truth, nobody really understands what works all that well. It’s not like anybody has been doing this for very longt long.  Besides, the technology changes fast enough that whatever you do know doesn’t have a long shelf life.

The only real solution is to constantly test your site and see how consumers are actually using it rather than how you think they should use it.  Here’s a very good guide to usability testing for those who need to get started or would like to improve their efforts.

I hope this has been helpful.  Let me know your comments.

–          Greg

8 Responses
  1. April 8, 2010

    Greg – once again, a really good article – thanks for posting.
    First off, there’s a LinkedIn group called, “Holistic Website Performance” dedicated to just this topic – how to design, build and operate a website which achieves its objectives. Great discussions with some real knowledge behind them.
    Next, usability. Apple success speaks to this in volumes, but you have to design this level of usability into the whole user experience – not just the website or device, but every aspect of the user’s interaction. The points you make about every page is a Home Page and those on the Menu Structure are not only valid from the marketing and usability angles, but are of paramount importance to the site’s SEO score. For example, the link in your article on a menu’s use of drop downs is great, because for SEO purposes, you should be able to reach any desired page on the site within 3 clicks. (With so much to scan these days, the search engines lose interest more quickly than they used to). In other words, your site should be no more than 3 levels deep – difficult as it gets bigger and using drop downs is one way to keep it shallow.
    Lastly, you suggest testing the site. The reason that it’s so seldom done is that until recently (see below), it’s been difficult to do usability testing of this kind. Hiring, (dare I use the word?) Experts – to do it for you is very expensive; web services which do it charge about $50 per test, but that’s still expensive when you do the number of tests needed to make wise decisions.
    I said until recently, because among its many capabilities, Inbound Marketing Automation (IMA) provides free usability testing. Imagine tracking your visitors’ digital footprints around your site, seeing how much time they spend on each page, what order they traverse the site in, and which offers they click on and then reject versus accept? It’s not the total picture of course, because you can’t see the visitor’s eyes or read her body language, or indeed even hear their muttered curses. But it sure beats nothing and the real increases in revenues and reductions in costs it brings are proof of that.
    I feel its valid to toot this horn here, because like all the features you mention above, it’s best to design your Sales and Marketing Automation system into your website at the beginning. Both Sales and Marketing Automation systems can be retrofitted, but as we’re both saying, everything works better when all the objectives are designed into the site. Our website’s resources section has a white paper on, “How to get Priceless Market Insight for Free” describing how this approach allows you to continuously improve the performance of your website in an analytic manner (including, also for free, multivariate testing of any pages).
    http://www.inbound-marketing-automation.ca
    .-= Eric Goldman´s last blog ..B2B Sales and Marketing Team Integration? =-.

    Greg Reply:

    Eric,

    That’s a great idea! My experience is primarily with large commercial web sites. Our development staff was nearly 100 so it wasn’t much of a problem to do continuous usability testing and, for any media company that is trying to build a web business the investment is tiny. Nevertheless, I can see how it would be difficult for a corporate web site and you are truly offering a valuable service.

    btw. The most common mistake I see on corporate web sites is the use of internal brands on navigation. This always a bad idea. You should never use anything on your menus that would be unfamiliar to someone who is new to your company. Search engines are perfectly capable of recognizing headings, so there is really no benefit to branding a menu. It just confuses people.

    Thanks again for your comment.

    – Greg

    Eric Goldman Reply:

    Greg;
    Thanks for the endorsement. The point you make about using Branding in the Menu is so true. We tried something different with our site’s menu tabs, using the benefits of IMA instead of the features like drip-emails, SEO and SMM which so many companies do. I think these buzzwords are meaningless to outsiders or even prospects who have just begun their research.
    Keep on blogging will ya!
    .-= Eric Goldman´s last blog ..B2B Sales and Marketing Team Integration? =-.

  2. April 12, 2010

    Hello Greg:

    i read the article and walked away with as many ideas as I have questions. But, I will start with some provocative examples.

    The first is http://www.cpbgroup.com. The second is http://www.wk.com. Rather than comment what I believe is the most unrecognized movements in web page design and function, I will just solicit your responses.

    Although not stated, in many ways, your discussion is really one about relative aesthetics. The relative part goes to the comparison between a geek designed digital display and a paper medium that principally relays on attracting eyes with beautiful photos and the most wonderfully laid out graphics and text. Two different ideas; two different mediums; two different results.

    I believe there are silver linings in all of this. The differences between the aesthetics and functions of print and digital media may become blurred. This is because as time goes on more end users will appreciate a wow factor with their newly purchased HD monitors. The result is a digital wow factor that may exceed that one could otherwise realize by reading the Sunday edition of the New York Times magazine.

    In the end, we will end up either finding that most periodicals will end up being limited edition collector items that we scatter about our coffee tables. Or, in place of all things analog, we’ll simply place an iPad in front of our guests, and avail them to a digital collection of Ansel Adam’s works.

    Greg Reply:

    Ibrahım,

    As always thanks for your input. It will be interesting to see how the ı-Pad changes things.

    – Greg

  3. June 8, 2010

    Greg: Great job. You really hit the nail on the head. I am going to repost this on my site to share with my client base.

    Greg Reply:

    Great, I hope your readers like it.

    – Greg

  4. February 8, 2012

    Hey that is a good post & a good set of coversations too. Keep sharing, that is good…

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