The “Gray Lady” is The New York Times, so-called because the type in the print version is so dense. That’s a moniker the newspaper no doubt wishes it could shed as its readership is eclipsed by online journals Huffington Post and BuzzFeed.
Adding further insult, The Huffington Post and BuzzFeed regularly repackage the Times’s content and draw more traffic than the original stories in the Times. How? By promoting the heck out of their content on social media.
Behind on Social Media
In March, the Times circulated a study entitled “Innovation” about its future that was intended for an internal audience. It recommends new strategies to stem the steady decline of its readership.
Of course, the study soon leaked to outlets such as Mashable and Scribd (where I downloaded the full report that you can access at the bottom of this post). The study included interviews of Times insiders as well as outsiders, including a number of its online and broadcast competitors.
This important study by the publication widely regarded as the “paper of record” reveals the Times is woefully behind in its social media strategy. Those of us who are bloggers and publishers can learn from the Times’ deficiencies and its plans to catch up to their competitors.
Among the findings is that fewer readers are visiting the Times’s home page. This is the trend for all media, including bloggers whose visitors often land on their posts via social media and never visit the home page. Social is where readers look first to find content.
The report continues, “Companies like Huffington Post and BuzzFeed have, in the past few years, eclipsed our traffic by building best practices for search and social into their workflow.” Less than 10% of traffic to the Times comes from social media compared to 60% for BuzzFeed.
At the Huffington Post, a story cannot be published unless it has a photo, a search headline, a tweet and a Facebook post.
Building An Audience
As bloggers know, it isn’t easy to build an audience for your content. A new position at the Times, director of Audience Development, will focus on expanding its audience by:
Discovery: How we package and distribute our journalism
The study recommends repurposing its rich archive of evergreen content “and organizing and packaging our content in more useful ways.”
The Times has experimented with new kinds of stories to attract and engage online readers, including Snow Fall: The Avalanche at Tunnel Creek, a hugely successful, multi-thousand-word, multi-media story that won Peabody and Pulitzer prizes for innovative web journalism. The Times plans more of what it calls these “snowfall” features.
Promotion: How we call attention to our journalism
Reporters at the Times will be encouraged (and possibly required) to promote their own content on social media, as do reporters for their online competitors. But the study notes that most reporters don’t know how to use social media and need training. Stories also need to be optimized for search.
Connection: How we create two-way relationships with readers that deepen their loyalty
The study advocates creating more engagement between reporters and readers. A number of Times reporters on their own initiative have developed a following on social media and engaged their readers.
The Times also knows it needs to carry more user-generated content a la the Huffington Post, but also fears that doing so could potentially diminish the quality of its content.
So what can bloggers learn from the insights the Times gained in its comprehensive study to help build our readership?
- Repackage and repurpose content. Take a blog post and turn it into a podcast or slide show that you can upload to SlideShare. Turn related posts into an ebook, as fellow blogger Patricia Weber and I did with Repairing the Elevator Speech to Burnish Your Personal Brand.
- Become an aggregator. BuzzFeed is famous for pulling content from many sources and aggregating it into new stories. Bloggers Sherryl Perry at Keep Up With the Web and Ana Hoffman at Traffic Generation Cafe are especially adept at researching and writing about social media, and linking to other authorities.
- Use Backlinks and internal links. Many people think linking to other sites is a way to draw traffic from that site, and that may be true, especially if that site uses CommentLuv. But it’s more important than ever to link to “authority” sites or well-established sites in your space that rank well. Then Google will send more search traffic your way. Also, Ana always links to her own posts and, why not, they are filled with great content.
- Write guest posts. Yes, we all know the commotion that Matt Cutts caused with his video a while back that said it was a bad idea to accept guest posts because most were “spammy.” However, in response to the uproar, he also made this comment: “A high-quality guest post with nofollowed links can still be a good way to get exposure to a new audience, branding, etc.” Be careful in accepting guest posts from low-quality sites or submitting your own guest posts to suspect sites.
- Tag your content. No, tagging does not influence search. But tagging enables readers to better search your content.
- Promote, promote, promote. Build your social media strategy into every post before its published. Don’t get lazy and neglect to post your content to your social media networks. Invite fellow bloggers to comment. Repackage as described above.
Below is the full New York Times report. It’s very long but worth reading to gain the inside scoop from one of the world’s great newspapers about what it’s doing to regain its competitive edge in a digital world.