On Monday, Canada’s National Post published an article about a local school instituting a ban on gay-straight alliance groups. It’s a good local story with broad cultural relevance, and, not surprisingly, it got linked on the web-curiosities aggregator Fark. Which led to a sudden surge in traffic to the story on the Post’s site.
The Post uses the real-time analytics tool Chartbeat — an addiction for many a digital newsie — and so noticed both the spike and its source. So its web production team updated the school story to include a specialized greeting to the new visitors (“Welcome, Fark readers!”), as well as some hand-curated links that it figured might interest members of the Fark community.
“We’re trying to make things just a little more relevant — a little more meaningful — to you in every way we can,” Chris Boutet, the senior producer for digital media at the Post, told me. The paper’s been experimenting with what it calls “welcome mats” since the summer, making similar updates for “Westerners vs. the world: We’re the Weird ones” and “Garbage truck cameras give new meaning to trash TV” (“Welcome, Drudge Report readers”);
“A Tale of Two Ghettos” (“Welcome, Reddit readers”); and “Margaret Atwood Thinks the Moon Landing Was Fake — Or Does She?” and “When is twins too many?” (“Welcome, Fark readers”).
And the Post isn’t the only outlet to experiment with the welcome mat idea. The Wall Street Journal, when it realized that an old story ranked first on a Google search for “Verizon iPhone,” tried something similar, as well. So have we here at the Lab. (If you know of any others, we’d love to hear about them in the comments.)
The mats take a few minutes to put together, Boutet says, and the return isn’t just a matter of more traffic — although that’s certainly part of it. (With the school story, “the clickthrough was just okay,” he notes. “It wasn’t huge, but it certainly was more through traffic than we would have seen if we hadn’t had that there. It always is.”) The bigger idea is brand identity. “We basically have two kinds of readers that visit the site: native readers and nomadic readers. Natives come to you because you’re you; nomadic readers are coming in from other communities or search traffic.” Welcome mats are an attempt to do what every news organization hopes to: to convert some of the nomads into natives. “We’re just trying to get them that little bit deeper into the site,” Boutet notes, and “to get them to develop some opinion or feeling about what the National Post is. And maybe next time, they’ll come back here natively.”
We often talk about the web’s effect on narrative, how its new grammars are changing the way we write and connect and even think. What we talk less about, though, is the web’s effect on the structures narratives operate within: assumptions about what constitutes relevance itself. “Archive,” we assume, is an analog concept. But there’s no need for it to be. There’s nothing to say that older stories can’t find new relevance in a networked environment — or that stories’ structures can’t leverage analytics in the same way that their narratives do. Welcome mats are one way to do that. (For WordPress users, there’s even a handy plugin, WP Greet Box, that can generate those mats automatically.) Another might be, for example, to add specific social media buttons to stories when they’re seen by users who’ve reached the site from them. (Someone who came to a site from StumbleUpon might see StumbleUpon buttons on the site’s pages, for instance. A Digg visitor would see Digg buttons.)
Real-time analytics — in fact, the plethora of new metrics available for news organizations to learn and otherwise benefit from — mean that outlets have a fantastic new way to relate to their users and, of course, their products. Stories on news sites, Boutet notes, can feel very static. “We fire and forget, and they read it, and no one ever looks at it again.” But welcome mats, and similar real-time updates, can be small gestures of dynamism. “What we want to do is make people aware, in a subtle way, that this is all part of the communication between the reader and the editors of a site. We’re watching you watching us.”