Put the people (pics) on your website

By Steve Outing

Have you thought about why social networks (aka, social utilities) like Facebook and MySpace quickly attracted tens of millions of users, and got them addicted? No need to think too hard. It’s because 1) people like to talk about themselves, and 2) people like to talk to their friends and know what’s going on in their friends’ lives. The social networks serve those needs. Bingo! Multi-billion-dollar businesses are formed.

It’s about the people

News organizations need to take some clues from this. I’ll write plenty of future tips covering lessons that can be learned from social networking, but for today I’m going to focus on one small thing you can do…

The other day I was reading about how a marketing study of e-mail performance showed that when personalized offers are included, response rates jump significantly. For example, a marketer might include an offer to sell a monogrammed briefcase, and the e-mail would be customized to show the recipient’s name on the briefcase. Turns out that’s a pretty successful marketing trick that increases sales big-time.

That got me thinking that news organizations might be able to improve their relationships with users by personalizing more. What if when users log on to a news website they see their own profile photo on their custom home landing page, for example? The message: This page and this website are for YOU.

We need to go much deeper than that, of course, offering better services — better utilities — that serve the online user. Being more Facebook-like and telling the user what his or her friends are doing, what they’re reading on your site, etc., would be a good model. But I’ll deal with that in a later tip.

For today, I just want to plant the notion that news websites can become more attractive by starting to include the users, the viewers, the audience more. Get away from being the bland corporate site that’s imparting important news to the masses. Get personal. “This is YOUR news, Pete/Sally/George…”

A simple start is to give your news site’s users a personal profile page, which can contain all sorts of useful information, news, links and buddies. Improve and enhance user profiles as your site evolves. There’s an amazing world of possibilities when it comes to user profile pages. (Again, that’s for another day.)

An easy start if this is something you haven’t done yet is to insert users’ mug shots or avatars, posting alongside the “Welcome Steve” message for registered users. While you can of course ask your users to upload their own photos, it makes sense to pick up their images from other sources, if they use them. For example, some websites do this by matching a registered user to an avatar attached to the user’s e-mail address as stored on MyBlogLog or Gravatar.

Avatars are mostly used in the gaming and social media worlds. But why not news, too? Much is made of the idea that “news is (beoming more of) a conversation.” Perhaps it’s time for online news publishers to explore the avatar world. (Here’s a good primer.)

Does your site offer this sort of visual personalization for its users?

Author: Steve Outing Steve Outing is a Boulder, Colorado-based media futurist, digital-news innovator, consultant, journalist, and educator. ... Need assistance with media-company future strategy? Get in touch with Steve!