Invite readers with biscuits, feed them vegetables, but be mindful of freak shows

When you open a favourite news site, you probably take for granted the vast array of choice in just that one place. With no physical space limits on content, you can find thousands of stories about everything from the latest political news to advice on exercising to a video of an alligator crossing a golf course.

This is the norm for general news sites in the digital age — a little something for everyone, organised in a way that makes it easy to browse the banquet of information you find there.

Making sense of it is the main task of any newsroom, both to present a coherent and appealing offering to the audience, and also to ensure the stories, videos, podcasts, and other material contribute to the brand values and business goals of the news organisation.

Most content is organised thematically — news over here, sports over there, lifestyle, arts, culture, etc. — all easy to find and navigate, aggregated on a daily top news feed that may or may not be personalised for each subscriber.

But content is also characterised by its inherent qualities and knowing how to use these traits can be useful to the business itself.

I like to think about these different traits as vegetables, biscuits, and freak shows.

Vegetables consist of the healthy stuff. This is the big mass of content — the good stories, properly researched, completely in line with the mission and the brand of the news organisation. These are basically the stories you want to have and that people want from you and are willing to pay for. Vegetables keep people with you because they are healthy for the brain and are the substantial part of your news offering.

Biscuits (or cookies — call them what you will) consist of the content that lures people in. They can be quirky stories, advice, or lists, but they are still in line with your mission or your brand. You spread these stories on social media to catch attention. There are fewer biscuits than vegetables, but when people come and “eat” the biscuit, they may also look around and stay for the healthy vegetables as well. After all, you can’t (or shouldn’t) eat only biscuits.

Then you have your freak shows. They are also like biscuits in that they attract attention, but they’re not necessarily in line with your brand values. For example, you can certainly entertain readers with endless streams of skateboard fails, but this doesn’t contribute to what you are trying to do. You have to be very careful with freak shows, because it can harm your brand. Biscuits are fine, because biscuits align with your brand values.

For example, during the recent impeachment of U.S. President Donald Trump, there were rare moments of levity in what was an otherwise serious debate. Tweets and posts about those moments attracted attention and click-throughs to news sites, where they were surrounded by the otherwise serious news, opinion, forecasts, and all the coverage expected for a major news story. People came for the biscuit, and stayed for the healthy vegetables.

On the other hand, a quality British newspaper ran a story some years ago entitled “Man arrested for having sex with lamppost.” It was meant to be a “biscuit” story. Sure, it is news, and it drew tens of thousands of views (it was actually the most successful online story that week). But unlike a biscuit, it didn’t reflect, in any way, the other content of a serious news organisation. It didn’t represent the brand values and didn’t contribute to sustainable audience growth. It was, quite simply, what I call a freak show.

What we are really talking about is conversion — getting people to develop a taste for your news and stick around. When you write stories that convert, it is very often the biscuits. Vegetables are often for retention; they too can convert, of course, but biscuits are made for conversion.

A biscuit could be rankings of the best football teams of all time or the three best things you can do for your health or your stock market portfolio. These are typical biscuits. But if you are a serious news company and you post a video of an exploding condom, you’ll get some attention, yet this it has nothing to do with your brand. So freak shows can be potentially dangerous for your brand.

You should invite readers in with the biscuits, and you present them with your vegetables. Let them find out what is happening inside your store, where there is a lot more than just the sweet teasers. This thinking can help focus the newsroom on how to differentiate content and how to know which stories convert casual readers into subscribers. And, they will subscribe for the vegetables — your excellent array of healthy content, which is very good for you.

This article was also published on the INMA Media Leaders blog.