All web activity is intention driven.
People visit web pages, whether arriving via search, a link or a bookmark with a specific intention. That intention might be to read a specific story, see what’s on sale, scan headlines or connect with a friend.
How well a web page helps a user satisfy that intention determines whether a user will return to that page or recommend it to others.
The page may not efficiently satisfy a user’s intention — the web world is full of poorly designed pages that survive by providing a marginal benefit to users, newspaper.com sites chief among them — but so long as the user is free to focus on that intention devoid of distractions or unexpected interruptions, the user experience will be OK.
Much has been made of eye track studies that demonstrate banner blindness. What’s interesting is the only "banner blindness" eye track reports I’ve been able to find demonstrate banner blindness on story pages.
I’ve never seen such a study — and if you have, please let me know — on a newspaper.com home page.
The banner blindness studies support, I think, the proposition that user behavior on the web is intention driven. When a user clicks on a link — whether from aggregator, search engine, blog or newspaper.com home page, the user has expressed an intention to read a particular story or post. The user is solely focused on that task, so she ignores the banners.
But what is the intention of a user visiting a newspaper.com home page?
I do not have available to me an eye track study to support my theory, but I do have years of experience studying heat maps of user behavior on home pages in Ventura, Bakersfield and GateHouse Media, and I believe the user intention is to scan the newspaper.com home page looking for something interesting.
Notice, I didn’t say "something interesting to click on." Just "something interesting."
Users visit a newspaper.com home page not so much because they want to dive deeper into the site, but because they want to see what is new.
We can debate whether the typical newspaper.com is doing well at satisfying that intention, or more importantly, whether that is the right intention to meet, but I believe that is the typical user intention.
Most such well-intentioned users are most likely looking for the latest news, or other new content, but I would contend that a scanning user is a user who is more likely to take in the full breadth of the home page — they’ll see your top nav links, your promos for your special features and, most importantly, your home page advertising.
This is why it’s probably a mistake for newspapers not to put more advertising on their home pages. The home page audience is more likely to notice a home page ad than an story page audience. (I know there are studies that contradict this theory, that more ads on the home page lead to less effective ads, but I don’t believe this proposition has been fully and fairly studied at the community news level, where local ads tend to be highly relevant to local users.)
And it’s also why newspaper publishers should think about how to get more visitors to the home page. That’s where the money is, and that’s best vehicle for generating audience growth.
Conversely, story pages need to be parred down to the essentials. Banner ads on story pages are a waste. Contextual ads might have some value, but the best move a publisher can make with story pages is use single-focus pages as a vehicle for promoting other content.
By visiting a story page, a user has expressed at least a marginal interest in the content you have available. Use the story page to present more content, be it top headlines, most e-mailed stories or "related stories."
I’ve seen page views increased by 10 percent with the introduction of a pretty low-tech "related content" widget.
Giving users more content choices on a content page works — more advertising choices, not so much.
Your goal as a newspaper.com publisher is to increase user loyalty. Your ideal user visits multiple times per day, ideally by constantly refreshing your home page to see what is new. The more you can entice the occasional visitor into reading your content, the more likely that user is to become a frequent home page visitor.
If your advertising is highly relevant to that user, he is more like to take notice and also be inclined to support the businesses that support your news operations. It becomes a virtuous circle.
When designing your web strategy, think constantly of user intention. Ask, how are people going to use this page? Then design your page strategy around that intention so that both the user’s consumer needs and your business needs are satisfied.