*Article courtesy of the European Journalism Centre
There is something addictive about the browsability of the average dating site. Its big pictures. Its cacophony of single people with similar interests. Waiting to be united. The feeling of infinite possibilities that keeps people on the sites until the wee hours of the morning hoping the next click will bring up Mr. or Ms. Right.
News sites have struggled over the years to balance stoic, voice-of-authority journalism with the fun, flashy features of the web that make online browsing such a social, time-sucking experience.
No one is suggesting the world’s top news sites should get into the dating game (except for maybe The Guardian, which has run its own dating site Soulmates since 2004, with more than 650,000 registered users). But the world of news could take a few lessons from online dating sites. Here, a few suggestions on where the news industry could borrow from the online-amore industry.
Build in an age learning curve
Older people are still some of newspapers’ most reliable readers. But even as their Internet usage increases, it remains way behind the amount younger generations go online. Dating sites face a similar problem: older folks are more reluctant to seek out companionship online. Brothers Matt and Tim Connolly in the UK decided to do something about this to help their “very lovely single mum” who was in her 60s meet new people. They built MyLovelyParent.com, which lets the user’s child browse profiles and select ones they think would be a good match for their parent.
“It gives you the ability to keep involved with your mum’s love life as much or as little as she wishes,” Matt Connolly told The Independent this month. “Mum can invite me to see her activity, like if she’s been in touch with someone, as a kind of safety net.”
The idea of catering an approach to reading news online to different age groups could be appealing to readers who are intimidated by having to navigate a news site. Google Chrome, for instance, offers an extension called Ochs for reading the New York Times that is more attractive to traditional newspaper readers, with features such as more white space, single-page article layout. News sites could consider creating less cluttered viewing options to attract older readers.
Another option is to allow family members or friends to curate a reading list from the news site to pass on to older users. Such an option would create something like a stepping stool to get new users acclimated to reading news online without turning on the full content fire hose.
“I can compare it to the first time I taught Mum to text,” Matt Connolly told the paper. “Lots of older people are incredibly digitally adept, but it’s a way of aiding those who aren’t.”
Give an incentive to use Facebook
A notorious photo that made the rounds on the internet in 2010 showing the absurd amount of times The Washington Post begs you to use Facebook on its website. On a single story page, Facebook icons, share buttons or mentions showed up 12 times which, as everyone on the internet pointed out, comes off a little bit like a desperate online date begging you to call him.
But what incentive do readers have for sharing things through Facebook other than helping a story go viral? Some dating sites offer you an incentive for connecting with Facebook.
The dating site Lovoo, for instance, offers you a credit bonus if you connect to your Facebook account. The credits can be used to send presents, kisses and other flirty things. While it’s not likely a news site would have much use for flirty virtual jewelry, they could encourage you to connect through Facebook by offering special incentives such as credits toward a paid account, access to special content or an increased commenter profile.
Keep fun content outside the paywall
Paywalls are becoming more standard, as sites such as the New York Times and the Daily Mail have been rolling them out over the past few years. Of course, dating sites have been putting up their own “paywalls” of a sort since they’ve been around. Many sites let you browse around, look at people’s profiles and pictures without having to pay a cent. But then when you want to make that connection with someone (which is the point of a dating site, after all) you have to pay up. Some require you to pay if you want to unlock special features too.
News sites can take their cue from this to get more readers hooked on the product before they hit the end of the free offerings. Some sites already do this in a way, such as the New York Times, which lets you read a certain amount of articles a month before you are forced to subscribe. That could include things like games, puzzles, random archival stories and certain sections of the paper that will turn casual browsers into loyal readers.
Speaking of which, add games
When you say “games” in relation to a news site, you might be thinking of hard-to-navigate digital crossword puzzles or less-satisfying digital versions of Sudoku.
On dating sites, games are way more racy, sexy and often more fun. The site MeetOne, for instance, has games such as “Who’s Hotter?” and photo ranking, while Flirtbox has a “Hot or Not” game — obviously tricks designed to gear you up to flirt some more.
But what if news sites could give you games that pump you up to want to read more news? A news photo hot or not contest might only fly when you’re talking about Kate Middleton or Queen Beatrix, but a photo ranking game to pick the best shots of the week would add an element of crowd sourcing to finding the best photos of the week. Think of a scavenger hunt where readers have to locate news events by where they happened on the map or a news quiz where the leader board of top scores is available for everyone to see.
Get on the location services wagon
One of the more down-to-brass-tacks features dating sites have added in recent years is mobile apps that alert you when someone who matches your criteria is near you physically, essentially a hook-up radar, if you will. The site Grindr popularized this as a way to facilitate casual rendezvous for gay people; then it spread to OKCupid, whose “Locals” feature will ping your phone when a potential match is in your radius.
Sure, news sites will do little to enable casual hookups, but they can facilitate casual hookups with the news. As news apps become better, and offer more services than just a digitized version of the day’s news, the idea of adding location alerts could increase their reach.
Imagine passing by a historical site when your phone buzzes and pulls up a news story about the Battle of Amiens. Or if you’re passing in the vicinity of a new park that just opened, the phone could pull up
the information so you can check it out; or, conversely, if there’s a new public works project, the app would bring up the latest news on it, so you can plan around it accordingly.
Article by Tim Donnelly, originally published by the European Journalism Centre, September 24, 2012.