Travis Smith: my resume, bio and photos back to the main blog page

Producing for multiple platforms

Tips on getting the most from your content with the least amount of work

[I gave this talk at the Highway Africa 2001 conference in Grahamstown, South Africa, in September 2001.  It was a 45 minute presentation.]

Variety was among the first of a group of newspapers that have recently switched to a full subscription model.  In addition, since the day Variety.com launched in 1998, it had a partial subscription model—it charged for some of its articles.  Is Variety’s model an example for the rest of the industry? Maybe not—there’s a number of a differences between this trade publication and a general interest newspaper.

SUMMARY
* ABOUT ME
* ABOUT VARIETY
* WHAT DO YOU MEAN, PRODUCING?
* THE DATABASE
* EMAIL PLATFORM
* WIRELESS PLATFORM
* SYNDICATION PLATFORM
* SEARCH ENGINE “PLATFORM”
* SUMMARY

About Me
* First used a BBS in 1981 to dial into pirate bulletin boards
* First used email and chat in 1990 to keep in touch with my girlfriend in Canada
* Went to work for the Los Angeles Times with Prodigy and then with a Web site
* Left there as Deputy Editorial Director
* Left to move to Paris, did consulting, learned photography and French
* Moved to Budapest to work for Pressflex as Vice President of Client Relations
* Pressflex offered a Web publishing system to small publishers lacking staff and skills to develop their own Web presence
* Moved back to Los Angeles become editor of the Variety Web site

Why Can I Talk About Production?
* I’ve worked at sites that have had many different kinds of content
* I’ve worked at sites that have many different production systems
* I’ve worked at sites that had different ways they wanted to reach their audience
* I’ve worked not just with content, but with content management systems

What Do You Mean, Multiple Platforms?
* For the purposes of this presentation, there are four “platforms” in addition to a traditional Web site
1) Email newsletters
2) Handheld and wireless devices
3) Search engines
4) Syndication engines

First Things First
To produce for multiple platforms, unless you want to drive yourself crazy and pay a LOT of overtime, you need to have a database underneath your whole system.

A database is a set of (hopefully) normalized data, arranged in a standard way, often in tables.  Most databases today are relational, which means that you have different “groups” of data, and those groups are linked to create interesting outputs.  So you’ll have a list of articles, and a list of bylines, and a list of categories, and you can output all the articles in a certain category, and associate each article with the proper writer.

Normalized, by the way, simply means the data is stored as efficiently as possible.  So, for example, instead of putting “By Travis Smith” in the text of each article in the database, you simply have my name in the database once, and associate each article by me with my ID number. Any database person who knows what they’re doing will understand about normalizing data, and building relations.

It is not hard to build a database yourself.  Any good editor understands articles and headlines and dates and can put together a simple database that does the job.  However, they are ALWAYS works in progress, and require attention and maintenance and cleaning and vigilance and good backups.  A database administrator is worth their weight in gold, and frequently cost that much.

There are two common ways to get data into a database:
a) via a Web browser interface
b) via a proprietary application interface—perhaps build with VB, or Hypercard, or more often Microsoft Access

Why Build a Web Interface?
* You can access it from anywhere
-> so you’re not dependant on one OS or browser
-> but you need to worry about security more!
* A browser is free, so lower cost to deploy
* You probably have HTML expertise on your staff for building the interface
* You probably also have someone who can program in a Web programming language like Perl or ASP

Why Not Use a Browser?
* HTML lacks some useful widgets that are built into other programs (i.e. a sort function, an autocomplete function, an autocorrect function, better find functionality)
* If your database lives across the internet, net congestion can slow down your work
* Web browsers make very poor text editors

So, Use an Application like MS Access?
* Yes, if you want to do sophisticated data verification and need quicker data entry
* Yes, if you can afford it
* Yes, if you can support it

OK, Now What?
* You have a database
* You have an administrative interface to enter data
* Did you remember to build tracking (logins, time stamps, an editor field with each article) so that you can watch the editors and correct their errors and train them, so you can see what your busy times are and staff accordingly
* This may seem like overkill at small sites, but it’s worth it
* Now you need to output the data all over your site—on the front page, on index pages, into search, link stories to related stories, to photos, to reporter’s email addresses, to outside sites…

But eventually you’ll be done with using the database to enrich your basic Web site.  Then you can use your existing data and start producing:


EMAIL PUBLICATIONS

Email is critical for any regularly updated Web site.

Consider it Home Delivery compared to your Web site being a News stand.

You can produce HTML or plain text email.

What’s easiest?
* It’s easiest just to send your home page, or interior pages, as HTML, directly
* Problem 1: Some email programs can’t handle HTML
* Problem 2: Those that can, may not handle the complex HTML of a home page with JavaScript, forms, flash, frames or other goodies
* Problem 3: HTML pages take more K than a smaller page. So you need more horsepower to send it, and your readers need more bandwidth to receive it.  Some may not like that
* Problem 4: Your home page may be designed in a way that’s less than optimal for quick scanning in an email—though this shouldn’t really be the case, and if it is, you could consider improving your home page for quick access to relevant information
* Problem 5: Some people just prefer text

OK, what’s less easy but better?
* A “plain” text version is popular
* For reference, Variety’s emails are signed up for at a 70% text, 30% HTML rate, even for new subscriptions today
* A plain text version isn’t so hard to generate from a database
* Plain text ads get good response rates, sometimes better than banner ads
* Plain doesn’t mean boring—you can spruce it up some with borders and good spacing.  Use lots of white space
* Use short URLs, because you don’t want them to wrap, and you want them not to overpower the text.  40-50 characters max in a URL, never more than 70

OK, what’s best?
* Offer text, and also a slimmed down HTML version
* You can use Bold, Colors, font sizes, small images, but a very linear, vertical, narrow layout and plain colors
* The more content in your emails, the happier your subscribers, and the more likely to visit your site.  Don’t skim on email content.

Other email tips
* Don’t abuse your trust—never send ads to a list that’s not expecting them. Never miss a deadline. Never sell your list. Instead, bundle an ad with the regular email—you do it in print.


HANDHELD AND WIRELESS DEVICES

I won’t get too much into this here today, as there are several other sessions devoted to the nitty gritty of wireless protocols and the future of cell phones.

However, a handheld version is VERY simple to set up, so it’s worth doing if even only a few subscribers take advantage of it.

There are several small Web browsers for handhelds:
* Avantgo
* EudoraWeb
* Omnisky
* IE for PocketPCs

In addition, there are
* PQAs
* Vindago
* WAP / cell phone services

About Browsers
They each, at their Web site, offer tips and some specific tags for their browser.  If at all possible, make a different version for each handheld, because small changes can make a big difference in useability.  But there are some common suggestions.

Common Suggestions
* Use only one or two graphics, total, in the whole handheld “minisite.” Stick with black and white, or make two versions, one for color and one not. Avantgo offers tags that target different color depths.
* Make each minisite a self-contained world. Don’t link back to your home page, or to the main feedback form, or to other sites.
* Use very very basic HTML—no tables, no JavaScript.  Just font tags, Bold, etc.
* The whole minisite should be under 100K, and 15 stories is plenty.
* People will use this when they a) can’t get to a real browser, b) they have a few minutes to spare to read up on something, or c) they need a specific question answers (i.e. a flight arrival time)  If you’re designing for C, don’t try to do A and B at the same time.

About the others
* WAP has had dismal acceptance because of low usability of the initial features, but other than that, I haven’t spent much time investigating it
* Palm offers access to special Web resources via a PQA on its Palm VII line.  It’s not hard to develop a PQA, but it does offer the least payback for your development time
* Vindago is a city guide that I use all the time.  If you have location-based content, you’d do well to drop them a line and work out something with them

Variety has had tremendous success with handhelds.  Many business people use them. They are becoming more popular with a younger crowd as well, and appear to be merging with cell phones, which will really open up the market for wireless-designed web sites

Last thought: Offer a link to the handheld page from your home page—people may prefer to bookmark it as a basic, low-bandwidth page even for the regular browser.  Plus, people coming to your site with a handheld device will be able to find the proper, low-bandwidth version more easily.


SYNDICATION

You can syndicate in a number of ways.  There’s self-syndication, where you create a news feed and then let people copy your headlines and links for their own use.

There are also syndication services, some of which charge, some which share revenue with you, some which are traffic drivers.

Moreover
* Moreover is a headline distributing company founded by Nick Denton, who was a British journalist covering Silicon Alley for the Financial Times.
* They crawl your site if you ask them to and they find your content valuable, and then they allow other people to put topical collections of headlines, powered by Moreover, on those people sites.

Screaming Media’s another syndication company. Do I know the details of this company? Sadly, no.

Self Syndication
You can put an RSS or RML file on your site and tell other people, via email or a message in your site’s help, that they can come and use your headlines and link back to you.  (RSS and RML are uses of XML—basically, a collection of tags that mark up data in a useful way.)

OK, so I’ve whetted your appetite and you’re going to syndication your content via the Web.  What do you have to remember?

1) Your headlines must be clear and direct, not feature-y.
They’re all that’s bring people to your site.  It’s not good enough to have a headlines like “The Big Show” because on your Academy Awards site, it’s obvious what the story’s about, but as a link on someone else’s page, it’s not going to generate a click.

2) Your headlines have to be short.  The best example of this I have is a headline from the Associated Press that came to the Los Angeles Times and was automatically put up on TimesLink, the early online version of that newspaper.  The headline on the online service read:
Doctors recommend breast exams for women under 4
The actual headline was originally
Doctors recommend breast exams for women under 40
So keep headlines short or truncate them properly with “...”

3) Your story pages need to link out to the rest of your site.
Image that the very first, and perhaps the only, page that a visitor to your site is going to see is the story page.  Avoid (or at least don’t rely on) links that say “Previous” and “Next”.  Include other headlines in the navigation.  Wired.com does a great job of this—every time I go to their site, I’m always clicking off to other news stories teased from that page.


SEARCH ENGINES

Along the same vein, you have to somehow make sure your content is listed in search engines, and just like with syndication, you need to make sure that your headlines stand on their own, that your stories link up and out to the rest of the site, and that they’re short.  But there’s some other things to keep in mind as well.

1) Plain vanilla URLs
Your URLs should not have these characters: “?”, “&”, “=” or ” “
The first three are common to queries and database calls.  If your site is built dynamically, your programmers probably made many of your pages that rely on data in the URL.  However, it is possible to send data to the server without using ? in the URL.  Make your programmers figure out how—that’s why they make the big bucks.

2) Descriptive, unique page titles
The TITLE tag of each page should contain the site’s name and the headline or topic of the page.  Don’t simply put “Newspaper.com” in every page title. Something like “Smith scores 3 runs in final inning - Newspaper.com” is much better because:
* it’ll show up as the link in search engines
* it’ll show up in the history and bookmark list of your site’s visitors
* it’ll help the user as they flip through browser windows
* it may show up in your site’s traffic analysis tool

3) META tags
Meta tags are _not_ the magic bullet to get your Web site listed at the top of search engines.  They help, for certain, but you have make sure other things on your site are done properly as well.
What are Meta tags? Basically, there are chunks of text that describe the content of your page.  Like a TITLE tag, they are put in the top of your HTML document, but are not actually displayed on the page.  For search engines, the most important ones are KEYWORDS and DESCRIPTION.  KEYWORDS are terms you think should draw people to this page.  DESCRIPTION is a summary, human readable, that describes what the page is about.  Both are easy to produce if your content is databased.

A great resource about search engines is SearchEngineWatch.com.

One other thing—the more sites link to you, the better your site will show up in some search engines.  So make it easy for people to link to you—encourage it.


IN SUMMARY

Email: Is worth your time, draws much traffic, is quite easy to implement, at least in a basic HTML or text way

Search Engines: List yourself, build your pages and URLs properly, but don’t make yourself crazy about it—have good content, and encourage people to link to you, and the traffic will come.

Wireless: A low-bandwidth version is a simple thing to do; however, the revenue isn’t really there yet, and there are a lot of different platforms to develop for, from cell phones to Palms to Pocket PC, so I wouldn’t recommend dumping a lot of money at it yet

Syndication: It requires a lot of work, and the traffic and revenue benefits are variable.  Again, there’s no one way to do it, but RSS and RML come close to being flexible enough.  Keep your headlines simple.



 
 

 

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