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August 16, 2007

Ignore Your Audience and Suffer the Consequences

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TechCrunch discovered that USAToday’s social network experiment may not be paying off the way they hoped it would. What, you mean that totally unwanted downgrade they released back in March? Well, color me surprised.

In case you don’t remember what happened 6 months ago, TechCrunch helps set the stage:

"Overnight, USAToday went from being an old school news site to something much different. Readers could now create profiles, comment on articles, vote to recommend articles to others (very Digg-like), etc."

That’s exactly it. Overnight USAToday went from a trusted, traditional media site to a Web 2.0-approved social media site that no one wanted. It was actually impressive in its awfulness.

If you need proof, Michael Arrington throws out some data from Compete that shows the site has seen a 29 percent drop in unique visitors since the redesign. They’re down to about 10 million uniques a day, compared to 14 million before the site sold out. In case math isn’t your strong suit, that’s 4 million visitors lost in just 6 months. Clearly, the redesign is not paying off in terms of unique visitors or page views the way USAToday had hoped. Shocking.

Why did USA Today’s redesign fail?

Easy. USAToday completely ignored the needs of its audience in their attempt to make a buck. They kept hearing buzzwords like "social media", "the Digg effect" and "user generated content" and without considering what was important to the 14 million users who relied on their site everyday, they decided to clutter up their trusted news site with all the bells and whistles standard to social media.

As Rae Hoffman would say: Newsflash USAToday: Your readers never wanted your dumb shiny features. They just wanted the news.

It sounds flip, but it’s true. USAToday was never the "trendy" place to get news or hangout online. By adding all the social elements they were trying to be something they weren’t and alienating longtime readers. The site didn’t seem familiar anymore. It wasn’t home, which is essentially what I commented back in March.

"USAToday may have thought they were making improvements to their site, but what they really did was de-emphasize everything their readers liked about it. They cluttered up the site navigation, took the Dow Jones Average off the front page; got rid of the simple look and feel it once had, and started forcing users to scroll for miles. In essence, they got rid of everything that readers liked about the site and traded it in for user comments, profiles, avatars, voting systems, tagging and other social features. Of course, readers are angry."

It’s easy to get caught up in the hype, but as a site owner you have to do what is ultimately best for your audience. Not every site will benefit from social media, neither will its audience. It’s your job to make the site better for users. You don’t add social media elements because you want them, you should add them because your users want them, or because your users would benefit from them. That wasn’t the case here.

Even if Comscore’s data isn’t 100 percent accurate and USAToday has only alienated 2 million of its visitors, instead of 4 million, it still doesn’t show growth. It still doesn’t show that USAToday gave its readers something that they wanted, or that they bettered the user experience in any way.

Had USAToday been a small town, community-oriented newspaper where the site editors interact with readers, the redesign may have worked. But that’s not who USAToday is. Hopefully USAToday has learned a very valuable lesson here: Social media is about your users; it’s not about you.





One response to “Ignore Your Audience and Suffer the Consequences”

  1. Wil Reynolds writes:

    Excellent post, really focuses on the downside of HYPE and not building tools that your audience is seeking. Thanks!



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