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Build engagement with your existing content

by: Amy Gahran |

If you've been producing local news and information for a while, you probably have substantial archives that may not be doing much for your current website traffic. Here are some ways to get more value from the work you've already done.

1. Remind readers to return to content that already has interested them. The New Yorker is just starting to do this, through a web widget that will soon be open sourced. This widget guesses when a reader is about to click away from a story, and asking if they'd like an email reminder to come back to the spot where they were left off.

A more established approach might be to offer a "follow this" option for specific stories or topics. When the reader clicks that button for a story, category or tag, they're given the option to get an automated email alert about your new stories matching their criteria. Contextly offers a follow this story button, but such functionality could be built independently.

2. Multiple year-in-review stories. As 2015 ends, many local news sites are preparing "year in review" stories. Often these are a quick list of highlights, covering several topics at once, based solely on editorial judgment. But from an engagement perspective, it might make more sense to produce several year in review packages, rooted in analysis of your web traffic.

Topics that have proved interesting to people so far are likely to generate continued interest. Which keywords people have been searching for in your site search engine? And which keywords are referring search traffic to your site from Google and social media? Review this data keeping in mind issues or themes that you've covered (or at least mentioned) repeatedly, even if they're not what you might consider big news from an editorial perspective. Consider keywords that might be related to bigger issues -- for instance, bus, commute and traffic might all pull together into a local transportation retrospective.

Structure is important to this approach: Start with some commentary noting how a topic has evolved in the past year, and some idea of what might lie ahead. But then illustrate highlights with links to specific stories, noting what each story contributes to the overall picture. Don't just say what happened when, but how it affects the emerging picture.

You need not be a slave to the traffic stats; if people search your site for restaurant reviews slightly more often than transportation, you could still assemble a retrospective package on the highway topic and forget about the restaurants, if you think that content is stronger. Still, don't ignore topics that are popular by search statistics in favor of topics that you believe are more editorially interesting. Search is how people show you what matters to them; reflecting their interest is a way to prove that you pay attention to what they want.

3. Clean up categories and tags in your archives. Too often, content taxonomy reflects the perspective of site editors more than site visitors -- which means that when they search your site, they may miss the very content that will intrigue and engage them. In many cases the age of the content is less relevant than the context, and categories and tags are all about offering context. A taxonomy cleanup makes your archives more visible and engaging.

Cleaning up your taxonomy can be rather tedious, but over time it's worthwhile. The good news is you can just start where you are, with what's most important now, and work backward. Don't let perfection be the enemy of improvement: better is always better.

There's plenty of good advice on using categories and tagswell. For local news sites, it helps to consider using tags for each town or neighborhood that you cover, and applying them to stories, as a way to easily aggregate content by local geography. This can make it easier for readers to find what they want, without overhauling your website design to accommodate additional navigation.

Where do you start? Export a list of your current categories and tags, apart from the stories attached to them, and see what you can clarify and consolidate. Which terms will make sense to new visitors to your site? Which categories and tags are most relevant to your current and future coverage? Which may have been specific to a certain package or other internal editorial consideration? Which are redundant, or even misspelled?

Make a spreadsheet of categories and tags to search for and fix, and prioritize them according to your current editorial focus. Also, create a current list of categories and tags, with notes as needed clarifying how to make judgment calls.

Then, in those inevitable moments when you need some downtime from interviewing, writing and managing, your cleanup to-do spreadsheet can become a simple make-work task you can chip away at. You may delegate this task to interns or volunteers -- but make sure they understand that the point is to make the site more intuitive, and your wealth of content more visible, to readers. Also, going forward, make sure that categories and tags for new content conform to your current category/tag guidance list.

As your taxonomy gets cleaned up, you might want to update your site navigation to feature it more prominently.

Amy Gahran

Amy Gahran is a journalist, editor, trainer, entrepreneur, strategist, and media consultant based in Boulder, Colorado. In addition to writing
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