Ross Settles | December 2, 2010
One of the challenges for paid content involves presenting uniquely interactive ways to develop and tell a story. For media companies like the New York Times or the Wall Street Journal, the majority of storytelling online is a development from a story package originally prepared for print.
There are increasingly exceptions to this pattern. One of the more common exceptions is the use of maps. In the past few weeks, we have seen a couple of mapping driven news efforts that will bear watching. The first is South China Morning Post’s Citizen Map effort to pinpoint environmental issues in Hong Kong’s suburbs.
The second is Basetrack.org, a reporting experiment from Afghanistan to follow and report on the experiences of members of one battalion of American troops, the 1st Battalion Eighth Marines serving in Helmand Province southern Afghanistan.
**insert base camp here**
For product and marketing teams, maps provide important benefits for a news website. Let’s try to divide them into three key areas.
1. Promoting user generated content
2. Creating audience engagement
3. Developing data for future reports
Promoting user generated content: After the map itself, look at the most prominent aspect of Citizen Map, a large red button on the upper right – ‘You Report!’. For many reporting efforts, user submissions are a crucial element of the story. They provide credibility. They help substantiate theory and identify patterns. User generated content relies on different types of consumer behaviour to encourage contributions – but recognition is easily the most common incentive. How many of us are secretly proud of being the mayor of something on Foursquare, another map, or location-based website. Maps, unlike lists or directories where something must come first and something must come last, are egalitarian. Everyone gets recognised for contributing new piece of information to the map.
Creating audience engagement: All news websites struggle with how to increase audience engagement. How do you turn a casual visitor delivered to a story-level page by a search engine into a more engaged reader? How do you get your audience to constantly explore your site? Investigate its features and content? Maps are spatial and seem to encourage people to play, to move things around, to click on icons, and mouse over content. All of this leads to news delivery through maps as one form of news discovery – news as a game of discovery. Basetrack.org was created so its audience could understand on as intimate a level as possible the lives led by the members of the 1-8. Audiences may comment, but the founders are really encouraging their audience to understand the lives of these marines through discovery. It is interesting that the team behind the Basetrack website includes game developers.
Developing data for future reports: For many news organisations, mapping is used to illustrate data and identify patterns. SCMP’s Citizen Map presents an opportunity for citizens to contribute, but also builds a database of consumer-reported environmental reports. It is a live, interactive environmental tip line. If citizens adopt the website and begin to contribute on a regular basis, then SCMP’s reporting team will have a wealth of information for future reports. The outlook seems pretty good, since the site launched citizen contributions seem to be running at between three and five a day.
Adding maps as a news-reporting tool to your site is technically straightforward. There are several open source ways to incorporate Google Maps into your site. SCMP has used open source news mapping platform Ushahidi. Basetrack.org has chosen a nicely designed WordPress site with a Google Maps plug-in. Drupal also has at least two modules for Google Maps executions – Drupal GMaps Module and Mapadelic.
For product developers, maps create a unique opportunity for audience engagement and potentially revenue. But while the technology is straightforward, product development’s ‘social planning’ will be critical to success. Product will want to channel audience engagement by carefully defining the nature of contribution. Both of these examples have tightly defined the nature of what will be mapped on the site.
Citizen Map is about environmental actions in the HK suburbs. Citizen reports must fit into one of five categories. Second, product will need to work to pre-seed content onto the map before launch. No greater disincentive to contributing content to a map, than the lack of any previous contributions. Citizen Map had the advantage of years of SCMP reporting on environmental issues in HK to help seed content.
Finally, the biggest challenge facing a news-site that is primarily driven by maps is generating trial. Here you are forced to continue to rely on text-based SEO tools to drive initial traffic. There is no simple way to insert your augmented map references into the Google Maps database. At this point, the Google Maps search defaults to Google Local. Google Maps is used as a location discovery tool, not a Web discovery tool. But this may change with the launch of Google Hotpot this past week. But until then, building the map treatments into a search engine optimised site will be critical to developing trial for the site.
What can you expect from a maps execution in terms of site metrics? Two areas stand out. First, user submissions should increase for the news category – submissions per period should grow over non-map reporting executions. Second, audience engagement for the map execution should be substantially above that of other parts of the site. Time on site and page views consumed should be substantially higher than non-map sections of the site.
Maps offer one of the most successful ways to create a uniquely interactive news experience for your audience. The technology is readily available and a little careful planning should yield interesting results. SCMP’s Citizen Map and Basetrack offer two executions to watch to see what audiences engage in and contribute to the stories that are presented.