to Use Your Web Site? Start Thinking Like They Do
By Nina Shariff,
PR professionals know that reporters use the Web to research their stories, but few sites provide the goods that actually help them get the job done.
Just ask "usability" expert Jakob Nielsen, principal of Nielsen Norman Group, who recently asked 20 reporters to help him judge the effectiveness of 10 online newsrooms.
Most said that poorly designed Web sites could single-handedly discourage their coverage of a company. "I would be reluctant to go back," offered one reporter, who said he had a tough time finding what he needed on a company's site. "If I had the choice to write about something else, I would."
We decided to investigate the behavior of reporters as they set out to report a story. The good news: Most begin with a trip to the Web.
"The Web is finally here," Nielsen says. "It's arrived as a basic research tool for reporters.
Here are the steps reporters take when they cover your company or industry, with tips on how to meet their needs:
STEP #1: GETTING TO YOUR SITE
Tip: Register misspellings of your company name. When one of the test participants misspelled Philip Morris by using two "l"s instead of one, he still found the site. Flipside: When a reporter typed Benetton with two "n"s in a row, he came up empty.
"Do anything you can to make it easier for a reporter to get to your site," recommends Kara Pernice Coyne, senior user experience specialist with Nielsen.
your site with the search engine
"Reporters like to get a sense of how the company has been covered in the media," says Coyne.
Tip: Avoid Flash and Shockwave on your home pages. These technologies tend to clog reporters' limited Internet connections. Many have slow dial-up connections, and the fancy bells and whistles sometimes make their computers crash.
"Don't send reporters elsewhere just because they can't get past that first page," Nielsen says.
STEP #2: FINDING THE NEWS
"This gets reporters to the right place -- without searching through the 'About Us' section or other areas of the site," he says.
STEP #3: LOOKING FOR CONTACT INFORMATION
Note: The information on your site will only go so far. Most reporters need to speak with the PR person, whether it's for an interview or to check their facts.
Tip: Put contact information on every page of your site. In your press area, place the public relations contact information on every page, press release and speech. Better yet, provide a pop-up window that takes users directly to contact information as reporters hit your online newsroom's home page. That's what BellSouth Corp. did after asking four reporters to "test drive" its redesigned newsroom, reports Bill McCloskey, media relations director (See related story, Online Media Sites: What Works, and Doesn't Work, for Reporters").
The telecommunications giant added the window to its site last week. It takes users to a contact page that offers public relations contacts for each department and geographic region.
Caution: PR e-mail links don't cut it. Journalists are typically under a tight deadline and can't rely on an e-mail link like PR@company.com. "I have no sense of where that e-mail is going. I want a person," David Lidsky, editor of Fortune Small Business magazine, says. (Lidsky was one of Nielsen's test participants.)
STEP #4: RESEARCHING A PRODUCT, EVENT OR PERSON
Tip: Dedicate a link to press releases. "Make it easy for them to find," Nielsen says. This means not forcing them to look for the news by wading through financial information, philanthropy or other sections.
Reporters offered the following suggestions for press releases:
Tip: Avoid pop-up windows for press releases. On the Benetton site, users click a press release link, and the text opens in another window. But the reporters said that presentation makes it appear the company has little to share. "Whenever I get those pop-up windows, it makes me feel like there isn't any depth, [as if they're saying,]'I can tell you everything you need to know in a very small area," one reporter said.
What's more, those windows are not printable -- which can be frustrating for reporters who work on long-term projects and collect their findings on paper.
Tip: Link to
third-party resources. Most reporters like online newsrooms that link
to press coverage. For example,
STEP #5: FACT CHECKING
When reporters are looking for information, they don't want to have to click around to find it themselves. They'd rather type in a product name or term and go immediately to the right place.
The problem: Search functions are often hard to find or simply not geared toward journalists' needs.
For example, one reporter searched the entire Wal-Mart site looking for information about the company's CEO. When he typed "CEO" into the search function, most of the results were books about CEOs that Wal-Mart sells.
"The entire site is geared toward consumers," the reporter commented.
STEP #6: LOOKING AT PICTURES
Tip: But don't post graphics just because you have them. The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office site is guilty here, with graphics that are unrelated to the text. For example, one page shows toast and butter. "Why do you suppose there is a picture of a piece of toast?" one reporter asked. The answer's unclear.
Benetton's site makes the same mistake. The site shows many pictures -- some completely unrelated to clothing. In fact, one page shows a toilet plunger. "Why a plunger?" one reporter asked. "Because it's weird? Just for fun? I don't really know what that is. A plunger I guess they are socially responsible, but I still don't understand the plunger," the same reporter says.