It’s been over 20 years since Bill Gates wrote that ‘content is king’, and, although now cliched, it still holds true. Creating engaging, quality content has proven the holy grail for publishers looking to not only build but maintain their reader engagement. However, as they look for new streams of revenue in the digital age, publishers are struggling to strike a balance between monetization and user experience, with ads often existing to the detriment of the page and putting readers off.
Engagement is based on three key metrics - unique visitor count, length of time spent on site, and number of satisfied, returning visitors. Performing well in all three allows publishers to charge more for ad space, and in turn create more quality content. And this quality content is still arguably the most important factor in a site’s performance - hence why companies will employ editorial teams to drive traffic to their site by creating it - but user experience (UX) is finally getting due recognition. With UX affected by everything from advertising placement to loading time, online publishers have been forced to reassess their monetization schemes.
The rise of adblocking software has emphatically reinforced the perhaps obvious notion that users are not happy being bombarded by pop-ups, banner ads, video ads and other such content-spoiling techniques. According to estimates by PageFair, 200 million people now use ad blocking software, a number that has more than doubled in the past two years. Many sites will only allow a user to access their content once this software is disabled, but risk turning a visitor off with content that is then not up to expected standard, or with poorly integrated advertising. Native advertising is growing but, as long as there is still a place for display ads, UX is key in the difficult tradeoff between providing engaging content and expecting the user to accept advertising.
And not only publishers themselves, but publishing platforms, are catching up with the heightened focus on UX. Facebook’s ‘Instant Articles’ render content 10 times faster than mobile web articles and allow the publisher to design its own sleek, ordinarily fairly minimalist style. Facebook claim that 20% more Instant Articles are read on average, and a huge 70% are less likely to abandon the article having visited it. This is UX’s trump card. It can, perhaps more so than the quality of the content, keep visitors on the page. Facebook aren’t stopping at improved speed, either. The social media giants are working on ways to make the content more interactive, allowing for greater multimedia capability, and they are also offering very flexible monetization options.
Apple News is similar; the native app offers iPhone and iPad users a compiled list of the news that interests them, with its own common yet adaptable formatting options. The loading speed is very similar to that of Facebook’s offering, and the tech behemoths are encouraging more publishers to sign up on the format. Both Facebook and Apple are offering their sophisticated metrics on how readers engage with the content. The services raise new and potentially complex issues regarding unique site visitor count and sold ad space, and their applicability to publishers that use a paywall is questionable - in UX alone, though, the two are unparalleled.
It is, then, no surprise that UX research is on the rise. ‘Tree testing’ has users given the task of finding a particular piece on content within the site; publishers are then able to assess how easy it is for visitors to find the content that will interest them. ‘Card sorting’ takes perhaps the opposite approach, asking a user to both sort and label categories, placing content as it makes sense to them. The publisher can then build a picture of how intuitive their site is and make changes accordingly. That this research takes place is evidence enough of the increasing consideration given to UX, and user reaction to a well designed site vindicates its necessity.
UX will not replace content as the key factor in user engagement, rather it will continue to supplement it. When the term ‘user experience’ is boiled down to its most basic, it is simply what being on your site *feels* like. UX is an integral part of how a user is consuming your content, and the current pace of change will see any underdeveloped UX feel not only dated but irksome; ensure yours is slick.