The Battle for Traffic

The world is becoming increasingly artificial. It’s all about trends, analytics, views and followers. There is a constant race to see which posts get more traffic, engagement and shares and the behavior is almost platform or media-agnostic. As long as it ‘attracts and retains’, it will make the rounds on the timelines, private messages and inboxes.

Quality seems to be the second criteria because if there is a trending topic, the piece has to be published to piggyback on the engagement and noise. It’s almost like quality at the risk of clicks and timeliness. Because there is so much competition to be seen through the clutter, publishers often don’t have a choice but to ‘publish now, think later’. This leads to the knee-jerk reader response of ‘click now, share now, think later’. The obvious worry is, well, obvious: if everyone is clicking and sharing and leaves the thinking for later, isn’t that how incorrect and unverified news spreads?

This paradigm shift in the approach towards content production is the main reason behind the decline in quality of content available for public consumption over the internet. Newsworthy is so yesterday; clickworthy is so today.

Do we need clickbait?

The objective driver of online publishing is monetary. The faster you publish and get seen, the more people will click through to your site, resulting in more traffic, which can result in more money. But as these online portals devise new strategies to sell their content, readers have to be able to differentiate between clickbait and news. And that’s why it’s so critical to understand the difference between ‘news’ and ‘blogs’.

A lot of blogging portals are the primary source of news. This is partially due to their delusory presentation of content and mostly because of the habit where readers consider all things written as true and verified. News sites, usually, verify items prior to publishing under the rules of ethical conduct. Blogs aren’t dictated by the same guidelines. Readers need to identify what is an opinion piece and stop consuming it as real news. Blogs are opinions narrowed down to personal level where a person shares a more personal account meant to be more ‘relatable’ to you.

Since the time of high-speed internet, smart phones and web 2.0, the line dividing readers from content producers has become very blurred. If the readers are the passengers and journalists are the gatekeepers, when published news becomes deluded and deceptive, readers fall into a narrow crevice between fact and fiction. This behavior that sums up the recent fiasco regarding fake news, deceptive content and clickbait.

Monetization of Content with Integrity  

There are ways to streamline the monetization of an online portal without affecting its content. It starts with classifying content into various segments. This way you can separate the ‘hard news’ from the ‘feel good stories’ and avoid making the reader from feeling violated or deceived.

The major news websites across the globe are effective examples of this. Well researched and verified content enables them to secure loyal readers without bombarding them with click-baits, while the casual surfer gets served with the soft and trendy pieces he is looking for. Win win situation for everyone. The strategy is effective, however, only when the information types are distinctly different and ‘news’ is clearly separable from ‘trends’. But there is another way to go about it.

The alternate approach is to present newsworthy information in a way that is easy on the eyes and quickly consumable, the two main drivers of any online content. This allows online content producers to achieve more clicks while maintaining their content standards.

Relevance of Ephemeral Content

Social media streams have given rise to the trend where ephemeral content is more relevant. Contrary to the traditional approach, the content here is produced keeping in mind a time restriction. This helps content developers produce more human-relevant content, that is narrowcasted to the need of a single user rather than feeding the masses. Ephemeral content is short-lived; in fact, has a shelf life of a day. After that, it disappears forever. This gives the leverage to think only about the present and make it relevant to that.

Content that is short lived is viewed by audiences as being more authentic versus sponsored ads or spam posts that last longer and force customers into clicking or making a call to action. Ephemeral content puts you front and center of potential customer attention, which is the most prized commodity on the internet today. A report reveals that 84% of millennials do not trust traditional advertising and therefore proactively avoid any such content that possesses advertising potential.

Online readers do not like content that is irrelevant to them. Content that isn’t personal and relatable won’t be clicked because it cannot be shared.

Coverage Pattern and Impact

When compared to the reality shows and drama hype, it is no secret that newspapers and news portals  have gradually become boring. That’s the sole reason why people look towards entertainment websites and expect news from them. The news producers often cover entertainment stories with dramatic fervor as they are more focused towards getting their facts right; as a result, the overall flavor of the story takes a hit.

A recent and relevant example of this can be the coverage of the wedding of Indian cricketer Virat Kohli and actress Anushka Sharma in Italy, in which news websites were only interested in dishing out the facts to their readers. On the other hand, online portals and blogging sites were having a feast.

From a reader perspective, there was so much to report on this, and ‘soft news portals’ made the most of it. There were reactions and posts on social media by celebrities who were extending their well wishes for the newly wed couple. There were pictures of the event which went viral within minutes of being shared. The blogging sites jotted down the past instances when the couple had openly talked about their love for each other and made headlines. And the readers eagerly consumed all this and were still hungry for more.

News portals can cover both aspects of such stories while keeping their integrity intact. This can easily be done by classifying the treatment towards any story. The newsy information will fall under the ‘News’ section, while the ‘reader-interest’ and ‘colorful’ coverage is categorized as Entertainment.

Major news portals in Pakistan like Dawn, The Express Tribune and Geo have separate tabs dedicated for entertainment and ‘life & style’ stories.

Another story in which a clear divide in the coverage was seen were the developments surrounding the hearing of cases and references in supreme court and NAB, respectively, regarding the alleged corruption of former premier Nawaz Sharif and his family.

The news channels and portals focused on the technicalities and repercussions of the development, however, the bloggers, twitterites and soft-news portals were observant enough to dig the entertainment aspects amid all the mess. To name a few, the immaculate fashion sense of Maryam Nawaz was praised by many but she was often trolled on the social media as well. Moreover, the sentences uttered by the former premier in distress became the sensational buzzwords in no time.

The news regarding the alleged use of Calibri font by Sharif family before it was officially launched also brought a lot of color to the coverage of the Panama case.

Many social media trends started following the developments, and the users created and crafted many humorous ways to pass on the news. #MujheKyounNikala topped it all.

It was through social media and blogging sites, that both the PML-N and PTI tried to manipulate the masses into believing that the decision was announced in their favor.

A tweet of Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy created a fiasco and got a doctor fired from his job after he was accused by Chinoy of allegedly sending a ‘friend request’ to her sister. The issue escalated on social media and almost everyone jumped in to lend his two cents on the matter. While the people apparently tried to steer the conversation towards a healthy discussion, it didn’t get farther than the personal remarks and taking sides.

And who can forget the furore which followed after the pictures of actress Mahira Khan surfaced on the internet, in which she was seen smoking while sitting next to Bollywood actor Ranbir Kapoor while wearing a dress which was deemed ‘objectionable’ by the local internet users.

The reaction to those photos on social media was so strong that it led to the story making headlines in the bulletins of the local news channels. It was the unwanted coverage on the internet that blew up a non-issue out of proportion, however, it was the same internet which came to Mahira’s rescue when her fans and colleagues voiced their support for her.

The Mahira story is a prime example of how internet produces and influences top-trending stories, and the conventional media outlets have to cover such stories due to their impact. But it highlights the importance of sensible coverage online, the lack of which can cause serious harm to a person or an organisation’s repute as well.

The change of news coverage approach from traditional towards trendy is healthy and refreshing, and it should stay this way but not at the cost of quality.

But since we all recognize the point of origin of the problem, it won’t be much difficult to rectify it. Online content producers just need to amend their approach a bit.

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