CNN.com’s new GM is on quest for love

By Don Day 

LR friend Brian Stelter wrote what’s become my first must-read piece of the new year – and it centers on new CNN.com GM KC Estenson. Right up front, Estenson said something about CNN.com that will change the way I think about how to guide a news site:

“My hunch is that people go to it more out of habit than they do out of love,” he says. Love, in fact, is exactly what Mr. Estenson is pursuing.

Think about it. Do you visit CNN.com… or MSNBC.com… ABCNews.. FoxNews or Yahoo News on a regular basis? Do you love it? I can say that I look at most of those sites three or four times per week… but I check LR and TVNewser and Facebook and TVBarn waaay more often. Are the big national news sites updated more often than the other sites (save Facebook)? Sure. But do I find something interesting very often… no. What’s the difference? I’m a little bit addicted to the other sites – you could say I “love them.” Sure, they are all a bit more tailored to my interests — but the big national news sites are often very bland.

Estenson is looking for ways to make CNN.com more distinctive:

“When you look at the top news sites, they often look almost identical,” he says, gesturing to the home pages of CNN, ABC News, The Wall Street Journal and Yahoo News. Down to photo choices and color schemes, the four sites look practically interchangeable and utilitarian, he says — hence his emphasis on the power of “unique signatures.”

I think that was probably a big driving force for MSNBC.com’s last redesign – witness the multi-color header and changing top story. But while the cover of the book is similar – the coverage on the big news sites is much the same. Without getting too far off our local focus here — there’s one more note in the NYT story that is germane:

On a monthly basis during 2008, MSNBC.com’s network of sites received more visitors than CNN.com’s network, according to Nielsen — though CNN.com’s visitors still viewed substantially more pages.

MSNBC gets a firehose of traffic from the MSN network — and CNN gets plenty of outside traffic too — but one thing CNN has done exceptionally well is making its story pages clean and easy to scan. The “most popular” box is front and center in a low-clutter environment. MSNBC’s internal pages still look much like they did before the last redesign… and boy are they cluttered! Sponsored links and little logos and display ads within the content. With the above linked examples, the MSNBC story has 31 ad units – while the CNN story has five.

The application for local sites is striking. I think a big key to CNN.com’s higher engagement rate is a cleaner UI – that is well-tuned to drive you to another story. Could it be better? Sure – but overall it’s pretty simple. My instinct is that we’re about to see another round of redesigns for the local groups – and God willing, they will focus first on the user instead of the ad units… which would pay dividends if done correctly.

People do extraordinary things for love…

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