Roger & Me: How CBC Hamilton is both spinning and re-inventing the digital wheel

CBC Hamilton Producer Roger Gillespie takes a photo on James Street North of something more interesting than whatever I have invited him to.

About six months ago CBC launched a new service in Hamilton, but it wasn’t a TV or radio station – it was a first foray into a full digital presence. Very exciting for many people in Hamilton and elsewhere, and I count myself as someone who was eagerly looking forward to this.

Six months later and we are unfortunately looking at a service that needs some serious re-vamping . There is an excellent article and robust commentary / discussion at a local website “Raise the Hammer”, as well as a letter on the same website about the Executive Producer of CBC Hamilton’s interview on a local radio station. Much social, personality and mandate issues are discussed on these threads about CBC Hamilton, but precious little technical / online production observations from a purely industry point of view so I thought I would add something about that. Below is a list of some of the strengths and weaknesses I see in the CBC approach – some of which I excitedly tweeted during Roger Gillespie’s radio interview. I thought it might be useful to have some of  my observations to be neatly presented and preserved in this post, for future reference.

First of all, a bit of self-cred to qualify my opinions – I am a online production specialist for magazines and have been a web developer professionally since 1998, growing from a freelance designer into a CMS platform consultant.  I’m totally into this kind of shit.

Here are some of my observations about CBC Hamilton, in particular regards to some of the comments the Executive Producer Roger Gillespie:

Online video killed the CBC print star

Roger mentioned measuring “eyeballs” on the website every morning and rating how well different content formats “turned the dial”, and in particular how a video interview did not do well in this regard.

Well, the second most popular search engine on the web is YouTube and the future of the web will certainly be that almost all content will be video. Some independent video bloggers have more followers than the entire population of Hamilton – so maybe the problem is not video per se but the way they are formatting and presenting it. For example, they are keeping the videos within their own servers but if they were serious about “more eyeballs” then this content would be hosted on YouTube and / or Vimeo. These are online communities that are eager for video content and not so eager to go hunting for it on a small website that may or may not have a video every once in a while.

Short-from video clips from an iphone is great way to engage the public on daily issues and build a loyal audience in a very cost-effective and low-production overhead manner. I thought CBC Hamilton would of pursued more of this type of thing but from Roger’s statements, it seems they tried once with a conventional approach and then gave up – at least in favour of streaming video for the moment.

Video content on a site is great because it has a terrific shelf-life as people will consistently view it, building many views over time if not spiking immediately with traffic. You just have to have a bit of faith in your audience and some patience. It is NOT a game of causing an immediate spike in viewership because online is about building a loyal community.

Not all viewers are measured equally

What is the value of a unique visitor to a website? Repeat visits and time on site are the key metrics here – if you have a post that suddenly attracts 100,000 people that’s cool but actually kinda worthless if they a) spend a very short amount of time on the article and leave the site entirely (referred to as a “soft bounce”) and b) don’t come back. So Roger’s measurement of “eyeballs” alarmed me as he should be referring to “community”.

When he described his extensive print experience his approach started to make sense to me – after all, in print, you have a product that people buy and how many people buy this is how you measure the success of your product. Unfortunately, this way of thinking is not applicable to the online publishing because there is no “front door” to a website as people will arrive via search engine results or social media referrals to specific content.

IMHO, this kind of website’s job is to convert a visitor into a subscriber.  You can’t expect repeat visitors in 2012 without prompting them through an array of connection options. Twitter is great for this, so is Facebook but they are missing the most powerful, reliable and measurable way to connect and keep viewership – a simple, daily email newsletter (not expensive or complicated if automated via the site’s RSS feed).

Trust me, people react well to an email every morning with a teaser and link to new stories on the website. I know it sounds harsh, but this is kinda a rather large oversight that betrays a certain unsophistication that many who make the switch from print to digital are guilty of. As a website producer, ask yourself why should people return to your website when you are one of many similar websites. So you have to find a way through all that noise to your community and then you have to find ways to keep them. You simple don’t sit back and wait for viewership to fall into your lap.

The best of digital Hamilton became buried treasure

Roger talked about his disappointment that their early daily efforts for a curated local content feature failed to attract interest. I think I know what the problem was here – too many clicks. Every single click a visitor has to make to get to your content dramatically decreases the amount of hits that content will get. I loved Best of Digital Hamilton, but it puzzled me why they buried it in a separate post from the front page, when the content they listed should of been mixed in with the other content on the front page. Add in the effort required by the view to find new content on their website and you have a recipe for a failed experiment. Why they separated it this way … I just don’t know. They seem to be trying to link storm content into the content though, so I hope they figure it out – and maybe start linking to a wider variety of blogs, and maybe by someone who is more fluent in the world of blogging.

Did they do any usability testing with focus groups at all? It would not seem like it. I’m guessing partly because they had to hammer their ideas into a previously defined CMS environment and template style, so technically they would be spending money on a quality assurance measure they have already spent money on. More about focus groups below.

Above the fold should not be a no man’s map

What the hell is going on here with this map and layout? Holy jeesh, there is some serious dead space up there combined with an interactive map that I think is kinda cool but should be at the bottom of the page, not at the top. You are creating an effort for viewers to find content and this is generally not considered a good principle in web design. The map is kinda clunky but worse of all the content is repeated below so it is a bit redundant to be sacrificing performance for a tepid version of digital interactivity. I arrive at the site, and few more or few less markers on an map with an ad banner is not exactly the “wow” factor or call-to-action that a destination page on a website should be. Now I am absolutely certain this did not go through a user focus group before launch or it would not look like that.

I suggest a smaller version of the map appear at the bottom of every page on CBC Hamilton – really useful as a geographic reference to any story that interests a viewer as well as not dominating the digital landscape. It also takes a while to load and even a few seconds can be very, very annoying. At the bottom of the page it could take several seconds to load and no one is bothered, for example.

Twitter is a conversation, not a glossy brochure

I think the entire CBC Hamilton service could be a single Twitter account and would probably be doing a lot better, but I am glad it is not. I want issues and events discussed in real time and I was excited at the prospect of a conversation facilitated by CBC producers and media personalities. Real people in a real conversation is the real “digital interactivity” they are so sorely missing from this formula. As it stands, we are seemingly subjected to a small group of specially favoured businesses that are “safe” to be on the CBC Hamilton website and the rest of the tweets are repeats of links to the content on the left hand side. This immediately informs a first-time website visitor that there is nothing useful in this twitter-based column. There is nothing wrong with any of the Twitter users they selected, and I follow many of the same accounts but the curation of this stream on the CBC Hamilton site is uninteresting. The repeated content and the same group of users and the complete disconnect to actual conversations in the twittersphere make this part of the service an unrewarding affair. I suspect this is a victim of upper management approval of something they kinda obviously are afraid of.

Final recommendations and hope for CBC Hamilton

Roger also said in his radio interview that his service is unique and ground-breaking and that “no one has ever done anything like this”. Um, no, that’s simply not true as many people/ organizations have done this and frankly they have done it much better. This is re-inventing the wheel and you can’t dismiss contributions to this industry made from elsewhere. They’ve made what is sometimes called a “walled garden” – a website that expects people to come to it, and duplicates poorly elements better served with integrations with third party sites.

  • I suggest CBC Hamilton staff, ALL of the staff, more actively engage in conversation with online communities and I strongly suggest a return to video – short form, snappy and daily engagements with the folks of Hamilton.
  • content that takes advantage of the technology of the web – email newsletter, being on youtube and maybe more slideshows and less maps.
  • A community member in residence program, chosen from the local blogging world, would be nifty.

Concentrating on content that is important, if not immediately popular, actually pays dividends for web traffic. For example, if I blog about a big show at the AGO in Toronto I get an average response because everybody is also doing the exact same thing. But if I blog about a small exhibit in a small town my post is more unique and rare knowledge, and thus more valuable to a certain groups and then becomes higher ranked in google results. In other words, I get less hard and soft bounces but an above average visitor loyalty. Short form and fun content is great, but meaningful content means a meaningful online community. That’s how the internet works.

I’m sure they’ll figure it out, but sometimes it’s hard for an organization to see the forest for the trees when figuring out a new website approach.

A great thing about CBC Hamilton is that it has motivated a great deal of people, like me, to get more involved and think about meaningful digital news services and this has been a very, very good thing for this city. I am excited and pleased by The Spec rising to the online challenge and I am thrilled to have discovered Joey Coleman’s community reporting. I am also interested in the prospect of CBC’s private sector competition coming to town and I would not mind getting involved with a local news service, and maybe becoming an arts and culture contributor outside of my own blog and online services. This is how an industry matures and CBC Hamilton has a significant place in this particular story.

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