A month ago, in a piece on mainstream media merging with social media, I described how USAToday was one of only two mainstream online news sites that allowed users to select their own feeds from any news source. Now USAToday has announced a massive site revamp that includes features such as user commentary on all stories, story recommendations and ‘most popular’ listings, story tagging, personal spaces with avatars that can be shared with other readers, photo contributions, and exploring network connections between stories.
In a recent strategy project we did for a major online news site, the senior executives kept asking what their major competitors (i.e. online news sites owned by major media corporations) were doing in social media, in order to justify why they should pay any attention to it. They weren’t interested in blogging, commenting, tagging, recommendations, and the like, because they didn’t perceive social media sites as their competition. It was a very frustrating experience. Now a major online news site, owned by a major news corporation (Gannett), is firmly in the space, taking away any excuses from other major players to look at this functionality. Online news sites are in many ways commodities, yet actually have strong loyalty (or rather habitual usage). Adding superior functionality on the lines of USAToday’s revamp is a key point of differentation that can create consistent usage by readers.
Steve Rubel wants USAToday to allow external blogs and feeds to pull into our profiles, while Stowe Boyd thinks that the social networking functionality needs to transcend the news from any one source. Matthew Ingram points out that while there are a minority that want these features, some do (and these are the most loyal!) The point is that USAToday is breaking new ground among its competitors, and this is an experiment. It doesn’t need to be a perfect solution as long as it is a step forward, and it is a major one. Now, hopefully other mainstream online news sites will follow this lead, and the battle for social functionality around news will create more value for everyone.