Newspaper Sites' Dayparted Content Lures Readers Throughout the Day

Advertising and content dayparting is old hat in TV and radio. Web media outlets, on the other hand--with the exception of a few like CBSMarketwatch and Yahoo!--have been slow to recognize the benefits of segmenting ad runs. And they're even less likely to adopt the practice of content dayparting. But that's beginning to change, and newspaper sites are leading the gradual transition.

In its 2003 report, "Online Dayparting: Claiming the Day, Seizing the Night," media research firm Minnesota Opinion Research Inc. discovered significant shifts in media consumption habits among online users of newspaper sites. Peak news reading time is 8 a.m. to 11 a.m. As the day goes on, mainly between 2 p.m. and 6 p.m., interest in the news genre dissipates, while interest in entertainment and event resources picks up the slack. At night, consumers switch gears again to concentrate on jobs, cars, homes, and shopping content.

Michael Zimbalist, executive director of the Online Publishers Association, asserts: "The daytime part is still the largest daypart on the Internet." As measured by the OPA and others, the bulk of these daytime Web users are at- work broadband users.

Sites known primarily as news resources are responding to the MORI research. Arizona's azcentral.com, Minneapolis-St. Paul's Startribune.com, Kansas's LJWorld.com, seattlepi.com, and Cleveland.com have all begun shifting home page content throughout the day to accommodate readers' desires.

"We're a great workday story, but after people leave their offices, our traffic takes a significant dip," comments Mike Coleman, senior manager for digital media at azcentral.com. That knowledge, in conjunction with the MORI research, which studied azcentral.com usage, was the catalyst for the site's content conversion.

Home page highlights morph throughout the day on azcentral.com. In fact, the site has two staffers dedicated to determining editorial changes on the home page. Hard news gets the spotlight in the morning, and those story links are altered regularly. By the time noon hits, the news lightens up, becoming more lively--with offbeat stories, photo slide shows, and local and sports coverage taking center stage. When nighttime rolls around, the site moves into azcentral@night mode. A recent azcentral@night home page gave prominence to video game reviews. The goal, says Coleman, is to entice users to return to the site throughout the day and night.

Denise Polverine can relate. "It's disturbing that people are not coming back several times a day," laments the editor-in-chief of Cleveland.com. "We want to make it part of their daily routine." The site time-stamps news headline links in its top stories section, and will soon begin changing content more frequently. For instance, an afternoon update that will occur around 3 p.m. each day will feature more events and weekend planning resources.

Not everyone goofs off at night, though. In fact, Rusty Coats, director of new media at MORI, cautions publishers not to neglect those folks without at-work broadband connections. "They need to recognize there is a secondary audience of people who didn't have access during the day," contends Coats. He suggests that news sites include a recap module on the home page featuring the day's top stories to accommodate these nighttime news hounds. OrlandoSentinel.com currently runs a news recap, according to Coats. Like TV broadcast content, the value of dayparted Web content warrants prime time ad rates too, says Coats. Most publishers have yet to be so bold, although azcentral.com has made the move. The site offers two ad placements on its azcentral@night home page that aren't available during the day. The MGM Grand Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas paid a premium to run ads in those spots. According to Coleman, content dayparting played a central role in enabling that buy. Having "a special thing to wrap the ads around ... was absolutely critical."

Still, in reference to the continuing need for dayparting adjustments--and perhaps more important, site update promotion--Coleman admits: "We haven't nailed the perfect mix." Although he believes that dayparting content is a worthwhile effort, the masses on the Internet at night have yet to be convinced.

Some newspaper sites aren't convinced, either. Many are concerned that shifting from a hard news focus to a fluffier one could degenerate their brands. The key, explains Coats, is not to take things to the nth degree. The OPA's Zimbalist concurs. "It's important not to exclude what the core value of the site is," he says.