Side doors

“Well shit, we just need to blog more.”

The Verge has been redesigned. That’s from the editor-in-chief, Nilay Patel, who goes on to say:

When you embark on a project to totally reboot a giant site that makes a bunch of money, you inevitably get asked questions about conversion metrics and KPIs and other extremely boring vocabulary words. People will pop out of dark corners trying to start interminable conversations about “side doors,” and you will have to run away from them, screaming.

But there’s only one real goal here: The Verge should be fun to read, every time you open it. If we get that right, everything else will fall into place.

That stood out to me because I used to say my whole job was walking into rooms and explaining to people I worked with that the audience came in almost entirely through side doors. By that I meant mostly social media, and search engines, messaging apps, and emails you didn’t send. Almost no one came to your homepage, so if you wanted to attract readers you needed to understand side doors. This wasn’t novel on my part at all; it was conventional wisdom. But as a “digital” editor focused on social media and audience development I gave this pitch a lot.

And I ended by saying: You can’t change this. You can build the nicest homepage in the world but people still will mostly come through side doors.

But a lot of those side doors just turned out to be bad — for publishers but for readers and for public discourse, too. Algorithmic social media increasingly feels like a wrong turn. It’s not good for us.

So I’m glad to see The Verge trying to build its own feed and attract more readers directly. It probably was the case that, when I was talking about side doors in the mid 2010s, that most small- and medium-sized publishers couldn’t on their own do much to change those dynamics. It’s not usually a good idea to stand athwart audience habits yelling “Stop!”

But not every audience habit is a step in the right direction either, and even trends that seem inevitable can shift over a period of years.

Side doors are part of what makes the internet so great: You jump from one thing to the next, following a chain of links to places you might not have expected. But many of the side doors we’ve actually built are bad. I hope publishers like The Verge can convince more readers to try the front door for a change.

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