ESPN.com’s To-Do List:

As my previous post illustrates, ESPN.com is doing a lot right. Its web traffic is booming, both domestically and abroad. Readers stay on the site for a long time. ESPN.com is, in many ways, a model 21st-century news organization. The site embraces multiplatform journalism and encourages users to connect via their computers, tablets and phones. The site seamlessly mixes video, audio and print, and it provides so much content on a daily basis that readers want to come back for more.

But that doesn’t mean ESPN.com can’t improve its reach and provide users with a better navigation experience. The following is a list of the five things ESPN.com can do to better positive itself for the future:

1. Be more like Facebook, less like MySpace when it comes to site design.

Facebook built its reputation in part on its clean and simple design — the antidote to the chaotic, sensory overload pages of MySpace. ESPN.com has veered more toward the MySpace design look. There’s so much content spread throughout the home page, and so little organization (especially at the bottom of the page) that it can be overwhelming for users to find what they want. 

ESPN.com has the great problem of figuring out where to fit its glut of content — the videos, columns, rankings, user-generated content, etc. Instead of scattering this information throughout the page in a disorganized fashion, the site should consider using blocking and other design tricks to improve the user experience. Users should know where to find content; it shouldn’t be a guessing game. 

2. Better promote its blog network on the home page.

ESPN.com’s bloggers attract large audiences and cover sports in a novel way. But the home page largely ignores their work and often does not provide an easy way for users to find their content. Why not add a permanent section to the home page that highlights the best of the blogs? Users shouldn’t have to stumble upon blogger content; there should be easy access.

3. Expand its regional sites to include mid-sized markets.

ESPN.com already has five regional sites. The idea of challenging local newspapers and television stations by using the resources of ESPN.com to break local news and write about teams in a different way (largely through blogs) is a winning strategy, particularly at a time when local news outlets are laying off staff and local sports reporters are looking for more steady employment. ESPN.com regional sites would likely find audiences in mid-sized markets such as Seattle and Denver, both of which have lost a major metropolitan newspaper within the last five years and are hungry for more sports coverage. There’s already plenty of sports coverage in New York and Chicago; the dearth of coverage in mid-sized cities provides ESPN.com an opportunity to increase its market share. 

4. Highlight the social media presence on the home page.

While Facebook has a presence on the home page, Twitter does not. At a time when tweeting has become a necessity for journalists, there’s no excuse for ESPN not to highlight its Twitter presence and play up even more its Facebook presence. This can be done by showing a rotating list of top SportsCenter anchor tweets, or ESPN reader tweets about big sports stories. It could also be done by highlighting some of the content posted on the ESPN.com Facebook page on the main site as a teaser or posting trending sports stories on the page.

5. Include more interactive elements — especially at the top.

ESPN.com has its SportsNation daily poll question, and it asks readers to pick a winner of a selected game under its “ESPN Fantasy Games” section. But both of these interactive elements are toward the bottom of the page and are easily lost amid the chaotic layout. Why not move up the poll question and add more interactivity toward the top with, perhaps, a game that invites users to select who they think will win the NBA playoffs or what team they would least like to coach. ESPN does a great job presenting the major news stories at the top of its home page, but more interactivity would be a welcome addition. 

 

ESPN.com Analytics

Let’s go behind the numbers in this blog post. What are ESPN.com’s analytics?

Alexa.com, a provider of global web metrics, gives ESPN.com a 71 in global traffic rank. That means that there are 70 sites with a better three-month global Alexa traffic rank than ESPN.com. The site is given a 21 U.S. traffic rank.

Even though the U.S. traffic rank is higher, I consider the global rank to be the more impressive number. Although ESPN has poured resources into ESPN Deportes and other international sports sites, the vast majority of its coverage is still of American sports. The fact that ESPN.com received a top-100 global traffic rank indicates two things — 1) ESPN.com is marketing itself well overseas and 2) American sports are immensely popular across the world.

Alexa states that “relative to the overall population of internet users, the site appeals more to Caucasians.” ESPN.com’s core audience appears to be childless men earning more than $60,000 who browse from school and work. This confirms my sense that ESPN.com is among the sites that contributes most to lack of office productivity.

Of all the data that Alexa provides, this statistic is the most eye-opening: Visitors to the site spend approximately nine minutes per visit to the site and 58 seconds per pageview. Other sites would kill for a five-minute-per-visit average; ESPN.com’s “stickiness” seems sky high. This is particularly good news for the site because many people visit for a split second to check scores or breaking news, so for every person who spends less than a minute on the site there must be people who spend 15-20 minutes on the site — an editor’s dream.

This, combined with the statistic that nearly 7 in 10 people visit more than one page per visit, is a testament to ESPN.com’s success.

Quantcast.com also has data on ESPN.com, but the site notes the ESPN.com has not implemented Quantcast measurement, and thus data is estimated and not verified by Quantcast.

The site shows that 14.7 million people visit ESPN.com per month. Younger males, both white and black, make up the site’s core audience.

Taken together, these analytics confirm many of my assumptions about demographics of ESPN.com readers and also illustrate the global reach of the site and of American sports.

Assessing ESPN’s regional sites

Who exactly is ESPN.com’s competition ?

For most of the site’s existence, the answer was pretty simple: SI.com, The Sporting News, CBSsports.com and more recently Yahoo! Sports. These are the giants of national sports journalism. And that has long been ESPN.com’s calling card.

More recently, however, ESPN.com has begun to compete with regional and local newspapers — and more specifically their sports sections. With its ESPN regional sites — Boston, Chicago, Dallas, Los Angeles and New York — the news organization is putting its seemingly limitless resources to use.

ESPN has hired scores of former local sports reporters, columnists and bloggers, many of whom are already familiar with their local sports landscape, to write for the ESPN.com regional sites. Not surprisingly, they have chosen some of the largest media markets (Chicago, L.A., New York) and most devoted sports towns (Boston and Dallas) as their first targets.

The ESPN regional sites look almost identical to the main ESPN.com page, which provides a sense of continuity. Instead of the national news roundup on the right column of the page there is “New York News” or “Chicago News.” Each sports team has its own landing page, and the teams are listed in a easy-to-find black bar that runs the width of the home page.

Also like the main ESPN.com page the regional sites each have a leading story with a photo or video. Content is regularly updated and is generally easier to find than on the ESPN.com home page. In this regard, ESPN.com’s regional pages have an advantage over the quite busy ESPN.com main page. There’s less clutter on the regional pages, especially toward the bottom of the page, which makes for a better user experience.

ESPN.com’s regional sites might be competing with local newspapers or television stations, but they cover the local teams in a different way. It’s not clear that there are beat writers who only cover a specific team. There are, however, blogs for specific teams that include entries from a variety of writers. ESPN.com promotes these team-specific blogs, and writers contribute to many different blogs.

Will ESPN.com continue to compete with local sports sites in other major markets and some medium-sized markets? I’d bet on it.

ESPN.com: Blog Heaven

Several years ago, ESPN.com took a gamble. Editors in Bristol, Conn., went all in on the bet that sports fans would come to their site not only to read prominent columnists and find out the latest sports scores, but also to follow bloggers (many of whom weren’t household names) who covered a range of sports.

The payback has been big. The NFL and college football blog sites in particular have attracted loyal fan bases who regularly comment on posts and provide feedback to bloggers — the content of which is featured in “mailbags.”

ESPN.com continues to expand its blog network, which covers nearly every major sport. In many cases, bloggers cover an entire sport, such as racing or poker. In other cases bloggers cover specific divisions or conferences within a sport — such as the NFC South blog or the Big Ten Blog (full disclosure: the Big Ten blogger is a close friend). Therein lies the beauty of ESPN.com’s strategy. Sports fans love reading about their teams. But they also love reading about their team’s rivals. By dividing blogs in popular sports such as pro and college football into conferences or divisions, ESPN.com is packaging sports in a new way by covering teams within leagues in a similar way. Fans can see how their team stacks up against their common opponents.

ESPN.com blogs are also notable for their variety of content. Take the College Football Nation blog, which combines player features, breaking news stories, videos, rankings and interviews. Bloggers often post 10 or more times per day in season and continue to post new content in the offseason.

ESPN.com’s packaging of its blogs is top notch. The blog landing page is well designed and executed. Users can see the latest posts from each blog and switch from sport to sport. The look and feel is similar to TweetDeck, which curates Twitter posts.

ESPN.com bloggers understand the mantra “do what you do best and link to the rest.” There’s plenty of original content, packaged alongside links pages that point to top articles around the web.

In short, ESPN.com has found success through its blogs by packaging content in a novel way and following many web best practices: Post often, be conversational and link as much as possible.

Navigating ESPN.com — Take a Few Deep Breaths

Finding your way through the home page of ESPN.com can be like reading a big city subway map or trying to locate your favorite dish on a diner menu. It’s a sensory overload experience.

ESPN.com seems to embrace the chaos, or at least believe that getting as much as possible on the front page of its site is advantageous. Like many web sites, ESPN.com uses a dominant headline and main photo (or a video still shot) in order to draw attention to the big sports story of the moment. There’s also the familiar right hand news bar that is a mix of original content and Associated Press top sports stories.

But beyond that, ESPN.com doesn’t follow news web site navigation conventions. The navigation experience begins at the very top of the page with tabs that allow users to choose their native language. Each version features a different mix of stories based upon the local sports interests — the Spanish version, for instance, is soccer heavy.

To the right of those tabs are more tabs that allow users to visit the ESPN.com region sites in Boston, Chicago, Dallas, Los Angeles and New York. The look of these regional home pages and the navigation experiences are all nearly identical, which is comforting for users who are accustomed to the ESPN.com layout. But it is very easy to miss the tabs at the top of the home page because they are so far above the main photo and story. These tabs are even above the ESPN.com logo, the search bar and the score ticker.

Adding to the overwhelming user experience are the plethora of links that allow users to visit the home pages of their favorite sports — college basketball, NFL football, tennis, etc. The site uses navigation well in this case to organize content based upon the sport, and the major sections are always a click away from the home page. But it is easy to miss so much of the content because the home page is so cluttered.

While the top half of the home page is busy, the bottom half takes the chaos to another level. In the mix are photos and text of issue stories (such as violence in the NFL), photos and links to stories from columnists, viral ESPN videos, fantasy sports links, mock draft lists for ESPN insiders, a link to the ESPN shop, a SportsNation poll question, etc. While the navigation is similar from page to page, there is so little order to the home page that the ease of navigation off the home page is overshadowed by the sheer amount of content that is chaotically displayed.

Perhaps the problem is that on ESPN.com there is no “main navigation bar.” One could argue that the bar showing links to each sport below the banner fills such a role. But there are so many other points of entry, including the headlines box on the right hand side and the columnist links toward the bottom of the page. A more centralized and organized navigation bar would help.

The home page is laid out to some extent with eye-tracking studies in mind. The tabs that take users to the ESPN regional sites and the bar that leads users to their favored sports home pages are both horizontally laid out to form the top part of the “F.” But beyond that, the layout does not follow research about how people read. The lower part of the page has links and photos scattered across the page.

Finally, like many sites, ESPN.com puts the “contact us” link at the bottom of the home page. While it is not featured prominently, it is in a predictable place. That’s more than can be said for many other components of the page.

In summary: Anything important on ESPN.com is just a click away from the home page, the user experience from page to page is very consistent and sports fans are almost guaranteed to find something on the home page they will like. That is, if they can find it.

#ESPN and the (like me!) Social Media Landscape

ESPN, in many ways, is built for the social media age. Its bread and butter — the sports highlight — can be linked to, Tweeted, liked, blogged about and shared in many other ways. ESPN.com’s short articles, rankings, lists, blog posts and commentary pieces are also popular fodder for social media users.

But not all social media is treated equally on the home page of ESPN.com. Facebook is king. Above what could be considered the masthead is the ubiquitous “f” icon that allows users to log into ESPN.com through their Facebook page. Just below that icon, in the box that includes headlines, is a tab that allows users to see what ESPN.com content their Facebook friends have shared in recent days. ESPN’s Facebook page, liked by more than 7 million people, is filled with links to articles, videos and other ESPN content.

But Twitter? Well, from ESPN.com’s home page you’d think it was the mid-2000s, when Twitter didn’t yet exist. No Twitter icon (an industry standard), no section that lists the top tweets of ESPN personalities. Nothing. It’s unusual, to say the least, for a company that prides itself on being hip. This isn’t to say that ESPN doesn’t make good use of Twitter. In fact, it does, ESPN has its own Twitter handle, and many ESPN employees make use of the service with their variations of the @ESPN names.

Like many sites, ESPN.com includes a bar at the bottom of articles where users can recommend, tweet, commented on and e-mail articles. ESPN also has widgets and other applications that users can download.

So while ESPN.com has many points of entries for readers and makes use of social media, its home page shows a clear preference for Facebook and has a dearth of options for users who want to interact through other social media sites. Including more icons and featuring more content posted through social media would help give ESPN.com a more interactive feel and look.