Om — these are great questions. The post was long and we were trying to lay out the basic framework “Casuals, Subscribers, Loyalists”. If sites even start looking at their user data in that framework, and understand referrers and repeat behaviors, it at least starts a lot of the conversations about how to creatively propose ideas and features to convert more users to regulars.
Huffington Post is an example of a site that worked nonstop to convert casual visitors into subscribers and loyalists. As you point out, one thing they did was strongly define their brand and point of view. They did this through aggressive branding both in the product and outside the product. Users began to understand that when they visited Huffington Post home page they would get a certain type of content — and the team worked incessantly so that any moment you showed up at the home page it had the most interesting and most relevant content for you. Editors were changing the links and order by data in realtime, all the time. This is just the beginning.
In addition to making sure you have a strong brand and your front page delivers on that promise (and is updated frequently enough to be a place worth going), they worked endlessly to build features that drove additional conversion and additional sharing. Look at Huffington Post site today and try to sign up for their newsletter — it is much easier, more obvious, easier to do, and more present than say NY Times or most blogs. Not saying that it is right, or great design, but it’s a sign of how aggressive they are about testing and promoting things for conversion.
A key idea for conversion is to understand the referring site and act on that. When someone comes in from a Twitter link, promote Twitter following and Facebook sharing to their other friends. When someone comes in from a Facebook link, promote Facebook liking and Facebook login. When someone comes in from Reddit, promote upvoting on reddit and submitting to other subreddits. This probably seems obvious, but it is surprisingly rare.
These products do nothing to try to get users to sign up, share what they are interested in, and have the site make sure that they deliver news to the user about what they care about. I am a fan of several sports teams and ESPN has only barely started doing this to deliver me news about the teams I care most about. The reason we bring up Meerkat, Instagram examples is that these products do this natively — when you show up you are asked to personalize the product and then you get what you want every time you come. There are ton more ideas like this, but I’d like to see more sites just get caught up to these basics!
50 years ago, media companies were cutting edge of technology — printing presses, massive distribution and delivery systems, understanding airwaves and channels, and more. The Internet has caused this advantage to wane. But I think it’s often because they have not re-imagined their products like the best product makers we look up to do. Normal innovator’s dilemma. I still remember when NY Times scoffed at Facebook and never saw it as a media system. Heck, my first conversations with Huffington Post when I was at Facebook had some of that doubt.
So my biggest hope here is if media companies start to re-cut internet traffic around loyalists and subscribers who matter and come back over and over, and understand how to build more and better for them, maybe some of my favorite media companies can once again be primary properties for content. And I like your point — they need to deeply stand for something too.