By: Nu Yang
With print advertising on the decline, publishers are looking more and more to online advertising to make up for lost revenue. But before they can charge premium prices for online advertising, they need to show that their website can drive traffic. By exploring areas such as search engine optimization, social media, and quick response codes, newspapers are finding ways to attract more readers, and advertisers, to their sites.
Content Is Still King
According to online managing editor Jimmy Orr, the Los Angeles Times website (LATimes.com) has seen a consistent 35 percent increase in page views every month when comparing year-over-year numbers from March to July. In July, the site hit a traffic record, surpassing 5 million views in 25 days. It is consistently in the top 10 most-visited news sites.
“Our overarching strategy is to continue producing the world-class, Pulitzer Prize-winning enterprise journalism that (we) are known for, but we are also much more aggressively covering the news in real time — in Internet time,” Orr said.
“Advertisers are reacting to our increased reach with both local audiences and with key demographics,” said John O’Loughlin, the paper’s chief revenue officer/executive vice president of advertising and marketing. “These demographics and local geographics are always attractive to our advertising clients, are helping us prospect new ones, and we are monetizing the growth accordingly.”
Suki Dardarian, managing editor of news coverage and enterprise for The Seattle Times, said the biggest asset for their website (SeattleTimes.com) was also their content. “The readers have to care about the stories we produce,” she said. “We create great journalism in print and online.”
According to an Omniture report, SeattleTimes.com averages more than 51 million page views a month.
The paper is also crossing into the mobile technology world by providing a mobile site and various applications, such as a University of Washington sports app. “One of our biggest areas of traffic is college sports,” Dardarian said.
A recent redesign of its site’s home page included emphasis on important news stories and creating a hierarchy for story layout.
Be Language Experts
As senior editor of online operations at the St. Petersburg (Fla.) Times, John Schlander’s job is to “play around with words and see what is performing,” which is another way of saying the paper has embraced search engine optimization (SEO) for TampaBay.com.
In June 2010, Schlander and former TampaBay.com brand manager Sonia Meisenheimer set out to learn more about SEO. At the SMX Advanced Seattle 2010 conference, they saw a booth for Optify, a Seattle-based company that helps businesses use SEO and social media to drive more Web traffic and leads.
“Our eyes lit up,” Schlander said. “We had a big dynamic website, but we needed the tools. For us, Optify was very organized and easy to use.”
Optify CEO and co-founder Brian Goffman said partnering with the St. Petersburg Times meant working with real-time and breaking news. “It was a different kind of game,” he said. “We didn’t know how or what (certain stories) were going to rank.”
Goffman said the paper was not getting the traffic it needed for a site that should be more prominent. “When you prioritize SEO, it comes in conflict with high-editorial views, but John rolled out a system for writers to see where their articles ranked. For example, searching ‘website’ versus ‘web site’ will yield different search results. Writers should be using wording and expressions that people are searching for, and those won’t necessarily go by the stylebook.”
“There are some industry growing pains between the print and Web relationship,” Schlander said. “News organizations need to re-create their business model and be less resistant to Web strategy. SEO is an opportunity for that. I say, ‘Don’t be afraid. SEO is not the death of good writing.’”
Instead, he said journalists could still be creative when it comes to SEO: in keywords, Web headlines, page titles, and URLs. “We just have to be smart with it. After all, we are experts with language and words.”
Since starting their SEO efforts in 2008, the average number of unique visitors to TampaBay.com and sister-site PolitiFact.com has more than doubled. As of July 2011, the number was 4.2 million compared to 1.8 million three years ago.
“Everyone is talking about social media, but at TampaBay.com, only 5 percent of our traffic is from a social media site,” Schlander said. “We’re getting way more traffic with links, search engines, and direct loads.”
Schlander is also working on using SEO to drive revenue.
“Ultimately, that’s how we’re judged,” Goffman said. “Have we converted the traffic to customers? What John needed was to take his local traffic and make them long-term customers.”
An example is TampaBay.com/thingstodo, a part of the site that specifically targets the local audience by listing weekend events, free activities for kids, and things to do with family and friends — from food and dining, music, deals and shopping, date night, and Florida travel. According to Schlander, it’s a hit with advertisers. There’s also a free smartphone application that users can download to connect with the area’s best events, restaurants, and attractions as well as receive special deals and coupons.
“We always had (the information) in print, but now it’s open to more users with the Internet,” Schlander said. “Technology is helping us.”
Protect Your Brand
More and more newspapers are using QR codes as a way to direct readers from the print product to online resources. In a recent comScore study, 14 million mobile users in the U.S. scanned a QR code in June, representing 6.2 percent of the total mobile audience. The study also indicated users were most likely to scan codes found in newspapers/magazines and on product packaging.
ViteroQR, based in Cleveland, focuses on creating successful technical and marketing strategies for deploying the QR code to clients. The company is also the North American distributor for Denso, inventor of the QR code. CEO and founder Michael Balas said, “We protect your brand and make sure it’s a positive, successful, and thorough campaign.”
Before embarking on a QR campaign, Balas said businesses should ask, “What can I do with my QR code to make it successful in a variety of devices with a variety of QR apps? It all starts with that QR code being scanned successfully and as frequently as possible.”
Balas recently worked with The Plain-Dealer in Cleveland. “We have on blinders that codes are used just for marketing, but there’s so much more to them. We put a code at the bottom of a story. When you scan it, it takes you to the website to find videos and images. We were able to track hour-by-hour to see how many times that code was scanned.”
He said it created a “hand-held online experience.”
“The paper is the starting point,” Balas said. “QR codes aren’t a threat. It’s a complementary relationship.”
Balas recently presented two webinars with the Newspaper Association of America, where he went over the details of how publishers could use QR codes. There was so much interest that Balas was asked to put on a demonstration at a third webinar.
“The number one question was how to monetize it,” he said. “You can put the codes in your auto section, classifieds, real estate, food, and travel. If the codes are done right, business will grow by getting more eyeballs on the papers.”
Balas said QR codes are valuable to both print and online readers. “Those sitting at a computer are surfers, but those who scan a code want more information,” he said. “They’re called hunters; they’re looking for something specific to satisfy an immediate need. Newspapers need to become accustomed to that market.
“All trends to drive traffic are basically saying, ‘Come look at me!’” Balas said. “QR codes are a much more direct approach to that. If they can see it, they can scan it. Those playing with codes want to learn more on what they just saw.”
Become the Point of Discovery
When The Seattle Times partnered with Outbrain in 2009, the paper saw results right away. “We saw a rise in numbers with click-throughs and page views,” said Heidi de Laubenfels, deputy managing editor of strategy and product development.
Outbrain’s strategy is based on being a content discovery platform by automatically linking readers to the paper’s best content within the site and to articles on other sites that pay for distribution. In return, papers share in the proceeds and develop a new revenue stream. In one step, readers get a more personalized data-driven selection of content while papers see increases in website traffic, revenue, and reader loyalty.
When readers come to the paper’s website and click on a story, they will see two sets of links at the bottom of the article. On the left will be four to five links leading readers to other interesting Seattle Times stories, allowing them to stay on the site and read more content. The free service continues to help sites drive more traffic and increase click-through rates. On the right is a handful of links paid for by a third party. Instead of banners or other distracting images, the links direct to other content.
According to Outbrain chief operating officer David Sasson, by combining both editorial and revenue, driving Web traffic is a joint business decision.
Outbrain’s revenue model, along with its simplicity, is what attracted the paper to them, said de Laubenfels. “As the website continued to grow year after year, we chose to respond and expand with it,” she said. “In the digital realm, the more experimentation, the better.”
“We found that readers don’t want to read the same thing over and over again,” Sasson said. “So, we find what is interesting to people, what kind of content is being read or what articles have already been read, and we keep it fresh.”
Another company keeping content fresh is Vertical Acuity. Its goal: “unGoogling the Web.” CEO Gregg Freishtat said over the last five years, search engines have become so good at finding and providing content that it’s become bad news for publishers. “A back button is actually the discover button. When you leave a website, you actually want more, not less,” he said. “Instead of moving from site to site, become the point of discovery. By bringing the content to your site, consumers will spend less time on Yahoo! and Google, and spend more time on your site.”
Vertical Acuity does that in two ways. A digital curation engine allows editors to drag-and-drop the Web’s highest-performing content onto their site in real time. Editors also have control over when, where, and how content appears. The second asset is the company’s partner management features, which helps publishers monetize content they don’t own on their sites and syndicate their content to sites they don’t own. Publishers can invite and sign up new partners, manage and track existing partnerships, and grow revenue from both groups.
Currently, Vertical Acuity has a network of 100 sites. “On average, these sites saw a 15 to 35 percent increase in page views,” Freishtat said. By early next year, he expects his network to grow to 1,000 sites. Freishtat is also in talks with several large newspaper groups, including finalizing plans for a launch with boston.com, home of The Boston Globe.
“The long-term vision is for publishers to re-engage with their audience, to have readers not start at Google, but at their site,” Freishtat said. “And to have someone stay on that site, publishers need to expand their content, meaning get your content out there and getting other content in. It’s critical publishers present a better experience, so readers come to them first.”
Focus on Newspaper Loyalty
In a recent analysis performed by comScore for the NAA, newspaper publishers attracted an average monthly audience of 110 million unique visitors ages 18 and older to their websites during its second quarter — nearly 65 percent of all adult Internet users. The same figures also demonstrated the high engagement of website visitors, who generated an average of 4.1 billion views each month.
“The credibility associated with newspapers and strong newspaper brands clearly carries over to the online environment — distinguishing newspaper sites from other sources,” said John Sturm, former NAA president and CEO.
comScore vice president of industry analysis Andrew Lipsman said the increase in website traffic could have been due to current events. “We saw big spikes this May attributed to the royal wedding and the death of Osama bin Laden; both were big events,” he said.
Lipsman said by using a rating service such as comScore, publishers can understand strategies and revenue stream. “We provide competitive analysis inside and outside the company and audience measurement, such as demographics and behavior profiles. Our data is often used for online advertising and media planning.”
Lipsman said publishers shouldn’t ignore social media. “There is a value to having your brand in front of the customer each time they check their Facebook. It puts the paper on the top of their mind. Each time someone uses the Internet, 37 percent of those sessions visit Facebook.”
But publishers could be missing out on that opportunity. “The New York Times Facebook only has 1.5 million followers compared to other brands that may have 5 million,” Lipsman said. “It doesn’t match what the loyalty should be at.”
With so many areas to explore, what is one secret industry insiders want publishers to know?
“Publishers should work with one another to get their content out to as many people as possible,” Freishtat said.
“Get a healthy mix of personality behind the writing,” Sasson said. “Readers gravitate more to analysis/opinion pieces instead of just a piece reporting the facts. They want a fresh angle. It’s also helpful for writers to use Twitter to tweet content and link to the website. People like to follow people.”
Sasson also said just by adding imagery to a story, it could result in a 25 percent increase in click-through rates compared to just a regular text link.
“Create content that gets discovered,” Goffman said. “Distribution plays a big part in how content is found. Readers have a huge choice on what they want to read now; we have to make it more accessible to them — use Twitter to promote your content or connect searches with social media.”
To those in the newsroom who may be skeptical about these Web tactics, 27-year news veteran Schlander said there are exciting possibilities by integrating print and online operations. “Every improvement we’ve made is seen in our traffic growth, and that’s due to our change in thinking.”