By: Alan D. Mutter
Now that most newspapers have been in the digital publishing business for the better part of two decades, it’s time for editors and publishers to pay attention to where their wired readers actually come from. And it’s not the front pages that editors lovingly tend on their websites and mobile apps.
While research over the years consistently shows that about a third of the visitors at the typical digital site are individuals navigating directly to NameBrandNewspaperSite.com, the preponderance of the traffic is from people referred to individual articles via search sites or the social media.
Even though the Newspaper Association of America boasts that the industry’s digital media attract something north of 160 million unique users a month, the reality is that most of the these unique “readers” stop by once a week, once a month, or once in a blue moon and typically linger for less than a minute. Then, they are off.
That’s why many analysts call these incidental readers “fly-bys.”
With fly-bys representing two-thirds of digital readership, it behooves editors and publishers to learn as much about these individuals as they can. In many cases, however, they don’t know nearly enough. In still more cases, the interactive departments at newspapers fall short of doing the things necessary to capture the enduring interest of digital visitors whose eight-second attention spans (tinyurl.com/a7kmuce) are said by some researchers to be no greater than the concentration of a goldfish.
The significance of third-party referrals was demonstrated emphatically last fall when Axel Springer, a major European publisher, blocked Google from linking to its articles because it objected to Google’s long-standing practice of not paying publishers for referring to their content. When traffic at the Springer sites slumped by some 40 percent (tinyurl.com/lys6h3q), the publisher quickly invited the search giant to start crawling its sites again.
To understand where digital traffic comes from, I gathered data from friends at newspapers of various sizes in various parts of the country, who participated on the condition that their publications would remain anonymous.
The first thing I discovered is that there is no uniformity in the way newspapers count their digital traffic, making it difficult to benchmark performance or identify best practices. But, as discussed above, it was clear that two-thirds—or more—of the traffic at newspaper sites did not come through the front page. On average, about half of the third-party referrals came from search engines, about a quarter came from social media like Facebook or Twitter, and the balance came from “other” referrals like blogs, websites or emails from one friend to another.
Thus, it is safe to say that fly-bys represent a rich opportunity for publishers to build a larger and more loyal readership in the digital realm than they enjoy today. Here’s how they can do so:
Be nice. Treat every page you serve as though it was a reader’s first entry point because, statistically speaking, it is. Instead of warning a non-subscriber that she has only 10 views left on a paper’s paywall-protected website, offer her a free month of unlimited access in exchange for providing her email address. Make sure the terms of the email registration enable you to send further marketing communications.
Strut your stuff. To build click-through and dwell time, leverage your newspaper’s vast archives by promoting relevant content on every page. The invitation to stick around only works, of course, if you turn off the paywall alert, so the reader isn’t threatened with being banished from the site every time she clicks on a new article.
Encourage sharing. People referred to your site by friends and social media are highly likely to be willing to refer others to you. Prominently post tools on every page to make it easy to share links to your content via Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, Instagram, text and email. A great example of optimized sharing is at the Los Angeles Times website, which embeds pre-written Twitter messages into every story so readers can point, click and tweet.
Start conversations. Because the digital media are two-way forms of communication, invite visitors to join the conversation by enhancing the visibility of comments and streamlining the process of adding to them. Going to the next level, consider soliciting user-generated photos, videos and other content wherever it makes sense to do so. Nothing will get visitors to promote your site to their friends faster than having a picture of them posted on it.
Market, market, market. Once you have an email address, you can begin to build relationships through email newsletters, deals, coupons, contests, sweepstakes and other incentives that will engage visitors, keep them engaged and encourage them to provide the information you need to enhance your marketing activities.
Remember, though, this only works if you start by being nice.
Alan D. Mutter is a former newspaper editor and Silicon Valley CEO who today consults with media companies on technology and technology companies on the media. He blogs at Reflections of Newsosaur (newsosaur.blogspot.com).