Lee Boosts Online Retail Advertising

By: Lucia Moses

As a newspaper company trying to sell its Web audience, Lee Enterprises Inc.’s experience was pretty typical. Salespeople touted the sites’ page views and visitor sessions, but “it was not terribly successful,” conceded Greg Swanson, corporate director of interactive media sales. “The only measurement we had of our audience was log file data, and the log file data was flawed.”

Many advertisers agreed; retail advertising represented close to 30% of the companies’ online revenue, the rest coming from classifieds.

This year, though, the online editions of Lee’s 44 dailies will get about half of their online dollars from retail advertisers, as retail online revenue has roughly doubled over the past year.

How? Using a new measurement method from Belden Associates. Analyzing single-day and monthly visitor totals and visitors’ self-reported Web behavior, Belden believes it has come as close as anyone has to estimating the actual local online newspaper audience size, said Greg Harmon, director of interactive services at the Dallas-based research and consulting firm.

Belden, based on tests at nine Lee sites and ongoing tests at two other newspaper chains, estimates online papers reach a small but loyal core of users — between 5% to 20% of the papers’ entire adult market. Those findings are similar to recent data from Reston, Va.-based online audience measurement company comScore Media Metrix.

Harmon admits Belden’s numbers are likely to disappoint some online managers who are used to seeing visitor numbers, although suspect, in the hundreds of thousands. But the smaller audiences have quality, he said. “These Web sites have fabulous local audiences and [newspapers] are not selling them,” he said.

For Swanson, being able to tell advertisers his sites reach a small but loyal audience is better than saying the audience is huge but doesn’t deliver sales for advertisers. The Belden data, which suggest Lee’s core online audiences equal, on average, about half that of the print circulation, have helped the company “dramatically drive a new source of revenue,” Swanson said. The ability to estimate his sites’ reach and frequency, he said, “opens up an opportunity to sell against radio and TV.”

Belden’s findings also contradict suspicions that the Web is cannibalizing print circulation, Harmon said. Here’s how: Belden estimated local online audiences represent 10% to 30% of a paper’s software-generated unique visitor count. Of that portion, about 30% of that slice subscribe to print. Of those who did, few reported they were likely to cancel.

The frustration with existing Web audience measurement methods remains widespread, and the quest for a trustworthy measurement method isn’t likely to end soon. Software used by Lee and many others, for one thing, is often criticized for overcounting visitors, resulting in inflated audience numbers.

David Blomquist, senior editor for technology and research at the Detroit Free Press, has no idea what his site’s reach is, despite having several sets of numbers. “What’s not necessarily agreed upon is what are the most relevant metrics … that really give the advertising and editorial sides an idea of how sites are being used,” he said. “Audience research is really expensive. … The more we do it, the better we’re going to get.”

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