Yikes! Only 2% of News Site's Readers Are 'Regulars'

By: Steve Outing "Shovelware" -- repurposing print content for use online -- isn't enough for a news Web site. Most of us in the online news business realize that, yet repackaged printed content is still what the vast majority of news sites serve up online. Sure, more original content for our Web sites would be nice, but it's expensive. So we mostly shovel what we already have onto the Web and hope for the best.

Now comes new evidence that a mostly shovelware Web strategy is largely a waste of effort. A new study of a "typical" newspaper Web site shows that visitors rarely come back, and only a tiny percentage of them regularly visit. The vast majority of visitors are just "passing through." The reason? There's not enough original content to keep people coming back.

The study is being conducted by Eric Meyer, managing partner of Newslink Associates and a visiting lecturer at the University of Illinois at Urbana. In this joint project by Newslink and the university, Meyer and his researchers have been watching usage of a small weekly U.S. newspaper's Web site, tracking individual visitors to determine how often they use the site and what content they view.

Meyer won't name the newspaper (which is cooperating in the experiment), because publicizing it would muck up the ongoing study. It's a weekly paper in a medium-small community, but it has a fairly ambitious Web site which puts nearly all of its print news content online, plus offers online classifieds, a community directory, a weather feature that's updated more frequently, etc. Meyer says he can't prove scientifically that the results for this newspaper will be repeated at other, larger papers, but he's confident that the same type of content which is so common at many larger news sites will yield similar results. (He's hoping to get the cooperation of a large daily news site to conduct a similar study.)


Traffic to the news site was tracked over a four-week period, and the results were not at all impressive. A whopping 92% of the site's users (who are tracked by "cookie" technology and "guest book" sign-ins during the testing period) visited the site fewer than three times during the month. 45% visited only once during that period. Only 2% of the unique readers of the site visited more frequently than once every two weeks. A dismal 1.3% of visitors could be termed "regular readers," using the typical standards for print readership.

For this publication, its Web site attracts in a month roughly the same number of unique visitors as the newspaper has readers.

Because this is a weekly paper, and its Web site is updated weekly (with the exception of small portions of the site like weather, which is updated more frequently), you wouldn't expect frequent user visits. For this paper, a "regular reader" of the Web site would be considered someone who visited once a week. Meyer extrapolates that for a comparable daily newspaper site, you would have less than 2.5% of unique visitors who visit several times a week, or "semi-regular" readers.

What they want

Among those 2% of visitors who are "semi-regulars" or "regulars" to the studied newspaper site, Meyer says they establish fairly predictable patterns. They mostly know when the site is updated, and visit shortly after, then tend to look for the same things week after week. They often come back another time during the week, in search of some different information.

More than three-quarters of the visitors to the Web site were also subscribers to the newspaper's print edition. Because they get their news from print, they have little reason to visit the Web site more than on rare occasions. Meyer says when they do visit, it's mostly from work (where it's convenient if they have a PC on their desks) or just prior to normal print delivery, in order to get the news a few hours before the print edition arrives.

Non-print subscribers use the site less often, and Meyer could find scant evidence of non-print customers using the Web site in place of a print subscription. The fabled "ex-patriate" market also is small, and they too visit rarely. (Meyer watched IP addresses and used "guest book" sign-ins and cookie information to determine where site visitors live.)

What Web visitors mostly come to see is news -- especially the obituaries. Classifieds are not used much; neither is the community directory. But by far the biggest online draw -- among local residents using the site as well as ex-patriates to the region -- are the obituaries. (Anecdotally, Meyer says that he often hears from online newspaper readers who use his Newslink site to find newspaper sites, who complain to him about news sites that do not include obituaries.)

Meyer says he's not at all surprised by the findings; he and his team made some pre-test estimates for usage patterns for the site and came up with percentages of regular visitors only slightly higher than the final results.

Dour ad implications

These results will be disheartening to those in the newspaper business seeking Web advertising for their sites. If the majority of hits on a news site are primarily from infrequent visitors or Web "surfers," the quality of an ad impression is diminished. "It is our hypothesis," says Meyer, "that the most productive ad impressions -- i.e., those leading to increased potential for an actual sale -- will occur only among regular readers."

What's a newspaper Web publisher to do? Obviously, create online-original content and give people a reason to visit your Web site on a regular basis. That's not a new sentiment, but now we are starting to get some research data that demonstrates that without devoting some resources to crafting content that can be found only online, your Web site is going to be used about as much as a newspaper's audiotex system. If you want to settle for that, fine, says Meyer, but to create a real business out of the Web will require a commitment to original content. And provide something new daily. Give people a reason to come back regularly.

Meyer urges publishers to concentrate on creating features that utilize what the Internet is best at -- interactivity. Let Web visitors offer feedback to what's online; let them participate in polls and contests; run discussion forums; etc. That's the kind of stuff that keeps people returning.

Deliver it!

The study newspaper, like so many others, fails to alert readers to its site via an e-mail reminder service, which can remind people on a regular basis to come back to the Web site. Meyer recommends keeping them very short and providing meaningful content. Don't write them as though they are TV spots promoting the 10 p.m. local newscast, he says. But by all means do it. Delivered reminders about special content can keep people coming to your site. But Meyer warns not to make them too repetitive, or e-mail users will simply ignore them over time. Better to save the reminders for the best stuff.

Internet consultant Vin Crosbie, whose Digital Deliverance specializes in Internet delivery strategies for publishers, says that this research reinforces his conclusion that Web publishers must have a delivery strategy in order to avoid the dismal regular-user figures found by Meyer. "I maintain that you'll never -- repeat, never -- have much more than than a small percentage usage compared to print subscribership if you rely online solely upon an on-demand mechanism such as a Web site," Crosbie wrote to the Online-News Internet discussion list in response to Meyer's findings. "If the online publishing industry is to prosper, it needs not just to permit retrieval of content but to deliver content."

No fear of cookies

Here's one last interesting tidbit from Meyer's research. He tracked only 6% of users who wouldn't accept the "cookie" that the test site wants to plant on each visitor's hard disk in order to aid in tracking their usage of the site. Recently, as an experiment he has tried restricting access to the site unless a visitor signs the guest book and accepts the cookie. Early results, though not conclusive, are that 4 out of 5 of those cookie-haters is accepting the cookie in order to view the site. Meyer thinks that's an encouraging sign for those publishers who want to deploy cookie technology in order to better track Web visitor behavior.

Meyer's research will be published this summer as part of his "Tomorrow's News Today" research publication.

Contact: Eric Meyer, meyer@newslink.org


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This column is written by Steve Outing exclusively for Editor & Publisher Interactive three days a week. News, tips, and other communications may be sent to Mr. Outing at steve@planetarynews.com

The views expressed in the above column do not necessarily represent the views of the Editor & Publisher company


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