Recently NYU professor Jay Rosen offered some advice to entry-level journalists: Start in a niche. Choose a topic where there is a small but hungry audience that you can serve, and serve it well. Niche audiences, he explained, are tough but rewarding. “It’s a two-way transaction between niche users and journalists,” he writes. “Metrics tell you what’s working, but only to a point. The audience knows more than you do on some subjects, so be social, ask for help, and correct quickly.”
It struck me that his advice could be useful not only to aspiring journalists, but also to many established media outlets. For all the attention “shareability” gets these days, it’s becoming clear that not every outlet can (or wants to) play the BuzzFeed virality game. And that’s probably okay, because research shows that unique visitors, once the metric for measuring digital reach and influence, may not be the best measure of success. Not now, and especially not in the future.
Cultivating many small audiences of superfans in different subject areas isn’t exactly a new business model. Many old-school trade magazines share a single publisher. And digital powerhouses like Gawker segment their audience and appeal to advertisers with a portfolio of sites, each with a distinct, narrow focus. But with companies tracking individual users’ every click across the internet, advertisers can increasingly target users over sites. Rather than buy a large banner ad atop Jalopnik, Gawker Media’s car blog, the company can just serve its ad to a subset of car-interested people no matter where they browse. (If you’ve become annoyed when a product you clicked on once while online shopping shows up in ads on every other site you visit, you’ve experienced this phenomenon firsthand.) This sort of highly targeted ad usually involves a middleman, and therefore results in less revenue for the publication serving it. Soon the niches will have to be even niche-ier, the superfans even more devoted, to convince an advertiser to buy directly from a publication.
Digital trends point to the biggest media companies getting even bigger, with everyone else staying relatively small. Despite the explosion of blogs and media startups, the top 7 percent of news websites still attract 80 percent of all traffic, according to Nielsen. Most sites will never be big enough to appeal to advertisers on the basis of unique visitors alone, but they can embrace their size by making a play to keep the readers they do have engaged and coming back. But systematic thinking about how to do that has fallen by the wayside as even the little guys pursue viral hits—and the immediate Chartbeat spike that comes with them—to meet monthly traffic goals. According to Chartbeat, visitors from social are the least likely to return to a site in the future.
What if some of the effort spent writing the perfect tweet or shareable headline was focused instead on trying to deepen the relationship with existing repeat visitors? For small sites, loyalty might be a better path to pageviews. According to Pew, users who come to a site directly stay nearly three times as long as those who come via Facebook or a search engine. Those direct visitors also view five times as many pages per month.
In other words, loyalty matters. So let’s consider the superfans—the people who come directly to your site and stay awhile; the people who know what day of the week your column runs and read every article you write. The readers who post every other article you publish to Facebook. Those who’ve signed up for mailing lists or contributed to one-off fund drives. Many of these superfans aren’t paying customers—and on many for-profit, advertising-driven, digital-only sites, they wouldn’t have a way to pay even if they wanted to. Some outlets have accepted the nonpaying news consumer as a fact, making social media-driven unique visitors their primary coal. Other startups whose appeal and viability has yet to be proven (namely FiveThirtyEight and Vox) have decided to aim for broad audiences. In the long term, this may turn out to be more of a gamble than has so far been acknowledged.
The 2014 Pew State of the Media report reveals that new media funding mostly focuses on ways to expand audiences and do reporting—much less of it is devoted to ongoing financial sustainability. “Audience revenue accounts for about a quarter and is growing both in total dollars and in share,” the report states. “But this revenue may also be coming from a smaller—or at least flat—pool of contributors.” Publications should be doing everything they can to foster loyalty, because with ad revenues still relatively miniscule, repeat readers present promising future financial contributors. Courting big numbers of unique visitors, while still important this week and next, could undercutting digital outlets’ longterm health. Unless you’re BuzzFeed, courting a small, devoted audience, with a secondary focus on interlopers from search and social, is probably a safer bet. The strategy promises to be tough but probably more rewarding—much like superfans themselves.