Loyal Readers and Junk Traffic

The bottom 75 percent of newspaper Web visitors provide just 14 percent of page views

(See the first part of this post)

What the Journal does have that nobody else does is more than a million paying subscribers to its Web site, giving it what I’ve very roughly estimated at $60 million to $70 million a year in subscription revenue.

But—and this is critical—that revenue is not all the Journal gets from its subscribers. It gets ads from them, too, and I’m not privy to the numbers, but I’ll bet you that each spends far more time on the site and sees far more pages than the average non-subscriber. In other words, the subscribers account for a disproportionate amount of the advertising revenue, too.

The point is, you can optimize your search engines all you want, but if you have a high fixed-labor-cost structure like a newsroom, that ain’t gonna cut it, and your core readers are who you need to focus on, not adding marginal ones that add near-zero revenue.

There’s been a little mini-trend of sanity amongst online publishers talking about focusing on their core loyal visitors rather than chasing after the sugar high of a surge of junk Digg traffic or whatever.

Michelle McLellan reported that Slate’s editor David Plotz, in a Mizzou speech recently, said that Slate has seven million unique visitors but is shifting its priorities to focus on just 7 percent of them. Why? Because they’re the loyal readers who love the site’s stuff (or hate it so much they can’t resist it—shout out to Audit readers Mike H and Mark Richard!) and are by far the most valuable to it.

“Until now we’ve been selling to the mass audience. Now once you have this ability to target you can really target your core audience… This creates strong incentive to create durable journalism,” Plotz said. “That one curious reader is worth 50 times the value of the drive-by reader. The person who makes a commitment to your brand, if you’re a quality brand….. if you can get those readers, a smaller set of readers, who come to you three or five or 10 times a week, you don’t have to go after that huge other set of readers.”

This is a critical point. You can’t be everything to everybody. Don’t try to be. MinnPost’s Joel Kramer is making similar noises.

But on most websites, ours included, the vast majority of unique visitors are passersby. They come through a search or a link from a blog, and they visit the site precisely once, usually for a quick glance at one page. In many cases, if you ask them 30 seconds later which site they just linked to, they won’t remember. It would be folly for us to build a business plan around consumers like that.

I’ve been asking for numbers like these for a long while, so thanks to Kramer for providing them:

According to Quantcast, 168,000 different people visited MinnPost during the past month (as measured on Oct. 28). This is a somewhat smaller number than unique visitors, because Quantcast aims to count a person only once even if he or she visits from, say, both office and home.

About 71% of these visitors to MinnPost in the past month were passersby, Quantcast reports, and they accounted for 32% of the visits to the site. Another 29% of the visitors are called “regulars,” which means they visited the site at least twice but fewer than 30 times, and they accounted for 51% of the visits. Finally, there are the addicts — fewer than 1% of MinnPost’s visitors — who visited at least 30 times each and together accounted for 17% of the visits.

So, 30 percent of MinnPost visitors provide 68 percent of its visits. I’ll bet you very few of them come through search engines like Google and certainly almost none of the top 1 percent do. The other 70 percent of its visitors? They’re not worth much to MinnPost. Transient traffic, often from out-of-state, that its advertisers could give a rat’s patootie about. On top of that, that minority of visitors reads more pages per visit than the other 70 percent, Kramer reports, while noting that his truly valuable and loyal base is about half of the top 30 percent. So what portion of total page views and time-spent (which is really what matters, let’s face it) comes from that top segment?

According to a presentation by Belden Interactive and ITZ Publishing at the American Press Institute, posted by Nieman Journalism Lab’s excellent reporter Zachary M. Seward a few weeks back, the top 25 percent of newspaper Web visitors account for 86 percent of its page views. Fifty-four percent of unique visitors are “fly-by” traffic with one visit in a given month. Chew on that for a minute. If you’re a newspaper and you’re focusing on unique visitors, you’re focusing on the wrong thing.

But also, if you’re a newspaper and you’re worried that charging for your news is going to kill your traffic, you ought to think about who’s going to be subscribing to your paper online. They’re your most loyal readers, the ones who visit most every day and read multiple stories when they do. They’re the top slice that futilely tries to pull up those average time-spent numbers dragged down by drive-by traffic that comes on the site for ten seconds and then bolts.

Maybe 3 percent or 5 percent—if you’re good—of your current unique visitors end up subscribing. The calculation to be made is how much of your page views and attention share those visitors account for. If the top 25 percent of visitors account for 86 percent of page views, as ITZ Belden says, that changes the picture, no? What about the top 3 percent or top 5 percent of visitors? If the top 1 percent of loyal visitors account for 17 percent of page views, as they do at MinnPost, here’s guessing the top five percent make up some half of page views.

If you’re able to charge three percent or even five percent of your visitors, you bring in that revenue, plus you keep all of those loyal readers’ ad revenue, which again is disproportionately high. You can have your cake and eat a decent portion of it, too. And if you’re The Dallas Morning News, your Texas advertisers won’t be paying nearly as much to serve ads to folks in, say, Dallas, North Carolina.

Still, as the Journal has shown, you might be able to charge a loyal minority, while keeping your site open to less-loyal visitors, as well as the transient Google and Digg traffic so you (metro papers) can serve them those awesome fifty-cent-CPM network ads.

Oh yeah, and you slow the rate of decline of your cash-cow print edition.

I don’t know if many or most metro papers are too far gone to make such a strategy work. I do know that if they continue on their current paths they’re for all intents and purposes journalistically doomed. But for a paper like The New York Times that has preserved its newsroom, and already gets about a million people to pay it an average $600 or so a year, this ought to be much less of a dilemma.

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Ryan Chittum is a former Wall Street Journal reporter, and deputy editor of The Audit, CJR's business section. If you see notable business journalism, give him a heads-up at rc2538@columbia.edu. Follow him on Twitter at @ryanchittum.