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At one 90,000-circ paper with a 450,000-montly-unique site, the fans and regulars totaled only 7 percent, while fly-bys were more than 75 percent. But the fans, four percent of the audience, made up more than 55 percent of the traffic—and generated 50 times more than the average fly-by.

Shanahan argues that it’s time for publishers to realize the value isn’t in traffic, it’s in the engagement of core users. Instead of making money chasing traffic, they are giving up the ad revenue they could get by serving better contextual ads to users they “know.”

That’s one of the real opportunities for publishers now implementing or looking at meters, subscriptions, and even micropayments. The most loyal readers or the ones with the most self-interest will pay. The numbers will be small but probably consistent and relatively price elastic as long as they can afford it. Advertisers, in most cases, will pay more to reach them than the masses as long publishers can tell them who they’re reaching.

So far, though, with the exception of some member clubs with benefits that too often could be for members of anything, many publishers seem to be doing little to serve those segments differently than the fly-bys. I’m not suggesting distinctly different products but maybe subscribers should get pages with fewer ads, for instance or be treated like regulars in other ways. That’s where efforts like The New York Times’s Recommendations can work.

At the same time, they have to work to find ways to shift some of the occasionals to regulars, to widen the group just enough—and to make sure the core doesn’t age out. That means making the most of someone’s interest when he or she finds one of those SEO links, treating them like a potential reader instead of just a click.

Staci Kramer is Editor and EVP of ContentNext Media, whose main properties are paidContent.org, paidContent:UK, contentSutra.com and mocoNews.net. She has been writing about the intersection of technology with media, entertainment and sports since the days before the web.