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Lessons from traffic to news giants: New Pew research

by: Amy Gahran |

May 12, 2011

Lessons from traffic to news giants: New Pew research

If you spend time thinking about how to serve your online news audience, think again. You probably have several online news audiences, not just one—and each warrants its own strategy to support your news business. That’s the advice of a new report from the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism…

By Amy Gahran

For Navigating News Online, PEJ analyzed detailed data from the Nielsen Company for traffic to the 25 most popular news sites for US web users. This set included sites associated with specific general-interest legacy news brands such as NYTimes.com ABCnews.com, as well as major online-only news sites like HuffingtonPost.com, and news aggregators such as Google News.

The report noted: “There is not one group of news consumers online but several, each of which behaves differently. These differences call for news organizations to develop separate strategies to serve and make money from each audience.

“...News organizations might need a layered and complex strategy for serving audiences and also for monetizing them. They may need, for instance, to develop one way to serve casual users and another way for power users. They may decide it makes sense to try to convert some of those in the middle to visit more often. Or they may try to make some of their loyal audience stay longer by creating special content. Advertising may help monetize some groups, while subscriptions will work for others. And the strategy that works best for each site may differ.

“What’s more, with the development of mobile, these layers will almost certainly multiply.”

Some interesting findings:

Casual visitors are by far the norm. News sites often strive to encourage repeat visits—but the PEJ study indicates that vast majority of traffic (77% on average) to the top news sites visit only once or twice a month. “Power users” are defined as people who visit a site ten times per month or more. Across the top 25 news sites, on average only 7% of visitors were power users; and only six of these sites had more than 10% power users.

Facebook drives traffic; Twitter, not so much. “Social media, and Facebook in particular, are emerging as a powerful news referring source. At five of the top sites, Facebook is the second or third most important driver of traffic. Twitter, on the other hand, barely registers as a referring source. ...If a large portion of users are going to Facebook after leaving a site, that may indicate the site’s content is easy to share and viewed as worth distributing to friends.”

Also: “The addition of social networking ‘share’ tools to the margins of nearly every news story seems to have paid off. Facebook shows up among the top destinations for every site studied. ...While these are technically clicks away from the site, they are positive clicks away, likely multiplying additional traffic to that story.”

Online ads perform poorly at major news sites. PEJ also examined where visitors went to after leaving the news site. “The data also offers some suggestions about the impact of advertising. Not a single consumer product site appears in the mix of destination pages for these news sites. That means that in no case did five people click on the same ad on a news site in the months studied. This comports with industry measurements of click-through-rate for ads (CTR) as well as with PEJ survey data from 2010 that found consumers quite adept at ignoring peripheral ads. In that survey, 79% said they never clicked on an ad on a news website.”

It’s worth noting that the webs sites of huge national (or global) news sites tend to attract ads from major consumer brands as well as generic ads from ad networks. The ad mix might vary considerably at smallers news sites, which could yield different results.

PEJ did not suggest which types of business models and strategies would allow news orgs to better capitalize on these and other trends spotted in the Nielsen data.

However, it’s worth noting that the vast majority of news sites do not operate on the scale of CNN.com, AOL News, or Google News. These huge sites tend to attract a very different advertising and audience base than, say, a mid-sized daily paper, a local radio station, or a startup community news site. News organizations should not assume that these results would—or should—apply to their own operations. Rather, this is simply context on how things work for the current online news industry giants.

Still, this report does indicate the kind of analysis that news orgs could apply to their own traffic data, in order to identify different audience types and business opportunities.

The News Leadership 3.0 blog is made possible by a grant to USC Annenberg from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

By Amy Gahran, 05/12/11 at 8:00 am

Amy Gahran

Amy Gahran is a journalist, editor, trainer, entrepreneur, strategist, and media consultant based in Boulder, Colorado. In addition to writing
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