Engagement matters. We get that. So how do you improve it?
The concept of engagement was a key theme in the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism’s recent report on the business of digital journalism. Several sections of the report addressed how publishers define engagement, how they measure it, and how engagement benefits their business.
What the report didn’t address was how publishers should go about improving engagement or how they can reshape their business models around it.
The consensus is that engagement matters, more so than page views or unique visitors. OK, we all pretty much get that at this point.
In the report, Scout Analytics’ Matt Shanahan rightly points out that page views don’t accurately reflect how different users navigate a site. “Using today’s standard, there is no difference between impressions that last one second, ten seconds, or two minutes,” he said.
Scout Analytics' Matt Shanahan offers his take on engagement. Read the Q&A.
Unfortunately, the current online advertising model is built around page views and impressions. And the bulk of traffic to content sites comes from people who have no particular affinity for a brand, don’t stay long, and visit infrequently. A study released last week by the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism found that the top 25 U.S. news sites depend greatly on these “casual users”: On average, 77% of the traffic to the top 25 news sites came from users who visited just one or two times a month. The report cited USAToday.com as a typical example:
“85% of its users visited USAToday.com between one and three times per month. Three-quarters came only once or twice. Time spent was even more daunting: When all the visits were added together, fully a third of users, 34%, spent between one and five minutes on the paper’s Website each month.”
Buyers and sellers love to whine about page-view journalism, which emphasizes optimizing around search engines to drive high numbers of clicks, which drives more impressions for advertisers. The CJR report notes that publishers “have spent a great deal of time and resources building masses of lightly engaged readers. And the industry has turned online ads into what [the IAB’s Randall] Rothenberg calls low-value ‘direct-response advertising—a.k.a., junk mail.’” The authors note that volume-based pricing is “a game publishers will never win when competing with behemoths like Facebook and Google.”
So how do we get out from under what many consider an unsustainable model? The Pew report offers one suggestion for news sites, but the message applies to any publisher:
“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.”
OK, that pretty much covers everything. The CJR report also offers some very general advice:
“Media companies should redefine the relationship between audience and advertising. … This is not a goal that can be accomplished just by the business side. Journalists must make a fuller commitment to understanding the audiences they have and the ones they want, and to revamping their digital offerings to ensure deeper loyalty.”
The question persists: How do you build that?
First, you have to know what to measure regarding who your most loyal visitors are and how they interact with your content, or with other members of the community. The CJR report cites the research that PBS Interactive did to better understand the most loyal visitors to PBS.org by analyzing a combination of page views, time spent, and frequency and recency of visits. From the report:
“Less than 5 percent of the visits on the site came from users who met all of PBS’s engagement standards. But those people are a critical group … they stay on PBS.org for 13.5 minutes per visit (compared with a three-minute average for everyone else) and click on nine pages per visit (versus three for other users).”
As important are the economic benefits: PBS found that engaged users were 38 percent more likely to donate money to PBS. Usage patterns also convinced editors to promote video more heavily – which drove more revenue because the site’s video ads generated $30 CPMs, about three times that of other ads on the site.
Gawker Media defined a metric called “branded traffic, ” which tracks visitors who have bookmarked the company’s blog sites or searched specifically for a site by name—e.g., by typing “Deadspin” into a search engine. From the CJR report:
“Gawker found that roughly 40 percent of visits come via branded routes, as contrasted to links from search engines. And such visitors are more devoted and engaged, spending ninety-one seconds more per visit than others. That is a meaningful difference with financial impact, says Erin Pettigrew, Gawker Media’s marketing director. … If Gawker Media can demonstrate to advertisers that its readers are loyal, it can charge higher ad rates, Pettigrew said.”
Scout’s Shanahan offers a general guide for segmenting audience by engagement level: “fans” visit more than twice a week; “regulars” visit 1-2 times per week; “occasionals” visit 2-3 times per month; and “fly-bys” visit once a month. Fans, he notes, generally make up 5 percent or less of the audience but deliver 50 percent or more of the page views.
For B2B publishers, Shanahan adds a fourth type: the maven. “Mavens are a special sort of fan,” he wrote in a recent post. “Mavens are experts that are passionate about their industry, the issues facing them AND they blog. The maven is usually focused on tackling his own issues, but wants to share insights and ideas with others. Mavens start and frame visits for publishers through the use of their blog.”
Mavens are powerful influencers, driving five times more visits vs. referrals from other social media sources; fans referred by mavens viewed twice as many pages per visitor, Shanahan wrote.
All good, but we still haven’t answered the question about how to improve engagement. You’ve been patient, so here goes:
4 ways to improve engagement
1. Establish, then nurture, a direct relationship
Scout has found that 70 percent of fan visits are direct, which means they’re likely responding to a feed or promotion from the publisher. “We find the vast majority of direct visits were triggered by the publisher notifying the fans of new content either through e-mail, RSS feeds, or Twitter,” Shanahan blogged recently, adding that Scout’s research finds “a direct correlation between engagement spikes and when notifications are sent.”
This is why publishers need a direct relationship with their audience to drive engagement. “Not focusing on developing those relationships leaves a publisher’s revenue model open to competition and the prerogative of the search engine,” Shanahan wrote.
The stronger your relationship is with a visitor, the more information you can learn about their behaviors and interests, which enables you to serve them more effectively – which strengthens the relationship further. That whole virtuous cycle thing.
2. Reward your most active visitors
Publishers are creating more innovative ways to acknowledge the audience members who don’t just passively consume content, but actively contribute to the “conversation” by commenting on posts, participating in forums or submitting their own blog posts or videos.
IDG’s ITworld has taken visitor contributions to a new level with the revamped community site it launched last month. The redesigned site includes a Q&A section that allows IT professionals to seek or offer professional advice. Readers can also rate the quality of answers; those who rank high will earn “Trusted Voices” designations. (Anyone who’s worked in the technology space knows how IT pros crave such public displays of peer affection.)
3. Skew content to the loyalists
Once you identify your fans, you can also segment the types of content they consume the most – and deliver more of it to them.
“The best way to serve fans is to leverage the insights of their behavior profile to offer recommendations based on engagement habits of similar fans,” Shanahan wrote in an email. Other options, he said, include providing “power tools” to tap into their previous engagement (e.g., instant recall on previously read topics) or customizing the home page by placing their most frequented sections at the top.
The CJR report notes the Dallas Morning News’ approach in delivering deep content on high school sports to an audience that lives and dies with the success of their local football programs. The publisher launched a website called HSGameTime.com that provides detailed statistics and other information for teams from the area’s more than 200 high schools.
“Users clicked on nearly nine pages per visit in November 2010, during the height of the football season, and generated almost as many page views as the entire news section,” the report notes. “Put another way, high school sports fans were seven times as engaged as the people coming to read news.” Mark Francescutti, senior managing online editor for sports, told CJR that the high engagement levels demonstrates the power of “great local content … that is exclusive and is important to people.”
4. Don’t abandon SEO
Publishers looking to transition to an engagement-heavy model won’t want to forsake SEO efforts entirely. Search still serves as a critical feeder mechanism for new visitors to discover the brand. It’s up to the publisher to convert those fly-bys into fans, by offering compelling content and a positive user experience that gives them a reason to come back.
“[Publishers] 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,” paidContent’s Staci Kramer wrote in a post for CJR. “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.”