The changing landscape means newspapers basically are start-up companies, pioneers and inventors full of fresh ideas. The Press-Enterprise traded the pageview and other metrics to more proactive and meaningful analytics, dividing consumers up into the top, middle, and bottom of the funnel.
At the 2012 INMA World Congress, I [Andrew] asked a speaker on the paid content panel why no one discussed the metrics that are typical of an e-commerce or subscription-based business. Instead of addressing churn, cart abandonment, bounce rates, and average revenue per user, the panel had focused on pageviews, visitors, and overall revenue.
Whether or not you are evaluating a paid content strategy, you should want to evaluate the types of metrics that will drive audience engagement and revenue.
Historically, the newspaper business has judged itself on revenue, circulation, number of advertisers, paper costs, headcount, and how many printing presses we kept running. When we had a monopoly, we behaved like one. These were the metrics of a mature business. But like most stable and mature businesses, the metrics we pay attention to tended to be lagging indicators of our own success.
Some publishers around the country are now discussing not just how to sell more print ads, but how to make great digital products that effectively generate audience and revenue.
What these conversations tell us is that we’ve been too far removed from our customers, that we haven’t focused our attention on understanding their needs, their wants, and the role we will play in their lives going forward. Essentially, we’ve found ourselves in the same place as any number of brand-new start-up companies. That means we should be pioneers and inventors.
While it will be the responsibility of each newspaper to experiment and figure out what works, we may want to concede that there are better metrics to judge the success of our initiatives than what we have used in the past: in order to be successful today, we must be measuring the right things.
While we experiment, we should also be paying attention to a whole host of leading indicators that will give us much more insight into where our business is heading.
Reporting vs. analysis
With the Audit Bureau of Circulation, comScore, and Omniture, we have all been conditioned to depend on reporting to evaluate performance. But to improve digital revenue and audience engagement, we must begin turning this data into analysis.
Those lovely charts and graphs from Google and Omniture are great at telling us where we’ve been. There’s no doubt they’re useful sales tools.
The trouble is that, for years, we at The Press-Enterprise relied on monthly reporting to provide our sales and content teams with total pages viewed, unique visitors, and a few other metrics by section. Reporting is sufficient for showing whether or not we had a good month, but not insightful enough to tell us what we were doing right, where we went wrong, and what we might replicate and discard to perform better in the next reporting period.
So, about a year ago, we began looking at analysis level solutions to help our news editors create journalist-level dashboards. We joined ArsTechnica.com, The Atlantic Monthly, and Mashable in a Parse.ly private beta. During that year, our newsroom has shifted from looking at pages viewed per month to assessing referral traffic, and then timing posts based on what we know will maximise our success.
By bringing the data to an incremental level where action can be taken, we’ve been able to take advantage of what users are currently doing on-site so that we can build what we call a “leading indicator advantage.” The result is that we’re guessing less, working from real data more, and yes, seeing better overall monthly results on those monthly reports.
Metrics that matter
The big mistake most publications make when measuring their digital content is relying on the pageview – also known as impressions, hits, eyeballs, or your bread-and-butter measurement for selling banner ads.
The problem with pageviews is that they are a lagging indicator and the lowest common denominator metric. Our experience suggests that the only reliable method for increasing pageviews is reporting on murder, mayhem, and scandal. It’s simple. Pageviews go up when something bad happens. Unless your reporters want to make a career out of late-night arson, you’ll want a way to even out the demand for your product.
Avinash Kaushik, author of Web Analytics 2.0 and Occam’s Razor blog, identifies eight metrics that should be included in any dashboard or digital analysis of your Web site:
- Unique visitors.
- Bounce rate.
- Exit rate.
- Conversion rate.
- Time on page.
- Time on site.
Notice the one metric we hear most often reported is absent – pageviews.
This is important. The pages-viewed metric is useful for only one thing: impression-based revenue. As that metric has mostly dominated online revenue to date, the tendency to focus on pageviews has led to decisions that hurt the user experience and are detrimental to user engagement.
Is it any wonder newspapers have rushed to cram as many ads as possible on one page, split articles into multiple pages, auto-refresh, pop-up ads underneath, and generally do all sorts of things to move that pageview number up?
Kaushik’s book delves into each one of these metrics in detail; here’s what they mean within a conversion funnel.
Levels of engagement
Engagement is a much-ballyhooed metric but widely misunderstood. We tend to think of engagement as people who show up on Web sites and click on a bunch of pages or “like” our articles on Facebook.
But that’s only one piece of the puzzle. There are several tiers of engagement:
- People who arrive via specific search queries.
- People who arrive at your brand directly.
- People who share what they find.
- People who participate in a discussion or provide feedback.
- People who give you permission to contact them because they trust you.
The last tier, permission to contact with trust, is truly the reason you were able to charge as much for print ads as you could for all those years. While paywalls are helping some publications achieve this premium audience, it is not the only way to get there.
Rather, the trick is to convert your users to escalating these tiers of participation.
How? When people ask which social media platforms they should be using to communicate with their audience, I have one answer: e-mail.
E-mail is the largest social network in the world. It’s bigger and more open than Facebook, it’s more trusted, more explicitly represents a person’s network of friends and colleagues, and most importantly, it has a built-in sharing mechanism in the forward button.
It’s the original opt-in subscription mechanism that we forgot about. It may not be sexy, but it’s effective.
Here’s a simple checkpoint:
Do you check your e-mail more often than you check all other social networks combined? Most likely, that answer is an unequivocal “yes.”
Newspapers haven’t been able to describe themselves as at the “cutting edge” in a long time, but why have we rapidly embraced whatever is new without considering our foundations? E-mail is the primary use of smartphones, so why are we more concerned about mobile apps than e-mail, especially when it is easier to track engagement in a newsletter because measurement is more straightforward – opens, clicks, and maybe forward to a friend?
When PE.com started the segmentation process, we found some research by Stanford Professor B.J. Fogg that was applicable to PE.com and most digital news media. Nearly any marketing activity can be broken down into the chart to the left. For a news site looking to increase engagement across platforms, there are several problems to address and should be different approaches to each.
Did we want to:
- Increase engagement from now on (purple path)?
- Stop existing behavior of single-page visits from now on (black path)?
- Use our new products, including mobile and tablet, from now on (green path)?
Could all three be related?
The research explains that there are three factors that determine behaviour change: motivation, action, and trigger (MAT). The MAT framework focuses on what types of motivation work, how easy the action is to take, and the frequency and timing of triggers.
Regardless of which path, we knew that we did not make it easy to sign up for a newsletter, find our mobile apps, or sign up, and pay for a subscription. Each of these activities required multiple screens and we knew, looking at browsing habits, that our audience actually used our site search to find these pages. When a conversion action has to be searched for, it is not easy and only those that our most motivated will take action.
We will be releasing a new navigation structure and page design that addresses the ease of use of our site, focusing specifically on conversion activities. Two Hubspot call to actions are on each article page, presenting us with multiple opportunities to trigger these actions.
Motivation is the tricky factor for news media as there is no immediate tangible benefit and there are multiple alternatives. As the motivation will be different for each audience segment, we must focus on creating multiple offers, test, and iterate through until we find what works.
Funnel metrics: treat every visitor like a potential paid subscriber
Before we go on to look at the how to put these measures to work in a conversion funnel, here are two questions to consider:
- Do I have the relevant metrics for each product?
- Am I looking at reporting or analysis?
Now, the metric funnels.
Press-Enterprise uses the HubSpot platform to manage our conversion funnel and increase conversion from infrequent news browser to potential paid digital subscriber. We evaluated several platforms and only Hubspot provided the out-of-the-box functionality we needed. Key features include call-to-action buttons/ads, customised landing pages, and segmented analysis that focused on lead conversion.
For the past six months, Press-Enterprise has actively used the HubSpot platform to provide in-depth analysis for our digital audience. Our newsroom has migrated to the platform for social media publishing and enter-to-win contests. They fully understand the value of using HubSpot so that we can learn more about our audience and create the integrated view of our print and digital audience.
For example, our Joshua Tree Roots Contest music festival contest was promoted in the newspaper and online. If an e-mail address matches information pushed into HubSpot from our subscriber system, then we know that the person is a subscriber and interested in roots music. We also have a valid phone number and hometown. If the person has visited our Web site [http://www.pe.com] in the past 90 days, we can also associate the browsing history on our site.
This contest generated 162 unique visitors and 97 entries. We learn that one subscriber was referred from FAcebook but does not visit our Web site. Another was a non-subscriber, also referred from Facebook, who has entered multiple contests (but not all that we’ve offered). We learn more about the person each time.
This is one example of the impact such information has had on our organisation. During the past six months, we have used HubSpot’s lead nurturing and marketing automation platform to generate more than 1,000 leads through calls-to-action, landing pages, and print ads.
Top of the funnel
News organisations produce an enormous amount of content and are, for the most part, loved by search engines and social media. The variety and size of our digital traffic could potentially make the top of our conversion funnel quite large.
While it may seem logical to include any person who visits the site in the top of the funnel, we really want to focus on people who have the potential to generate more revenue, either through a digital subscription or increased usage of multiple platforms.
For Press-Enterprise, the top of the funnel looks something like this:
- Print subscriber status: inactive vs. active.
- Frequency: visit Web site or mobile site occasionally, about one to two times per month.
- Engagement: may follow or like us on a social network, but does not engage on our site or social media presence. Does not subscribe to a newsletter, offers, deals, or text message platform.
- Excluded: people outside of our region.
The goal is to move people from the top to the middle of the funnel -- to increase the size of the loyal, engaged audience over time. This is not about getting a one-time boost in visits or pageviews. Achieving this takes a combination of on-site marketing along with some additional filters..
The key metrics for top of funnel are:
- Bounce rate: visit one page on the Web site and leave before taking any other action, including signing up for e-mail, commenting, forwarding an article to a friend.
- Visits and visitors: a visitor is measured using a cookie that is placed on the user’s device, while a visit (or session) is triggered when the page loads. For the top of the funnel, we want to look at visitors with more than one visit per month. While this will only count as one unique visitor in our monthly reporting, the segment of visitors with multiple visits is most important.
Middle of the funnel
The middle of the funnel is really the staging area for digital conversion. The size of this audience will vary, but the goal should be to have a higher level of engagement and potentially obtain a user’s permission to send conversion offers.
To move to the middle of the funnel, our users may have:
- Subscribed to a newsletter.
- Engaged on a social site or commented on an article.
- Submitted a photo or video.
- Visited our site multiple times in a week.
Key metrics for the middle of the funnel include:
- Time on site and time on page: As a measure of engagement, we want users spending more time on article pages and less time on the home page. Therefore, it is important to filter the home page when evaluating time on site.
- Exit rate: Everyone leaves your Web site at some point, so the key to exit rate — especially for a news Web site — is not the pure exit rate, but the rate based on the section, article, video, or page. Combine this with a user segment, such as social referrals or frequent visitors, and you can address the needs of that segment.
For example, visits may have a high exit rate from any page that resulted from the site search. This means that you may want to evaluate the search results page and site navigation to make sure you are displaying the relevant content.
Bottom of the funnel
This where our circulation team presents personalised offers that leverage the entirety of the user’s experience with our Web site. At this point, we should have the user’s e-mail address and should also be able to identify whether he or she is a print subscriber.
If a visitor is not a print subscriber, we want to encourage use of our mobile products and present subscription offers for our print and electronic replica. We will also be able to make custom offers based on the newsletter status and site history.
If the visitor is a print subscriber, we want to increase her engagement on the digital platforms that provide us with information to maintain the subscriber and potentially convert her to a digital subscriber.
The key metric for the bottom of the funnel:
- Conversion rate: Conversion rate applies across the entire funnel, but most importantly at the bottom. To measure conversion rate properly, you need to have a goal. For example, at PE.com we have multiple goals including sign-up for newsletter, watch a video, and three visits in a five-day period. The ultimate goal is to convert to a paying digital subscriber, but the intermediate goals provide a better measure of the performance of the funnel.
Final word: quality
While this is difficult to judge, we know it when we see it. Quality of published articles is a leading indicator. It may cost more now, it may require investing and hiring. But at the end of the day, if you believe customers are buying your product because it’s irreplaceable and high quality — and not simply, say, for the coupons — you’re creating a product that helps you sell advertisements.
Too often publishers forget that advertisers aren’t just purchasing into a (declining) audience; they’re buying into the idea that the newspaper is a fundamentally important and quality producing institution.