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Can engagement research solve the news media industry’s revenue conundrum?

23 September 2013 · By Jim Chisholm

News media companies are not bringing in enough digital advertising revenue because too little of their audience engagement is digital. Is an international industry research project the answer?

Readers are flocking to our Web sites. But, on average, they don’t hang around.

Our lack of audience engagement is the cause of our woes. The bad news is, it ain’t getting any better … on average. 

The good news is that the application of best practice — and a better understanding of the how, why, and what of our audience (mis)behaviour — could and will raise our industry’s fortunes in the future.

It is simple Darwin. Some will survive. Some won’t. 

But it’s not simply about adaptability. It is also about understanding.

According to comScore, in the United States, 62% of digital users visit newspaper Web sites, yet newspapers account for only 8% of total visits, 1.7% of time spent, and 1.5% of pages visited. 

One has to ask why a medium that is so rich in content enjoys so little traction.

According to the UK national readership survey every month, digital audiences are around 83% of those of printed product. On this basis, the duplication between print and digital is 20% of the print readership and 25% of digital. 

But on a daily basis the digital figure falls to 39% of print. And duplication accounts for 5% of print and 12% of digital. Low daily duplication is arguably a good thing, particularly for paywall aficionados. But over a month, it is vital that print and digital operate in tandem.

The consequence of this fact is reflected in our industry’s financial reality. It is no coincidence that globally the KPIs of engagement online — visit frequency times pages viewed times time per page — are 5% of those in print, and digital revenues are typically around 5% of print.

In the UK, the multiplier of digital engagement is around 10% of those in print. And it’s no coincidence that around 10% of advertising revenues are from print. But in the UK, 40% of total advertising revenues are now digital — the highest in Europe. 

So why are newspapers deriving so little revenue from digital advertising? Because they are deriving too little of their audience engagement in the digital space. The correlations are indisputable.

In part, this is because of a historical defensiveness. But in reality, today, it is because we are not confronting what the analytics could be telling us. Hence the recruiting drive.

Solve the audience conundrum and we solve everything. 

We know, thanks to comScore, that the Netherlands and Turkey enjoy the highest levels of engagement – nearly triple the average. The UK leads in visits per month, Turkey in pages per visit, Spain in time spent per page.

ComScore’s data also shows that among the top 10 publishers in the countries measured, one newspaper in the Netherlands has an engagement score that is 21 times the global average, yet another Dutch publisher has a score of only 20% of the average — a ratio of 100 to one.

In Brazil, one publisher enjoys an engagement index of 13 times that of another performer. In Germany, the ratio between the best of the top 10 and the worst is 200 times. 

And these are the top 10!

The issue isn’t the what, but the why.

Undoubtedly a number of publishers are achieving great digital results. The key is unlocking the reasons for their success.

Every conference, report, and academic analysis focuses on the likes of The New York Times, Financial Times, The Guardian, and the Scandinavians. But these are not typical newspapers.

The question is what makes a typical 30,000 copy newspaper successful online?

A number of factors are driving traffic, engagement, and ultimately, levels of inventory:

  • Clearly content is a central factor; but as, if not more important, is navigation. The eye navigates the written page in a very different way from the screen.
  • The newspaper creates a serendipitous set of formatted surprises. The newspaper is read from the front to the back. That’s not the case with online. Successful Web sites lead their readers through the newspaper — and keep them.

    Tablets are forcing a positive rethink here. When you think about it, people watch a TV programme or a film, listen to the radio, or read a book from beginning to end. They don’t choose. And as far as I know, they don’t contact the news reader to get him to shift to something else.

    Despite us all being pressed for time, we remain determined to serve up as much stuff as possible. Perhaps the way to have more is to produce less, better. 
  • The screen demands greater levels of decision making as well as clicking through pages. Data shows too many people are viewing too few pages. 
  • Page design is, therefore, a critical factor. Initial analysis of the Web sites at the extremes of the engagement spectrum shows specific and resolvable issues of why readers are behaving as they do. Best practice is measurable, definable, and, for most newspapers, actionable.
  • Then there are external factors, such as the linkage of the print and digital products. Best practitioners work hard to encourage readers to move from print to digital.

    In the UK’s case, The Guardian punches way above its weight in terms of the engagement of its audience. During a month, 45% of Guardian readers read only the print edition, compared with an average 84% for all newspapers measured. As a consequence, the newspaper’s digital offering increases its reach by 120%, whereas the average for all titles is one-third.
  • Then there is also my hobby horse regarding branding. Publishers wonder why their audiences and advertisers are disappearing. Much of this is because they have hidden themselves, particularly in single-copy markets.

    As the world shifts to digital, it would be difficult to know newspapers exist. In some single-copy markets, there is still great visibility through kiosks. But in others, sales are increasingly reliant on a plinth at the back of a supermarket.

    Research worldwide, from the U.S. Pew Research Center to the Finnish research company VVT, show newspapers remain the world’s most-trusted medium — both for news and for advertising, in print and online. 

My observation from working with publishers is that small increments in each of the three KPIs of engagement have a significant, geometric impact on page traffic, and, therefore, revenue opportunity.

What this requires is a collective international industry project that gets to the heart of audience behaviour, determining why some newspapers achieve stellar results and others don’t.

As I hope I have demonstrated above, the data exists to not only identify best practitioners, but also to determine why.

But this will require the participation of publishers themselves to enable benchmarks across titles and across markets. Not simply to measure Turkey vs. Spain, but also the best and the average performers in those markets and the factors behind their relative success. Those are:

  • Content.

  • Creative execution.

  • Navigation and serendipity.

  • Technology.

  • Marketing.

  • Innovation.

Here is a one-off opportunity to, once and for all, unlock the secret of digital success. But it will take the participation of publishers, trade associations, research companies, and suppliers, to deliver.

Here’s your opportunity. 


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About this blog

Every conference has a keynote presentation, that one speaker who connects the dots on a key industry issue and brings clarity to chaos. That is what we aspire to do with the Keynote Blog: identify the top strategic issues facing the news media industry and marshal the smartest people behind them. This blog represents INMA’s “keynote presentation” for the month. Begun in January 2013, this content previously resided in Ideas Magazine; for an archive of past magazine cover stories, click here.


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Dawn McMullan is the editor of the Keynote Blog and senior editor for INMA. If you are an INMA member and would like to contribute a keynote blog, please contact Dawn directly by clicking here.


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