3 ways media should respond to declining news traffic

By Ken Harding

FTI Consulting

Washington, DC, USA

By Justin Eisenband

FTI Consulting

Washington, DC, USA


For most publishers, retaining the 2020 level of audience traffic in 2021 was always going to be an uphill battle. Between the global COVID-19 pandemic and other major news events, the renewed interest in timely and trustworthy news gave nearly all publishers a boost. While the pandemic hasn’t completely subsided, news publishers have generally seen their traffic continue to decline throughout 2021.

In a sample of global traffic for 20 national and metro publishers in the United States, we observed the number of visits in 2021 declined on average by 24% for national publishers and 19% for metro publishers.

In the United States, global traffic is declining on average by 24% for national publishers and 19% for metro publishers.
In the United States, global traffic is declining on average by 24% for national publishers and 19% for metro publishers.

So, given this industry-wide trend, how should publishers strategically respond to the slowdown of news traffic, particularly in the context of maintaining or accelerating strong growth in digital subscriptions?

1. Emphasise visit frequency and double down on newsletters

When there is an industry-wide downward trend in news audience viewership, it becomes quite challenging to attract new visitors. It’s not that people are going to a competitor’s news site, but rather they are spending less time reading the news than last year.

Rather than expending additional effort finding new audiences who are (at least currently) minimally interested in news, spend that effort getting your current audience to come back more. Getting someone to your site for the first time is difficult. While getting them to come back is not easy, there are strategic tools to do so.

The best tool publishers have is a newsletter strategy. Publishers should be aggressive with modals and in-line real estate to drive newsletter sign-ups. Publishers can prioritise or even incentivise newsletter referrals among the current newsletter audience.

Consider newsletter frequency: Is there an opportunity to produce a popular newsletter daily instead of weekly or perhaps twice daily instead of once per day — even if that means reducing the volume of content in each newsletter?

Another successful strategy is serialising content, which can help create habitual usage and adoption. While horoscopes and crosswords are classic examples of these, there are other more news-specific daily content types that will drive subscribers. For example, weather and traffic have been dominated by local broadcast as print newspapers could not deliver close to real-time updates. In a digital-centric newsroom, these are daily content updates that can keep audiences coming back frequently.

2. Consider introducing or putting greater emphasis on premium, hard-walled content

For publishers that primarily rely on metre-based paywall strategies, paywall intercept rate (that is, the percentage of unique visitors that are stopped by the paywall each month) is highly dependent on repeat or recirculated traffic. When organic traffic declines, we naturally see the number of people interacting with the paywall or being asked to pay falls significantly.

To maintain our recommended 10%+ paywall intercept rate, publishers need to tighten the paywall. However, many publishers already have fairly tight metered walls (i.e. two or three articles for every 30 or 45 days).

One way to drive up paywall intercepts is to introduce (or add more) premium hard-walled content when traffic is slower. By adding more content that is always behind the paywall, publishers concerned with growing digital subscriptions can insulate themselves from slowdowns in traffic that lead to fewer paywall intercepts.

Publishers need to carefully consider what type of content gets put behind the premium hard-walled paywall. Breaking news and other everyday content, in many cases, is commoditised and will often lead to few or no conversions if placed behind the paywall.

That is why we need to consider the next strategic response to slowdowns in traffic.

3. Watch what subscribers are reading and/or shift the newsroom toward more tentpole content

When traffic is down, newsrooms are often tempted to create a higher volume of content or try to produce content that will otherwise drive pageviews. While clickbait type content can often boost pageviews in the short-term, it is not an effective strategy in driving long-term growth in digital subscriptions.

One common question related to introducing premium hard-walled content for a news publisher is what type of content should go behind the wall. Is it certain topics or coverage areas? Or certain writers? How do we know if something that drives a lot of pageviews will drive subscription conversions?

The answer is not so simple and typically varies from publisher to publisher. However, there are a few key strategies that we’ve seen be successful:

  1. Watch what your subscribers read (and lock it to non-subscribers). One approach is to see what articles are popular with subscribers and lock those articles behind the hard wall. This “look-a-like model” is based on the theory that audiences with a high propensity to convert will look like (and have similar tastes) to those who have converted previously.
  2. Build a premium content team. In today’s world, journalists are often inundated with data and not always clear on the North Star KPIs. An article with 10 times the amount of normal pageviews can be considered a success, but perhaps it’s driving minimal conversion when looking at attribution modeling. A premium content team should be focused specifically on content that converts. With a focused team and clear KPIs, success is more clearly defined.
  3. Invest in premium content, whether it is related to time or new formats. Newsroom productivity is important but volume per journalist is not always the most important metric. Creating content that converts can often take investment, whether that means allowing journalists to invest more time in a story or building out new formats like data journalism or audio-driven journalism in the form of podcasts. Testing is an investment as we often don’t know what will work until we try it.

Traffic will rebound, but until it does, publishers are no strangers to the idea of extended changes in news cycles. While 2020 presented a unique situation that drove digital traffic to record levels, we knew it would eventually return to normalised levels.

In the future, we will undoubtedly have significant news events that present opportunities for publishers to push subscriptions to larger audience volumes. However, in today’s slower news traffic environment, we should continue to be creative about how to continue the strong momentum in digital subscription growth.

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