News organisation web stats: Break out bounce

Frédéric Filloux looks at the metered paid content systems that the FT an the New York Times have in place in his most recent post. I have yet to be sold on how the New York Times is trying to segment their readership based on platform, but I think they are doing the right thing in terms of trying to get their most loyal readers to help support their journalism. I also like how they are trying to reward their most loyal readers with extras, such as their behind the scenes report on how they covered the mission that killed Osama bin Laden.

Frédéric touches on the issue of loyalty in his post.

One the dirtiest little secrets of the online media business is the actual number of truly loyal readers — as opposed to fly-bys. No one really wants to know (let alone let anyone else know). Using a broad brush, about half of the audience is composed of casual users dropping by less than 3 times a month, or sent by search engines; 25% come more than 10 times a month.

Spot on, and I think there is a lot of evidence to support his assertion that this has contributed to an erosion in advertising prices. Advertisers know that not all unique users are created equal. If a user views a single page during a visit, or even worse, is on a site less than 5 seconds, they might be counted as a unique user or visitor, but they are next to meaningless in terms of engagement with content and completely meaningless to an advertiser.

It’s quite clear that raw audience numbers do not a sustainable digital content business make. If that were the case, digital would be contributing significantly more to the bottom line than the 15% average that US newspapers are seeing. If this was the case, The Daily Mail would be making a mint off of its newly found digital success. The Mail has not only rushed ahead of its online competitors in the UK, but in April, it became the second most popular English-language ‘newspaper’ site in the world. (Quotes around newspaper because I’m not sure how the Huffington Post is considered a newspaper site, and if you were to include other news sites such as the BBC not to mention Yahoo News, that league table would look a lot different.) However, the Mail is squeezing paltry sums out of that audience, about 2p per visitor across Mail Online and metro.co.uk. (Rob Andrews at paidContent also points out in the same piece that DMGT makes most of its digital income, some £44m, from a separate digital division that operates travel, jobs and motoring ad services.)

The move from monthly uniques to average daily uniques has eliminated some double-counting from the stats, but it still doesn’t break out these fly-by visitors. The industry has to move to more honest and realistic metrics. In the UK, newspapers no longer report bulk print sales. I’d argue that it’s time to at the very least break out ‘bounce’, single-page, less than 5 second visitors (or however the industry wants to transparently measure it). If the industry really wanted to come clean, they’d just leave bounce out of the stats entirely. It’s meaningless traffic, the internet version of channel surfers. Loyalty is the new coin of the digital realm, and I’d wager that if we focus on that, it might even bring in a bit more coin.

6 thoughts on “News organisation web stats: Break out bounce

  1. Absolutely spot on. And one of the reasons why I think one of the most important projects will be for media companies to recognise the fly-by pageview as an opportunity to optimize and drive engagement deeper into the network using some of the same ideas as store managers use with space management. It’s certainly going to be one of the next big projects for the media company, where I’m trying to drive digital forward.

  2. I think your parenthetical discussion of the need for quotes in ‘newspaper’ is interesting, because as long as that distinction needs to me made ‘newspapers’ aren’t going to be able to compete in the digital marketplace. In that marketplace, the competition is from other online news sources, whether or not those sources are tied to a brick-and-mortar news office.

    I agree with you that loyalty is key in creating favourable conditions for increased advertising revenue (from a metrics perspective, this loyalty being measured not just with numbers surrounding repeat visitors, but social engagement as well).

    But while a 5 second visit might reasonably be described as “meaningless traffic,” I don’t think all single visits can be classified as such (though I don’t know how many seconds might be considered a “meaningful” visit). Indeed, depending on the campaign display advertisers often care more about uniques than return visits because it puts their message in front of the greatest number of individual eyeballs (the reason “first impression” is a standard display advertising metric). Furthermore, single visits may indicate success from search or favorable linking (which in may turn draw on the loyalty of readers to the originating site, as in the case of the Drudge Report).

    None of this to say that one shouldn’t breakdown these data for interested advertisers, because I agree that honesty in metrics reporting is important for publishers. To the degree it can be measured with any accuracy, bounce should be one of these metrics.

  3. While I agree with much of your post, I disagree strongly with your characterisation of all bounces as “fly-by-night” traffic. I believe you are mistaking a measure of recency for a measure of loyalty. This is something I struggle to get journalists to understand: many bounces are positive. On one edition I work on, about 20% of daily visits is made up of bounces from people who have already visited at least once that day. So that’s immensely loyal visitors, generally registered users, checking the home page or a specific topic page for updates. And some of those bounces are from people actually clicking on ads.

    Bounces, or short visits, tell you nothing without context – just like most other metrics – and breaking them out would give just as incomplete and inadequate a picture as we currently have. I’d like to see a growing understanding that unsegmented numbers are, by default, crude measures that provide little insight, and a move towards more nuanced and meaningful reporting. But that doesn’t make for attention-grabbing big numbers, so I’m not holding out for it to happen any time soon.

  4. Mary,

    Definitely, not all single page sessions are created equal, and I don’t actually think of a single-page session as bounce. To me, bounce is a single-page session of less than 5 seconds, and many of those visitors on large non-local news sites are not only seeing a single-page on that session but also visiting the site only once a month. The broader point we’re both making is that unsegmented quantity-based metrics such as unique visitors whether daily or monthly don’t actually tell you much. It doesn’t give you a sense of pages viewed per session, time on site or repeat visits on a daily or monthly basis. I know a lot of digital editors, such as Steve Yelvington, who have been digging into their metrics to better understand their audience. My over-arching point is that loyalty matters more than the size of your audience.

    Aaron, I agree with what you’re saying with respect to referrals. Lots of people discover media these days through social recommendation as much as through search these days. Some of the analysis that Suw and I are doing for clients is evaluating referrals based on some of these loyalty metrics. I remember a panel here in London at the Frontline Club where a Mirror Digital exec said he would rather have one referral from Twitter rather than 100 from Google because visitors tended to read the article coming from Twitter while search-driven visitors were more flighty. Suw recently did an analysis showing that while LinkedIn drove less traffic to a site she was evaluating, the engagement from LinkedIn visitors was off the charts.

    All of this is to say, if we’re going to make the case to advertisers, sponsors and other businesses that our digital content is worth supporting, we need to get smarter about our metrics.

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