It’s not often that a publishing study seems to flip all established logic.
And yet, here we are, with a better way of measuring a news site’s success.
Data from more than a hundred news outlets was collected by the Medill Subscriber Engagement Index from Northwestern University to see what made an impact on subscriptions and revenues. The most important factors weren’t the typically relied upon page-views or time spent on the site, but rather reader regularity.
“What’s more,” writes Mark Caro on the university’s Local News Initiative website, “increases in page views and time spent may actually have a negative impact on subscribers and revenues.”
Part of the reasoning, as the study elaborates, is because of the increased reliance put upon subscriptions to fund publications in lieu of decreasing ad revenue. “What they want to avoid is losing readers through churn,” Caro writes. “The soft churn of subscribers who stop engaging with the site and the hard churn of those who cut off their payments altogether.”
Subscribers who visit regularly are preferable to those who only read occasionally and don’t visit often enough. As the data summary says: “Binging is bad for subscriber health.”
The Index, released in May, puts one divide between differentiated content and commoditized content. Differentiated content are stories unique to the outlet that are produced locally while commoditized content are those available elsewhere. And while some markets might have readers who rely upon commoditized content such as wire stories or national news they wouldn’t get otherwise, the Index says, “reading differentiated stories drives regularity and retention. Reading commoditized stories does not.”
The “drivers for regularity” obviously vary depending on market sizes and even the technologies through which content is consumed, but the one factor the study saw in each case was how “local and state news towers over all other categories in relative importance.”
“The key, as always, is calibrating content to community.”