A major priority for publishers is not just audience growth, but audience retention and ultimately conversions. But do we really know what the driving factors are behind this level of reader loyalty?
Recent analysis by content analytics company Parse.ly found that habitual readers, measured as returning visitors, is the most important metric for driving conversions. Based on a month of its network data from 2018, Parse.ly also found that the referral source of visitors was a significant factor in determining retention: A user is more likely to revisit a site if referred via direct and social channels than from search referral, with direct producing almost twice as many sessions per visitor as the other two categories.
While the loyalty of direct visitors may not come as a surprise — many have opted in to email newsletters or bookmarked your site — the behavior of social users might. Though they visit few pages per session, "it seems that those that come from social networks are just as likely to return as visitors who come directly," says Parse.ly senior market analyst Kelsey Arendt in a blog post summarizing the findings.
Parse.ly also points to research from Northwestern Medill School that shows page views per session are actually negatively correlated with retention, meaning publishers shouldn't over-prioritize pushing up this metric. Based on the data, Parse.ly says sessions per visitor are a better metric for measuring audience retention than page views per session. Across all referral categories, users stopped reading after an article or two: "Even for the most loyal readers of a site, their 'attention span,' on average, maxes out at around three page views per session."
In the following Q&A, Arendt shares more takeaways from the data — and how media companies can use it to their advantage.
Why should publishers pay attention to visitor frequency?
A recent study from Medill Local News Initiative at Northwestern found that the frequency with which subscribers visited the website had the most positive correlation to retention. The Wall Street Journal has found similar patterns, using reader habits to predict churn and inform paywall strategy.
If you look outside of the media industry, habit creation is at the core of many digital strategies, including video games, Netflix binging, and social media sites. We’re seeing more evidence that media companies should consider visitor frequency and loyalty as a key indicator for success, especially if their ultimate goal involves any sort of reader revenue or subscription.
What does your data on visitors by referral channel mean for publishers?
The trends for returning visitors by referral channel can help publishers better evaluate audience development strategies for those channels. The role of audience development balances audience acquisition with audience retention: developing each step from content discovery, to familiarity, to loyalty. If reader loyalty is a big goal, are you actually spending your time on the right channels? It’s a major shift for publishers that have really seen scale or new audience growth to think about what they need to be doing differently to move those new audiences toward subscriptions or retention.
For example, there are a lot of negative feelings towards Facebook because of the sense that readers there are controlled by the algorithm (among other issues the company has). However, one bright spot is that people coming to your site from Facebook might actually be pretty loyal. Maybe it means their network tends to share a lot from the same sources. Thinking about that aspect of it could change your approach to how you craft your social distribution strategy.
What was your most surprising finding?
There was a lot of focus on single-session visitors and bounce rates for a long time, and so I think the fact that across the board, visitors have a pretty even amount of pages per session regardless of source was surprising.
This also highlights how important the loyalty aspect is. If people don’t “binge-read” news, and since your content is a part of an increasingly diverse diet of information and ways to get it, then focusing on getting people to trust your brand and come back again and again becomes the critical difference between success and failure. We’ve seen a big interest and focus in successful newsletter programs in the past few years, and I think this data supports why those are good investments.
How can publishers strategically respond to this data?
Responding to any data study usually first requires assessing where you fit within it. Do you already consider loyalty in any of your metrics, or is it a brand-new context for you? I think there are probably lots of newsrooms that may want to start to get a sense of where they could look at loyalty more, whether that’s in a specific team dedicated to subscriptions or more broadly across the newsroom.
Assessing your own site data against some of these trends will highlight where you have a unique audience. Aggregate information doesn’t imply that these are the numbers you should need to or want to match, but they do give a sense of comparison to work from. Do you have many of your returning visitors coming from surprising sources that don’t match the network trends? That’s great. Your next step should be to see what kind of content is working for that particular audience, and how you can replicate that or double down on it.
In what ways can publishers better examine their own audience patterns?
I hope that this data can shed some light on where to prioritize audience development efforts. If one platform drives loads of single-session, single-view visitors, that doesn’t mean it’s not worthwhile. In fact, it means it’s a great platform for discovery. Where can you help your readers discover more content? Where can you engage with them more frequently? Stop trying to conquer the entire internet, and start thinking about what your readers need, and where those needs are being met.
The best organizations I’ve seen do this make looking at audience data and finding patterns part of their routines. Whether that’s daily meetings that include reviewing how the posts from the previous day did, weekly check-ins with editors about sections that track against goals, or monthly high-level summaries. Understanding your audience is everyone’s responsibility, and these kind of insights can be your “lingua franca.”
Once that’s the standard, you have the ability and hopefully the capacity to try more creative projects or initiatives. You’ll understand the baseline well enough to be able to judge which efforts are most likely to be successful. Ultimately, you want to be inspired by the audience data so that you can provide new and exciting moments for them to engage with you.