Total unique visitors and paid content

Because it’s easy to gather and it looks like circulation and readership, the number of monthly unique visitors continues to be a key indicator of online success for news orgs.  This is really dangerous, especially if used to develop news business models.

The total number of monthly UVs just doesn’t give any information about how engaged audiences are.  Let’s say you have 100 million monthly uniques, as paidContent.org reports the new Steve Brill Journalism Online venture is aiming for.

This number doesn’t tell you whether those 100 million of those visitors visited once or 10 times, or whether they went to one page or to 20.

You really need to know the level of engagement to sell online advertising.  And, you really need to know how engaged people are if your business model depends on paid subscribers or content.

According to paidContent.org, Journalism Online is counting on about 10 percent of its news affiliates’ audiences to pay for content.  Sounds like a realistic, reasonable number, right?

No, it’s faulty business logic.  Simply assuming a small percent of any total audience will do anything is really dangerous, and something that savvy entrepreneurs know or learn in Marketing 101.  “There are 100 million people living in this area of the U.S.  If I build a better mousetrap that costs $1, and if only 1 percent of those 100 million buy my mousetrap, I’ll have a million dollars!”

First, not all 100 million care about trapping mice.  Others won’t pay even $1 for it.  Still others don’t live near a store where they would be sold, and wouldn’t order it online or by other ways.

Estimating audiences is an art and a science.  Estimating the audiences for paid content involves more art than science, but I hope news orgs will start with understanding what online audiences want.  It doesn’t do much good to set these types of numbers based on what the news orgs need to desperately meet their revenue goals.

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