What does “traffic” mean?

As heard from Martin Nisenholtz at the OMMA Global conference last week, Twitter drives 10 percent of the New York Times’ traffic.

What does this mean?  Is it 10 percent of page views?  Unique visitors?  Visits?  Page views per visit?  Visits per unique visitor?

Nisenholtz, the senior VP of the NYT’s digital operations, reportedly said that the NYT’s Twitter account has 1.8 million followers and growing.

OK.  That’s a nice big number.  But it doesn’t tell you anything about whether any of those followers – or anyone who got to the site through Twitter – really engaged with the site.  How many followers go to the NYT site?  How often?

I have no doubt Twitter is an important source of traffic – however it’s defined – for the NYT and other news sites.  Let’s take the time to dig deeper so we really understand Twitter’s impact.

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.

Count “active” users, not totals

It’s tempting to measure success by the total number of unique visitors.  Total UVs, total registered users, total paid subscribers – they are all nice, round numbers bandied and crowed about in the newsroom and in the media, just like circulation.

Circulation (or readership) and the circulation penetration (the percent of the households reached) are the correct success metrics for mass media print, partly because they’re drivers behind advertising decisions.

Online is a niche, interactive medium.  It’s far more important to measure the number of active users – however you define “active” – and what those active users did or didn’t do.

As Neil Mason in ClickZ writes, measuring only total users is “a case of be careful what you measure, because what you measure is what you get.

“Because the business was focused on measuring registrations, the drive was to generate as many registered users as possible, irrespective of
the quality of those registrations and whether they were likely to actually do anything valuable on the site.”

Totals do no harm.  But they don’t tell you what you need to retain your audiences and attract new ones.

Seattle’s “resurgent” audiences

I'm not convinced that the Seattle Times' 30 percent increase in print circulation, as reported by the New York Times, is cause for much optimism.

First, the increase comes from former Post-Intelligencer subscribers.  These are dyed-in-the-wool newspaper people.  We love them, but they are not new audiences.

Secondly, increases in advertising revenue no longer neatly correlate with print circulation increases.  Even when the economy picks up, I doubt that The Times will get a substantial ad revenue bump from either rate increases or new advertisers. 

Advertisers are reaching their customers in new ways; the old business models just don't apply.  The costs of providing the print edition – newsprint, ink, delivery – for 365 days a year to 30 percent more subscribers aren't covered by subscription revenue, and are now unlikely to be covered by advertising. 

The New York Times article points out that SeattlePI.com seems to have "kept most of the reader traffic it had as a newspaper site."  Also, past Seattle Times and P-I staffers have started a number of local news sites.

The audiences for news in Seattle haven't grown.  They've just shifted, from print P-I to print Seattle Times, and, increasingly, from print to online.

Traffic spikes aren’t always good news

Here’s a good point about interpreting high traffic spikes.  It’s from Google’s Brett Crosby, as reported by Online Media Daily.

If you get a sudden bump in visits due to a breaking news event, don’t celebrate until you look at the time of day of the spikes, the timing of your competitor’s posts, and your bounce rates.

Your competitor might have posted before you did.  And if your competitor had better coverage, your bounce rate would probably reflect it.

Then, use attitudinal research to gauge whether the traffic spikes led to building audiences in the long run.  For example, you can survey people to see whether they think your site “always has the latest news about [a topic] before anyone else.”

Be sure to include a healthy sample of non-users and light users in your surveys.  It will be more time-consuming and expensive – and perhaps painful.  But listening only to your current users through online pop-up surveys won’t give you the insight you need to grow online audiences.

The essential categories for “news”

I really like the new simplified structure of The Washington Post’s mobile site, as reported by Online Media Daily.

Mobile’s size really forces publishers to really parse news into the most essential categories, the fewer the better.  For the Post, those categories are:  top stories; politics; business; metro; arts & living; sports; and a going out guide.

More importantly, these categories are simple words.  Unlike  newspaper section names, they are instantly understood.

First there was WAG, now there’s CPW…

….and don't forget about ROO.  I love using WAG ("wild-assed guess") instead of bad data, and now I have another metric to recommend:  CPW, or "cost per whatever." 

In his iMedia Connection blog, David Smith of Mediasmith lays claim to coining CPW, saying that "We all know (or should know) by now that CPC is dead.
Clickthrough rates, once the hallmark metric of Web success, have proven to be
irrelevant and it is time we moved on."

In other words, measure what really defines success or ROO -  "return on objective," not Kanga and Roo. 

WAG, CPW and ROO are all really useful, and, as Smith points out, these terms prompt "a little smile when someone first hears it.  And any analytics conversation can use that."

A vote for using ratios rather than numbers

"The value of advertising online ought to be measured more by
engagement than by sheer numbers, that is, more by metrics like time
spent or page views per user than by the sheer number of people coming
to the site, many of whom may not assign any value to the journalists
who generated the content.

"Indeed, as we hear more about “freemium” (mixed paid and free)
models, publishers and editors ought to be thinking about who their
most engaged readers are and what characteristics they share."

— From "Yes, News Sites Are Facing A Crisis, But Aggregators Aren't The Problem," by Bill Grueskin, Columbia University, in paidContent.org

Nielsen vs. comScore and the problem with panels

Here's an excellent analysis of the differences between Nielsen and comScore from Wall Street Journal "Numbers Guy" Carl Bialik, who explains numbers better than anyone.

Nielsen and comScore are fighting to be the primary provider of web traffic counts, the currency currently used to make decisions on many things from advertising to market valuations.

However, both companies use panels.  "One concern about online panels, as mentioned in the past, is that those who volunteer may not be representative of Internet users as a whole," Bialik reports.

Nielsen just increased the size of the panel and comScore is starting to incorporate self-reported traffic from publishers. 

Regardless, neither company – or any other third-party vendor – will ever be able to provide the detail needed for internal strategic planning and decision-making.