Web Traffic For Newspapers Is Not The Holy Grail

Mar 24, 2009 by

It’s not the Holy Grail, and to be honest, a lot of web traffic is just plain useless.

I would argue overall newspaper traffic is of secondary importance, if  even that. Or to put it another way, what’s important is quality over quantity.

Too often proponents of free newspaper sites bow before the altar of Web Traffic Numbers and pontificate about their 10% growth in on-line readership. Bonuses are tied to increasing web traffic and revenue; with revenue tied to traffic in a vicious circle.

More traffic? We can increase on-line ad rates and save the day. It’s why newspaper web sites must be free, we must have the traffic. Not quite.

We’re forgetting a fundamental rule of journalism – what does it mean to me?  Me (the local advertiser), Me (the local reader). In reality, often times those big jumps in on-line readership are completely irrelevant to those two groups.

Case in point: I was working with a mid-size newspaper in the Heartland. One day we got a massive jump in on-line readership. I mean six-digits worth. And that carried over for a couple of days. All told, those couple of days were more than our entire on-line viewership for the month.

The reason? A story we ran got linked on The Drudge Report. The story? Someone found a severed penis at a car wash. Okay, so it turns out it wasn’t a human one, but rather a bull. But it was quite the story for a couple of days until that was resolved.

My point is that huge jump in traffic was of no use to our local readers or our local advertisers. The local grocery story wasn’t going to sell more food, the local tire store wasn’t going to sell more tires and so on.

Why? Because the vast majority of those viewers were from out of state, or even out of country.

When I ran newspapers, I cared about four things: my local advertisers, my local readers, my newspaper and my employees. Take care of the first two, the third is covered. Take care of the fourth, the first two are covered. And round and round.

Hey, it’s great to consistently increase web traffic. But it needs to be traffic that matters.

Web traffic for newspapers needs to focus on quality.  And quality for those that matter – their readers, their advertisers.

Getting page views from England or Australia or even another state doesn’t help a local advertiser. Advertisers care only – and should – about traffic that will help them sell their product. And that’s where newspapers need to focus their on-line efforts. Not on some overall number.

Bill Grueskin, former managing editor of WSJ.com, said pretty much the same thing in a guest post today over at Reflections of a Newsosaur. (Smart guy).

Quote: You see this error in the way online publishers gauge their traffic. They usually cite monthly unique users, but, in fact, I’ve always thought total time spent per user, or page views per visitor, were more meaningful metrics.

If a news site gets 250,000 new unique users thanks to a link on Drudge, and that generates exactly 250,000 page views, the value of that traffic is minimal. All it shows is that those readers are engaged with Drudge, not the news site.

Newspapers need to quit worrying about the overall traffic numbers and start zeroing in on their local numbers.And I think newspapers can/should start charging for an on-line subscription IF, 1.) they provide unique content for their readers, 2.) provide local traffic for local advertisers.

People will pay for something they really want provided they see the value. Advertisers won’t care if a site is paid or free provided they get the right traffic.

If the mantra is “local, local, local” then quit focusing – or even caring – about non-local traffic. Non-local traffic might be great for the ego, but it means diddly to the newspapers’ customers.

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