Every online publisher wants more traffic, but what is it for?
Are newspapers, particularly local and regionals, that have for decades, even centuries, served their audiences with relevant, informative stories now in danger of abandoning much of these values in the hunt for ever bigger web stats?
This report from Holdthefrontpage (via the indomitable Grey Cardigan) showcases the problem well: a local newspaper putting a light-hearted inconsequential tale about firefighters freeing a woman with her "bum trapped in a wall" on the print editon front page because it was a viral hit online:
Just two weeks ago, it was a sombre tribute to mark the 70th anniversary of a wartime bombing which killed more than 100 people in a UK town.
And this week, the splash was a cartoon depicting the rescue of an unfortunate reveller who somehow managed to get her rear end stuck between pillars of a wall.
The East Grinstead Courier & Observer, part of the newly formed Local World (comprising Northcliffe and Illife) was impressed with the 6,388 unique visitors in 48 hours the story attracted, making the online article its most popular of the year so far. Requests from news agencies to licence the story came in from the UK and US.
News editor David Farbrother tells HTFP: "Those are huge figures for a newspaper like ours, and it seems the sort of figures advertisers take note of."
To give that some perspective, MailOnline attracted 13.6 million UK visitors in the last hour, according to its own live stats. To build genuine scale that can make a digital consumer advertising business model possible takes time and serious investment.
Is this an advertising opportunity?
Papers understandably enjoy being in the limelight. There are entire books dedicated to the weird and wonderful stories from local media that have gained wider attention. I collect amusing pictures of newspaper bills / sandwich boards on Facebook as do many people on Twitter. It now seems this extra audience is now actively sought after rather than an unexpected byproduct.
But is there a commercial point to going viral? Because it's difficult to sell surprise jumps in web traffic in advance, the extra audience from viral stories often goes to waste and is sold as low value remnant.
At a CPM rate of - let's guess - £0.50, the extra traffic that story would generate an extra £3 over two days.
And unsurprisingly, the web page has the ubiquitous, cheap and rather nasty "lose belly fat" and "1 strange tip for white teeth" that litter local and national newspaper sites, the kinds of ads that would struggle to find their way into a print edition.
The extra online marketing potential of such a story will attract more local readers to the website, but without wanting to criticise overworked and underpaid journalists, it's unclear whether that's the case here.
Grey Cardigan's excoriating recent piece on how local media bosses have "traded integrity for worthless web hits" is persuasive.
Quality and value will win
As Graham Ruddick once wrote on this site, any big metric should be greeted with "so what?" His conclusion 18 months ago is just as true now as then:
The point at which the whole process of online measurement lets publishers down is the measurement of value. Used individually the “big four” metrics – visits, pages, dwell time and unique users – are almost useless as indicators of value. They need to be combined with more subtle indicators, such as: bounce rate, return visitors and clicks per visit. Even then a true sense of value to the user is hard to discern. The real proof is in user actions – registrations, logins and payments.
Real value means creating content that your audience wants. That's the basic unwritten agreement between a media brand and its consumers. For local media brands, that means writing about a specific area for local people - not chasing page views from across the globe.
As Addiply founder and former regional sports journalist Rick Waghorn also wrote on TheMediaBriefing some time ago, local media brands need dedicated sales staff, to sell localalised packages and products to brands and advertisers, in print and online.
Whatever the regional press turns into and however its transition to online goes, the successful publishers will be the ones who focus commercial and editorial efforts on their real audience and real customers - local people.
Main image from epsos.de on Flickr via a Creative Commons licence