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March 30, 2010, 2:56 p.m.

A “reader affection” formula: Gawker creates a metric for branded traffic

Influence, engagement, impact: For goals that are, in journalism, kind of the whole point, they’re notoriously difficult to quantify. How do you measure, measure a year, and so on.

Turns out, though, that Gawker Media, over the past few years, has been attempting to do just that. Denton and Crew, we learned in a much-retweeted post this morning, have been “quietly tending” a metric both more nebulous and more significant than pageviews, uniques, and the other more traditional ways of impact-assessment: They’ve been measuring branded traffic — or, as the post in question delightfully puts it, “recurring reader affection.” The metric comes from a simple compound: direct type-in visits plus branded search queries in Google Analytics.

In other words, Gawker Media is bifurcating its visitors in its evaluation of them, splitting them into two groups: the occasional audience, you might call it, and the core audience. And it’s banking on the latter. “New visitors are only really valuable if they become regulars,” Denton pointed out in a tweet this morning. (That lines up with Denton’s recent pushing of unique visits over pageviews as a performance metric.)

The goal — as it is for so many things in journalism these days — is to leverage the depth against the breadth. As the post puts it:

While distributing content across the web is essential for attracting the interest of Internet passersby, courting these wanderers, massaging them into occasional visitors, and finally gaining their affection as daily readers is far more important. This core audience — borne of a compounding of word of mouth, search referrals, article recommendations, and successive enjoyed visits that result in regular readership — drives our rich site cultures and premium advertising products.

I spoke with Erin Pettigrew, Gawker Media’s head of marketing and advertising operations — and the author of the post in question — over gChat to learn more about the outlet’s branded-traffic metric.

“The idea came from a few places,” she told me.

First, for so long we concerned ourselves with reach and becoming a significant enough web population such that advertisers would move us into their consideration set for marketing spend. Now that we have attained a certain level of reach and that spend consideration, we’re looking for additional ways to differentiate ourselves against other publisher populations. So branded traffic helps to illuminate our readership’s quality over its quantity, a nuanced benefit over many of the more broadly reaching sites on the web.

Secondly, there’s a myth, especially in advertising, that frequency of visitation is wasteful to ad spend. As far as premium content sites and brand marketers go, however, that myth is untrue. So, the ‘branded traffic’ measure is part of a larger case we’re making that advertising to a core audience (who visits repeatedly) is extremely effective.

Another aspect of that case, she adds, is challenging assumptions about reader engagement. “The wisdom has been that the higher the frequency of ad exposures to a single visitor, the less effective a marketing message becomes to that visitor. To the contrary, the highly engaged reader is actually far more receptive to the publisher’s marketing messaging than the occasional passerby.

In other words: “Branded traffic is to a free website what a subscriber base is to a paid content site. The psychology behind the intent to visit and engage with the publisher brand in those two instances is very similar.”

The approach’s big x-factor — whether branded traffic will get buy-in, in every sense, from marketers — remains to be determined. “It’s something we’re just beginning to explore,” Pettigrew says. But marketers, she points out, “have always considered front door takeovers or roadblocks as one of the most coveted advertising placements on a publisher website. And they “intuitively understand that the publisher brand’s halo is brightest and strongest for a reader who comes through the front door seeking the publisher’s brand experience” — which is to say, they should realize the value of the core audience. “But we’ve yet to see a metric take hold across the industry that gets at a numerical understanding of this marketer intuition.”

POSTED     March 30, 2010, 2:56 p.m.
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