The year of the loyal reader

“The old way of thinking about experiences by device (e.g., desktop, tablet, phone, paper) has given way to thinking about experiences by type of user.”

By this time next year, readers are going to be so much happier.

Regular readers have endured some neglect as publishers have doggedly pursued scale and per-page monetization over the past several years. This year, the tide will turn decidedly in the other direction as publishers shift focus to understanding, nurturing, and growing their loyal core audience. By this time next year, the media companies poised to thrive in the digital landscape will have faster, cleaner user experiences that better prioritize the needs of their readers, especially their frequent visitors.


  • The end of easy, open social traffic growth. According to Digiday, top publishers have seen a 32 percent drop in referral traffic from Facebook since January. While the reasons for the drops are varied and opaque, they come on the heels of the creation of sites whose sole purpose was to game the Facebook News Feed algorithm.

    Newer platform plays, like Instant Articles, Apple News, and Snapchat, are invite-only, and those invites have been extended to partners who bring a strong editorial sensibility and pre-existing audience. Energy that was previously spent figuring out how to make content that “travels” by understanding algorithms is shifting towards pitching placements and partnerships to discerning editors and product people at platform companies. And not surprisingly, “I’ve figured out how to game your engagement metrics” is not a strong pitch.

  • The user interfaces in new distributed content apps are beautiful. They’re incredibly fast, generally well thought out, and absolutely lovable. They also place strict limits on the number and types of ads served. The challenge that publishers now face is how to deliver an experience that’s just as clean, fast, and beautiful to their most loyal readers on their own websites and in their own apps.
  • Adblockers are a problem, but they’re also a signal. When they install adblockers, readers (and writers) are telling us that the amount and intrusiveness of ads across the web is too much. Publishers and advertisers should respond by co-creating native content and display advertising that is impactful without being intrusive. Here, web publishers and display advertisers should take a cue from podcasters, who have struck this balance well for years.

    Increasingly, direct advertising sales will be predicated on the fact that the publisher knows their audience and has a durable connection with them. The publishers’ expertise in actually reaching that audience — which consists of much more than putting a banner ad in front of them — will be what creates value for the advertiser. And, for scale, well targeted programmatic advertising from major brands will continue to raise CPM floors at major publications while increasingly delivering advertising that’s relevant to readers. Combined, these trends will both focus and reduce the amount of advertising on any given page.

  • Experiences are now multiplying. Between distributed content and native apps, the old way of thinking about experiences by device (e.g., desktop, tablet, phone, paper) has given way to thinking about experiences by type of user. Readers seeing a publication for the first time through a Facebook link should get a different experience than people who visit every day and know who their favorite authors are. Previously, a responsive website was aimed at the median visitor; it assumed more knowledge than a first timer would have, and didn’t include everything that a diehard fan would want. Now, publications can design Instant Articles to make their overall brand as legible as possible, while designing their native apps around the needs of already-converted obsessive users. Everybody wins.
  • The rise of digital subscriptions and events. In a world ruled by monthly unique visitors, a reader’s first pageview in a month is vastly more valuable than her second. But as digital publishers add paid products for loyal readers, that calculus flips, and publishers can build a stronger and more sustainable business based on the depth of attachment that the core audience feels. As these products mature, so will the internal focus on loyalty and depth of engagement.

All these carrots and sticks are pushing publishers in the same direction: a virtuous cycle forcing improvements in user experience across publishers; an understanding that their truest asset is their loyal audience and the relationship they have with it; and a forward-looking belief that the best business models for media companies are the ones that are built on the depth of those relationships.

Dan Check is vice chairman of the Slate Group.