Looking for loyalty in all the right places

“We’ve come to realize that one-time visitors — effectively the one-night stands of the media world — provide little more than the cheap thrills of banner-ad dollars. And chasing comScore uniques isn’t very fulfilling. But a meaningful connection with our audience? That’s #relationshipgoals.”

It was right in front of us all along — it just wasn’t pageviews.

It’s almost 2018, we’re older and wiser, and we now yearn for some real commitment from the people we make journalism for. We’ve come to realize that one-time visitors — effectively the one-night stands of the media world — provide little more than the cheap thrills of banner-ad dollars. And chasing comScore uniques isn’t very fulfilling. But a meaningful connection with our audience? That’s #relationshipgoals. It has the potential to unlock a more stable business model.

So what does that connection look like? How do you measure it? Which metrics are better indicators of what’s working to cultivate and retain folks? What behaviors can show us who is the most loyal among our audience? And ultimately, how can we serve them better? That’s what we’re going to home in on next year.

In 2018, newsrooms across the country will be re-examining their analytics reports and searching for patterns that look beyond scale. Pageviews never should’ve been what we coveted most in the first place — look at the trust issues we’ve brought on in part because we chased those clicks. But we can change. Strategies that’ve been built around traffic are being dismantled.

This year, we’ve seen newsrooms make moves toward more mixed-revenue diets and launch nonprofit ventures. And while pageviews are still a top priority at metro newspapers that rely heavily on digital display advertising, editors like Irene McKisson at the Arizona Daily Star are experimenting with micro-niches.

McKisson launched an off-platform vertical for women, This is Tucson, which allows her team to sell sponsorships. Here she tracks users, their sessions, bounce rate, time on site, and compares new users to returning ones. The brand lives across platforms and because of that “social analytics are also way more important, because we aren’t as concerned with whether a user reached the website,” she explains.

To McKisson, a loyal reader is someone who visits “two or more pages per session with a bounce rate of less than 50 percent.” Other big indicators: downloading the app, signing up for push alerts through Facebook Messenger, attending an event, and “putting our sticker on a water bottle 😂,” she tells me over Slack.

Similarly, we watched The Washington Post launch The Lily, a publication that is able to tailor its journalism — and advertising — to a very specific group: millennial women. Both This Is Tucson and The Lily are casting a way smaller net by deciding to serve only a specific slice of the population. It’s interesting to see these newsrooms experiment with demography-oriented products — and we’ll be keeping a close eye on these projects for insights on audience growth and loyalty.

And here at Mother Jones, we’ve identified data projects that will hopefully set us on the path to identifying and serving our most loyal readers. We’re running experiments with new calls-to-action around our stickiest products: magazine subscription, newsletter signup, and membership. We’re defining what we consider to be high-value actions and looking to see if there are any measurable user behaviors that correlate to reveal a pattern we can harness.

Media currently doesn’t have super sophisticated ways to segment users and serve them different experiences — but we’re working on it. Imagine visiting a news site for the first time and rather than have it ask you for something right away, it waits until you get to know it a little better. Or, on the other end of spectrum, long-time readers and subscribers are spared the usual barrage of asks. This future isn’t far off.

But for now, let’s focus on figuring out what loyalty metrics for media are. How readers interact with our journalism is one major way audiences are telling us what they want.

We shouldn’t expect loyalty — we should earn it.

Julia B. Chan is director of audience for Mother Jones.

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