On websites, not all visitors are the same

I was asked the other day how I would help an organization grow its web audience. 

I immediately told them to go look at their analytics. Not all web visitors are equal, and you have to figure out which ones are more important to you.

Then I stole a few ideas from a  Columbia School of Journalism study that exhorted news publishers to have a deeper sense of their audience. In it, they interviewed Matt Shanahan from Scout Analytics, which helps firms deal with audiences in the digital world. 

Shanahan provides the example of an East Coast newspaper with a circulation of 90,000. He began breaking down their digital visitors and found the newspaper had a group of natural "fans" -- those who come to their site at least two times per week. (The average person visits news sites far less regularly than you'd think.) The "fans" only make up, maybe, four percent of the newspaper's total visitors, but they create more than half of the newspaper's page counts, Shanahan found.

I told the group that all audiences are different, but if you start to segment your audience by how often they visit the site, you need to engage these fans -- and quickly. Per Shanahan's example, "fans" create 143 page views per person.  

Next are the regulars, Shanahan said, those people who visit once or twice a week. These people make up about three percent of the total visitors, but create 8.5 percent of the page views. This may not sound like a lot, but it breaks down to ~30 page views per person. 

As we slide down the scale of popularity, tracking and weighing visitors gets tricky. These people generally make up a higher share of the audience, but they aren't very reliable visitors. For example, the "occasionals," good for about two visits per month, make up 17 percent of the paper's viewers, but they only make up 16 percent of the page views, about 10 per person. Finally we have the "fly bys" who come to the  site once a month and make a whopping 75 percent of the paper's visitors. Problem is they only account for nearly three page views per person. 

In traditional engagement, many newspapers wrongly target this group by blanketing the site with generic advertising hoping to catch everyone. Yet all users are not equal.  For example, during baseball season, I check out my home state's largest paper to follow my team, the Milwaukee Brewers. I know I only have 10 visits per month (per machine) before being forced to purchase a monthly subscription. But the paper can't figure out that I only visit the sports page and create a category for those who do the same. (Perhaps there are not many of us. But the the paper does create extra incentives for fans of the Green Bay Packers.)

Web publisers need to look at site visit rates to better engage with people who actually want to be at the site. 

Remember, I said, each site is different. But what you have to do is segment your visitors into categories like this: 

  • How often they return to your site. 
  • How much total page views on your site? 
  • How many page views per person?

Shanahan would also say to investigate at how long these people stay on your site. If you can segment your visitors by site visit lengths, you may find some other groups to engage. (The study quoted a 2010 Pew Report that found the average visitor to a news site spends just over three minutes per visit. "No one keeps visitors very long," the report concluded.) 

The bottom line, I told the group, (appropriating from Shanahan), is to have better relationships with your fans. You can also reach out to your regulars to see if they would accept a higher level of engagement. 

Photo: Shining by Frédéric BISSON