Audience Engagement Digital Publishing
5 mins read

How to define loyalty: A primer for publishers

Measure, understand and ‘read’ faithful readers

“Gone are the days of chasing traffic,” said Stat’s Rick Berke at Nieman Lab. To which we say, “Amen.” Now, while there will still be publications for whom traffic is an important indicator of ‘success’, there are other, more nuanced, ways to discern whether or not what you’re producing represents a good return on investment.

It’s hardly revelatory to say that quality content and successfully implementing reader revenue models go hand in hand. Content must deliver value to its readership, or that readership will scatter to the four winds faster than you can say ‘fake news’. So what should we be paying attention to, if not traffic and volume? Well, as Julia B. Chan noted last year: “It was right in front of us all along — it just wasn’t pageviews.” She’s right: it’s loyalty.

How do you measure loyalty, then?

Well, while there’s no industry standard, that hasn’t stopped publishers gravitating towards certain methodologies. Recency, frequency, and returning visitors are the commonly used methods of assessing reader loyalty – and it’s easy to see why. If a reader has visited your site this morning and tends to visit daily, those two measures combined represent a pretty good indication that they’ve formed a habit around your content. ‘Habitual’ is, after all, a word with exceedingly positive connotations for publishers when they’re studying reader behaviour.

As with all metrics, however, looking at each individually isn’t likely to be particularly insightful.

Loyalty beyond frequency

Loyalty as a concept spreads itself in several ways: it may be felt for the brand as a whole, but it may also express itself in a section, like the hugely successful crossword subscription at the New York Times. Or in individual authors. Renan Borelli’s excellent piece for Nieman Lab argues exactly this: that personal brands carry increasing weight. Or for an overriding political, geographical or ideological standpoint. In other words, there are complexities involved in getting to the bottom of what ‘loyal’ means because, at its core, it’s an emotive reaction to something, and emotional responses can be tricky to map through algorithms.

Defining the problem

Deep in our data bunker the most fearsome of our colleagues started working on a more rugged definition of loyalty. Recency and frequency are certainly steps in the right direction, but, within those two metrics, there are multiple ways to gather the information and process it.

If you calculate frequency, do you calculate it on session cookies or user-lifetime cookies and, if you do, what does it mean? How do you treat users who come several times during the day? Do you calculate them once, or every time they come? You have a bunch of different approaches just for frequency and also for recency. How do you combine them? What does it mean for you? It’s really difficult to explain and you need to know a lot about how it’s implemented and how it’s calculated to be able to know if that number works for you.

That’s a whole bunch of questions right there. What’s the solution?

A definitive definition

Our team settled on this: loyal users are ‘sequentially highly engaged’. What does that mean? A loyal user doesn’t just have to have visited the site recently. They don’t just come back time and time again. They don’t even just consume higher volumes of content than your average, random user. While all three of these things might be true, the behaviour must be shown to be habitual, not just current or frequent. To be specific: over the course of a 15-day period our ‘loyal user’ will have visited a site at least eight days out of those 15. This is a rolling parameter: look back over the past 15 days at any point and this must still hold true.

So loyalty is as much about sustaining a habit as it is about forming one.

Loyal behaviour, not loyal content

It’s critical, you see, that those loyal users have been identified first, before you even start thinking about assessing the content itself for signs of loyalty. After all, loyalty is a human behaviour, not a browser event. So, when people talk about single articles triggering ‘loyal behaviour’ it makes no sense. Articles by themselves can’t be indicators of loyalty. How loyal-defined users interact with a given piece of content, though? Well, that’s something that’s possible to ascertain.

The distinction may be subtle, but it’s vital: it’s not a single step process. Once you know how big your loyal audience is – say a certain 10 percent – then you’re in a position to start looking at how those users behave across the website. From here, you can drill down into articles or sections of the website, and start to ask the kinds of questions any sane human would ask: what were those loyal users doing in the article? How highly engaged were they with the piece? What was their read depth?

Always, always you’re asking those questions through the lens of your loyal user base, not through individual articles or sections. What you’re asking, therefore, is how loyal users interact with content on your website. Once you know this, it becomes easier to understand how to nurture this user base so they continue to stick around, and how it may be possible to emulate that kind of success elsewhere across your platform.

Loyalty pays

All of this information can feed back into discussions about growing this vital user base, ensuring that readers remain engaged with the product they’re presumably financially – and personally – invested in. Renan Borelli talks of a lifelong devotion to a particular sports writer, whom he and his father have followed from news outlet to news outlet over a 25-year span. That’s the kind of loyal following you can only dream of.

What is true is that loyalty is going to be something that only grows in importance as it becomes increasingly important to understand how and why readers start paying for news (and continue doing so). We’re not aware of a standardised definition across the industry yet, which is why we’re taking a deep breath and offering up ours to you. Use it wisely…

by Em Kuntze

Republished with kind permission of smartocto, the world’s most actionable editorial analytics system offering a bird’s-eye view on The Story Life Cycle©. 

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