Digital Publishing Reader Revenue Top Stories
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The engagement metrics publishers are using to grow traffic, subscription and ad revenue

The Post and Courier of Charleston, South Carolina grew its digital subscriptions by 250% (from 1,700 to 6,000) between 2017 to 2019, reports Digiday. It did so after shifting focus from pageviews to measuring time spent and engaged minutes. 

The importance of reliable engagement metrics is increasing across the publishing industry. The Financial Times uses an engagement score based on the mix of recency + frequency + volume as its North Star metric. 

The Wall Street Journal measures “active days”—the number of days a reader engages with content. The publisher’s “Habit Project” focuses on “16 different engagement opportunities” that make subscribers stay on the site longer

“When they cut away the not valuable”

These metrics are also evolving. Earlier, most publishers focused on pageviews and the number of unique users. Now many are giving more weightage to the time readers spend on individual pieces of content. 

This is also helping publishers modify their content and weed out underperformers to present a better overall experience for readers. 

Several publishers have, in fact, seen more value in reducing the amount of content they produce, to focus on a lesser number of in-depth and value added pieces. 

Whether a digital magazine publishes 100, 500, or 1,000 articles makes no difference (to the reader). It’s the quality and interest of the articles that matter instead. We see this clearly on YouTube, where the most popular YouTubers rarely post more than once or twice a day. Publishers look at this, do the analysis, and they discover that when they cut away the not valuable, nobody realizes that it is gone.

Thomas Baekdal, Media Analyst

For example, the Guardian cut the number of articles by a third over the last three years, because they were informing less than 1% of the entire audience, said Guardian’s Editor for Strategic Projects, Chris Moran at the News Impact Academy in 2019. The publisher got the data from its analytics tool Ophan. 

The move boosted its traffic from 23.4M monthly unique users in December 2018, to 25M in December 2019, according to Digiday. 

USA Today built a tool called Pressbox to show its journalists how their stories are doing based not just on pageviews but on “volume, engage time, and loyalty (return frequency).” 

When the publisher looked at the bottom half of content that was not performing well, it found that only 6% of their audience was reading it.

We could eliminate half of our journalism and our traffic really wouldn’t change—if we replaced it with nothing. What if we replaced that with content readers really wanted? We knew early on we didn’t just want it to be about pageviews…We are publishing 2.7% less monthly while the article pageviews have gone up.

Josh Awtry, Senior Director for News Strategy at USA Today Network

“We had to be relentlessly interesting”

Improved user engagement analysis has led to meaningful growth in subscribers, as well as ad revenue, for several publishers.

The Post and Courier, which grew its digital subscriptions by 250% in two years, uses to study user engagement. Stories that don’t have 500 unique visitors and at least 1.2 minutes of engaged time are reevaluated. These stories are checked for aspects that can be modified, for example, the way they are written, the headlines and keywords for search, among others. 

We have to prosecute the value of every single story every single day. 

Mitch Pugh, Executive Editor, The Post and Courier

If a certain type of story does not meet the minimum goals even after modifications, the newsroom stops doing them or changes its approach. This happened with crime briefs. The publisher found that its audience wasn’t reading routine crime stories. So instead of simply covering crime as they had done earlier, the newsroom started focusing on trends and solutions. 

“We had to be relentlessly interesting, and we weren’t. Maybe 20 to 30% of the stuff that we did could fall into that category.” Pugh told Poynter’s Kristen Hare.

Like the Guardian, The Post and Courier cut down the number of articles it published. Earlier, they were doing 50 to 65 stories a day. This was reduced to around 30 in-depth pieces. And that is not all, Pugh added, “we probably need to be more like 21—that’s what the data tells us.” 

The publisher also uses “Piano to target segments of readers, and Mather Listener for breaking audiences into segments of fly-bys, dabblers, enthusiasts and fanatics,” according to Hare. 

26% revenue growth

Engaged readers can also ensure better ad revenue. Publishers like Seattle Times and Ancient History Encyclopedia use Sovrn’s //Signal, an ad viewability product that allows them to monetize their site based on user engagement rather than impressions alone. 

//Signal tracks three different use metrics: engagement, ad viewability, and dwell time in order to determine when and how readers are active. It measures 45 distinct reader actions, including mouse movements and page scrolls, to determine where users are engaged.

When it hits a time vs. engagement threshold (generally 20-30 seconds, or as decided by the publisher), it sends a signal that serves new, always viewable advertisements within ad units that are 50%+ viewable. Each time an ad is reloaded, both revenue and viewability scores increase.

Ancient History Encyclopedia, the world’s most-read history encyclopedia, reported a 26% revenue growth after partnering with //Signal. 

Rob Schwertley, Manager, Programmatic Yield and Advertising Systems at Seattle Times, said “Reload powered by //Signal has provided us a way to gain incremental high-value, viewable impressions in a way that is not disruptive to our readers. This has translated to over $30,000 in additional revenue.”

Advertisers are also beginning to value deeply engaged readers more. As Michael Finnegan. President, Atlantic Media told Ken Doctor, President at Newsonomics earlier, “Our advertisers really aren’t as interested in those one-off, passerby users. When you’re doing a sponsored content play, the advertiser knows that it’s not going to get access to all 30M people. 

“And they don’t want access to all 30M people—they want access to the million viewers who are particularly engaged and influential.”

Disclosure: What’s New in Publishing is wholly owned by Sovrn Holdings, Inc.