Anyone who has studied the metrics of the internet in any detail knows about the Big Lie: those big numbers of total users and page views that everyone relies on are practically meaningless.
More than half of website visitors stay for less than 15 seconds.
Three-fourths of users on the most important news sites in the U.S. visit only once or twice a month. How can you even consider them users?
Half of internet users in 26 countries are getting their news through social media rather than the originating news sites themselves, according to the Reuters Institute's Digital News Report 2016.
43 percent of social media users don't know where the stories they read originally appeared.
In other words, millions of clicks or millions of users are not an indication of trust in a particular news brand or loyalty to that brand. We need new metrics, better metrics.
So it was heartening to see this reality affirmed by of one of the leading lights of digital media innovation, Jon Slade of The Financial Times, in an interview with Ian Burrell (thanks to NiemanLab for the lead):
“I've seen data recently that says that of all the pages on the internet less than 1 percent of them are from newspapers – the vast majority of time spent is with social channels and they are always going to be much bigger than you are – so if you’re trying to play a game of scale then you’re going to lose.”
There are only a few international brands that have even a slight chance of competing with the likes of Facebook and Google for the digital advertising dollars that are based on the number of eyeballs delivered to specific ads.
Those companies have much better information on individual users than news publishers do of their own subscribers, so they can promise advertisers a much more accurate targeting of their messages: For example, women age 30-55 who have expressed an interest in luxury automobiles.
And the rates for those targeted ads are falling steadily as supply of pages exceeds demand.
But the good news is...
Despite all that, publishers can unlock value of their audience by focusing on loyal users.Kinsey Wilson, editor of innovation and strategy at Times, brought the point home at the International Symposium on Online Journalism when he mentioned that 90 percent of his publication's digital revenue comes from 10 percent of its users.
While only 1.5 percent of the digital users of the New York Times are paying subscribers, they are generating more than half the publication’s revenue.
Another reason to go for loyalty rather than big numbers is to differentiate your brand from all the noise that is out there. Credibility and trustworthiness matter in the long run. Maybe not in the short term, but over the long haul, yes. The importance of credibility to a digital publication's business model was part of my message in an interview granted to IJNet.
Ed Williams, CEO of the Edelman communications and marketing firm for Great Britain and Ireland, wrote in the Reuters report that the company's own research on public trust of specific brands shows that "when people trust a company, they buy their products, they pay a higher price over comparable products, and they recommend them to friends."
In other words, trust still matters, brands still matter, despite all the noise on the internet. Or perhaps because of it.
James Breiner is a former ICFJ Knight Fellow who launched and directed the Center for Digital Journalism at the University of Guadalajara. Visit his websites News Entrepreneurs and Periodismo Emprendedor en Iberoamérica.
Main image CC-licensed by Flickr via keso s.