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Appreciating (and counting) loyal readers

As news publishers struggle mightily to find a sustainable financial model, here’s one theme that I see gaining traction: Loyal audience is more important than mass audience.

The editor of Slate, a well-known national site in a news magazine format, said recently in a talk that a possible path to financial success for Slate rests not with the 7 million unique monthly visitors to its website but with about 500,000 loyal readers who want quality, long-form journalism.

MinnPost shares this strategic belief in the power of a loyal, engaged audience. Loyal readers are prospective members. They are ambassadors for our work, in person and online. They are the people whom our advertisers and sponsors want to communicate with, on our website and at events. They add content to the site through their comments, news tips, and Community Voices articles.

It is easy to lose sight of this more engaged audience, because of the most-quoted measures of traffic on the Internet: unique monthly visitors and page views. A unique monthly visitor is one web address visiting a site at least once during a month. Page views represent the total number of pages opened by all these visitors on all their visits. 

But on most websites, ours included, the vast majority of unique visitors are passersby. They come through a search or a link from a blog, and they visit the site precisely once, usually for a quick glance at one page. In many cases, if you ask them 30 seconds later which site they just linked to, they won’t remember. It would be folly for us to build a business plan around consumers like that.  

(In fact, the passerby phenomenon, driven by Internet search and linking, is a major factor in why online advertising revenue doesn’t come close to replacing what newspaper publishers are losing in print: There are simply too many page views, too much inventory, chasing too few advertisers, so online advertising rates stay low.)

One traffic-measuring site I like is Quantcast, where the public can compare results among websites.  The numbers are accurate only for sites that, like MinnPost, agree to be quantified — i.e. give Quantcast access to their data. According to Quantcast, 168,000 different people visited MinnPost during the past month (as measured on Oct. 28). This is a somewhat smaller number than unique visitors, because Quantcast aims to count a person only once even if he or she visits from, say, both office and home.

About 71% of these visitors to MinnPost in the past month were passersby, Quantcast reports, and they accounted for 32% of the visits to the site. Another 29% of the visitors are called “regulars,” which means they visited the site at least twice but fewer than 30 times, and they accounted for 51% of the visits. Finally, there are the addicts — fewer than 1% of MinnPost’s visitors — who visited at least 30 times each and together accounted for 17% of the visits.

In other words, about 48,000 repeat visitors accounted for 68% of the 385,000 visits Quantcast measured to our site last month. These repeat visitors account for a much higher percentage of our total page views, since we know from our internal data that repeat visitors look at more pages per visit.

Based on other data we have, I’d guess that about half of these repeat visitors come to our site at least four times a month. Those 25,000 or so readers are our true regulars. Many of them engage with us in other ways: they sign up for our daily email (about 6,000), or our weekly Greater Minnesota email (2,800) or follow us on Twitter (about 4,700) or Facebook (1,100), or they are registered to comment on our stories (about 4,700). Then there are those who help our site succeed financially by donating — more than 1,500 annual members and a couple of hundred other donors, and the more than 600 people who attended our annual benefit, MinnRoast, in April.

Our challenge is to increase the numbers of people engaging regularly with MinnPost and to engage them even more. We welcome ideas on how to do this.

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