Building a base of loyal readers

Numbers geek that I am, I keep trying to plumb the MinnPost.com traffic numbers that pour in by the hour, to better understand how we’re doing.

It has taken me a while, but I’ve come to realize that the numbers that get watched and reported on the most in the Internet world – unique monthly visitors and page views – do not tell us much.  In fact, they have great potential to mislead.

A much better measure for MinnPost is how many visitors come back often to the site – in other words, reader loyalty.   These are the visitors who create a community. I am happy to report that the loyalty of our readers is growing far faster than the number of unique visitors.

In October, 2008, MinnPost.com had about 180,000 unique visitors – in other words, users at about 180,000 different computers came to the site at least once. In April, that number was 200,000, for an increase of 11 percent.  But based on calculations on data from Google Analytics, the number of people who visited MinnPost.com three times or more rose from about 11,000 in October to 23,000 in April, more than doubling. The number who visited at least eight times in the month tripled, from about 4,500 to 13,500.

Unique monthly visitors is a remarkably volatile number for a site like ours, subject to huge spikes from a single story.  In March, for example, MinnPost.com jumped up to 408,000 uniques, because Eric Black’s article about investigate reporter Sy Hersh’s revelations during a talk at the University of Minnesota  brought more than 200,000 people to the site. The overwhelming majority of them came once, as a result of a search or a link from another site, and left after reading just the story they were led to, never to return (at least that month).  They came from around the country or beyond, and most likely have no ongoing interest in Minnesota or MinnPost.

(These one-time visitors also distort our page view numbers, though not quite as dramatically. What really distorts page views is the practice of some sites to auto-refresh, which creates new page views while you’re reading the same page.)

So while our April uniques were half what they were in that seemingly heady March, our loyal reader numbers actually were substantially higher in April.

Frankly, we’re not sure exactly why our reader loyalty has grown so rapidly. Nor are we sure yet how to keep that momentum, or how to capitalize on it to help us achieve our business goal: breaking even by 2012 on revenues from donations by individuals, advertising and sponsorship.  

But my intuition is that this growing reader loyalty is a very healthy sign. After all, regular readers are more likely prospects to join the roughly 1,500 households that have made tax-deductible donations to MinnPost.  And regular readers who live in and care about our community are clearly far more valuable to advertisers and sponsors than a one-time visitor from New York or New Zealand. (In fact, MinnPost does not show its local banner ads to readers outside the region, in order to ensure that advertisers are reaching people who might respond to their message.)

Have you increased the frequency of your visits to MinnPost.com? If so, we’d like you to tell us why. Which journalists or kinds of stories attract you? What might persuade you to visit even more often? You can comment on this article, or you can email me at jkramer [at] minnpost [dot] com.

Joel Kramer is CEO and editor of MinnPost.com. He can be reached at jkramer [at] minnpost [dot] com.

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Comments (15)

  1. Submitted by Robert Moffitt on 05/13/2009 - 10:42 am.

    That ad with the pistol is a little scary. Are you going to shoot us if we are not “loyal readers,” Joel? (grin)

  2. Submitted by Amanda Tempel on 05/13/2009 - 11:21 am.

    I wonder if it has anything to do with your twitter 2,962 followers & 927 facebook group members. Social networking & the viral sharing of site links can create loyal followers from those who just stumble along on their own. I believe it’s a community that builds loyalty & retention of readers.

  3. Submitted by Don Jacobson on 05/13/2009 - 11:50 am.

    I wonder how many of your recently acquired loyals can be traced to the University of MN (as in students). At the SJMC, MinnPost is more and more often in undergraduate class discussions.

  4. Submitted by Sheila Smith on 05/13/2009 - 12:33 pm.

    For me, it’s about good, solid journalism and the ever shrinking “major” papers. Besides, this is where all the good writers go when they get laid off elsewhere.

  5. Submitted by Thomas Olson on 05/13/2009 - 01:29 pm.

    Joel, Shiela Smith says it all. I’m wondering about the count for those of us who receive a daily e-mail. Am I correct in assuming that if I just scan the e-mail but don’t open an article that day that I don’t count as a “hit” but do count if I click to an article? I’d say that most days I read something but I never miss scanning your main page.

    T. Olson
    Las Cruces, NM

  6. Submitted by Justin Crum on 05/14/2009 - 10:47 am.

    I stopped reading the Strib a while ago, thanks to their awful online format and diminishing worthwhile content. Though I no longer live in MN (in Brooklyn, NY now), the local news is still important to me and you give the best analysis of it I can find. I’m an every day visitor, and as long as you keep the content varied and intelligent, I’ll keep coming back and sharing the word.

  7. Submitted by Pixie on 05/14/2009 - 02:32 pm.

    Ditto #4. Cannot remember how I first became aware of Minnpost — I think you had no more than 250 subscribers at that point — but I read you daily for substantive local information, credible summaries of ongoing issues, amusing writing, and a connection to what I care about in the TC community. I also like the graphics of the writers to the right of their columns. Keep growing!

  8. Submitted by Melissa Hansen on 05/15/2009 - 12:21 am.

    #4 and #6! Also, in the beginning I certainly saw this site as a launch pad for further reading elsewhere about local issues and I liked how you share what other media peers are reporting. I am a digital native who gave up television news in 2001 and gave up on the Strib when it appeared that they had more cutesy community bloggers than staffers. I really enjoy the community feel; I have randomly met and had great discussions with a few of your writers and readers. As a member who made a donation I feel more vested in the site and more valued than a customer competing with a 100 advertisers an issue.

  9. Anonymous Submitted by Anonymous on 05/15/2009 - 09:48 am.

    “As a member who made a donation I feel more vested in the site and more valued than a customer competing with a 100 advertisers an issue.”

    Joel, you’re going to find out what many of us in online publishing learned a long, long time ago: it’s next to impossible to monetize community. That marketing fad ended in 2002 or so.

  10. Submitted by rick plunkett on 05/15/2009 - 11:15 am.

    Eric’s and Jay’s articles on the Senate election avoid the “he said, she said” formulaic approach to balanced journalism, instead offering insight as news is reported. They are in depth enough to report on and analyze the actual issues, getting beyond the “count every vote” type of platitudes that are swallowed and regurgitated by other media.

  11. Submitted by Joel Kramer on 05/15/2009 - 11:30 am.

    It’s hard to monetize community, Kevin, but we’re doing it. We have more than 1,400 members, almost all of whom donate $50 or more (some give as much as $20,000), and at least another 100+ people who have donated cash in other ways. Individual donors, including through MinnRoast, account for hundreds of thousands of dollars of our annual revenue. It’s not enough yet to achieve sustainability, because journalism is expensive to create. And we have many thousands of dedicated regular readers who haven’t hit the donate button yet. But I’m hopeful: Minnesota Public Radio, after all, has more than 90,000 members.

  12. Submitted by Mary Ziegenhagen on 05/15/2009 - 02:12 pm.

    David and I may be representative of people who moved away from Minnesota and find MinnPost the best way to keep up with news “back home.” We especially appreciate David Brauer’s reporting and Cynthia Dizikes’, and Eric Black’s. Reviews of Guthrie plays help us decide what not-to-miss on our next visit “home.” For obits, we check the Strib’s site (David says, “twice a day.”)

    Acknowleding the need for, and your success at, fundraising, still I fretted over the “Roast” as I do similar gridiron dinners, only because the national media displays (flaunts actually) such jolly fellowship with elected officials. Who are they working for? I have to wonder. The recent Washington Correspondence Dinner exhibited a Precious Few Friends enjoying too much the company they keep.

    Meanwhile, we appreciate your giving us the news. Congratulations on a creative and successful nonprofit venture. Our contribution is on the way. Mary Ziegenhagen

  13. Anonymous Submitted by Anonymous on 05/15/2009 - 02:35 pm.

    Oh, don’t get me wrong — I’m rooting for you. But at some point you’ll need to decide between memberships and advertising, and you’ll need to address overhead. (Journalism isn’t _that_ expensive to create on the Web; the lovely thing about the web is that it renders most editors as being unnecessary. Your writers should be salaried; your editors should be gone or writing daily.) I am guessing you will hit the ceiling quickly with memberships because of your advertising as well. And I think the MPR comparison will only cause you grief as you lie awake at night crunching the numbers in your head: there’s no advertising on MPR, and there are many reasons — most unrelated to journalism — to become a member, like love of music or being a fan of the Current. Indeed, it would be an interesting experiment if you were to totally scrap advertising and instead make a blunt plea to your community. My original point had to do with the large marketers moving past the need to market to community.

  14. Submitted by Melissa Hansen on 05/15/2009 - 09:48 pm.

    MPR and TPT both have advertisers, in the way of corporate sponsors and other major donors who have more brief and concise attention between content. There is advertising on MinnPost in a similar way.

    I know nothing of the success and failure of online membership as a funding source, but I do know I have never paid to read the Strib. I have only read the free online content or a paper I found laying around. I have already found myself choosing to give to this site because I value it.

  15. Anonymous Submitted by Anonymous on 05/16/2009 - 06:56 pm.

    “MPR and TPT both have advertisers, in the way of corporate sponsors and other major donors who have more brief and concise attention between content.”

    I reject that completely because the folks who underwrite MPR programs have a completely different set of expectations than Walgreen’s does when they spend big bucks on a Sunday newspaper circular. They’re totally different beasts, which I am guessing Joel and crew have already deduced.

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