Worthless readers

Tweet: Worthless readers. And what to do about Murdoch et al’s whining about them.

One response publishers make to my argument that Google drives value to them and their content in the link economy is that the readers Google sends are worthless.

Worthless readers. WIliam Randolph Hearst, Joseph Pulitzer, Joseph Medill, Katherine Graham, and C.P. Scott are rolling (with pained laughter) in their graves. Since when did readers become worthless? Since when did a newspaper have enough readers?

“We can’t monetize those readers,” the hapless publishers whine. What’s the problem with these readers? “They read just one article and then leave,” is one complaint. “We can’t sell enough ads,” is another. And how is that Google’s fault?

No, this is the publishers’ failure and fault, not Google’s. Only the publishers can fix it. That they would rather complain than try is only evidence that they have given up on growth, on optimism, on the future. Rupert Murdoch and his son, James, have said they would rather shrink to more valuable (read: paying) customers, but then James has also said that News Corp. is no longer a news company but a TV company. It’s one matter to get rid of readers who cost too much because your trucks drive too far to deliver newspapers to them or you bribe them too often with bingo/wingo or sneakerphones to get them to subscribe. But online, more readers costs you nothing but bandwidth, which keeps on costing less. So Murdoch pere et fils have surrendered.

I choose not to. I say there is plenty they could do:

1. Relevance. Publishers should provide more relevant links and content to satisfy and serve these readers. I learned at About.com, where I consulted, that the most effective means of driving more traffic into the site, rather than away, was relevant links. Readers may come via search but may not find what they are looking for, so offer them more. If someone came to your restaurant for the crab cakes, wouldn’t you also offer slaw?

2. Context. I want to suggest abandoning the article for the constantly updated topic page (a la Wave). The problem with an article online is that it has a short half life and gathers few links and little ongoing attention and thus Googlejuice. It’s for this reason that Google’s Marissa Mayer has been advising publishers to move past the article to the topic. Abandoning the article for some living, breathing news beast yet to be defined may be a bit too radical for today’s publishers. So instead, I suggest, at least place the article into a space with broader context – archives, quotes, photos, links, discussion, wikified knowledge about the topic, feeds of updates; make the article a gateway to anything more you’d want on its subjects. Daylife (where I’m a partner) is working on something like that.

3. Sell. When someone comes in from search without a cookie attached, you know this person is not a regular reader. Yet you give her the same page you give to your constant readers. What you should do, instead, is sell the wonders of your site. Show off your best and most popular stuff. I’ve heard and used the phrase “every page a home page” for years, but I’ve never seen a publisher mean it, except for Stockholm’s Aftonbladet. Go to the site, click on most any store, and scroll down and you will find the entire home page replicated. Insane? Like a Swede.

4. Sell ads. OK, so this search-driven reader may not be local and so you can’t serve an ad for the hospital up the street. What sites do instead is place remnant network ads there at terribly low CPMs; that is why they complain about the value of readers who come from Google, Drudge, et al. But Dave Morgan’s Tacoda solved – at least until it was swallowed up by AOL [pardon me, Aol.] – by using data points across sites to maximize the value of ads served (e.g., someone who visits a travel site is served a high-CPM travel ad even after leaving and going to a harder-to-target local site). I’ve been arguing for reverse syndication as a means of maximizing ad value and even suggested that papers should link together to sell their national inventory (oh, that’s right, they tried to in the New Century Network but couldn’t get their act together … surprise!).

5. Kill commodity news and cost. Focus. Part of the problem is that papers carry commodity content that draws audience – via search – that is hard to target with local advertising. That commodity content also costs money to produce. A key imperative of the link economy is that one must specialize – to draw the “right” audience and to find the efficiency that comes from doing what you do best and linking to the rest. The better job a paper does focusing, the more it can create appropriate content to attract appropriate audience and advertising and the more economically it can operate.

6. Stop whining. It’s unbecoming. It makes you look weak and wimpy as if you have no strategy and no control over your vision and have just given up on adapting to new realities and growing by finding new audience and building a future but only plan to milk the last drops out of your dying business. Or maybe that’s all true.

: See Danny Sulllivan, who beat me to writing this post.

This is round two against Google. In round one, some publishers said Google steals our content. Google’s response was that it sends them millions of visitors for free. So in round two, it’s time to make out like those visitors aren’t worth much. That’s especially important if you’re an executive who, after floating the idea of dropping Google, comes under attack as stupidly cutting your own throat.

Me, I see visitors as opportunities. This is the internet, where you can tell far more about a visitor to your web site than you can in print. . . .

Do something. Anything. Please. Survive. But there’s one thing you shouldn’t do. Blame others for sending you visitors and not figuring out how to make money off of them.

See also Umair Haque: “Blocking Google is about as smart as eating a pound of plutonium.”

: On Twitter, Steven Johnson asks: “unless they’re “worth less” than the cost of serving the page, what’s the harm since Google delivers them for free?”

  • Bridget Williams

    What Rupert also doesn’t seem to understand is that these one article viewers are crucial to delivering on high-value ad campaigns. The loyal user is great but often ad campaigns have tight frequency caps in place and these one hit wonders are essential in fulfilling the contracted impressions. If remnant ads are being served than this is moot obviously. Also, there are companies out there, ShortTail Media being one (disclosure:I used to work there) that specialize in serving high cpm ads (video) on readers coming from search engines. I have a sneaking suspicion the ad ops people know better than anyone how bad things would be without google.

    • Correct on frequency caps. And as I say, there are means such as Tacoda to raise value.

  • Eric Gauvin

    I can’t see how what you call “the link economy” is anything more than just saying “website traffic is good,” which is an obvious characteristic of the web. I agree that website traffic is good, but in practical terms, what new ways do you propose news organizations make money from this increased traffic? Yes you have some spreadsheets that paint a picture of lots of small, low-overhead, online news organizations making $200,000 (as Murdoch pointed out, that’s not real money). Yes Leo Laporte makes 1.2 million with his low overhead operation. Both of these examples use the current business model (selling advertising), just with low overhead. Sounds like you’re just saying the that news organizations should do pretty much what they have been doing but with lower overhead.

    • Eric, I say all the time that cost is part of this equation. Old, monopoly newsrooms won’t survive in their old cost structure. This is why we forecast the ecosystem of many smaller, more specialized players. So, yes, lowering cost, as I saw, is a critical element of the new P&L. That is done through specialization – repeat after me: do what you do best and link to the rest – and also through collaboration in networks.

  • Thanks for this great summary. I fully agree with You on all topics and try to agitate my fellow Russian publishers to change: both the brains and the products.
    On the other hand, being asked about Murdoch’s anti-GOOG-mania lately, I used some additional points:
    – calling publishers to join paywall is something comparable with a French noble calling other duces, counts and viscounts to revert the results of the Great Revolution; Murdoch realised he’s loosing last feudal powers with people choosing what they want (and how, and when, and in what context) – and behaves exactly like those in 19th century who tried to turn history downside up. But in fact, he already lost. The battle is over. There is no army on the opposite side of a field – they won when publishers (and Murdoch) were somewhere else. People have control – and they choose free.
    – The only real problem that exists, is a legal one. Since internet is global and copyright isn’t (due to differences of rights management by various countries), all web-content business operates in the paralegal area. Yes, you can make Hulu “closed” for non-Americans, but you cannot stop torrents and videohubs. Copyright violations (from a conservative legal point of view) makes this business tragically fragile. Murdoch does adress that but NewsCorp is less exposed to the problem than others (they generally operate at law-obiding markets).
    Anyway, thanks again.
    I will listen to what publishers will say at WAN World Newspaper Congress in India that starts Monday – is interesting to compare what they think in mass.

  • I have a problem with #5. Some of the “commodity news” like wars and presidential coverage and so on, truly needs a diversity of coverage (read: many smart people following and watching closely, meaning they need the time and $$ to do it well. You can’t do this from a laptop with thousands of people linking around in circles to the same, fewer stories). Coverage is emerging, I know, but I worry because you really can’t make money on commodity news.

    Agree wholeheartedly with the rest. Remember Miracle on 34th Street? Macy’s Santa sent customers to other stores to find what they need/want. Imagine if those other stores rejected those folks because it was Macy’s Santa recommended they head over to there?

    Maybe news publishers could consider the changing world the Miracle on Google Street.

    • You’re conflating two things, I think: commodity news, which simply repeats what we already know from sources that do it better (e.g., am I going to read about the Afghan war at NYT.com or at my local Gannett paper’s site?) vs. let’s call it broccoli news (coverage of that war, which has no endemic advertising, now that Hummer’s gone…). That may be the spot where publicly supported journalism has a role. Though I think that the few who did it well can get sufficient attention to make it worthwhile – see my argument about reverse syndication and supporting journalism at its source.

  • This sounds a little skewed. The “readers” that are in question are not really readers — its traffic that doesn’t convert. A lot of media publishers and internet sites talk about this — that search drives a lot of traffic, but not necessarily people who stay on the site or come back. It’s not anybody’s fault – it’s the organic nature of what the user is doing. I can’t see anything wrong with pointing out the obvious — search is not capable of being the sole tool in building an audience. It’s just one part of many things sites need to do.

    Every point above assumes that every user performs the same and it isn’t true. Not everybody behaves the same in the online world. It’s a mistake to assume so. People engage online differently by age, demographic, where and when they access, etc. — all of this is what needs to be looked at and taken into consideration for each individual site. Not everybody engages this way, I can tell you that for sure.

    What print media needs to do is focus on building a real, viable audience, not just traffic. There are many strategies to do this, and all should be tied tightly to what is appropriate for the audience. It’s really very simple!

    • Eric Gauvin

      I nominate Patricia as the new jeff jarvis.

    • If traffic doesn’t convert, its the site’s fault…period. Maybe the better question is what constitutes a conversion? An ad click? A “subscription”? A return visit? Maybe we need to revisit the goals associated with getting traffic to the site.

      There’s a bigger problem here as well, one that lies at the very heart of how we use the Internet. Our use of the web is migrating away from sites as a destination toward sites as a source to be aggregated into our hyper-personal stream. As that happens, relying on on-site ads to generate revenue will be a big time fail… because we won’t be going to the site…. unless…. there is a compelling reason to visit the site.

      As much as I enjoy Jeff’s posts, I usually only visit the site when I want to comment. Otherwise, I read the posts in Google reader. In the case of news, I actually prefer Yahoo! news. To the extent I can get all the info I need from the Yahoo page, I won’t go to the source… and here I can understand Murdoch’s problem. Of course his solution is crazy, but…

      Short of finding a way to monetize the aggregated content, the real solution to the news problem has to include added value. What is the added value the reader receives by reading the content on “my” site? If I can’t create value, what claim do I have to the loyalty of the readers? Its kind of like running off the cab driver that’s bringing all the customers to your store, because the customers won’t buy once they’re in the door. Who’s fault is that?

      Bottom line, create compelling content and add value to the reader’s experience… and quit whining… its annoying.


  • Patricia,
    Making more of that traffic convert is precisely what this post is about. It won’t happen on its own. Whining won’t make it happen. That’s my point.
    I’m not saying that search is the sole tool. But rejecting it as a tool is suicidal and wasteful.

    • Eric Gauvin

      “Making more of that traffic…”
      Now we’re getting somewhere.

      • As silly as it seems to me to call any reader worthless, we do have to recognize the problem of diminishing returns. At some point, a publisher has to look at ROI when deciding where to put the effort. And as a very small town publisher whose online content can’t be found anywhere else, I can tell you Google’s contribution to our traffic is close to imperceptible.
        And yet, our kind of focused, hyperlocal news seems to be what the web pundits are recommending for the survival of news, at the same time they say it should all remain free. It’s illogical and contradictory; the numbers don’t support it under any current model I’ve seen, unless you count the ones where we become the online catalogues, skimming a little off each of our ad customers’ transactions.
        That’s IT! Leave Google alone, newspapers; let’s all attack Amazon instead!

      • Andy Freeman

        > And yet, our kind of focused, hyperlocal news seems to be what the web pundits are recommending for the survival of news, at the same time they say it should all remain free.

        I don’t know about “the web pundits”, but Jarvis has never said that all news should be free. He has pointed out that a lot of news is competing with free, which is a very different thing.

        Jarvis is all about monetizing as much as possible in different circumstances. He points out that what works in one circumstance won’t necessarily work in another.

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  • Renaud

    Interesting article… Yes, this advice would certainly help online newspapers reduce the bounce rate of readers from Google.
    I guess what infuriates newspapers is that Google has gained the distribution power over their commoditized/free content. They are feeling a loss of control, like P&G facing Wal-Mart.

  • Look more at eye track studies. Consider more what John Battelle says about the database of intentions.

    Web traffic is mostly intention-driven traffic. It’s pull. Not push. People arrive at a Web page with a specific intention, of their own volition, and depending on the user, the topic, and circumstances of the visit, the intention can be broadly defined, or very narrowly defined. But it is a voluntarily expression of intention. The more narrow the focus of intention, the less effective is anything (ad, link, text, graphic, etc.) outside of that focus.

    The idea that you can convert every reader — or even a sizable portion — who comes to your site through a single link into a valuable reader is Push Media, Packaged Goods Media, Old Media thinking. It isn’t Web thinking.

    Not every lookie-lou, to use Steve Yelvington’s phrase, is convertible into anything of value. Most are not.

    They come to a Web page with a specific intention — to read that article they found through search or through an aggregator — and focus intently (re: eye track studies, which have been done specifically on article pages) on that article. It would make more sense, in fact, to use cookies to serve those people nothing but the article (no ads, no other links, nothing to suck up more bandwidth*) — meet their intention and let them move on. They are never, ever coming back under any circumstances. (here’s a WWGD for you: Look at how Google News serves up Associated Press stories — nothing on the page but the story, which is an intelligent way to meet reader inention — in fact, look at WWGD on every page it serves: There is nothing on a Google page that doesn’t meet the user’s intention for that page).

    UNLESS, unless, the reader discovers the site meets some criteria for their broader intentions, like say they live in Batavia but never found The Batavian before and some deep link helps them discover the site. Now they might go to the home page and bookmark it, grab the RSS feed or otherwise add it to their daily news gathering intentions. But if the visitor is from Boston and has no interest in Batavia, NY, there is NOTHING The Batavian can do to convert that visitor into anything of value.

    And ad networks aren’t the appropriate answer for every site. There are strategic decisions that go beyond picking up every penny you can. Ad Networks can be very destructive to appropriate site branding and positioning.

    These dynamics of Web publishing are something that few people understand, even those who tout themselves as Web gurus, but neither is it understood by the majority of newspaper publishers.

    • One more: I our new business models for news at CUNY, we essentially argue that an ecosystem and network of Batavians will replace some portion of what the old, commodified, one-size-fits-all newspaper and site delivered. Those new sites will be targeted and far more efficient. So there will be less traffic gone astray (if that’s where any traffic truly goes) to commodity news (e.g., AP stories) that are hard to target (aka monetize). As a metro paper morphs into such an ecosystem, there will be fewer disconnects and misconnects. You won’t get those Boston readers. But if you have the big murder story in Batavia, the Boston Post-Globe should send audience to you and should sell advertising related to that audience (which it knows), improving your revenue at the Post-Globe’s efficiency. That’s what I’m writing about behind the reverse-syndication link above. It’s another web dynamic.

    • Ericka

      Could you post some citations to the eye tracking research that you refer to here? I’d like to look into this. Thanks.

      • Sorry to be lazy in not providing links, but the eye track studies are easily found via Google.

  • Howard,
    I agree. It’s hubris to calculate “converting” every reader to follow our desires!
    But my point is that there is more value to be had in the ways I outline.
    Often, our article isn’t the answer they want and if we intuit their intent – as Google itself does with search queries – then we can serve them better and a better served reader is going to be better for business.
    We can find richer ways to sell advertising that is worth more: see Tacoda, not cheap-shit, dancing-monkey ad networks. Networks need not be cootie-filled loser-lands. We have to work on that.
    We can assume that some number will discover and like what we have and so we should at least try to sell those who went to be sold.
    I doubt that many people outside Batavia would have much reason to come to the Batavian because it is so well focused and targeted and does not traffic in commodity news, demonstrating my very point.
    (See there, I just complimented you again, Howard. Can we have this discussion without you leaving veiled insults for me? I’ve run a few local sites and learned a few things about “these dynamics of Web publishing” myself.)

  • I like your intervention, Howard. And I learned from it. I also recommended it on Twitter. You moved the ball forward. Good comment thread behavior!

    One part I don’t understand. It’s this: “The idea that you can convert every reader — or even a sizable portion — who comes to your site through a single link into a valuable reader is Push Media, Packaged Goods Media, Old Media thinking…”

    It’s the convert every reader part. Where does that word “every” even come from? Who said, who could be deluded or besotted enough to believe, that every reader could be converted by…. well, by anything? Jeff’s post is clearly about “things publishers could do to engage more users. Your comment was clearly saying, “it’s not that simple, Jeff,” which is fair. But why do we get whisked away from the probability distribution–in which certain outcomes are more likely, less likely, and unlikely–to the categorical land of “every” and “not every?”

    I really don’t understand that style of disagreement.

  • Howard’s right about the bulk of those incoming links in most markets. I can only look to my own Internet habits to see that I go to stories every week that I pick up from a Facebook or Twitter link or in a blog and I never go back. And at the daily where I work now, when some quirky/funky story goes viral, most of that traffic is a one-time hit. Referring to them as “worthless readers,” however just smacks of bitterness and completely sidesteps the mission and service that the media company is there to provide to anyone who can read.

    But the “UNLESS” part of Howard’s comment is a very important piece. Particularly in daily markets there is an ever increasing number of people who are NOT going to the home page of their local news outlet. A daily in Massachusetts may not nab a new reader from Iowa after they click on that link about man who choked on his Thanksgiving turkey, , but I have to believe there are a ton of local people who are potential repeats.

    Personally, if I find I’ve been sent to a site with good content a couple of times, I look to see if I can follow them on Twitter or Facebook (or whatever I may be using a year from now). If I can, then I DO find myself going back there time and time again. You’ve now created a follower out of me by A) Consistently providing good content and B) Delivering it on my terms (the vehicle in which I want to receive it).

    Also important to mention: If you begin overloading me with links on Facebook and Twitter, I disconnect.

  • Jeff, not every insult is hurled at you. The web world is teaming with people who fall into the “all links are good” camp. They all drive me crazy.

    It’s good to know that you recognize and appreciate the strategy behind The Batavian. I do appreciate that.

    That said, the narrow focus of The Batavian is exactly what more newspaper publishers should be striving for with their online endeavors. Your prescription really applies to a narrow sliver of larger daily newspapers. The vast majority need to do a better job of tightly focusing on the intention-driven nature of their local readers.

    In that strategy, Tacoda is just as damaging as punching monkeys. Tacoda has no place in a hyperlocal ad strategy.

    Much of what you espouse would not be cheap to initiate, and that calls into question the ROI, especially for smaller sites. There are techniques and processes that local publishers could focus on for a lot less investment and much greater return.

    There are circumstances where the strategy you outline is appropriate and even grand, but where I focus most of my strategic thinking is on very local markets where I see no realistic way to turn drive-by traffic into anything of value.

    • Howard,
      Apples and pears.
      I’m writing about the big publishers who whine. Tacoda has value for them. I then say that there will be an ecosystem of Batavians. I’m not saying that Tacoda is for you. I’m not writing about a hyperlocal site here though you know I believe in them as a foundational part of the new ecosystem.

  • Jay, I have a bad habit of making categorical statements. Read the above to whatever degree you want to temporize it. When I re-read it myself, before reading your comment, I thought, “there I go again, being categorical.”

  • Dermitt

    What a country. It doesn’t matter if you are a million dollar athlete, the president or the Queen of England. Nobody can buy a better newspaper than you or I can for half a dollar. They’ve been charging more and selling less newspapers these days. When I delivered, the paper was a free community paper. We locked in 100% of the readers and made the money with the ads. You could argue that the paper was worthless. The internet may make free local papers more viable again. I don’t mind paying 50 cents for a paper. A 25 cent paper would sell more copies in my estimation. The larger national scope papers are $1.00-$2.00 and dead on arrival. The paid weekly was 25 cents a week way back when. It made good money for years with a circulation in the thousands. Now you need millions of readers all in order to lose a lot of money, so blame Google I guess.

    “BRIAN MANN: The newspaper business is, sort of, like King Kong perched on top of the Empire State Building and those little airplanes buzzing around Kong’s head are the Internet and cable TV and blogs and podcasts. For 20 years, says John Sturm, president of the Newspaper Association of America, they’ve been chipping away at the circulation and the cultural influence of the big urban daily.”

    I read that the Angling times has a circulation of 67,000 and does fine. Writing fish stories it appears is worth printing. That’s a wrap. An all fishing weekly newspaper might just prove profitable. Google can’t find fish or other perch.

  • “I learned at About.com, where I consulted, that the most effective means of driving more traffic into the site, rather than away, was relevant links.”

    Isn’t it kind of strange to hold up About.com as a sight that attracts and keeps readers when you’ve previously said that 80% of its visitors come from search? That would seem to indicate that readers do not return to About.com, which certainly fits with my anecdotal knowledge. In fact, once bitten by an About.com site, most people go out of their way to avoid them.

    On top of this, About.com’s main goal is to get readers to click on expensive ads so that it earns money. In fact, they have thousands, maybe tens of thousands of pages that are just ads, designed purely to cause confusion and clicks.

    About.com owes its success to date to figuring out search and the web and “SEO” earlier than everyone else but it’s unlikely it will be around in its present form much longer. And it’s certainly not a model for others to follow.

    As for the “topic” theory of news, that sounds well and good, and yes topic pages are good for some subjects but, in the end, daily news is fleeting and it’s different from encyclopedic articles even those about breaking stories.

    Even if Wikipedia sometimes does a better job at synthesizing and aggregating a breaking news story than news organizations, it uses the reporting of news organizations to do this. Take a look, for example, at its new Climategate page. It’s a good synthesis of the type that news organizations aren’t doing, but its drawing on the actual reporting done by journalists as well as writing by scientists and experts.

    Also, as a news junkie, I’ve always found Wikipedia’s breaking news coverage too slow. It reminds me of a newsweekly — too little, too late.

    Also, what Howard and Patricia said.

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  • Jeff

    Here’s where market forces should be fascinating. Murdoch’s got more money than any of us weighing in here, and he’s had success. I am amazed how the web has both expanded the reach of news and diluted it’s value for news brands. How often do we see amazing scoops anymore? Exclusives and truly original reportage have a place and value. I’m not sure it’s behind a “pay wall,” but let’s trust the law of supply and demand in our free-market economy. We’ll know soon enough if there’s a consumer appetite.

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  • Gregg

    What about ad blockers?

    Jeff’s and other’s entire model is based on the premise that people will always choose to receive the ads. Digital information is inherently filterable according to a browser user’s preferences as long as users have control over their browser instead of the browser controlling them. What happens when the majority, or even a sizable minority, of users decide they don’t want to see the ads that can be filtered?

    Yes, you can enmesh the ads more confusingly into the media, but this is costly and forgoes the use of distributed ad network markets. If you’ve ever listened to Eben Moglen he talks about the probability of more people choosing not to see the ads by installing ad blockers on their browsers.

    As long as people have the freedom to control their computers, they don’t have to see the ads if they don’t want to. I think eventually most people won’t want to.

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