Think back just a few years ago. Chances are the way your viewers watched TV was fairly similar to the way they watch today. Sure, some syndicated shows have ended (think Oprah) and some tweaks to your newscasts have occurred (think StoryTeller). Ratings may have gone up a bit or perhaps down. The market has introduced Over the Top (OTT) options and projections of future disruption occur regularly. But all the existing research shows that people still watch TV pretty much the way they always have. And overall, today’s Television business is still quite similar to that of a few years ago.
Now think about your digital business. Has it changed much? Are users consuming information the way they did 4 years ago? Are they going to the same websites? Are they using the same devices? Have advertisers altered their budgets? And, if so, how have they changed?
If you’re a digital native, you already know the answers to these questions. Simply put, the digital landscape has changed drastically over the past few years. Keeping up with it is demanding.
I’ve put this paper together to document just how radically our digital business has changed and to help you understand its implications on your day-to-day efforts.
Before getting into the charts, graphs, and detail, let me make this easy for those of who you only want the top-line summary. Over the past 3-4 years, our digital business has changed in the following ways:
Content & Audience
- Social media, primarily Facebook, has become the primary source used by your digital consumers to first learn of your news coverage.
- There is an indication that when Facebook is used well, it attracts more new users to your site as users click to learn about the rest of the story.
- Usage of mobile devices such as smartphones and tablets has grown to the point where they now either match or exceed the desktop usage.
Sales & Commerce
- The growth of mobile and social has empowered people to shop in totally new ways. This has significant implications for small businesses and for your digital ad sales strategies.
- Real Time Bidding (RTB) platforms that have enabled audience extension capability are rapidly transitioning the ad buying dynamics. National advertisers buy an ever increasing share of their digital inventory through these trading desks and have rendered in-person sales teams less valuable (look at AOL’s recently announced changes). While the impact on local has been minimal to-date, the trend is likely to eventually impact our digital business.
- Small businesses are spending increasingly on non-advertising services.
It would take much more time to discuss the changes forecast over the next few years. We’ll leave that to another time. But, for now, the following pages look into the impact Facebook has had on our business.
How is the market changing?
Before looking at our own metrics, let’s look at the overall market. Let’s start with Facebook.
While other social media sites certainly receive their share of visitors, none comes close to the sheer volume of Facebook. It attracts almost 3x the number of visitors than its next closest rival. But if you look at the importance of social media sites in terms of how they refer traffic to publisher’s sites, Facebook dwarfs the other social media sites and has grown significantly over the past year.
If you want to read more on this topic, the following three are useful:
- More Ways to Drive Traffic to News and Publishing Sites
- How Facebook Is Changing the Way Its Users Consume Journalism
- Facebook Drives Massive New Surge of Traffic to Publishers
Mobile usage is growing rapidly. More and more devices are being sold, more uses for those devices are being introduced, and users are increasingly consuming content through them. A great story to learn more about this trend can be found here:
While RTB has not yet become a major demand-side request within the local media space, it is become ever more predominant in the national scene. However, its impact can be noticed as Audience Extension programs are now a more frequent components of local media packages. It would be much more difficult to sell Audience Extension at scale programs if they did not piggyback off existing RTB platforms. If you are confused about what RTB or one of its offshoots called Programmatic, take a look at these three articles:
- Over 90% of Buyers Using Programmatic
- Programmatic: Advertising’s ‘New Frontier’
- More Publishers Now Offering Audience Extension to Advertisers
According to a recent survey, 3/4ths of small and medium-sized businesses (SMBs) in North America say digital marketing is effective in attracting customers. While 37% planned to spend more on digital marketing, a lack of skill sets, budget and time is an impediment and challenge.
An October, 2014 Borrell Associates study noted that, “when it comes to what the typical local business spends on digital marketing, only 13% goes toward classic forms of online advertising such as banners, paid search or video. More than two-thirds of what they spend goes toward managing their digital media channels. The rest goes toward “promotions” — or all those creative activities such as contests, giveaways, coupons and two-for-one deals…”
A few other key take-aways about this segment:
- 50% of SMBs spend less than $300/month on internet marketing
- 32% say internet marketing is ‘very effective’ at attracting customers
- 64% of SMBs surveyed handle their internet marketing in-house
- 35% of SMBs are contacted every day by SEO agencies
And, to read further you can look at these stories:
- 37% of SMBs plan to spend more on internet marketing in 2015
- Most small business owners have still not adopted modern technology or new marketing techniques
How has our business changed?
The Facebook Effect
While we continue to push hard on mobile sales, digital services, audience extension, and other sales programs, the most significant change over the past year has been Facebook’s impact on our business. Three years ago we noticed an ever-increasing share of our traffic was originating from Facebook. We reacted by transitioning personal pages that served as our social presence into fan pages. We created fan pages for our personalities and reporters who agreed to our newly launched corporate social media policy. And, we created a training program that helped newsroom personnel understand the basics of social media and guided them on how to begin posting on Facebook and Twitter.
The impact of this effort has been profound.
Our Facebook followers have increased almost 300% over the past two years. We now have over 400,000 followers on Facebook.
When we began our social media efforts, we did not know how we’d monetize the traffic going to Facebook.com. Some markets attempted contests and others used Facebook as another outlet to distribute deals. We stayed committed to this social media growth strategy because we sensed that, somewhere down the road, a way to monetize the audience would appear.
Today we have proof that our intuition was correct. It now seems clear that the posts we have made on Facebook have not only resulted in more followers on that platform, but they have also translated into significant traffic back at our sites.
If you look at the traffic that has come to our sites over the past two years, the percentage that has clicked-over from Facebook has grown substantially. Look at the charts (with anonymized site information for public consumption) below.
Another trend we’ve uncovered by mining our Google analytics traffic data is that popular stories, when posted to Facebook with only a few facts, generate an enormous amount of traffic back to our website. For example, most of our top stories in January, 2015 garnered about 80-90% of its visits from users who click-over from Facebook.
To give you an idea about the magnitude of this finding, we looked at the top 25 stories from January, 2013 and compared how much of their traffic came from Facebook to that of January, 2015. One of our sites has built a very large following on Facebook and that audience accounted for 85% of the traffic that occurred with their top stories last month. All our sites have seen similar increases.
The chart below illustrates the amount of referral traffic that came from Facebook across each site’s top 25 stories.
And, keep in mind that our efforts around this initiative started less than three years ago. It took time to build the audience and to learn how to use the social platform to encourage more visits to our site. The number of additional impressions we now have to sell, is linked to the efforts we’ve placed against the social media channel. It might be helpful to use a few of the more popular stores that ran last month to demonstrate the Facebook impact.
A story in one of our markets regarding an unclaimed power-ball winner. The post that ran on Facebook included a headline and a graphic. It was viewed 111,000 times on Facebook by over 39,000 people. Great for Facebook! However, over 15% of those people clicked on this post to read more about it at our site. That, added to the traffic that visited the site directly, resulted in significant traffic for this story.
One other important factor to consider: When these stories include picture galleries, the corresponding page views increase substantially. Look at the chart below. It represents the percent of page views that occur when photo galleries are deployed:
The Mobile Impact
Our mobile business is also paralleling the larger, general trend and becoming a critical part of our digital business. Each of our sites has experienced a massive transition from a primarily desktop-viewed medium to one where mobile devices now represent about 50% of our usage.
Our apps launched in mid-2010 and the traffic coming from them has grown steadily. Close to half of our traffic is now from mobile devices.
Just as occurred with desktop a few years ago, Facebook referral traffic has just started growing on our mobile platforms. Just as it took some time to build the audience across the desktop platform, it is possible we’ll see the Facebook effect occur on mobile as well.
How to respond?
How sales teams and content producers respond to these trends is one of the key challenges in today’s media business. Since most of this paper has focused on social media, most of the points below deal with just that. Additional notes address the other major business areas.
Here are some general suggestions to help you maximize the changing consumer behaviors mentioned above:
- Social media is an important platform to expand the reach of your publishing efforts
- While Facebook is most effective today, do not ignore the power of the other platforms
- Keep social media posts brief, use pictures & videos, and encourage visits back to your site.
- Do not re-purpose posts. Think original posts crafted for the social media audience.
- Consider tools to make posting easier.
- Pay attention to your Facebook Insights data. It can help you figure out what is working.
- Train your staff on social media best practices.
- Become familiar with how to get your content seen in the Facebook news feed.
- Post when your audience is online so it does not get lost in the scroll.
- Take a fresh look at your mobile products. Are you organizing it simply? Is it easy for the user to find what she is interested in?
- Consider swapping in and out seasonal content.
- Keep in mind the growing prevalence of small screens for mobile users. Use headlines that can be read quickly.
- Long form video is probably harder to watch on a small screen. Shorter snippets work better.