5 ways to turn traffic spikes from major news stories into return visits
Many news sites have seen traffic spikes this year following major news events. But as website editors are learning, just because readers come to a site once for news doesn't mean they're going to come back later.
The challenge is converting these one-time visitors into loyal readers who keep returning to you -- on whatever platform -- not just for major stories but for day-to-day news and information.
To learn more about what news sites are doing to capitalize on traffic spikes, I talked with editors at the Orlando Sentinel, msnbc.com and the Arizona Daily Star. Each site saw significant visitor increases due to the Casey Anthony trial, Osama bin Laden’s death and the Gabrielle Giffords shooting, respectively.
How to measure the value of traffic from major events
Page views and unique visitors are valuable metrics, but they don't measure the likelihood that readers will be returning visitors. Here are a few indicators that readers have committed to your content.
An increase in Twitter followers and/or Facebook fans. The Orlando Sentinel’s Casey Anthony Twitter account jumped from about 3,000 to nearly 40,000 during the trial, according to Digital Platform Manager John Cutter.
Similarly, Msnbc Digital Network Editor-in-Chief Jennifer Sizemore said that in the week following bin Laden's death, msnbc.com gained 2,500 Twitter followers and 22,000 new Facebook fans. That's more than a 10 percent gain overall on Facebook.
Msnbc.com's @BreakingNews Twitter feed gained about 30,000 followers on Twitter and 3,100 Facebook fans during that same time period. The Twitter account gained nearly 10,000 new followers both on May 3 and May 4 -- about double the average daily follow rate.
An increase in newsletter subscriptions. Online Editor John Bolton said that following the Giffords shooting, the Arizona Daily Star's site saw a 30 percent increase in email newsletter signups January through February.
If your site has a print publication, an increase in print subscribers. The Arizona Daily Star also saw an increase in print subscribers during the days and weeks following the Giffords shooting. (Audience Development Sales Manager Mark Lolwing said the paper was also running a discount promotion around the same time, which helped with the overall increase.)
An increase in mobile app downloads. OrlandoSentinel.com had been averaging about 700 downloads to its iPhone and android apps per week before the Casey Anthony trial started, Cutter said by phone. Once the trial started on May 24 through its end Tuesday, the site was averaging 1,000 to 1,500 downloads per week. Similarly, Sizemore said msnbc.com's mobile app downloads doubled in the two weeks following bin Laden's death.
Track readers' loyalty on Quantcast, Google Analytics. Quantcast is a good tool for understanding the percentage of a site’s users who are "addicts," "regulars," and "passersby." By Quantcast's definitions, addicts are the segment of a site's audience that have visited the site 30 or more times in one month. Regular users visit the site more than once a month but less than 30 times a month, while passersby only visit the site once a month.
Knowing the percentage of your site's addicts, regulars and passersby can give you some insight into the type of readers who are visiting your site, and you can see how that changes over time.
Another way to measure loyalty is to use Google Analytics' “Visitor Loyalty” feature, which shows the percentage of visitors who have come to a site throughout a given period and the number of times they've visited.
Tips for cultivating loyal readers
Developing strategies -- and re-evaluating them along the way -- will increase the likelihood that you'll see some of these results. Here are some tips to consider implementing so you'll be better positioned to take advantage of your site's next big traffic spike.
Make it easy for readers to follow your site on Twitter and Facebook. Having social sharing tools on your site is important; you want readers to tweet and post individual stories. You also want them to follow you on social networks. Those new followers and fans will be more aware of your content and more likely to share it with others, bringing in additional audience.
Put links to your social networking profiles on every article page. If you have specific Twitter accounts for breaking news topics, include a line at the end of those related stories that says, "For more updates on this story, follow us on Twitter." If you're posting updates to Facebook, do the same. Link to your Twitter and Facebook profiles so that people can easily access them.
If you create a separate account for an ongoing story -- as the Orlando Sentinel did with its Casey Anthony Twitter account -- include your site's main Twitter handle in the description for the account so the two are linked together. (So the description might read "Everything you want to know about the Casey Anthony case from @OrlandoSentinel.")
Make it easy for people to subscribe to email newsletters and RSS feeds. This will increase the chances of readers signing up -- and the likelihood that they'll click on the links in the newsletters and visit your site moving forward. Instead of just having a newsletter link on your home page, include it in each story page so that readers can easily find it.
OrlandoSentinel.com, for instance, has a “connect” box on its pages that enables readers to sign up for email newsletters and RSS feeds.
If you have newsletters for specific blogs or features, be sure those appear in the appropriate stories.
Showcase your mobile offerings. When readers download an app, they're actively acknowledging that they want to continue getting your site's content. Make it obvious how to download your site's app for more updates. Let readers know that they can download the app to get alerts about the story they're reading -- sports, business, breaking news, etc.
Give readers the option of signing up for text alerts. OrlandoSentinel.com has a "Sign up for text alerts" box on every article page. Cutter said more than 75,000 Sentinel subscribers were sent an alert announcing the "not guilty" verdict on Tuesday.
Provide readers with unique content they can't find elsewhere. To increase the chances of readers revisiting your site, provide them with content that will distinguish your site from all the other sites that are reporting on similar stories.
Msnbc.com found that this worked well following bin Laden's death.
"The gratifying thing that we’ve learned is that what causes readers to seek you out, to stick around, to share your stories is not a 'user experience' trick," Sizemore said via email. "It is unique, topical content. One of our most popular stories throughout the entire week was a tick-tock of how the raid unfolded, reported and written by investigative reporters Bill Dedman and Bob Windrem. The story just got richer and more detailed as the week went on, and people continued to return to it."
If readers come to your site through search, offer them a different sidebar. Often, news sites create sidebars with content that's related to the story at hand. OrlandoSentinel.com's Casey Anthony stories, for instance, have sidebars featuring content about the trial.
This can work well for readers who come to a site directly, Jim Brady said by phone. But for readers who come to a site through Google, Twitter, Facebook, it makes more sense to provide them with a sidebar featuring unrelated content.
"Selling the site to a first-time user is different than selling it to a loyal reader," Brady said. "The first-time reader needs to be sold on the site; the loyal reader does not."
No doubt, much of the traffic that news sites see during major news stories comes through search. During the Casey Anthony trial, about 53 percent of OrlandoSentinel.com’s traffic came from Google, Yahoo or Bing, Cutter said. That’s up from the 37 percent average in 2010.
“Search effectively works as a free wire service for all newspapers," Danny Sullivan, editor-in-chief of Search Engine Land, said via email. “Have a good story applicable beyond your natural audience, and you can effectively put it out on the search wire and tap into a broader audience.”
But for local news sites, a broader audience may not be the best measure of success. Brady pointed out that local advertisers are more likely to want to know about a site's local penetration than its recent spike in page views or unique visitors.
It's easy to "get addicted" to metrics, Brady said, but a site's success isn't all about the numbers. It's about cultivating loyal users -- and making that part of your goal.
“The truth is, if you do something viral you'll probably end up washing up a couple of people from your area, so it's not to say that anything viral is stupid," he said. "But before you know it, you find yourself doing stuff to get these big bursts of page views -- and you start to drift away from what your real mission is."