April 1, 2014

Last year 46 million Web users visited New York magazine’s pop culture site, Vulture, for the first time. Of those, 7.6 million came back at least once. To use a term and concept that free news sites haven’t widely adopted, that’s a 17 percent conversion rate.

Because few media organizations without hard paywalls are focusing on what they can do to retain first-time visitors, it’s hard to put that number into context, said Michael Silberman, NYMag.com’s general manager. But he sees that 17 percent as a baseline from which Vulture can grow.

“I see tremendous value in that gap and in figuring out how to identify those among the 46 million who with the right nudge would be most likely to want to come back again,” Silberman told Poynter via phone. “And once you get them coming back one more time, they’re that much more likely to come back two more times, three more times.”

Vulture teamed with real-time analytics company Chartbeat to research what that “right nudge” might be — in other words, how the average return visitor’s experience with Vulture differed from the experience of a one-time visitor who never returned. What behaviors and factors predicted whether those first-time visitors became regular readers?

Chartbeat’s chief data scientist, Josh Schwartz, told Poynter via phone that the downside of data aggregated from multiple sites — as featured by CEO Tony Haile in a widely shared Time piece last month — is that “some of the good stuff gets scraped out.” Chartbeat is rarely able to release a targeted study like this one because most publishers consider the data proprietary, he said.

But Vulture and New York Media have a success story to tell: New York magazine and its digital properties were nominated for nine National Magazine Awards this year, most of anyone. NYMag.com and its spinoff sites saw more than 1 billion page views last year, and the company announced it would bolster its network of sites with more hires even more as it reduced the print magazine’s frequency to biweekly.

Among Chartbeat’s findings from looking at 30 days of Vulture web traffic:

Referral source matters when it comes to loyalty

NYMag.com itself drove the highest rate of return traffic to Vulture. So while Vulture and New York Media’s other sites — Daily Intelligencer, The Cut and Grub Street — have become strong brands on their own, the flagship site remains the most critical source of visits.

When it comes to external referrers, Vulture visitors who arrived via Twitter were 50 percent more likely to return than visitors who arrived via Facebook — and 100 percent more likely to return than visitors who arrived via Google.

In other words, Twitter drove more loyal readers to the site. Yet the size of Vulture’s Twitter-driven audience pales in comparison to the Facebook- and Google-driven audiences.

Does that indicate a failure to serve Facebook and Google users well enough that they convert into loyal readers? (Journalists are notoriously more Twitter-centric than their readers.) Or does it simply reflect differences in how readers behave and arrive at content on these different platforms?

More time users spend on Vulture, more likely they return

This one might seem obvious — of course those who spend time on a site are more likely to return to a site, because those who spend a significant amount of time on a site must have liked what they saw.

Yet it’s difficult for readers to decide whether they like a site if it’s difficult to discover content they might like. Keeping bounce rates low depends on discoverability, and Chartbeat found three primary factors that relate to depth of engagement and correlate with return visits:

  • New visitors who spent less than a minute on the first page had about a 1 in 20 chance of returning to Vulture over the 30 days Vulture tracked. But about 1 in 10 of those who spent three or more minutes on the first page returned. (Of course, the vast majority of readers didn’t spend that much time on the first page they visited.)
  • Longer sessions in terms of number of pages visited was also correlated with an increased propensity to return to Vulture, Chartbeat found.
  • First-time visitors were more likely to return if they reached the infinite scroll Latest News module at the bottom of stories.

Some loyal visitors return at predictable times of the day

Chartbeat found that some readers have specific habits, reading the site around the same time every night. Schwartz said those habits could correlate with when users are using specific devices; desktop users tend to use their computers at regular times of the day, whereas mobile usage is more sporadic and spread out.

That many of those who visit Vulture around 6 p.m. on Wednesdays tend to visit it at the same time on other days of the week leads to the potential for dayparting strategies. Silberman said Vulture has some natural dayparting because of the rhythm of the day and the type of content it creates. Consuming TV recaps, a key Vulture feature, is particularly habit-forming, he said.

Chartbeat will publish more details about its research into Vulture’s audience on its blog this week.

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Sam Kirkland is Poynter's digital media fellow, focusing on mobile and social media trends. Previously, he worked at the Chicago Sun-Times as a digital editor,…
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