Ahead on news
It’s a tumultuous time for news providers. Web-based content has meant younger news sites are drawing readers away from the established publications with traditionally loyal readers. The Internet doesn’t care for loyalty. Fighting to grab people’s attention requires compromise, but taking the time to assess your readers’ expectations will give you a competitive edge against your rivals. There’s never been such an opportunity to attract a new audience, says Marie Louise Dalton*.
One in every nine online visits is to news and media sites. This figure, from Hitwise’s News and Media Report, was up 11% from 2015 to 2016 due to many factors, however, the Presidential inauguration impacted traffic to news articles considerably. News consumption usually peaks in the evening, but a Trump story saw the rush to read come at any hour. This Trump effect reflects how people of all ages are today interested in the news and issues impacting society.
What is also clear is how people are choosing publications based on content, with little regard for brand loyalty. The report reveals the cross-pollination of conservative readers to liberal news sources (and vice versa) throughout Trump’s inauguration. For example, leftist publications, such as The Guardian and The Independent saw a rise in visits (with as much as 13% swing) from traditionally right-leaning tabloid audiences, who visit The Daily Mail and The Sun etc, comparing the month before and after the inauguration.
Similarly, Theresa May’s recent snap election announcement encouraged growth from both left publications, and right, top growth papers receiving audiences from each other - for example, there was a 15% gain in Independent readers from those who read The Mirror.
Publications must consider how their audiences constantly shift - reader behaviour is inconsistent across mediums, even for the same publications. News has become a constant tug-of-war – developing a content strategy aligned to what people are consuming will ensure you engage long-time readers, while hanging on to those who chance your way.
Online news is primarily search-led, with readers clicking through the most relevant result regardless of status or credibility. For a news outlet, search engines have become the place to net your target audience. By monitoring fast-moving organic search terms, you gain insight into what people are searching for and how they phrase queries. By hopping on this insight, news sites will attract a larger audience. Earlier this year, during the day of the state visit petition debate (20 Feb), articles referencing ‘Trump’ in the headline drove a dramatic shift in media consumption behaviours, compared to a usual day. Whereas the news agenda traditionally spikes at 6pm in the evening, articles were popular in multiple spikes throughout the day.
An online audience of the nation’s largest news sites represents practically every view. There’s no way to cater to everyone, yet there are clear trends at work. UK news consistently eclipses other topics, peaking around 5pm each a weekday and through the afternoons each weekend, when US news also sees a rise in attention. By tracking these hourly patterns across the competition and drilling down to the top-viewed articles, you can inform your own content strategy. Over the course of February 2017, Trump and Brexit accounted for five of the top 10 most-viewed articles on British news websites. It is important to be agile and responsive to breaking news, to capture market share by the hour.
On the other hand, subscription-based publications such as The Times face a different challenge. For them it is human interest stories which drive higher engagement, as audiences don’t rely so heavily on them for general news stories. Staying on top of the currents, however, is key to securing new registrations – the thirst for Trump controversy brought in 14% of all new Times subscribers in the final months of 2016.
How new a piece of content feels depends on the platform you’re reading it on. On the BBC, articles read on desktop or tablet browsers typically have a two-day shelf-life. Almost 75% of entertainment and UK-centric news is consumed on the day it is published, while by the second day US news is on top. On mobile, articles hardly last more than a day, with overseas news being particularly short-lived. By understanding device specific behaviours, content providers can ride this wave of engagement, adopting new angles to give a second wind to articles once they hit the end of their life.
The best route to engagement is breaking news – these stories can have readers returning over as many as three days – but they can’t be depended on for sustaining traffic. Knowing what attracts readers has been the key to success since long before the web came into being. With the move away from reader loyalty, news sites must make quick, trend-based decisions to tailor their content accordingly. To top a search ranking, it is vital to follow shifting demographics, competitors’ strategies, long-term trends and hourly statistics. The fickle nature of an online audience means it now takes a sophisticated toolset of real-time analysis to keep your head above the water.
* Marie Louise Dalton is managing director of Hitwise
The full News and Media Report from Hitwise can be downloaded here