How to Diminish Online Readership

Less isn’t more. Forcing people to register to read newspaper Web sites that simply shovel online generic content from printed editions will only diminish the number of people who will use those sites in an era when diminishing readership should be the last thing that any newspaper operation will do.

Those sites are using registration as Bandaids™ to cover their failed previous strategy of hoping that gross sales of banner ads would adequately subsidize their formerly gateless sites. Their thinking is that maybe advertisers will pay more for ads if given better demographic information about the sites’ users. That’s true in principle, but there nevertheless are two problems with this new strategy:

First, these sites’ core problem is infrequent use. Printed newspaper readership is steadily shrinking, but at least that readership reads long and frequently. A survey two years ago by the Readership Institute of the Media Management Center at Northwestern University reported that the average user of a printed newspaper in America reads the paper 3.4 times per week (14.7 times per month) and spend an average of 28.2 minutes doing so each time. By contrast, the average users of the average American newspaper’s Web site visits only 2 to 4 times per month and spends less than 35 minutes total there all month, according to Nielsen//Netratings and to ComScore Media Metrix.

The sites that are going force registration will ironically increase their average user statistics — but only by sifting out anyone who’s less than a fervent reader of the site. Imagine a newspaper company saying that it will only give a reader a printed copy if that user first identifies and provides some demographic information about himself!

The core problem is usage, not advertising demographic statistics. If usage were much more frequent and longer, advertisers would be attracted. According to the Forrester Reseach report News Destination Sites are Dead Ends, 49 percent of North American online consumers have never visited a newspaper Web site. If most newspaper sites force user registration, that percentage will grow worse.

Second, speaking of advertising demographics, is something that Jim Wilson recently noted in a response to a Poynter Institute E-Media Tidbits item about How to Appease Registration Opponents:

    Here’s why registration won’t ultimately work: because most newspaper websites won’t hire anyone to study the mounds of data that will be collected. If the data is not studied, parsed and then boiled down for use by salespeople to help make more money for the site, what GOOD does registration actually do? Very little. Some could argue it lets people get customized weather forecasts or movie showtimes. BIG DEAL. The reason we keep hearing for sites to do registration is to make money. How do you make more money with registration? You have sales people target specific advertisers based on user data. How do you figure out that data? You hire someone to analyze it. Someone please name me one newspaper site that has hired a full-time person (that is what it would take) to do this. PLEASE!!!

Our guess is that newspaper Web sites will at least use the gathered data to compile aggregate demographics about users, much as printed magazines and TV now do. Yet that’s a rather lame mass media advertising strategy for interactive media vehicles such as Web sites. The gathered data should be used individually to deliver to each user whatever stories and advertising fits that individual user (see above).

One thought on “How to Diminish Online Readership

  1. Um, I could name for Jim (and you) a certain collective of four newspaper-based and more than a dozen TV-based Web sites that has a team doing exactly what Jim describes: analyzing registration data to build custom targeting programs.

    That certain collective presented results of some of those campaigns in a session at NAA Connections this year. Of course, that same collective does a lot more than just shovel over print content behind the registration wall! :-)

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