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Does it pay to challenge prevailing wisdom? Ask the Mirror

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Rupert Murdoch is stepping off a tall building and is asking the rest of us to join him. So said Matt Kelly, Associate Editor of the Daily Mirror, about Murdoch’s commitment to construct paywalls across his sites. Kelly was talking at a panel he and I were on at this week’s 2015 Newsroom conference in Prague. Yet going by what Kelly subsequently said, the Mirror appears to be taking a similar – if perhaps slightly less suicidal – step into the unknown.

Newspapers should stop judging their online success by their number of unique users and by their page rank for stories on Google, Kelly argued. Focusing on these gives a false impression of the importance of their content to the audience. Even though the unique user figures of many papers now resemble financial bailout numbers – slightly under 30 million uniques at the Mail and the Guardian, for example – these figures have not translated into income.

This is because, if you break them down, you see that the vast majority are promiscuous and occasional users. Most people come to the site maybe once or twice a month, stay to look at a couple of stories and then go. The site is only a destination for about a third of its users. Another third come via Google and the final third from referrals.

With this amount of passing traffic it’s no great surprise that it’s difficult to monetize. Advertisers are skeptical enough about whether people take any notice of ads on sites – and if those ads are targeted at a mass, undifferentiated audience then it’s no wonder it’s considered to be of low value.

This is why the Mirror, following part of Jeff Jarvis’ now famous dictum – ‘do what you do best’ – has launched two entirely new sites based on some of the most popular and sticky elements of its content. 3AM.co.uk is a celebrity gossip and fashion website based on the highly successful double page spread in the print paper (though sharing almost no content). MirrorFootball is, as it sounds, a football site based around the Mirror’s extensive archive of stories and pictures (20 million photographs in its archive – 300,000 of which have so far been digitized).

Each of these sites deliberately ignores current measures of success. They are not ‘search engine optimized’ (SEO). They do not, in other words, construct the headlines and first paragraphs such that people searching under specific keywords will find them first. In the case of 3AM the sections are about intriguing readers rather than search engine robots (the tabs are, in order: Ooh…, Gasp!, Grrr!, Phwoar!, TeeHee!).

Kelly argues that these sites will develop a real relationship with their audience. They will not need great SEO because they will be destinations. Already, he says, 90% of the people coming to 3AM come to the site directly, rather than through search or referrals. And, once there, people read an average of seven stories, rather than the traditional one or two. Kelly was reluctant to give out any specific audience figures yet.

This deeper relationship – with a much more focused audience – will, the Mirror believes, create much richer revenue opportunities. It will be easier to sell premium advertising because the Mirror will know more about the audience and their behavior. They will be able to sell unique merchandise – particularly in the case of Mirror Football thanks to the archive. And they can sell tickets to exclusive events.

But will this strategy – to build a destination more analagous to a television channel than a traditional news website – work? I’d say 3AM has a decent chance of success but am much less sure about Mirror Football.

3AM is about access – access to celebrities, to gossip, to parties and to nightclubs. Going to the site is like being part of a club. And interest in one part of the club (Peaches Geldof, say) is not mutually exclusive with interest in another (Mischa Barton). Exclusivity is consistent with this and therefore in its favour. One can see how, if the Mirror’s smart, it can extend the brand into events, fashion and spin-offs.

It will be harder to monetise Mirror Football. Though the Mirror has a tremendous football archive it does not have exclusive access to football clubs, or to footage. For this reason alone it is hard to see why it would be a primary destination above the site of the football club itself. Most football fans will have greater affinity to their club than to news organisations that cover their club.

Then there is the conscious decision not to adopt the second half of Jeff Jarvis’ dictum – ‘and link to the rest’. The Mirror will not, Kelly said, make it a policy to link to lots of other sites, but try to keep them on its own as long as possible. Again, this flies against some conventional wisdom about the link economy.

But both strategies – 3AM and Mirror Football – are consistent with the move towards specialization. For many commercial news organizations this is a natural step. Find what you’re good at, where you have a competitive advantage and where you see a focused audience, and focus on that. It’s a strategy very familiar to the consumer magazine industry.

Of course this further accentuates the bigger question – what happens to the general news? – but that’s for a separate discussion.

Certainly, the Mirror has made a brave decision that ought to be watched carefully by its competitors.

See also Greenslade blog, ‘Mirror’s website supremo: forget unique users and build a loyal audience instead

Written by Martin Moore

October 2nd, 2009 at 8:09 am

Posted in Uncategorized

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