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Media Analytics Data publishers are pursuing subscribers by shunning the 'elusive golden metric'


By John McCarthy, Opinion editor

July 25, 2019 | 8 min read

News brands are increasingly embracing tactics to drive subscription sales as the "elusive golden metric" — AKA the view — gets relegated, according to analysis from which has observed partner traffic for the last decade.

There was only a “small increase” in paid news subscribers globally between 2018 and 2019, according to a recent report from the Reuters Institute Digital News Report. The report said the news subscription market operates with a "winner takes all" dynamic benefiting only a few top titles. Few of the paying audience hold more than one subscription while a separate report from Comscore said 77% of UK millennials don't pay for news, illustrating that there is work to be done. works with 3,000 ‘high traffic sites’ and measures more than 10bn monthly page views across publishers like Bloomberg, The Wall Street Journal, and Spiegel.

From the trends, Kelsey Arendt, a senior data analyst at the analytics firm, said publishers should be looking to appease their most loyal readers rather than catering to the masses.

“Consider that only 3% of your audience actually subscribes, most are at the start of a very long user journey (awareness, engagement and then loyalty)."

Titles should put increasing emphasis on their “specific circle of friends” or most loyal readers. Taking aim at clickbait generated by quality titles, she said pieces written to attract a broader audience should never clash with the tastes and tone loyal readers further in the funnel are accustomed to.

She added: "Start with your ideal audience and subscribers and stoke that fire. This will create a much healthier feedback cycle.”

As a result, it is important for even the writers to know their audience. Arendt said: "It's not just the job of marketing, audience development or engagement teams to handle the data".

Internal Traffic

After the social media gold rush, publishers are again taking greater control of their IP, keen to circulate loyal readers in their own sites and apps. As a result, internal referrals now make up more than a third of the average site’s traffic. Direct referrals comprise 23% of traffic, the industry’s rally behind newsletters and subscriptions has buoyed this.

In 2018, 17% of visitors to partners returned at least twice a month. 13.7% came 2-5 times, 2.5% 6-15 times and 1.2% 16 times or more, showing how slim the margin of loyal readers is. Around 25-35% of the average site’s views were driven by returners. Brand building and quality content could fuel this mechanism better than the view-chasing grind adopted by many in the industry.

But against conventional wisdom, loyal readers don't read much more per session than new readers, according to the data. However, they are more likely to subscribe or pay for the product. The Wall Street Journal previously talked The Drum through its complex propensity system that converges editorial, marketing and data expertise to attract and appease readers.

“This is a user journey and it’s just as important in digital media now as it is in the marketing world," added Arendt. It echoes The opinion of Richard Beech, former editor of Joe and BuzzFeed who wrote last week that editors need to start thinking like marketers.

Facebook, Google and the 'others'

Marketers think in audience acquisition through platforms, for publishers, this means relying upon the duopoly.

BuzzFeed's boss suggested an industry-wide consolidation to get better terms from Google and Facebook. Channel 4 News’s editor, Ben de Pear described Facebook as “toxic” and accused it of paying “minuscule” revenues to news outlets. Channel 4 later launched shows exclusively on Facebook.

Meanwhile, rarely a week goes by when Google is not on the defensive. The Mail Online recently said a Google algorithm change immediately halved its traffic showing the cutting effect it can have.

Google dominates search still.


However, across search and social, traffic dominance flips between the tech giants.

At the start of 2014, Google referred 36% of traffic, whereas Facebook sat at 21%. In 2016, Facebook overtook Google (42% vs 39%). In 2019, Google's 47% again dwarfed Facebook's. This has created an industry-wide anxiety. The Drum recently looked at how this phenomenon plays out on Instagram.

“Only so much of this is in a publisher’s control so everybody loses their mind every time there's an algorithm change." Arendt encouraged a broader, more granular appraisal of readers. “Each platform will have its own quirky audiences.”

“Wrapping your brain around your entire audience is tough. To wrap your brain around specific audiences is even tougher. We want our data to be the truth and we treat numbers as if they are black and white - but they don’t always represent value and success. We have to recontextualize this and be okay with the messiness. Humans are messy, language is messy, so is audience behavioral data.”

There are dependable traffic drivers on the fringe.

25% of Smartnews, Flipboard and Twitter referrals were returning visitors, as opposed to a fifth of Facebook and Google News visitors. There is an opportunity to build loyal audiences or communities through these platforms.

Reddit, Pinterest, and LinkedIn sat at about 10% returners and Instagram, the ficklest platform sat at 5%. Arendt called it the “least reliable social platform” for driving traffic but wondered if it’s had enough attention from the right publishers. Previously The Drum wrote about how BuzzFeed is growing audiences and awareness on the platform with its @World account, it is surprisingly alone in delivering "hard news" on the platform.


The Future View

"There has been a very necessary and healthy mindset shift across media and marketing to instead get to know your audience better - rather than the spray and pray advertising of Facebook," she said.

The subscription goals of the industry will not be achieved by “casting a wide net on Facebook and just crossing your fingers... building loyalty and trust should be at the heart of what every writer and every marketer does."

And this coincides with a de-emphasis on the page view. Members are increasingly triangulating 'success' across growth, engagement and loyalty metrics.

“If you have growth but don't engage people, they'll never become loyal. If you have loyal readers but ignore the feedback cycle, you’ll churn customers. If you don't listen to your loyal customers, they’ll go elsewhere. Many organizations are focusing on triangulating success as opposed to choosing the elusive golden metric.”

Arendt warned that those glued to the view will “burn out very quickly or just rage quit". She concluded: “It took a massive industry shakeup for us to realize that, I'm grateful that it has created a lot of healthier habits around how weird, complex and quirky our audience and data is.”

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