Stations: Encourage Web Viewers To Return

The rise of social media has accelerated it to the point where it cannot be ignored. In fact, we’re at the place where it’s safe to say that for traditional media companies, online distribution is referral-driven. Broadcasters' online strategies and tactics, therefore, need to be centered on this reality.

The vast majority of online consumers of news and information connect with content through what Google calls “referrals,” and in my experience and study, second place isn’t even close.

This phenomenon has been growing for years, but the rise of social media has accelerated it to the point where it cannot be ignored. In fact, we’re at the place where it’s safe to say that for traditional media companies, online distribution is referral-driven. Broadcasters’ online strategies and tactics, therefore, need to be centered on this reality.

I like to use Google Analytics, because it provides an apples-to-apples comparison with most of the Web, including local businesses. If you’re going to use data to sell your services, you might as well use a reference that your customers understand. There are many other analytics systems available to media companies, but understanding your Web usage through Google’s eyes provides standards accepted by broadcasters’ real online competition — the pure plays. They can only gain.

Session Acquisition is a key component of website understanding: how and where do our “eyeballs” come from? Google identifies people who visit a site by rules-based groupings known as “Channels,” which is their way of quantifying sessions. These involve several types of referrals, including social, search, email and others.

Of the limited sites I’ve studied, around three-quarters of traffic comes via referrals. They tend to view one page and leave via that same page. Contemporary media websites have become mostly mobile, as shown by shrinking numbers of sessions recorded as originating from desktops. This is important, because the vast majority of mobile sessions are acquired via referrals.

The top referrer I’ve seen is Facebook, and its dominance is enormous. A recent site I studied showed over half of all traffic (52%) came via Facebook, and most of those (68%) came via mobile. 


This strongly suggests that people themselves are showing media companies how they want their content served, and our response is crucial.

Will broadcasters force them into an infrastructure built upon their wants and needs, or will they create an experience for users that will encourage them to come back? Remember, this is a world of abundance, not scarcity, and that means it’s entirely a pull medium.

Attraction works better than promotion. People don’t have to tolerate interruptions anymore, because they can find what they need elsewhere. Oh, there are occasionally “must see” pieces of video, for example, but exclusivity is an advantage only where distribution can be controlled.

People can find them almost anywhere today, even down to just the core scene or scenes. Trying to protect this offline advantage online forces broadcasters into relentlessly playing defense at a time when they’d be better off adhering to the new rules being written by the people formerly known as the audience.

For ideas about how to create a favorable pull experience for users, we need to look to new media companies, those who aren’t bound by the concept of competing online as an offline company.

Click on any link from Digiday, for example, and you’ll find the piece you’re seeking is at the top of an infinite scroll. I mean, how smart is this? If users are going to view only one page via referrals, why not make that page into something that allows (not forces) them to scroll on beyond a single story? The Web designers are the ones who believe the one-page equals one-story model is what we need, despite the evidence that people don’t like to click, especially via mobile.

The question hounding media companies since the dawn of the Internet and its World Wide Web has been “how can we use this invention to further our business model?” Newspapers created a response that was identical to its offline products and even carried the same language with words like “pages” and the “fold.” TV stations responded initially with the newspaper model, but when we finally got around to video, we brought with us the 30-second spot. Brand extension has always been the goal, for it’s the power of those brands that fueled the business of mass media, a scarcity that only those with a license or a printing press could provide. We had the levers that those with money could pull to grease the wheels of commerce, and it was a heady thing.

As we’ve learned by now, however, the Web is nothing like what we imagined, and evidence is now coming forth that offers a very clear understanding of how users connect with media content. Broadcasters owe it to themselves to look at this with a clean whiteboard. Their future depends on it.

Terry Heaton, a veteran of the TV news industry, is president of consulting firm Reinvent21 and author of Reinventing Local Media, Volumes I & II, as well as the series of essays Local Media in a Postmodern World. He also writes the Pomo Blog.

Comments (2)

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Gregg Palermo says:

June 4, 2015 at 8:38 am

In response to the last sentence: .. if there is a future.

Bo Inscho says:

June 4, 2015 at 10:17 am

TV operators are too obsessed with growing if they are public and appeasing Wall Street to develop a cohesive online and digital media strategy. Most of what is on TV station news oriented web sites is not unique enough to develop an real differentiation. Having a Facebook page and a Twitter account does not really count. Broadcast is following the same tired and inevitable pattern of any mature industry, like the American auto makers before the Japanese invasion of Toyota, or the big steel industry before foreign competition forced closure of the plants. They will stay on the same course because they will keep trying to bridge between political years and justify their “growth” story with election revenues. It is a good thing the Supreme Court upheld “Citizens United” or where would local TV be? But what happens when the onslaught of political advertising recedes amongst dealing news audiences and ratings? If there is a future……..

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