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New Pew study examines the way Internet users consume online news
How Internet users interact with online news is becoming an increasingly complex issue as tablets, e-readers, and smartphones have taken the stage. But a report released Monday by the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism takes an in-depth look at how people consume online news, and the study turned up with some interesting results—in short, there is no single group of online news consumers. Rather, there are several different types of online news consumers, and news organizations can better engage their audiences by developing strategic ways to appeal to several different layers of news readers.
Building off of the research center’s 2010 NetView Analysis, which looked at the top 200 news sites that, together, amounted to some 500,000 unique monthly visitors, researchers Kenny Olmstead, Amy Mitchell, and Tom Rosenstiel narrowed it down to the top 25 news websites, which newspaper websites (like The New York Times and the Washington Post), network television or cable news websites (such as CNN.com and MSNBC.com), one wire service news site (Reuters.com), hybrid online-only sites that both aggregate stories and produce original content (Huffingtonpost.com, AOL News), and pure news aggregators, such as Google News and the Examiner.
The findings? Casual users—people who only visit a news website once or twice a month for a few minutes at a time—amount to one of the largest online news consumer groups. For example, 85% of USAToday.com readers only visit the site 1-3 times a month, and when all the visits were added together, a full 34% of users spent between one and five minutes on the website per month.
Researchers did, however, identify a small but loyal cohort of “power users” that tend to visit a news site more than 10 times a month, with total monthly visits adding up to over one hour on the site. Those “power users” are few, though, accounting for an average of some 7% among the top news sites. But this number fluctuates depending on the site—for example, 18% of CNN.com users are “power users,” compared to 1% of BingNews.com users.
And how are people finding their way to those news sites? Google—unsurprisingly—accounts for 30% of all traffic to the top 25 news sites, making it the largest source of traffic to the sites. But Facebook is another fast rising driver of traffic, coming in as the second or third largest source of traffic for the top five news sites. This seems pretty natural, since people coming from Facebook are already seeing opening paragraphs from news stories—whether they want to or not—and they have the added security of knowing that one of their friends has already read the article and believes it worth reading (surprisingly enough, Twitter barely registered as a source of traffic to news sites).
Researchers also found that when people finish reading a news story, they end up returning to Facebook (presumably to share). In 12 of the 25 sites examined in the study (including the New York Times and the Washington Post), Google accounted for the first or second departure destination, accounting for up to 7% of departure links (though the researchers note that it isn’t simply that users are going to Google.com to use the search function, but rather that users are clicking on Google tools, such as maps linked to stories, and so on).
And when it comes to ads, the researchers note that consumers are “quite adept at ignoring peripheral ads,” particularly on news sites. Fully 79% of news consumers surveyed said that they never clicked on an ad on a news site. Additionally, researchers found that not a single consumer product site cropped up in the mix of destination pages for the news sites studied, which meant that at no time did five people click on the same ad on a news site in the months the researchers examined them.
So what’s a news organization to do?
“All of this suggests that news organizations might need a layered and complex strategy for serving audiences and also for monetizing them,” the researchers suggest. “They may need, for instance, to develop one way to serve casual users and another way for power users. They may decide it makes sense to try to convert some of those in the middle to visit more often. Or they may try to make some of their loyal audience stay longer by creating special content. Advertising may help monetize some groups, while subscriptions will work for others.”
Interestingly, the study found that tablets and e-readers only make up a small fraction of the devices consumers are using to access the news--most still prefer computer browsers. A previous Pew report released in March found that of the people who are using their mobile devices to access news, the vast majority are checking weather reports, getting information on local restaurants and businesses, and checking out general local news.
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