Web analytics give publishers access to unprecedented audience insights, but making sense of those data presents a real challenge. The Pew Research Center's Project for Excellence in Journalism decided to look beyond individual site data, searching for larger patterns hidden in the detailed audience data that Nielsen Co. collected from the 25 top-trafficked news websites. Amy Mitchell, deputy director of the center's Project for Excellence in Journalism, spoke with Digital Directions about the resulting report, which the center released last week.
Digital Directions: What did you learn about the digital news audiences included in the study?
Amy Mitchell: There wasn't one single type of news consumer. We saw different groups, and the biggest cohort tends to be casual users who come once or twice a month and stay for less than 5 minutes. However what also emerged across these sites was a group of power users, those who are very loyal and come back more than 10 times over the course of the month and spend more than an hour there. Then there are ranges between those two.
News organizations that are looking to the future [need] different strategies to serve each of those types of news consumers. Almost any organization on the Web now is looking to further develop its website and more fully understand its audiences—and also figure out how to connect a revenue strategy to each of those. The challenge is figuring out how you can address the needs of these different cohorts.
DD: What were the surprises for you?
Mitchell: We saw the different types of consumers and the clear behavior patterns that emerged, but what was also striking was the consistency that we saw across these news sites. For all of these sites, we saw these two types of news consumers. We saw consistent behavior patterns. As much as each measuring system can differ, to look within one data set at all of these sites and see these clear trends emerge—it's telling.
DD: Do you expect to see these trends play out over the broader universe of media sites?
Mitchell: It would be interesting to look at that. So many things come into play when you think about how people access news and share information that I wouldn't want to speak for the broader universe. But this first look can help not only inform but suggest areas that news organizations and others might want to look at for their [own] Web domains, for what their audiences are doing and how the various pieces fit together.
DD: What did the study reveal about social media?
Mitchell: Google is the single biggest driver of traffic to a news site; but what has also emerged is the influence and the role that social media plays. We clearly see Facebook as one of the most common links that users click on to leave a site [with embedded share features]. If search was the big development of the last decade, sharing is something that is emerging now. Going forward it is going to be a big part of how people communicate and how information gets from one person to the next.