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2011 – the year in online news traffic

December 17, 2011

2011 is drawing to a close and boy howdy, what a smacking year for New Zealand’s online media.

First off, there was the Christchurch earthquake. Then there were tsunamis, more earthquakes, crazy weather, Rugby World Cup, and, of course, the tragic, tragic tale of Kim Kardashian’s marriage breaking up.

Commercially, this kind of “big news” matters less in the short-term for online media than for print newspapers. That’s because when people buy more newspapers, it’s a direct boost to the bottom line. But getting a flood of visitors to a website isn’t nearly as valuable, because you’re usually serving up cheap, low quality ad impressions on page views above what you’ve forecast (because you can’t sell inventory to advertisers ahead of time that you don’t know you’ll have).

But long term, these events are actually more important for online media. Because the barrier to switching ¬†your news source is so low (no subscription to cancel, and rival sites are just a click away), a news website that has strong coverage during a major event stands a good chance of winning new regular readers, and winning regular readers off its rivals. In the end, it’s these regular readers that matter.

So that’s the goal of any news site during a major news events – get lots of new readers, and convert them into coming back.

With that in mind, let’s take a look at how NZ’s news websites did during 2011. To recap, here are the weeks of major news events.

Week starting Major event
Feb 21 Christchurch earthquake
March 7 Japan tsunami
May 2 Osama bin Laden killed, Auckland tornado
June 13 Big Chch aftershock
Aug 15 Crazy weather
Sept 12 Rugby World Cup, ScarJo nude pics
Oct 31 Kim Kardashian files for divorce
Nov 21 Auckland chopper crash, election

And here’s the traffic of the major news websites, starting from after the Christmas break last year. This is domestic¬†average daily UBs (ADUBs), as always from Nielsen-NetRatings Market Intelligence, with the usual disclaimer that I work for Fairfax Media, the owner of Stuff.co.nz.

ADUBs are a good measure of how many regular readers a site has.

Note the difference y-axes on the two graphs. There are really two categories of sites that do online news in NZ – big fish and small fry.

I should point out too that MSN and Yahoo get a boost from people using them for webmail portals. This can be split out, but since the homepage is geared toward news and if people see news they’ll probably click on it, I generally don’t. Also, commercially, the other news sites compete head to head on this sitewide traffic, not just in what is defined as a Yahoo or MSN “news” page in Market Intelligence.

Now, what do we see in those two graphs? Here’s a few take-home points:

1. MSN and Yahoo traffic is generally consistent. It hardly budges at all during major news events. This suggests people, when they hear something happened and want more info, don’t go to these sites and only click on stories when they’re already there doing something else (eg to check their email, play games, etc).

2. 3News traffic is extremely variable, jumping a lot during big events but also week to week. For number nerds, the standard deviation is about 20% of its average value over the year. That means a 20% fluctuation either way is normal week to week. That’s huge for a site that attracts 30,000 UBs daily. Unfortunately we can’t get detailed traffic stats from 3News to see what’s causing this.

3. Most of the small sites had healthy grow rates (10-30% of their pre-quake traffic), but raw increases were small (a few hundred to a few thousand extra per day). For a site with only a few thousand daily UBs to start with, that’s ok, but none of them made a dent against the four big boys.

4. MSN and Yahoo traffic was pretty stagnant for a year with such huge news. Yahoo only saw a slight bump in ADUBs (though the recent trend looks good), while MSN saw a slight decline.

5. Stuff vs NZHerald. While both sites did well, Stuff came out on top. The NZHerald picked up about 30,000 more daily UBs and overtook MSN to become the third-biggest NZ online news site, but Stuff picked up an extra 55,000 ADUBs over the year. That was the biggest raw increase of any site above, and also one of the biggest percent increases (19%). Stuff’s weekly UB Frequency (visits per UB per week) also went up significantly (from 3.8 to about 4), which means it was getting more regular readers and its readers on average were coming more often. The NZHerald’s only nudged up slightly, from 3.50 to 3.53.

6. TVNZ looks a bit stagnant but its traffic did climb steadily throughout the year, adding about 17% or 14,000 new regular daily readers. It’s secure in fifth place and isn’t going up or down in a hurry.

7. Now, scroll back up and look at the traffic before and during the spikes that happened during the February quake. See how much traffic has grown for some sites. With each big news event, a lot of new or casual readers convert to become regular ones, until by the end of the year most sites are as close to their February spike levels than the pre-spike traffic. Eg Stuff had about 280,000 ADUBs before the February quake, about 385,000 during the quake turmoil and about 335,000 by year end. The NZHerald didn’t see as much of a jump toward its quake spike of 325,000 ADUBs, but it’s getting close to halfway there by the end of the year.

And here are some numbers in case you want the details.

Another good way to look at traffic growth is to just look at the homepage. People coming to your homepage are actively seeking your news, not being referred by social media or search. It’s a good indication of the strength of your brand.

With that in mind here’s homepage ADUBs for the sites that report it in Nielsen-NetRatings.

Strong growth again for Stuff, recording double the increase in regular homepage visitors than the NZHerald, while Yahoo slipped.

So which sites were the winners of 2011? If I was giving out medals for traffic growth (and you’ll not see me give out medals for anything else), it’d be:

Gold – Stuff.co.nz

Silver – NZHerald.co.nz

Bronze – 3News and TVNZ (tie). 3News had traffic growth close to 40%, while the TVNZ had a respectable rise too (double 3News’ raw increase but half the percent increase).

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