Why your website homepage suddenly matters again

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Why your website homepage suddenly matters again

Back in 2012, I worked at a national magazine that spent very little time thinking about its homepage. I remember the argument from the editors at the time was that only a tiny fraction of our daily traffic came in via the homepage, so why waste time trying to cater to these readers? This was during the era when Facebook was purposefully increasing the amount of traffic it sent to news sites, lulling the entire industry into thinking that hockey stick growth was the new normal and that readers would always come pouring in through side doors. 

Today, much of that free traffic is gone, and the industry wide pivot to paid subscriptions has resulted in outlets turning their attention back to their homepages, which, as it turns out, have tremendous value after all. As Digiday reported on The Washington Post’s recent homepage redesigns:

The Washington Post knows that people who visit its site homepage are more likely to become subscribers, and that subscribers who visit the homepage are less likely to churn, so it overhauled the homepage in an attempt to lure more readers to it...

...The rise of search and social distribution over the past decade forced many news organizations to rethink the value of their homepages, particularly as audience scale became a top priority. But more recently, as news publishers have started to focus on building direct connections to their readers and driving subscriptions, the homepage has started to become more important again. In the Post’s case, one of the top priorities for the redesign is exposing Post readers to a wider variety of the content the paper publishes.

While reading this article, I had a sudden realization: I'm a paying subscriber to The Washington Post, New York Times, Bloomberg, and The Wall Street Journal, and even though I read their content all the time, I can't remember the last time I visited any of their homepages.

That’s because I’ve spent quite a bit of time curating my social media and newsletter feeds to maximize my exposure to the content I actually want to consume, and while I think a lot of news consumers share my browsing habits, I’m also wary of the blindspots this can create.

Even if direct homepage visits make up a small percentage of your overall traffic, it can still play an outsized role in your business. Homepage readers are much more likely to be repeat visitors and will generate far more pageviews than someone who comes in only through Facebook and Google.

Let’s say you’re a publisher with 10 million unique visitors per month, and your average homepage visitor generates 10 pageviews a month, while the average side door visitor generates only two pageviews per month. And let’s say you’re able to convert 500,000 visitors -- just 5% of your overall unique audience -- into homepage readers. That’s an increase of 4 million pageviews per month. 

Those are hypothetical numbers, of course; I’m just using them to illustrate how converting a reader into a homepage visitor can have an outsized impact once you scale it across tens of thousands of monthly users. The era of massive audience scale is over; now the focus is on taking your more casual visitors and converting them into loyal readers.

Why every media company should become a book publisher

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Can publishers cash in on the rise in gaming?

While the Covid-19 crisis hasn’t been kind to certain media sectors -- sports journalism and movie theaters come to mind -- others are booming, particularly those that cater to the millions of white collar workers suddenly confined to their homes with not much to do. Video games in particular have seen double digit percentage increases in daily usage, as well as live streamed videos of gamers on platforms like Twitch and YouTube.

So is there a way for publishers to capitalize on this interest? The most obvious strategy would be to increase their gaming and e-sports coverage, perhaps by leveraging the journalists who would otherwise be covering professional sports.

But an article from The Idea suggests that publishers should roll up their sleeves and develop their own games for bored-at-home readers to get lost in:

Publishers have long used puzzles and crosswords to strengthen their relationships with audiences. Games not only lend themselves to habit formation, but are also a way for publishers to give readers a brief respite from news coverage... 

...Today, many publishers are continuing this tradition, using online games to both offer readers a break from the news and drive retention efforts. In 2019, The Wall Street Journal found that its crosswords and puzzles played a key role in increasing subscriber retention and reducing churn. Not only did The Journal’s games act as a palate cleanser for daily news, but this kind of “lean-back content” also encouraged users to develop new consumption habits. Relatedly, other publishers have taken steps to integrate games into their offerings: BuzzFeed’s quizzes have become a core content offering, The Atlantic launched a daily, mini crossword in 2018, and The New York Times is continuously adding new games.

I do think that developing a regular news or trivia game is low hanging fruit for many publishers and requires no original reporting. I’ve personally found Slate’s weekly news quiz to be as addictive as hell, and BuzzFeed basically invented its own genre of time-wasting quiz. Not only do users enjoy them, but quizzes provide a layer of interactivity that can only strengthen the relationship between reader and publication. There are already third-party quiz platforms on the market, so you don’t need to build the functionality from scratch, and you can even lock the quiz results behind an email gate to drive newsletter signups

Want to put my content expertise to work for your own company?

When I’m not producing my newsletter or podcast, I’m working on behalf organizations that hire me to run their own content operations. I ghost write thought leadership articles, research and write white papers, and will even help you devise a content strategy from scratch. You can read about my services over here: [link]

More news

"Viewership numbers on Twitch leapt 31 percent from March 8 to March 22 ... During that two-week span, the numbers of hours a day watched on Twitch rose to 43 million from 33 million." [link]

The history of blog search engines that you didn't know you wanted. This definitely took me back. [link]

“It used to be, I want to get famous on YouTube or Vine, so I can have a career in traditional entertainment. Now, this is a career” [link]

"One webinar last month on business travel had over 3,000 viewers and while not every attendee paid, the average amount contributed from viewers was $37 per person." $111,000 for a single webinar? That's got to be a damn good profit margin. [link]

Want to interact with me directly?

I have a secret Facebook group that’s only promoted to subscribers of this newsletter. I try to post exclusive commentary to it sometimes and have regular discussions with its members about the tech/media space. Go here to join. [link]

Even more news

We're about to find out if people are really willing to pay for online only conferences. My guess is that if they do, it'll be for a fraction of what they pay to attend in-person conferences. [link]

The Atlantic has been dominating coronavirus coverage, publishing some of the best journalism on the pandemic, and even though it kept most virus content in front of the paywall, it added 36,000 digital subscribers. [link]

We're about to see a huge boom of animation come out of Hollywood because it's one of the few kinds of high quality entertainment that can be made remotely. [link]

Some very interesting findings. Traffic to web content is way up, which is something we already knew. But what most of us didn't realize until now is that this increase came from desktop computers. Mobile traffic is down! [link]

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Simon Owens is a tech and media journalist living in Washington, DC. Follow him on TwitterFacebook, or LinkedIn. Email him at simonowens@gmail.com. For a full bio, go here.