An in-depth analysis of the most popular contents on your website can produce some surprises and yield some financial benefits.
I was recently advising the editor of a small newspaper whose website was not generating the desired traffic. We dug into the content section of Google Analytics to see what was popular with users. The consistent favorite was the town’s bus schedules.
This page was not only the most visited, but people spent more time on it than any other on the site, an average of 5 1/2 minutes.
What we took away from this was, first, people crave information that is well organized, convenient and relevant. The local authorities had not published and distributed the bus schedules in enough places. It was hard to obtain.
Second, there is commercial value in this type of information. I mentioned to the editor that a sponsor would probably be willing to pay a high price for the privilege of advertising on a page where people spent so much time.
Third, providing useful information strengthens the brand of a publication as long as the data is relevant to the editorial mission. In this case, it was a local paper producing the best news and information about that community.
For those writers and editors among us who want to believe that our immortal prose is what draws people to our sites, it is a blow to the ego to see that data might be more popular. But the numbers do not lie.
Experiences in Texas, England
The Texas Tribune, a web-based news operation, had a similar experience. The Tribune created a database that contained, among other things, the salaries of state employees and details of the multibillion-dollar state budget.
The editors simply wanted to provide a public service, but the result was something much bigger than expected. The databases generated three times more traffic than their news stories.
The Guardian newspaper in England published more than 450,000 pages of documents on its website detailing the expenses of members of Parliament. Editors asked readers to go through them and flag interesting items for the editors. More than 28,000 readers did so.
Every digital news outlet should consider what data would be useful and interesting to its audience. One advantage of publishing data online is that the space is virtually unlimited. Also, users can do custom searches relevant to their own interests.
In classes on entrepreneurial journalism, I have seen a number of participants propose or launch cultural publications. I think there is a great opportunity for them to create a searchable calendar of events so that a person interested in jazz, for example, can see the entire slate of offerings in the region.
Again, you should choose data relevant to the publication's editorial mission. That way you can build loyalty among users and make the site more attractive to sponsors.