Posts Tagged ‘Audience development’

Understanding Your Traffic Sources, Part 3: Social Traffic

October 28th, 2013 by Josh

This post is part three in our ongoing series on traffic sources. In part one, I talked about how we classify traffic and introduced some basic metrics for understanding the quality of traffic; in part two, we dove into some details on direct traffic. Today, I’ll talk about traffic from social sharing.

Overall, about 26% of traffic we measure comes from social sources — Facebook, Twitter, and email, for example — making social the second most significant source of traffic, next to direct. In some sense, social traffic and direct traffic represent polar opposites: Visitors who arrive via your homepage are, critically, people who intended to visit your site specifically rather than a particular piece of content. Those who come from social sources may or may not know what site they’re landing on, they’re coming because of an article that’s been recommended to them. That’s a double edged sword. On the one hand, social visitors are more likely than other visitors to actually read the pages they land on; on the other, they’re also amongst the least likely to return to your site, and when they do they’re very likely to only come via the same social channel.

Social is also categorically different than other sources of traffic because it’s the only channel that’s easily influenced — while converting visitors to come directly to your homepage is an art and affecting search engine placement leaves much to chance, we can actively choose which articles we put on social media and when to provide those links.


Before we talk about evaluating social traffic, it’s worth discussing what sort of visitors come from social sites and how they read. First off, social sources are a better than average source of new visitors: while an average of 31% of a site’s traffic comes from new visitors (those who haven’t visited in the past 30 days), an average of 41% of social visitors are new.



Social traffic is also dramatically more mobile-based than all other traffic — an average of 25% of traffic is on mobile, but on many sites over 40% of social traffic is mobile. That should affect what stories you push to social media, and when you push them. We’ll cover both of those topics below.


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Social engagement versus on-site engagement

People frequently take social media interactions as the de facto standard for “engagement” with a piece. The idea is that people who share a piece are likely to have enjoyed it. While there’s some kernel of truth here, our data suggests that there’s more to the engagement story than raw counts of tweets and likes.

Take a look at the graph below, which was first presented in Slate:

This graph shows how fully people read an article (as measured by how far down the page they scrolled; all articles shown here were over 3000 pixels high), compared to how frequently they tweet about it. If the most engaging stories to read were the stories that were most likely to be shared, we’d expect this graph to look like a line. Instead, we see that there’s essentially no correlation between the two numbers. That doesn’t mean that social interactions are a bad way to measure engagement, but it does show that social engagement and on-site engagement are often different phenomena.

Timing of social posts

So, what makes for successful social content? There’s been much written about how to write successful social posts — most recently, I read a great study by Knight fellow Sonya Song and its more concise writeup on Nieman Lab. It’s beyond the scope of this post to tackle what content to put in your social posts, but one question we’re frequently asked is what time of day is best for social sharing. Below is a chart showing how social traffic compares to overall traffic across for a set of sites (all of which are based in EST) across the past week.

Unsurprisingly, the shape of social traffic closely follows that of overall traffic, but it’s notable that social traffic substantially underperforms overall traffic from about 5am to noon, and social substantially overperforms overall traffic from about 3pm until 1am. From the perspective of driving traffic to your site, it appears that late afternoon through night is the best time to reach your readers on social media and get them to click through to your site.


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Interestingly, this trend appears to be true despite people’s best efforts to the contrary. Below, we see a graph of how frequently these sites posted to Twitter, compared to their social traffic.


Posting to twitter is strong all morning and reaches its peak just before noon, even though traffic from social is actually its strongest later in the day.

Return frequency

While we’re discussing timing, it’s worth noting that visitors who come to a site from social sources do so an average of 1.5 times per week. Below we see the distribution of how many times a visitor comes from social sources across a week.

About 82% of visitors who come from social only come once, but there’s a long tail of people who come two or more times.

As mentioned above, almost 80% of visitors who come to your site from a social source will only come to your site via that source. That figure is particularly bad for visitors from Twitter, of which only about 16% will return to your site directly. These are fairly significant numbers to consider as you decide where to invest time and resources into developing your audience.



This post barely scratched the surface of what can be said about social media — entire companies exist to help optimize social strategy — but I hope it started you thinking about how social sharing relates to your site’s overall traffic. We’ll save further discussion of social traffic for a future post; in the meantime, stay tuned for the next post in our traffic sources series, where we’ll cover external and search traffic.

Questions? Throw them in the Comments section and I'll respond.


Sweet Slides: Highlights from Our Webinar

October 25th, 2013 by Kyle

On Wednesday, we hosted a webinar, "Preparing for the Data-Driven Future of Publishing," with Tony, our CEO, and Joe, our product owner. They talked quite a bit about the next evolution of Chartbeat Publishing, and how publishers can start building loyal and returning audiences. I wanted to share a few slides with y'all, in case you missed the event or just wanted the highlights. These suckers are jam-packed with data and insights. Flip through, share with your team, and of course, don't be shy about reaching out with questions. Enjoy!


Understanding Your Traffic Sources, Part 2: Direct Traffic

October 16th, 2013 by Josh

This post marks the second entry in our series on Understanding your Traffic Sources. In Part 1, I introduced the metrics through which we’d be looking at traffic and talked about the split of traffic into direct, social, external, and search. Today, we’ll be talking through what’s probably the most mismeasured segment of your audience: direct traffic.

Defining “direct”

When we say “direct traffic”, we’re referring to those visitors who come to your site’s homepage deliberately, as opposed than those who come to your site via a link to a particular news story.

Typically, people measure direct traffic by looking at the HTTP referrer for each page view: when you visit a page, your browser usually records the referrer that sent you to the page; if no referrer is recorded then it should mean that you either typed in the name of the page or visited via a bookmark.

There’s a bit of subtlety to that story — many sites that use HTTPS (email sites and some apps are notable examples) don’t send HTTP referrers and are frequently misclassified as direct. The phenomenon of external traffic masquerading as direct has been termed “dark social” and discussed often on the web (e.g. Alexis Madrigal’s defining piece for The Atlantic and Lauryn’s post on the Chartbeat blog). In short, it’s very unlikely that a person would truly come directly to a news article, that they’d actually have typed in the URL for that particular article, and it’s much more likely that this traffic is coming from a source that doesn’t send HTTP referrer information.

So, a certain amount of traffic is often over-attributed as direct when it’s actually coming from external traffic sources. But what about cases where traffic is misattributed the other way, where direct traffic is classified as external?

I’d argue that this is the case with what’s often called branded search, but is better termed direct search. Look at search data in your favorite analytics dashboard and you’ll likely see that all of your top search terms are words related to your domain. If someone searches “Chartbeat” and clicks on a link to our homepage, I’d argue that that’s essentially equivalent in spirit to them typing into a browser — that person intended to visit our site. Indeed, we see that visitors who come to a site’s homepage via a search for the site’s name exhibit very similar browsing behaviors to those who are traditionally measured as direct, and in fact these visitors are highly likely to come back “truly” direct the next time they visit.


Direct traffic’s quality

Since direct visitors typically land on home pages and section front pages — pages that link to other content rather than providing content themselves — it doesn’t make sense to look at engagement on the landing pages themselves because these landing pages are not designed to produce engagement. Rather, it makes more sense to ask how deeply people read upon arrival and how often they come back. From both of these perspectives, direct traffic far outperforms the norm: on a typical site, we see that visitors who come directly come 3-4 times per week and view 9 articles across the week — a drastic difference compared to the average visitor, who visits 1-2 times per week and views 2-3 pages.


In that sense, we don’t need to think about whether direct visitors are coming back or whether they’re reading stories, we want to think about how frequently they’re coming back and how deeply they’re reading. This is, perhaps, best expressed in terms of the number of daily direct visitors versus the number of weekly or monthly direct visitors — we’d like to push this ratio as high as possible, so those who come directly are doing so every day.

How much should you get?

If direct traffic represents your most loyal audience, it’s natural to ask how much direct traffic you should hope to get. The answer, unfortunately, is that there’s a very wide spread. The figure below shows the breakdown of how much direct traffic sites get.

On average, about 50% of visitors to a site come as direct traffic, but the distribution has an interesting bimodal shape — there is a set of sites for which about 30% of visitors come direct and another set for which the direct rate is about 75%.


If your site is in the former camp, increasing the fraction of direct traffic should be a top priority. That means outreaching to the sources whose readers are most likely to convert to direct (see here for a figure analyzing this statistic across the web), increasing the branding on your site to make sure that side-door traffic knows what site they’re on, and publishing more content to encourage visitors to come back more frequently.

A caveat and conclusions

The picture that we’ve presented of direct traffic so far is a positive one — direct visitors visit often and account for a disproportionately high amount of the total content consumption on a site. There’s one caveat, though, which is that direct traffic is almost by definition composed of people who are not new to your site. Those sites with the highest direct traffic have the lowest rates of new visitors. If that issue rings close to home, the first place to look for new visitors is the social web, which will be the topic of the next post in this series. I hope you’ll stay tuned.

Chartbeat Report: Understanding Your Social and Homepage Audience

October 15th, 2013 by Lauryn

We partnered with Sarah Marshall at on a study about homepage and social audience behaviors. Over a month-long period our data scientist Josh Schwartz analyzing traffic of over 60 billion page views across the Chartbeat universe of sites. Focusing on  homepage and social audiences revealed some distinct insights – like that while visitors from Facebook have a higher Average Engaged Time, Twitter visitors are more likely to return to the site within one week (a 33% return rate to be exact). published the results today, and the study's insights are included right here in this very blog post. You can also access the full report as a PDF here.

We're happy to respond to your questions and feedback in the Comments section below, so please ask away. And data-specific questions can always be sent to Josh via Twitter too.


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Experimenting in Loyalty Conversion with WNYC: The Kickoff

September 4th, 2013 by Kyle


A few months ago, we sat down with the good folks at WNYC in their Lower Manhattan offices, wanting to get their feedback on some new products and features we were developing. It turned out that many of the station’s strategic goals and priorities were things that we strongly believed in, too: audience development, reader engagement, loyalty conversion, etc. Working together with WNYC more collaboratively seemed to make mounds of sense.

They felt the same way, and we’re thrilled! So today, we’re kicking off an experiment with our good friends at WNYC. Together, over the next four months, we’re going to tackle the the granddaddy of audience development: creating loyalty. How can WNYC and other publishers turn first-time visitors into visitors that come back to them over and over again?

It’s a head-scratcher, to be frank, but it’s something we’ve been thinking about a lot. (In March, our man Joshua Schwartz wrote a post about converting engagement into loyalty. Short version: high levels of visitor engagement correlate strongly with their propensity to return.) We believe everything changes when publishers are free to stop chasing page views, and instead focus on growing qualified and sustainable audiences. But we have more to learn.

Learning from a Leader

Not only has WNYC been a long-time client of ours, but its also a well-respected leader and innovator in the worlds of data, journalism, and technology. (If you have any doubt — you shouldn’t! — check out the station's award-winning political coverage, groundbreaking storm coverage, or — our favorite — the quirky and genius “Cicada Tracker." They’re always welcoming us into their newsroom and never shy about taking smart risks in order to learn.

Other reasons to work with WNYC? For starters, WNYC Radio AM 820 and 93.9 FM are the largest and most listened-to public radio stations in the country; every week, the station produces 100 hours of original programming and reaches more than 1 million listeners. And as any listener of Radiolab, Studio 360, or On the Media knows the quality of WNYC’s programming is stellar. We — and other publishers, too — can learn a lot from these guys.

Outlining the Experiment

We’ll be lending our expertise and perspective in an effort to broaden the audience for On the Media, an hour-long weekly radio program that covers journalism, technology, and First Amendment issues. Brooke Gladstone relaunched the 18-year-old show with a fresh format in 2001. Since then, Gladstone and co-host Bob Garfield have won a slew of awards and earned On the Media a reputation as one of NPR’s fastest growing radio programs.


So what are we hoping to figure out? The primary objective here is to learn as much as we can about audience development — to test hypotheses, challenge assumptions, and share everything we discover along the way. Which actions positively impacted engagement and loyalty conversion? Which actions didn’t work, and why not? There will likely be as many failures as successes, but we’re totally okay with that. This will be an iterative process.

I’ll be chronicling all of our testing, tooling, and tinkering here on the Chartbeat blog, so be sure to check back every couple weeks for all kinds of exciting learnings. And, of course, don’t be shy about chiming in with your own ideas. You might just turn on a light bulb.