How to set internal metrics and competitive benchmarks for success

Publishers shouldn’t have to silo their internal metrics and competitive benchmarks — there’s ways to combine the best of both datasets to set clearer performance goals.

I recently co-hosted a webinar with SimilarWeb’s Ariane Turley, where we tackled an issue facing a growing number of organizations — identifying and incorporating the metrics that drive success. Below, more on the tactics you can use to accelerate that process.

Get access to the on-demand webinar replay here.

Internal & external metrics considerations — why this matters

To begin, we wanted to address three key questions that arise when attempting to determine KPIs:

1. What are the core metrics that I should consider for a holistic growth strategy?

2. How can global trends inform my KPIs?

3. How can what we know about behaviors during key events impact KPI decisions?

The answers are reliant on the internal and competitive metrics that organizations need to prioritize. Let’s take a deeper dive into those considerations.

Internal metrics based on long-term reader engagement

Determining the best metrics for publishers or media can be as simple as using what you already know about readers to your advantage. In this case, we focus on Engagement, Depth, and Loyalty. You can start by asking:

1. Engagement

Are my audiences actually reading what they click on?

2. Depth

How can we drive readers deeper into our site and show more value?

3. Loyalty

How can we optimize the reader journey to encourage users to come back more often?

Here are a few metrics that can help you get started:

Now you can begin to determine the best benchmarks to track performance and support your goals, which we tackle below.

Steps to better peer benchmarking

In order to begin the benchmarking process, organizations need to ask the following questions based on their unique knowledge of their business and peers:

1. Category

How is my publication performing against the news and media industry as a whole? What are the market dynamics that can impact that performance?

2. Competitors

What are my competitors doing? How will that impact us?

3. Customers

What does my audience look like? Are my tactics aligned to acquire new readers and retain the current ones?

Once you’ve addressed those questions, your benchmarks can be based on the data available to you, such as:

  • Traffic trends (e.g., by industry or channel)
  • Digital market share
  • Traffic acquisition
  • Brand awareness
  • Audience interests
  • Audience reach and behavior
  • Depth of visit (similar to our scroll depth metric above)
  • Bounce rate

The next challenge is determining how these fit within the trends we’re seeing across audiences. More on that in the next section.

Using internal, competitive metrics to determine reader acquisition

If the goal is to attract new visitors to your site, understanding the traffic landscape is critical to selecting the metrics that will get you there faster. Another added benefit is that you can compare your organization to the industry as a whole, while getting an idea of how your growth holds up to peers.

What is the current traffic landscape?

Publishers have sustained traffic post-COVID traffic levels in the U.S. and U.K., with traffic up 25% and 19%, respectively, since the beginning of the year. 

However traffic levels have not been sustained in Brazil— traffic is down 11% since January, according to SimilarWeb.

Where audience engagement factors into goal-setting

Even in a year dominated by two major events — the pandemic and U.S. elections — there are still valuable takeaways that can be applied to future engagement strategies.

From Chartbeat’s analysis, we saw that Total Engaged Time across all publishers rose steeply at the onset of the COVID-19 crisis, but global engagement levels have roughly returned to normal. 

On-demand access to our webinar with SimilarWeb is available here.

When analyzing the data at its relative highs and lows, outliers may emerge. For instance, we saw that live blogs drew an increased amount of readers, reflecting a need for timely, reliable information.

And, while average pages per visit have remained steady for mobile visitors, the U.K. and the U.S. have seen declines in pages per visits, indicating a less engaged audience, as we see below.

The data above points to the onset of reader fatigue, which we saw the signs of earlier this year.

The role of Recirculation

Keeping readers engaged, and ensuring they go deeper into your content, depends on strong Recirculation tactics. To encourage readers to recirculate, publishers should think about where they place related links on article pages.

We’ve found that while most clicks happen in the first 1,000 pixels of a page, there is a long tail opportunity to recirculate readers that engage more deeply with content. Is that experience enough to ensure that readers return? It will come down to how you measure loyalty at your organization.

Related reading: How Recirculation builds engagement, supports reader acquisition efforts

Loyalty’s place in the acquisition equation

Across the news and media landscape, sites in the U.S. have the highest audience loyalty, with 62% of traffic coming from direct sources, according to SimilarWeb. Our data shows that Europe accounts for a large swath of loyal readers as well, based on our quarterly insights.

So, what could those regions be doing better than others? It may come down to their channel-based optimizations. When analyzing loyalty by device, our data shows that referred visitors are less likely to return than readers that come directly to your platforms, especially on mobile.

The impact of direct traffic echoes what we see from SimilarWeb data, with app and web sources leading the way.

What competitive data tells about reader loyalty

Major events tend to be a barometer of the tactics, such as improved Recirculation or improved SEO, that improve audience loyalty. For instance, bounce rates for organic search traffic dropped for all publications in November — likely due to strong coverage of the U.S. election by publishers across the board, according to SimilarWeb.

“What we see is that, in general, bounce rates for organic search traffic is much higher than other sources — this indicates there is a careful balance between solely relying on SEO and having loyal visitors.”


Ariane Turley, SimilarWeb

Luckily for publishers, the onset of fatigue and the inundation of news did not reduce the amount of loyal visitors. In fact, the percentage of pageviews from New and Returning visitors increased slightly in the initial period of COVID-19. 

Additionally, traffic from loyal readers continued to grow as a proportion of traffic throughout the year. So was the increase a 2020 outlier or the direct result of strategies put in place to improve loyalty? Check your data — if it’s telling an accurate story of the strategies that kept loyalty strong throughout the year, you’re closer to zeroing in on the benchmarks to grow that metric going forward.

What can the election tell us about reader behaviors?

To see how engagement metrics and competitive benchmarking can be applied to digital newsrooms, we analyzed data around the 2020 election.

Overall traffic trends

It’s no surprise the election dominated coverage in November, accounting for an average of 35% of all traffic to the top new sites in the U.S., according to SimilarWeb. Additionally, top keywords driving traffic to top news sites in November were almost all election-related, as we see below.

Larger national publishers appeared to have won the election-related SEO race. To put it in perspective, these SEO wins were in broad keyword groups such as “georgia” and “nevada election results”, rather than the keywords that local newsrooms may focus on for their niche readership.

Search and social patterns echo past audience behaviors

Search and social traffic mirrored patterns we observed in many previous election cycles, though this year those patterns were spread over a longer time period.

Social traffic began to spike on Election Day, and stayed high for the next several days as readers awaited the result. In contrast, search traffic increased as the election neared, but declined soon after the polls closed.

This echoes data that we’ve previously analyzed around major events, with search traffic rising up to and during an event, and social traffic picking up thereafter.

The takeaway: Incorporating internal and competitive metrics into your organization

Digital transformation does not happen overnight, but we hope to have helped along the path toward determining the metrics and competitive benchmarks that make up to a data-informed performance strategy.

Here’s a few key points to consider:

1. There’s no need to silo your internal and competitive metrics. A combination of the two can help you set impactful — and attainable—  KPIs.

2. Trends can change quickly. Use the reader data available to evolve your tactics through experimentation.

3. Reader behaviors can vary based on dimensions like channel (i.e. search and social) and device type (i.e. desktop and mobile experiences). Based on what we know about loyal readers, it pays to make sure your strategy is adapted to these unique audiences.

4. Competitive metrics do not have to become a wish list of the tactics your organizations should be doing, but rather an opportunity to find your best untapped opportunities.

5. While acquisition is a significant performance indicator, it’s only half the battle. Retention is a less costly, yet equally as important metric. Your strategy should also prioritize the metrics that measure the experience and loyalty of your readers.

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