Viewpoint: Loyalty, not view counts, should be publishers’ new goal

Nick Ascheim is svp of NBC News Digital.

Since the advent of digital news, publishers have pursued scale, a strategy premised on a big assumption: If lots of people consume your content, you will always make lots of money. But that assumption is wrong. To succeed today, content publishers and brands need to shift focus from scale to loyalty and engagement.

In the first era of the Digital Age, a few big-name publishers found something approaching scale, back when the majority of visitors bookmarked their favorite publishers or clicked links in emails they subscribed to intentionally.

In the second era, portals like AOL, MSN and Yahoo redefined scale. Single destinations commanded audiences at levels that had only been seen before when TV viewers across all channels were added together.

Then, in the third era, came the platforms. YouTube, Facebook and others pushed the meaning of scale even further. The size of audience tallies began with the letter “b” instead of “m.”

This kick-started some experiments from publishers, especially when it came to video. New publishers emerged to create viral content that was “optimized,” if forgettable. These newbies, and some legacy publishers, too, bragged about the small nations of people who consumed their videos, but were silent when the conversation turned to making money.

And so we stand today as a publishing industry, bruised by our own scale-ian pursuits, and still in search of a sustainable digital business model to call our own. As the fourth era of the Digital Age dawns, I believe there is a way. Scale still seduces, but there is hope in something even more basic than big numbers: loyalty.

It is no small irony that we publishers can look to the platforms for a path forward. The successful platforms didn’t begin by chasing scale. First, they sought validation in loyal users because loyalty meant their efforts had given rise to products and experiences that people wanted to visit and use again and again. Their audiences grew because of that intense focus on quality before all else. And what followed? Scale, though loyal scale, and then of course revenues in seemingly unending supply. We believe the platforms can help publishers find loyal scale, but publishers need to also prize quality content above just amassing audience.

At NBC News Digital, we have adopted loyalty as our North Star — not because we don’t aspire to be big, but because we do.

We’ve done this by judging success not in video starts or unique views, but in the return frequency of our visitors and in the quantity of content they consume during a single visit. We made our video players faster and more visually compelling. We turned off autoplay. We committed to making made-for-digital video content across several channels and to using new storytelling techniques. We rolled out new content verticals to appeal to specific audiences, and we’ve expanded our newsrooms.

Building for loyalty and engagement is not an easy road or a short one. But we know that audiences rely on us as publishers, so it’s important that we keep them in mind at all times.

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