The Referral-Driven Web

referral

The vast majority of online consumers of news and information connect with content through what Google calls “referrals,” and in my experience and study, second place isn’t even close.

This phenomenon has been growing for years, but the rise of social media has accelerated it to the point where it cannot be ignored. In fact, we’re at the place where it’s safe to say — with a great deal of certainty — that for traditional media companies, online distribution is referral-driven. Our online strategies and tactics, therefore, need to be centered around this reality, and that includes making money.

I like to use Google Analytics, because it provides an apples-to-apples comparison with most of the Web, including local businesses. If you’re going to use data to sell your services, you might as well use a reference that your customers understand. There are many other analytics systems available to media companies, but understanding your web usage through Google’s eyes provides standards accepted by our real online competition — the pureplays. We can only gain.

Session Acquisition is a key component of website understanding: how and where do our “eyeballs” come from? Google identifies people who visit a site by rules-based groupings known as “Channels,” which is their way of quantifying sessions. These involve several types of referrals, including social, search, email, and others.

Of the limited sites I’ve studied, around 3/4 of traffic comes via referrals. They tend to view one page and leave via that same page. Contemporary media websites have become mostly mobile, as shown by shrinking numbers of sessions recorded as originating from desktops. This is important, because the vast majority of those sessions are acquired via referrals.

The top referrer I’ve seen is Facebook, and its dominance is enormous. A recent site I studied revealed over half of all traffic (52%) came via Facebook, and most of those (68%) came via mobile.

This strongly suggests that people themselves are showing media companies how they want their content served, and our response is crucial.

Will we force them into an infrastructure built upon our wants and needs, or will we create an experience for users that will encourage them to come back? Remember, this is a world of abundance, not scarcity, and that means it’s entirely a pull medium.

Attraction works better than promotion. People don’t have to tolerate our interruptions anymore, because they can find what they need elsewhere. Oh, there are occasionally “must see” pieces of video, for example, but exclusivity is an advantage only where distribution can be controlled.

People can find them almost anywhere today, even down to just the core scene or scenes. Trying to protect this offline advantage online forces us into relentlessly playing defense at a time when we’d be better off adhering to the new rules being written by the people formerly known as the audience.

For ideas about how to create a favorable pull experience for users, we need to look to new media companies, those who aren’t bound by the concept of competing online as an offline company.

Click on any link from ESPN or Digiday, for example, and you’ll find the piece you’re seeking is at the top of an infinite scroll. I mean, how smart is this? If users are going to view only one page via referrals, why not make that page into something that allows (not forces) them to scroll on beyond a single story? We’re the ones who believe the one-page equals one-story model is what we need. despite the evidence that people don’t like to click, especially via mobile.

The question hounding media companies since the dawn of the Internet and its World Wide Web has been “how can we use this invention to further our business model?” Newspapers created a response that was identical to its offline products and even carried the same language with words like “pages” and the “fold.” TV stations responded initially with the newspaper model, but when we finally got around to video, we brought with us the 30-second spot. Brand extension has always been our goal, for it’s the power of those brands that fueled the business of mass media, a scarcity that only those with a license or a printing press could provide. We had the levers that those with money could pull to grease the wheels of commerce, and it was a heady thing.

As we’ve learned by now, however, the Web is nothing like what we imagined, and evidence is now coming forth that offers a very clear understanding of how users connect with media content. We owe it to ourselves to look at this with a clean whiteboard. Our future depends on it.

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