One Metric Can Tell the Tale

Where can you find some telltales about whether converting your Web site from free to paid access will be successful? The most helpful telltale is a statistic called “visitation frequency.”

Since my last column used a nautical theme, let me continue in that vein because “telltale” has a nautical meaning.

Sailors attach lengths of yarn or ribbons to the surfaces of their sails. These little indicators, called telltales, tell the sailors how effectively they’ve deployed and adjusted those sails. If a sail looks full but its telltale hangs limp, then the sail is actually stalled and won’t propel the boat. But if the telltale dances in the air, the sail will thrust the boat forward.

Web pages are the sails propelling Web sites. You might have deployed Web pages full of content, but how do you know if those pages are each properly adjusted to set your site in motion?

The best telltale is visitation frequency: How frequently does your site’s average user visit?

The more frequently the site’s average user visits, the more valuable its content is to the average user and the more likely the publisher can charge for access.

OK, before you begin emailing me exceptions to that statement, remember visitation frequency is an indicator, not a criterion or rule, about whether a site can charge for access. There are, of course, exceptions — some infrequently visited sites can successfully charge, and I’ll give you a prominent example of that below.

Nevertheless, a high visitation frequency generally indicates a site’s content is very much in demand and capable of eliciting paid subscriptions.

Most major Web sites boast about their number of page views or unique users, but the visitation frequency metric often tells much more about a site.

Many premier brand-name Web sites generate huge numbers of page views and have millions of unique users but still don’t generate very good visitation frequencies. Therefore, they can’t successfully charge for most of their content.

For a good example of this, look at the “Avg. Days Per Visitor Per Month” chart on The New York Times’s online media kit. It compares the site visitation frequencies of The New York Times, The Washington Post, USA TODAY, MSNBC, CNN, ABC News, and The Wall Street Journal. The frequencies range from ABCNew.coms’s 2.5 visits per month to the’s 4.0 visits per month.

Although is boasting its average user visits more often than the average users of its competitors’ Web sites, all these sites have really horrible visitation frequencies for premier brand-name sites whose contents change daily and who can charge for banner ads only as often as those ads are exposed.

Four visits per month means the’s average user visits this daily newspaper’s site less than once per week! As I write this, the chart in the company’s online media kit shows statistics from July, which perhaps was a boring month for news. Yet, none of the news sites had generated more than four visits per month during the incredibly newsworthy month of September 2001.

Those low visitation frequencies are indicators of why The Times, The Washington Post, USAToday, MSNBC, CNN, and ABC News have never successfully been able to charge for online access (ABC News has recently begun trying to charge for access to its streaming media). Those sites have phenomenal marketing power, generate between 30 and 130 million page views per month, and have millions of unique monthly users, but their users don’t visit frequently enough to justify subscriptions.

Or as online publishing pundit Steve Yelvington, vice president for content and strategy at Morris Digital Works, puts it, “What makes you think consumers will pay for something that they don’t use frequently even when it’s free?’

Did I mention exceptions to the use of visitation frequency as a telltale?

The exception on that chart is The Wall Street Journal. It probably shouldn’t be listed among those general news sites because it’s a business publication, the trade journal of the stock markets. Because is not only a premier brand name but also a site whose content can help users make money or advance careers (see the article I refer to above), it can successfully charge consumers for access, despite a lowly 2.1 times per month visitation frequency by its average user.

So, if you’re trying to decide whether you can successfully switch your site from free to paid access, examine your site’s Web logs and calculate its visitation frequency. If that frequency is high, say 10 or more visits per month, that’s a telltale that you can charge a subscription fee for those visits.

Also, remember to look at individual Web pages’ visitation frequencies. Your site’s home page might not be visited frequently, but the site might have lower-level pages directly bookmarked by consumers who visit frequently. If that’s true, you might not be able to charge for access to your entire site, but you could charge for access to those individual pages. The Times’s crossword puzzle answer page is a good example of this.

Later this month, I’ll write about how only three media exist. When you understand that concept, you’ll be able to determine what content consumers will voluntarily pay to receive.

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