Audience Engagement Digital Publishing
6 mins read

Optimizing for loyalty: Overcoming one of user acquisition’s biggest challenges

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In the last few years, publishers have had to make some dramatic shifts in order to stay afloat and competitive in a saturated media environment. The decline of print has forced publishers to look to new revenue streams. The resulting shifts have run the gamut, ranging from metered paywalls to affiliate programs and e-commerce experiences and much, much more. 

The bottom line, regardless of the type of business goal, publishers have had to start thinking like online marketers in order to survive. 

Thinking like a marketer may seem like a simple endeavor on the surface. You may think of your average online marketer as a performance-focused conversion machine, wielding page optimization and CPC bids like a Jedi wields a lightsaber. You see them everywhere — the growth ninjas and acquisition masters boasting about exponential growth and ROI. 

Simple enough, right? 

Well, not really. 

Because online publishing doesn’t really work like any other consumer website. You can’t really compare publishers’ challenges with those of your average digital marketer. That is, unless you compare them with the average brand content marketer. The parallels there are far greater. Unfortunately, so are the challenges. 

It’s All About the ROI

Content marketing’s biggest challenge has always been proving ROI. Content marketing is, by nature, a long-tail endeavor. This is mostly because of user intent. Let’s go back to our performance marketing Jedi: Their job is fairly simple. If they’re selling shoes, they can go to Google or Facebook and target people who have shown a clear intent to purchase. They do so by using a large amount of data to determine that intent, or, in some cases, something as simple as bidding on a Google search for “best cheap sneakers.” 

Of course, the above is an oversimplification of the process, yet intent is ultimately at the core of what your typical “growth ninja” would look for in his or her day-to-day. 

Where does content fit into all of this? Well, herein lies the core of the problem. Again, let’s look at a brand selling shoes. A person reading about the latest shoe trends has only signaled a general interest in shoes — perhaps simply fashion — not an intent to purchase a specific pair of shoes. 

We’ve met with countless content marketing teams over the years and the majority of them have taken great pains to separate themselves from the ROI conversation, precisely because of this challenge. Everyone knows content drives long-term ROI, it’s just that there are very few ways to measure it and optimize for it. 

Which brings us back to publishers. They are, in a sense, content marketers whose brands are representative of themselves. They need to market themselves in order to gain visitors who will complete business objectives and generate long-term ROI. But unlike traditional marketing, and very much like content marketing, there’s no shortcut from point A to point B. 

To make things even more complicated, oftentimes publishers have more than one revenue stream. For example, they may do a combination of page monetization, branded content, affiliate content, and premium subscriptions. The combination can also shift often and vary wildly based on an endless amount of factors from seasonality to regulatory changes. 

It’s pretty difficult to optimize for a moving target. So, what are publishers (and brand content marketers, for that matter) supposed to do? 

The answer here is clear and simple: optimize for user loyalty. 

Loyal Users Drive Revenue 

Ok, so let’s be honest — it may be clear, but it’s not simple. What is “user loyalty,” anyway? And why measure it in the first place? 

Let’s start with the What: a loyal user is someone who returns to your site and engages with your content on a fairly regular basis. There are a myriad of (mostly flawed) methods to measure this, but let’s put that aside for the time being. 

Now focus for a bit on the Why: returning and engaged visitors are strongly correlated with the completion of on-site business goals. 

You probably already know this instinctively based on your own online behavior. If you frequent a brand’s website, there’s a high chance that you’ve developed a relationship with that brand, and therefore are also likely to purchase from that brand. 

If there’s a particular online retailer that you visit often, then that’s probably one of the first places that you’ll go when you’re ready to purchase something. If there’s an online publication you visit on a regular basis, then you’d probably trust them as an information source for a myriad of possible topics, and would probably consider paying for premium content. 

There’s a fair bit of research that has been conducted on the topic. Gallup recently surveyed the public ahead of the expected economic slump to understand if consumer spending was in the midst of a downturn: 

“…The upshot is that consumers are spending money, but they’re more inclined to spend it only with businesses they feel good about.

Our data reveals that a customer who is fully engaged represents an average 23% premium in terms of share of wallet, profitability, revenue, and relationship growth compared with the average customer.”

In other words, loyalty is a primary driver of revenue. Therefore a loyal visitor generates more revenue. 

A recent benchmark study from Wolfgang Digital also tells an interesting story: 

There is a high correlation between session duration and conversion. Simply put, people who stick around on a site tend to buy more. 

Barilliance study examined the correlation between visitors returning and adding items to their cart:

Users who come back are users who buy

We know loyalty drives business and that optimizing for it as an interim goal on the path to higher-value conversions makes a lot of sense. The challenge is – how do we measure it? 

The Loyalty Loophole

Measurement is a constant challenge for any marketer. It’s complicated enough when you’re measuring a specific user action (like a newsletter sign-up, for example). Since that’s the case, how can you quantify something as abstract as “loyalty”? 

You can see some of this in your Google Analytics account under “direct” traffic —these are the users who have typed your URL directly into their browser. 

It likely accounts for a big chunk of your traffic, and if you’re measuring against some sort of goal, it’s probably a primary source. Though, there’s a big problem with that “direct” category in Google Analytics. Those users didn’t pull your URL out of thin air. Their journey started somewhere, and attributing that traffic is incredibly complicated. 

You may look at the “Return Visitor” metric, but again, that gives you only a partial view and can’t account for the source of the traffic. 

Time on site, pages per session, and bounce rate are in the mix as well, of course. 

These options can give you a bit of insight, but there’s certainly nothing to optimize around. 

There’s no clear conversion action that you can set and work with as an anchor. What’s more, these metrics only account for single sessions. There are very few options for looking at these metrics in aggregate and over time.

This is the starting point that we at Keywee decided to tackle. What if there was a way to frame loyalty as a clear and actionable metric? 

We created one: the Loyalty Score

Loyalty Score is a factor of page visits and page views that is measured over a 28 day period, giving marketers a clear and qualitative measure of their campaigns. Marketers can compare their acquisition campaigns, understand which ones drive the highest Loyalty Score, and then optimize toward increasing that score. 

Over the next few years, publishers will have to continue to aim for moving targets. Using Loyalty Score, we hope that we make the bullseye a bit easier to reach. 

By Inbar Yagur