The launch of Facebook's Instant Articles left media companies with two choices: (a) integrate deeply with Facebook — fast load times! better experience! — or (b) skip this opportunity and risk falling further behind in the traffic race driven from Facebook. Given that Facebook has become such a huge traffic driver to so many media sites, in reality there's no choice to make. Yet while Facebook and, of course, Google drive significant traffic volume, that traffic is not always the best. It's often to one page only, and for very short sessions (especially on mobile). It doesn't have to be this way.
Before the internet, when readers picked up a newspaper, magazine, book, or pretty much any piece of media, they started at the front. An editor chose what went first, what was shown biggest, and what might appear "above the fold." This was the "front door," and it mattered.
But as media began to flourish online, this shifted dramatically. The "side door" became the new "front door." Traffic came directly to articles through links indexed by Google, and links shared through Facebook, Twitter, Digg, Reddit, email, etc. Importantly, users who entered through the side door compounded the metrics that media companies could monetize.
Subsequently, editors have moved from deciding what goes on the front door to managing data and optimizing getting the most traffic from SEO or social. Some startup media companies are now going as far as giving up on owning houses altogether, choosing instead to live inside the halls of social platforms like Facebook.
No question, side door traffic is important. But the truly valuable and beloved companies have built a real front door — one that converts to repeatable, direct visits.
Social media companies understand this, and traditional media companies could stand to learn from them. Instagram is a great example of a company that started through the side door, and quickly transitioned users to its own version of a front door. Users who came to Instagram via links shared on Facebook and Twitter quickly learned to visit Instagram directly. Every opportunity for exposure of this content was converted into users who began signing up for Instagram and found themselves sucked into it as their preferred method of viewing photos and content from celebrities, media, and friends.
Jonah Peretti discussed the potential of recognizing your distributed audiences and finding ways to monetize them during his recent keynote at SXSW. But he didn't touch on the significant numbers that BuzzFeed sees in their direct audience on site. With over 200 million uniques, BuzzFeed has developed a dedicated, loyal, and fanatical audience which has become a key part of spreading into the larger distributed audiences.
The Three Audiences for Any Online Property
There is a framework for how to think about users in these different groups — the loyalists, the subscribers, and the casuals — and why it's important to get as many of them as you can to regularly come to your front door.
Loyalists are what make companies worth billions of dollars. Loyalists love a property enough to come to it directly and regularly. They're an audience that is sticky and not going away. At The Huffington Post, when a big news story would break, the front page traffic would surge — not just the side door traffic from the article of the story. People had learned to think of the site in the context of important news. This applies to non-media properties, too. For Uber, this means opening the app when we need a ride.
Loyalists are also vital to growing the subscribers and casuals audience. It is the loyalists who share content seconds after publish, creating opportunities for the company to grow the subscribers and casuals.
Subscribers come back to a property over and over, though often through the side door. Subscribers will like a property on Facebook, follow them on Twitter, and/or subscribe to their emails. Their discovery mechanism is still Facebook, Twitter, email, etc., but they've decided to consciously invite that property into their content stream. They often engage with that content, clicking to sites as often as 10x a week and frequently sharing the content with their network.
Subscribers are living in a world where their feed is getting increasingly confusing and overly saturated. They will miss most of the content from the properties they subscribe to — especially as the algorithmic feeds on those platforms shift.
If an online property is built correctly, the casuals should make up the largest audience. This is the group of people who come by and visit when they are exposed to an interesting link. In the best cases, casuals have become familiar enough with the property to recognize it in their streams, but they're not yet enticed to dive deeper and start actively following that property.
If the most successful media companies were tracking and releasing their casual audience numbers, they would be well past 10 billion and likely nearing 20–30 billion impressions. For media companies, it's increasingly vital that they find ways to monetize these audiences, giving opportunities to premium sponsors to play a part in this extended reach.
The Long View on Conversion
When a casual user visits a site for the first time, the property often tries very hard to convert them. Immediately, the user is bombarded with pop-up screens that exhort them to "like us on Facebook" or "subscribe by email," or ads which attempt to monetize the user. All of these experiences can scare the casual user right off of the site.
It's better to play it cool. Perhaps wait until the third time a casual user visits to say, "Hi! We see you here a lot. Do you want to subscribe?"
It takes time to do this, but the right investments can lead to a significant number of loyalists. With RebelMouse, we see this happen with clients all the time. In 2017, RebelMouse powered new media darling Axios, which saw 40M+ page views just three months after launch. In 2015, we saw this happen with The Dodo, who had a single video on Facebook reach more than 30 million casuals. The foundation is built on a core group of loyalists who make The Dodo their home screen, install the app, and come back through native notifications. This has allowed their organic reach to grow exponentially and build a material subscriber audience in a short period of time.
The best companies need to prove that they can use the side door not only as an endgame, but as a way to convert subscribers and casuals into real front door traffic. Companies who abandon the prerogative to build a loyalist audience are deciding — consciously or not — to build a much less ambitious business, one that relies on an ecosystem that can change its rules on a whim. They're also unlikely to build the same size of extended audience because they lack the consistent seeding of content that loyalists bring.
This article was co-authored by RebelMouse CEO + founder Paul Berry + product guru and Greylock Partner Josh Elman. The original version of this article was published in May 2015. It was updated in September 2017.