Frequency: Our toughest challenge

In my PublishAsia presentation in Macau I walked through a general business case for social networking as an integrated feature of a news website.

The argument goes like this: We have an audience problem. We can fix our sales incentives, train our people, tune our pricing and our packaging, and replace leadership as necessary. But at the end of the day we're going to hit a very hard wall. That wall is available advertising inventory that meets the advertisers' needs.

That inventory comes from audience, from reach (unique users) multiplied by frequency (pageviews per user).

And while the reach numbers may look good, the frequency numbers suck.

It's even worse than the raw pageview-driven ad inventory would suggest. An effective advertising campaign requires repetition of the message until you really, really understand that Geico is so easy even a caveman can do it. There's an old ad-biz rule of thumb that a message has to be repeated seven times to be understood. If your average user visits your site twice a month, how can you possibly deliver effective ad campaigns?

We know that the tools of social networking -- connections, activities, notifications -- are powerful tools for driving frequency. But they're effective only among the minority of users who use them.

That's not enough.

There is no single solution to this problem. So we need to be looking for a broader toolkit of partial solutions, social networking being just one part of that toolkit.

What else works -- measurably?

Some obvious possibilities:

  • Frequent news updating. Works for news junkies; ineffective for everybody else.
  • RSS feeds that are limited to headlines and summaries. Works for people who want to read the rest of the story; can work against you with people who only want an overview.
  • Newsletters that promote and link back to the site. I get one of these every day from NBC, but for some reason it's hard to get journalists to write them. Maybe we need to cut news staffs and hire marketers so we can get people to read the news?
  • Games and promotions that require repeat visitation. Maybe our websites need to take a hint from the Brit papers, with their Wingo and such.
  • Applications embedded in other social networks (i.e. Facebook). So far what I'm hearing is that these deliver very limited payback. Are they worth it?

I'm looking for success stories here -- even partial success stories. But failure stories would be useful, too.