Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Time is not on their side

Before newspaper publishers congratulate themselves on the recent 10.9% increase in the time readers spend on their web sites, they ought to take a look at how much better the competition is doing.

The Newspaper Association of America, the industry-funded trade group, reported this week that nearly 57 million Americans spent an average of “more than 41 minutes” perusing newspaper web sites in September. That’s a respectable gain of 10.9% from the previous year.

But the 41 minutes spent at newspaper websites in a month is fully 40% lower than the average 1 hour and 40 minutes that visitors linger at the 10 busiest web sites in a month, according to traffic statistics compiled by Nielsen/NetRatings in April.

While surfers are spending an average of 41 minutes per month on newspaper web sites, they are averaging more than six hours per month in visits to AOL, more than three hours at Yahoo and more than two hours at MySpace (see table below).

Putting it another way, the average visitor spends 1.37 minutes daily at a newspaper web site vs. more than 12 minutes a day at AOL, more than six minutes daily at Yahoo and more than four minutes a day at MySpace.

It might be argued that it isn’t fair to compare newspaper sites with the likes of AOL, Yahoo and MySpace.

The web biggies, after all, are loaded with sticky, audience-participation features like IM, email, search, music, video and personal web sites that not only suck up lots more online time but also deliver billions of ad-sponsored page views.

On the other hand, visitors can zip in less than two minutes through the typical newspaper site, where, in the best of cases, the day-old news is enriched by a few wonkish blogs.

I am not arguing that newspapers should emulate the mega-portals, a costly strategy that most likely would fail at this late date. But they do need to get a lot more creative, if they hope to save themselves through sustained and robust online growth.

To succeed in the digital realm, pubishers must pay scrupulous attention to the indigenous competition on the Internet – and start developing products and services far more relevant to their readers and advertisers (and, significantly, their non-readers and non-advertisers) than they are today.

With only 1.37 minutes a day to captivate online readers, time is not on their side.