Meaty news topics are popular – and more profitable

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: A news editor who pays too close attention to web analytics — especially in pursuit of building page-view inventories for advertising — will surely end up serving readers a steady diet of sugary desserts. Lindsay Lohan is the cake and Tiger Woods’ divorce is the ice cream in this scenario.

Hamburger cake (photo by bunchofpants)

Hamburger cake (photo by bunchofpants)

What if I told you that readers actually prefer meat and potatoes? Better yet, what if I said those servings are more valuable to the publisher because they make more money than the fluff? (Picture serving New York steak, not ground round.)

Too good to be true? The folks at Perfect Market assumed so, but went ahead and did a study anyway. They were happily surprised by the results, which suggests that readers are actually interested in meaty subjects. And their interest in those subjects pays more in advertising revenue for the publisher.

Now that’s juicy.

“In the current world of media change, news publishers are constantly asking ‘how do we make more money?’” said Tim Ruder, Chief Revenue Officer . “The assumption has been either it’s trend-chasing, or entertainment posing as news, or news being delivered as entertainment that would make money. But issues that matter to people still have high levels of reader interest. And, thankfully, high levels of advertiser demand.”

Perfect Market, which has a dog in this fight because it gets paid to help publishers monetize news content, conducted a study of 20 news publishers during the summer of 2010. Dubbed the Vault Index Summer 2010, it had a sample of some 15 million articles and found that the top 10 subjects in audience interest and rate of return for advertising had nothing to do with celebrities or gossip. The most valuable content focused on policy and pocketbook issues, the Gulf oil disaster, jobs and the mortgage crisis. From the press release:

… while the Lindsay Lohan sentencing and other celebrity coverage drove significant online traffic for major news publishers, articles about unemployment benefits, the Gulf oil spill, mortgage rates and other serious topics were the top-earning news topics based on advertising revenue per page view.

We’ve all seen the most-viewed and most-emailed lists on news sites and despaired over the sensational lineup represented there some days. The list that editors and publishers should be paying attention to is “most valuable,” not most popular.

“We’ve been working with a number of publishers individually and we started to see signs,” Ruder said. “So we thought it would be good to take a look across a number of sites. And we were happily surprised at the findings, which were counter to conventional wisdom.”

Here are the top 10 subjects, ranked by a combination of traffic and advertising revenue data based on advertising revenue per thousand page views (RPM). The 20 publishers in the study were mostly newspaper sites, plus other online news publishers, of varying sizes from across the U.S.

Most Valuable News Topics – Summer 2010:
1. Unemployment Benefits
2. Gulf Recovery Jobs
3. Egg Recall
4. Gulf Oil Spill
5. Mortgage Rates
6. Jobs
7. Obama
8. Social Security
9. Immigration Reform
10. Proposition 8

“We monitor our numbers pretty closely,” said Sheigh Crabtree, VP of audience development for Perfect Market. “The topics we saw consistently rise up were clearly in the public interest and clearly in advertisers’ interest. This is important for publishers to note as they are thinking about how to allocate resources.”

Perfect Market is based in Altadena, a Los Angeles suburb, and is a spin-off of Idealab, which helped Overture develop a paid search model before its acquisition by Yahoo in 2003. The company has raised more than $20 million in venture funding to date and counts Tribune Co. as one of its investors. It helps publishers with “revenue relevancy tools” which sounds like a fancy way of saying “make more money with your content.” They will have a booth at the upcoming Online News Association conference if you’re interested in learning more.

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