It's hard to blame the likes of Guardian.co.uk and MailOnline for making such a fuss about last week's ABCe online "circulation" figures. After all, their overarching print brands have had little to shout about in another year of falling circulations and advertising revenue.
In case you missed it, the online ABC figures for September showed that for the first time, three newspapers' websites, Guardian.co.uk, Telegraph.co.uk and MailOnline, broke through the 30 million unique user barrier. And by some margin. Cue widespread back-slapping after some spectacular year-on-year rises.
Rises so strong, in fact, that some amused cynics in the industry suggested that they could have been created by rooms full of trained chimpanzees pressing the refresh button to revisit said newspaper sites.
In addition to celebrations at the newspapers involved, the figures prompted a fair bit of good old-fashioned rivalry and mud-slinging. The kind of excitement and desire for one-upmanship rarely created these days by the release of the "analogue" ABCs.
First we received The Guardian's statement crowing about reclaiming top place, three months after being usurped by MailOnline. Then the Mail bit back with a press release stating that it's the only publisher to release a daily UK unique user figure.
But how much do these figures really matter to advertisers? Despite growing audiences, online revenues continue to lag well behind print on a cost-per-thousand basis and while increasingly an add-on to agency print deals, there remains a suspicion that newspapers will always struggle to fund this content from advertising and, should they ask readers to pay for it, they can wave goodbye to those 30 million plus figures.
1. ABCe, which was first launched in 1996, measures the total number of users of a website, whether it's via internet or mobile, both in worldwide numbers and in the UK.
2. It's not all been plain sailing. Back in July, ABCe received some pretty robust criticism from Martin Clarke, the publisher of MailOnline. Clarke's site had just snatched leadership from Guardian.co.uk so he could hardly be accused of sour grapes when he suggested that ABCe was of less use to advertisers than other research tools. He said: "These monthly figures give the same weight to a random visitor who lands on a site once a month and looks at one page as one who visits loyally every day ... and consumes dozens of articles." Maybe, but that didn't deter MailOnline and others from hanging out the bunting last week.
3. Guardian.co.uk captured top spot among UK newspaper websites, having lost the crown to MailOnline, with June's figures. It has traffic of 32,953,433, a rise of 36.25 per cent year on year. It also remained the most popular website among UK users with 11,822,653 unique users. A rise that Emily Bell, the director of digital content at Guardian News & Media, puts down to "our sustained investment in web content". She highlighted "TV" content and stronger listings sections on the site as key reasons for the increase.
4. Telegraph.co.uk captured second place with a 35.17 per cent rise in users to 31,016,789 per month. Its UK users totalled 9,097,823.
5. MailOnline, meanwhile, fell from first to third place but also broke the 30 million barrier with 30,042,463 users, a massive 67.71 per cent hike on a year before. Its UK user figure was 9,487,073, which meant that it overtook The Sun to become the UK's second-most-popular newspaper site with UK readers, and it also attempted to capture the high ground by claiming to be the only UK newspaper to publish a daily average of unique users: 661,093. Giving advertisers, arguably, a clearer insight into its daily performance and the ability to view the site in comparison with daily print products.
6. SunOnline, which includes News of the World content, as well as page3.com, had 22,994,391 unique users - a month-on-month decline but a 45.69 per cent year-on-year rise. Its sister News International site Times Online delivered 18,502,839 unique users, representing a year-on-year rise of 9.89 per cent.
WHAT IT MEANS FOR ...
- There continues to be debate over whether ABCe figures provide robust enough data for advertisers, especially because the raw data measures total traffic, and doesn't distinguish between frequent and casual users or take account of daily fluctuations.
- Independent web-monitoring companies such as Hitwise and comScore provide alternatives but, on the whole, the newspaper industry deserves credit for providing a digital equivalent to complement its traditional research.
- The latest figures provide cheer for newspaper groups in hard times. At least online audiences are growing significantly even if fewer readers are buying newspapers.
- However, the large issue remains of attracting ad revenue to follow these audiences. A significant amount of this total traffic is from overseas so of less interest to domestic advertisers and cost per thousand online still trails significantly behind print equivalents (for instance, Associated Newspapers, which runs MailOnline, revealed that though digital ad revenues increased 15 per cent in the six months to the end of March, these amounted to just £5 million of a total ad revenue of £184 million).
- Media owners such as Guardian News & Media and Telegraph Media Group have integrated online sales with print sales in a bid to address this.
- Media agencies clearly see the potential of newspaper sites as user volumes increase. Many, including the likes of MediaCom, OMD UK and MPG, have restructured their print buying teams to also handle buying across newspaper websites as part of integrated packages.