After one small comment on Twitter about my day spent sweating over spreadsheets, it seems that many people within the IT publishing and PR world are very interested in what I was doing.
Every few months I perform what I call a contributor/traffic analysis. This involves generating a report from the main IT PRO site stats tool that shows the page impressions (PIs) and unique user visits (UUs) generated by author, rather than by article type or section.
I then merge this data with the main contributor expenditure spreadsheet, where we record and track all our freelance spending.
The end result is that we have the traffic generated by an author alongside how much we’ve spent with them over the given period. You divide the amount spent by either the PIs or the UUs and you end up with a cost per PI and a cost per UU, based on a specific author.
It’s not a perfect system, as the PIs and UUs also include legacy content written by that author that was accessed during the given period, not just the new stuff you’ve commissioned and allocated budget for. However, it still provides a valuable metric on the effectiveness of that author’s work to bring in traffic to the site, as well as the cost of acquiring that traffic.
There’s a lot we can do with this data. For example, we can compare the cost of traffic acquisition via a given freelancer’s work against alternative sources, such as newswire copy, pay-per-click (PPC) marketing, traditional marketing, sponsorships, list rental, staging competitions, copy sharing, content licensing deals with overseas or non-competing titles, referral deals with other sites and so on.
Doing this, we can see whether we are achieving a suitable return on investment from our freelance spending, we can benchmark in-house writers against freelance writers and visa versa, we can see which freelancers are popular and unpopular with our readers, highlight popular niche content strands and more.
Why do we do this? As a relatively new publication we re not shackled with the legacy of long-term contracts or historic arrangements with writers. We are also an online pure play, which means all our commercial and editorial focus is directed at the online ecosystem, where readers (or users) wield ultimate power, capable of making or breaking a site with a single shift in web surfing habits.
I honestly believe that in the not too distant future, online publications in all sectors, not just technology, will have to adopt a results-driven approach to freelance commissions in order to maximise revenue and to achieve maximum return from their freelance budgets.
The most likely outcome will be that publications begin paying writers purely on how much traffic an article pulls in. Also likely is that commissioning editors will need to take a more frequent and brutal approach to deciding which freelancers to commission regularly and which to drop from their rotation, based on the kind of metrics I am currently looking at.
What does this mean for freelance writers? For a start it means that freelancers will need to think about their working processes and the relationships they have with the publications that commission them. Right now it is far too common that a freelancer will get a commission, write a piece to a given word count and word rate, file it, invoice and get paid. The freelance writer is almost entirely detached from the process that takes place after the piece is filed and published. This will need to change going forward.
Freelance writers need to maintain responsibility for content and for ensuring it can reach the widest possible online audience even after the copy has been filed.
Things that freelance writers will need to consider and change their working practices to incorporate:
Search Engine Optimisation – This is key to the future of online publishing. All writers, whether they are in-house or freelance need to understand the importance of making copy search engine-friendly. That means understanding how search engines interpret content, how they look for keywords and what relevant keywords are popular at the time of writing and publishing. Writers also need to track the online zeitgeist to understand what search terms, themes and trends are popular, in order to incorporate them, where relevant, into an article.
Content Seeding – With publications looking at the audience traffic an article receives as a measure of success (as well as looking at traditional elements such as whether it is well written, accuracy, relevancy and how current the information is), the writer needs to take on some of the responsibility for promoting that article and extending its reach. That means seeding links to content to relevant locations where the links will bring in additional traffic. Also, think about whether the piece you are writing will appeal to the audience of the popular social bookmarking sites such as Digg, Slashdot, StumbleUpon and Reddit. We want readers to submit your content to these services, and it is in the interests of the writer as well for readers to do this.
Stickiness – This is one of the biggest issues affecting any online publication. A reader has arrived at the site to read a specific article, now how do you keep them there to read more than just the single piece that brought them there? The most effective way of doing this is for the writer to cross link to other relevant content on the site. If you are writing about, for example, the Microsoft Yahoo takeover saga, reference and link back to previous relevant articles that publication has published on the same subject, especially if you wrote them as well.
Comment Generation – Your piece needs to spark debate among readers. It needs to encourage them to post comments, engage and debate other readers on that site. The conversation should not end with your final paragraph, but should stimulate the reader to participate in the conversation, add knowledge and share alternative viewpoints.
Multi-skilling – Online journalism is about more than just writing, it is about providing complete coverage in the most appropriate media form, and doing it in as timely fashion as possible. You are covering an event for a publication; you need to consider visual elements as well as written. Think about how you can incorporate video, audio and images into the piece to maximise the effectiveness of the piece. Waiting for images to be sent over from a company or PR agency may be counterproductive to publishing a timely and informative piece, so be prepared to take your own photos, shoot your own video and record audio content for inclusion in a podcast. You don’t need thousands of pounds of equipment to create audio or visual material that is suitable for publication.