OPINION: Beware of falling for online readers hype

Newspapers have recently turned up the volume on some very large and macho-sounding statistics to offset the discordant sounds of tumbling sales.

Ian Monk
Ian Monk

Huge numbers quoted by print media alongside their monthly independently audited circulation figures show unique visitors to their websites. Beguilingly to the marketing and communications industries, they seem to indicate massively expanded audiences captivated by the online versions of trusted media brands such as the Daily Mail, The Daily Telegraph and The Sun.

The latest ABC figures for national newspapers show that The Sun online was visited in February by 12.5 million unique users, while the Daily Mail's February figure was a whopping 17 million.

The publicising of online user figures has coincided with a growing awareness in the PR world that online versions of newspapers tend to be hungrier for content than their offline counterparts.

With fewer restrictions on time and space, they can be easier for publicists to deal with than the hard-pressed, hard-nosed operators of offline news, features and picture desks. And, in keeping with the zeitgeist of social networking, they are amenable to consumer-generated content, thus giving the creative PRO real scope to project brand messages.

Invest the story with credibility, pictures and a dash of video footage - and endless cyberspace is available. You want national press, we've secured it, clients are told. The Sun, Telegraph, Mail - see the links to the coverage. Who needs cuttings? Indeed, the multimedia platforms offer a golden age of opportunities to our business.

But a reality check is required before ditching the cuttings book. Just go back to the figures for a moment. The Sun - offline circulation 3.1 million, unique web users 13 million. The Times - offline sales 650,000, unique web users 14.5 million. Too good to be true? You bet it is. While the offline figures reflect daily sales, the online figures show the number of monthly users.

Additionally, offline buyers tend to read their newspaper with a measure of diligence. Web users, on the other hand, are more likely to log on for one specific piece of information before logging off without sampling the rest.

While targeting an offline newspaper guarantees hitting a certain demographic, online targeting is far less precise. Almost three-quarters of the Daily Mail's 17 million February users were not even resident in the UK and thus could hardly be aligned with the paper's cherished Middle Britain demographic.

The lessons for publicists are twofold: embrace the additional opportunities and relationships available through online extensions, but beware of passing on all the online numbers hype to clients.

Ian Monk is founder of Ian Monk Associates and a former executive

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