AI will cost you casual visitors, but what if it boosted audience engagement amongst the readers that really count?

The radical changes imposed by social media and generative search are threatening news website traffic. With traffic predicted to fall by 25% by 2026, artificial intelligence is emerging as a crucial lever for engaging and retaining the readers who matter most to the media.

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We hear a lot about how news publishers are facing a dual threat to traffic. Social media is deprioritising it, even stopping it altogether, while traditional search is set to shift from proposing a list of links, to answering queries directly through the power of SGE (Search Generative Experience). Gartner predicts search engine traffic to sites will fall by 25% by 2026.

After years of stressing about how best to be showcased in search and social it now seems that traditional news risks being simply erased altogether from both.  Forbes tells us that fewer than 1% of readers of news articles now come from social media. AdWeek reports that SGE could take away 60% of publisher’s traffic.  Clients of Upgrade Media are rightly worried. 

Any new media knows, however, that it’s a lot easier to write scare headlines, than more nuanced analyses.  Delve deeper, and there are some fascinating reports looking at how AI could be used to boost audience engagement, and in turn translate that into paid subscription and retention.

Remember the days when the only test of whether an article was good was the ‘gut feeling’ of the editor? With the wealth of statistics available now on CTRs, engagement time, etc. we are getting a far better understanding of our readers than the guesswork and presumption that we used to work with.

AI can do that dull, but essential analysis, identifying learnings and proposing modifications in real time.  AI can help define Churn Risk factors, assign scores to them, identify patterns in subscriptions and cancelled or lapsed subscriptions. It can help identify and propose premium content, create pricing strategies for it, and AB test them. AI can help us understand readers better, and having done so it can help recommend our own content to the right reader, at the right moment.  For some ideas about AI and engagement/retention take a look at this report on AI and audience engagement by JournalismAI Collab, a journalist think tank at the London School of Economics.

It remains to be seen if AI is going to strip news publishers of the casual visitors that we have grown accustomed to harvesting from social and search, but it looks increasingly likely. 

What we should be focusing on, however, is enhancing our value to the dedicated readers by helping serve them what they want, when they want it.  AI may represent a huge threat to visitor numbers, but it’s also the most potent weapon we have for making our readers happy, and happy to pay.

About Upgrade Media: Upgrade Media is a creative agency, strategy consultancy, training center and media transformation think tank, through its brand New World Encounters.

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