The value of showing your users how much they love you

By Steve Outing

Take a look at the left column of this blog, at the top just under the masthead, and you’ll see something new. It’s an experimental counter that tracks your personal usage on just this site. [Clarification: you may not see the counter widget until you’ve clicked around to a story or two on this site.] Called SurfShare and developed by NewsCloud‘s Jeff Reifman, in time you’ll see more sites carry this widget.

Thus, for those participating sites that you visit, you’ll get a quick visual cue of how often you view those sites. It’s valuable feedback (I think), because with all the websites and blogs that most people visit in a typical day, you may not be fully aware of which ones you frequent often. (Be sure to enable your Facebook Connect connection on SurfShare, then it will soon track you across different computers, not just a single one.)

For publishers, the SurfShare personalized, site-specific stats for each user represent opportunity to make money by identifying your most faithful and frequent visitors. I’ll explain that in a bit.

For a more complete explanation of SurfShare, read Reifman’s blog post yesterday announcing the alpha launch.

SurfShare already has some nifty features such as, for the site visitor, a searchable, auto-tagged listing of all stories viewed on participating sites, and a widget that shows which of your Facebook friends have read a story; and for the publisher, a widget that shows a specific site’s most popular pages. More useful widgets are coming, Reifman says, such as a feature of that will recommend stories your friends have read.

Now, back to that money thing. I think SurfShare is a smart idea, for one reason, because it helps a site publisher or blogger identify their “best customers” and most-frequent visitors. For example, with SurfShare, Reifman soon will add the ability for a participating site publisher to take actions after an individual user has visited the site, say, 10 times, or read 10 articles.

Examples of what action a publisher might take are many:

  • A blog owner might after a visitor has read 10 articles redirect to a page that says some thing like, “Hey, I noticed that you seem to like my blog! Thanks for being a regular reader. I write this blog in my spare time, and if you’d like me to continue, I’d love it if you click the donate button below and send me whatever amount you’d like to support my writing. Thanks!”
  • On the opposite extreme, a news publisher might decide that once a site visitor has read, say, 10 stories that he/she should start paying, and demand signing up for a micropayment account where each article read costs 1 cent. (This might hook into payments systems like those coming from Journalism Online, BitCents, or Google Checkout, or be part of SurfShare’s future options.)
  • A site owner could use the user tracking to identify the best prospects for premium memberships. For example, The Times (of London) website could offer visitors a discount on its £50-a-year News+ premium online membership after they’ve read 10 articles on the site — and if no response, perhaps an even steeper discount after 20 articles. (See my most recent blog item about Times+.)
  • A news site might notice that a visitor has viewed 10 sports pages, then offer a sports premium membership or suggest an e-commerce purchase (e.g., souvenir Super Bowl book) at a discount.

There are so many possibilities for what a blog or site publisher could experiment with using this approach. While some smart media companies with sophisticated publishing and marketing systems may already have tried such tactics, SurfShare appears as an opportunity for small sites and blogs to take advantage of new revenue-generating strategies based on tracking individual users’ behavior and identifying their best and most loyal online visitors.

Installation involves add a few lines of Javascript to your site, and a WordPress plug-in is planned. You can add your site to SurfShare and pick up the code from this webpage.

I have a bias toward rewarding frequent visitors to a specific website or blog. I’d much rather offer the person who’s read 20 stories on my food-related site in the last week a discount or 2-for-1 meal coupon from an advertising restaurant, or offer a 25% discount on a recipe book that I’ll sell them, than force them to subscribe or start paying per article. Reifman has a differing view and likes the micropayment model. But the great thing about technology like SurfShare is that we can experiment and figure out what works best.

One other thing I like about the SurfShare model is that I think the user feedback of the tracker will motivate heavy users of a site to change their behavior, which might be to financially support the site in some new way. This reminds me very much of the miles-per-gallon (MPG) indicator in my wife’s car, which is a gas-electric hybrid.

Huh? Well, I’ve noticed the impact of that MPG meter on the dash on my driving habits. My car does not have an MPG indicator. Guess what: I find that I drive more smoothly and conservatively in my wife’s car, because that MPG indicator lets me know when I’m being a “bad” driver and wasting gas. In my own car with no such indicator, I tend to drive in my more normal manner: faster, with quicker starts and stops. The indicator in her car alters my behavior.

I think that for heavy users of a particular site, seeing their personal stats could likewise change their behavior. They may be more willing to support a site knowing how much they use it. It will be up to publishers and academic researchers to figure out how best to persuade such people to part with some of their money — whether by voluntary donation, making a prompted online purchase, buying a premium memberships, etc.

Author: Steve Outing Steve Outing is a Boulder, Colorado-based media futurist, digital-news innovator, consultant, journalist, and educator. ... Need assistance with media-company future strategy? Get in touch with Steve!