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Thinking about engagement, not clicks — the case of Delfi

What makes the readers of a general news website Delfi spend up to 15 min on it and how their audience engagement methods can be adopted by others.

Delfi is a major digital media group operating in Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, proving daily news on everything from politics to gardening. But what makes it stand out is the impressive time readers spend on it – around 10-15 minutes or several times the average for European peers. How did Delfi achieve those results and what can we learn from its experience? 

At first glance the Delfi portal feels like a supermarket – there are materials covering every topic. There’s videos about the Doha World Athletics Championship by a correspondent on the ground (an expensive piece of journalism), news about the Lithuanian pension system, what members of parliament drive, Brexit and everything in between. 

Scrolling down you see celebrities, Lithuania’s used car market, sports and travel. Nothing out of the ordinary so far. But the front page is endless: there’s an agro-column with in-depth reporting worthy of a dedicated trade magazine. Delfi has a full automotive section brimming with original content, from industry economics to tips for driving on cold medication (the main tip – check the label). While most of the articles wouldn’t stand out on any news site, Delfi is unique in the sheer volume and breadth of in-depth original content – they really do it all.

Delfi.lt manages to get monthly pageviews in the 28-34 million range – an impressive feat in a country of just 2.8 million people

But digging deeper, there is one fact that will make any editor or media manager sit up straight – the statistics. Not only does Delfi.lt (the Lithuanian edition) manage to rack up pageview counts in the 28-34 million range per month – an impressive feat in a country of just 2.8 million people – it also manages to keep those readers longer.

The average site visit duration for Delfi.lt hovers between 10 to 15 minutes (the team notes that the average reader uses close to three devices, implying an actual time on site of over half an hour). For comparison, its biggest Lithuanian rival 15min.lt has an average visit duration about 8.5 minutes. European peers score even lower. Spain’s giant El Pais has about 6 minutes, while Germany’s Der Speigel has a bit above 4 minutes.

(All statistics taken from analytics service Similarweb. Yes, we know they vary from Google Analytics and other sources, but they give an understanding of the overall picture). 

Nor is this unique to the Lithuanian edition. Since it first started functioning as a news aggregator in 1999 (it started producing own content in 2004), Delfi has been producing content in Latvian, Estonian, Polish, English and Russian languages – all strong performers. In Latvia, it is the most influential and trustworthy media according to the survey conducted by the Latvian Ministry of Culture. 

How did they do it? And more importantly, is it possible to replicate their strategy in other media?

Innovations leveraging market leadership

Džina Donauskaitė, director of the Lithuanian Journalism Center, explains the success of the site in part by the fact that Delfi was one of the first players to create original local content.

“Other media were in no hurry to go online. Later legacy media were pushed to do so by the market crisis. But Delfi was already there,” she told The Fix. In brief, the media group conquered the online Baltic markets before anyone else.

But being first is not enough – you need to keep moving forward. According to Donauskaitė the company is very serious about bringing in different innovations, as with a successful pivot to video. “Delfi launched internet TV which is very popular since people spend more time watching live video, online discussions, programs,” she said.

“Other media were in no hurry to go online. Later legacy media were pushed to do so by the market crisis. But Delfi was already there”

Džina Donauskaitė, Director of the Lithuanian Journalism Cente

The website’s comments section has also been a big numbers driver, Donauskaitė noted. “It has a very long history. Under some publications, the number of comments reaches several hundred. People spend more time online reading other people’s comments and writing their own,” she explained, joking reading comments often takes longer than reading the story themselves.

Delfi has a long experience with user generated content (UGC), which often helps provide additional context or plug gaps when no reporters are on the scene. Perhaps more importantly, stories with UGC are more compelling and attention-grabbing for readers.

Donauskaitė believes that much of Delfi‘s success comes to successful audience engagement strategy, building a hub of sorts for readers. Whether this can be replicated is a different story, she notes. “If readers are already used to Facebook [as a discussion platform], it might be the case that you won’t be able to attract them and make them spend time on your platform.

Aiming for quality, not loud headlines

Legacy, however, is not Delfi‘s only secret. The extremely high time spent on the site is not by accident, CEO Vytautas Benokraitis told The Fix. Rather, its a question of metrics.

The company shunned traditional performance indicators like clicks or reach, and for the last three years the editorial team focused on one number: time spent on the site and high reader engagement.

“Trying to catch the audience with loud headlines is a strategy from the past. We need to deliver higher quality content, especially in terms of video”

Delfi CEO Vytautas Benokraitis

“Two years ago we decided that our future is based strongly on video. This is not a great surprise that stories with video or multimedia elements are more successful in catching the audience’s attention,” Benokraitis commented on the strategy. “Trying to catch the audience with loud headlines is a strategy from the past. We need to deliver higher quality content, especially in terms of video.”

This approach is in line with the broader trend identified by a report by the Reuters Institute back in 2016, which predicted newsrooms would shift focus from numbers to audience engagement – particularly in video. Of the 130 leading editors, CEOs and digital leaders surveyed, 79% said they would be investing more in online news videos.

Delfi certainly seems to, once again, be reaping the rewards of being a first-mover. A poll commissioned by the outlet showed that Delfi TV beat out all major TV platforms online – 33% of respondents said they watched Delfi TV, the best result compared to all the other local players.

A survey of viewers shows that Delfi TV is most viewed platform, at 33% of respondents

But producing video content is part of a bigger strategy that also involves distribution. Large networks offer more content to viewers, so Delfi tries not to force viewers to come to their platform, but instead to distribute their materials through all channels, from YouTube to Facebook and Instagram. And, most recently, the launch of a linear Delfi TV channel. 

“We duplicate our stories on all platforms and it helps to increase the time users spend reading or watching Delfi,” emphasized Benokraitis. He believes this strategy may be duplicated or adopted by any other media. But there are many small details that need to be kept in mind. 

These include the variety of video formats offered to audiences, the motivation and organisation of work within the team itself, as well as channels and distribution methods. “I think this kind of strategy can be copied, but it’s quite hard. It depends on how open you are to new trends and more and more platforms,” he concludes.  

At the end of the day, it’s probably fair to say that other media will struggle to replicate Delfi‘s success – the company has consistently pushed to be a first-mover and innovate, giving a dominating position in many aspects of the market. Most recently, it has launched a subscription-based magazine, Delfi Plus, implementing a paywall which most of the market is holding off from (Lithuania is behind in paywall launch vs. other Baltic markets, which already have many major media running paid content sections).

But more so than the specific moves, it may be worth looking at the general approach. Rather than waiting for the market to change, Delfi has consistently chased innovation – and been rewarded for it.

Source of cover photo: https://g4.dcdn.lt/images/pix/delfi-english-70712886.jpg 

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