Audience development is the process of attracting new users and engaging current ones.

Real audience development is a long-game that requires relationship building and a true understanding of why users come to your site, why they stay, and what will make them tell others. For the digital publisher, the primary focus of audience development is driving more pageviews to the website, to then increase revenue via methods like display advertising, product sales or ecommerce.

Why It’s Essential

This year, Freestar is investing in audience development as an added value service to our publishers, acknowledging the important role traffic plays in the overall revenue. From the most basic approach of increasing traffic to increase ad revenue, to the more advanced discovery of how to align production resources to audience sources most valuable, growing users should always be part of the plan.

1. Consider the audience coming from organic search. The user has strong intent, which means they have opened a browser to search for a specific thing. They typically will go from the search engine result page (SERP) to a website, where they are likely to scroll through the post with a genuine interest in the topic and content. This interest leads to higher engagement on the page, more viewable ads, and higher CPMs. SEO is a vital piece of audience development, as the most effective tactic to increase organic search.

2. It’s also important that a publisher’s traffic comes from a variety of places. If it doesn’t, diversifying those sources should always be a goal for audience growth. It’s not uncommon for Google Search to make up 50-60% of a publisher’s traffic, followed by drivers like Pinterest, Facebook, Paid sources, newsletters, LinkedIn, Twitter and Google Discover.

3. Investing resources into audience development provides another avenue for optimization, outside of the ads. Many uncontrollable factors impact a CPM such as advertiser budgets, seasonality and content niche. Ad layout optimizations can only go so far. Audience growth initiatives look at content optimization opportunities, technical website best practices and data to find audience gaps.

How to Identify the Audience

To understand a user’s behavior while on your website, understand two things — your data and your industry. In Google Analytics, the first two areas I would suggest getting familiar with are:


To identify where your audience already exists, the source/medium report is helpful. In the left navigation rail, go to Acquisition => All Traffic => Source/Medium. As previously mentioned, it’s common to see Google organic as the top source for publishers. Other common publisher traffic sources are Facebook, Pinterest, LinkedIn, YouTube, Google Discover, email and News aggregators.

Traffic labeled as direct can also be in the top 3 sources. Direct traffic isn’t something focused on as part of audience development. Although, if too high a percentage of overall traffic, it can be an indicator of IVT or suspicious activity. You want a more temperate percentage of direct traffic because it’s more likely that users are coming to your site from sources like Google. High levels of direct traffic could be attributed to dark social, organic search or certain mobile apps, there’s no real way to tell.

All Pages

To identify what content your audience likes best, I recommend looking under Behavior => Site Content => All Pages. This report shows posts that receive the most traffic. From those URLs, you can see the topics most popular with your users. You can take it one step further by adding a secondary dimension for source/medium. You’ll now see the most popular posts, and where the audience is coming from.

Also valuable from this view is the average time on page and the bounce rate, both engagement metrics. Time on page is exactly that, and bounce rate is the average percentage of people who leave after visiting that single site page. They are both useful metrics to examine the user experience for that content.

How to Get Started

Build an in-house team

I was first introduced to the concept of audience development in 2015. With the rise of digital-only brands like PopSugar, Refinery 29 and Bustle, our own content sites were beginning to feel the heat from shiny, new (and well-staffed) competitors. The solution was to build an in-house audience development team, each team member specializing in a different audience area.

Mine was organic search (SEO) and shortly after, syndication partnerships came my way. I was rounded out by a paid search specialist, an email marketer, and a social media expert. We focused on educating editorial departments and operational leads on best practices and testing various strategies we thought might work. In the first year, traffic to our web properties increased by an incredible 40%.

If you have the resources, an in-house audience development team can be an effective route. In many ways acting as the liaison between operational, editorial, and reporting. Since this team spans across many departments, it works better when internal teams communicate and silos are eliminated.

Audience Development at Freestar

For enterprise publishers interested in ad monetization with Freestar, audience development support is part of our service.

To assume that a publisher is aware of Google’s latest best practice, an algorithm update, or a new traffic source, is to put revenue at risk. If we, as an ad monetization partner, can proactively inform of these things, while optimizing ad strategy at the same time, the objective becomes a healthy, stable business instead of a purely revenue-focused model.

The long-term success of your business is important to ours. To learn more, we’d love to hear from you.