The Texas Tribune has been helping Google to 'quietly experiment' with microsurveys, adding them in August 2011
Two weeks ago Google announced that it had partnered with a group of US publishers to launch microsurveys.
Publishers display a single question and in return they get paid by the market researchers seeking data.
Market research companies pay Google $0.10 a question and Google passes $0.05 cents of that to the publisher.
Google declined our request for an interview but told Journalism.co.uk it has no plans to launch microsurveys beyond the US at present.
Here we look at two US publishers as case studies: the Texas Tribune, which eight months ago added microsurveys, helping Google to "quietly experiment", as Nieman reported, and Adweek, a title that adopted microsurveys a fortnight ago.
Both digital publishers take a different approach to where they place the surveys and in "alternate action" offered, the second choice they give readers who do not want to answer the survey question.
Texas Tribune: data in return for data
The Texas Tribune was launched in November 2009. A little over two years on and the non-profit, non-partisan title has generated $12 million in revenue, coming from a combination of grants, gifts and memberships.
"Our hope is to be break even this year," April Hinkle, chief revenue officer for the Tribune, told Journalism.co.uk.
"It's moved faster than we anticipated from our first business plan."
Content is syndicated through partner news organisations, with television channels, radio station and print publishers receiving content for free.
"It's really just extending our mission to educate Texans," Hinkle explained.
The Tribune now employs 17 full-time reporters and reaches 600,000 unique visitors each month.
Interestingly, nearly 60 per cent of the Tribune's traffic is to its data pages, such the database of public employee salaries, with most readers finding the data via a search engine.
The Tribune opted to put the surveys on the data pages when accessed by search.
"We put our heads together to really place it at a strategic point," Hinkle said.It's a win-win as readers can either answer the question that's served by Google and we get a certain amount of revenue, or they can opt in to the email, or they can abandonApril Hinkle, Texas Tribune
She believes that sometimes readers "have to give to get". "These people are searching information, all the information on our site is free, and we thought this would be a good test."
Google asks publishers to offer an alternate action. Readers can therefore answer the survey or choose to enter their email address to sign up to receive an email.
"We thought about our overall goals and since so much of our site traffic lives in the database area, we really wanted them to know what the Texas Tribune was all about," Hinkle said.
"Our goal is to move people who find us through search to the content areas of our site."
Hinkle and colleagues therefore concluded that the best option to do this was to ask people to opt-in to their email alert system.
"Even if they were just to receive one email alert from us it shows them who we are in greater depth.
"It's a win-win as readers can either answer the question that's served by Google and we get a certain amount of revenue, or they can opt in to the email, or they can abandon."
So how many people do abandon? "We've really watched to see if there have been any complaints and no there has not," Hinkle said.
"I look at the percentage of people who abandon and quite frankly I think people realise that they are not having to pay for the information they are seeking from our site and it's just part of the exercise."
And while readers are not seemingly deterred by the barrier between them and the information they have searched for, the Tribune is turning cents into dollars.
The Tribune added microsurveys in August 2011 and is now making $5,000 a month.
"Now we are earning on average about $5,000 every 30 days from people just answering that one simple question and then going on their way to find the information they were seeking, plus it has helped us build our email database," Hinkle said.Now we are earning on average about $5,000 every 30 days from people just answering that one simple question and then going on their way to find the information they were seeking, plus it has helped us build our email databaseApril Hinkle, Texas Tribune
The money generated by Google microsurveys is just one way the Tribune is diversifying sources of revenue.
While the $5,000 does not represent "the biggest sponsor, it's not the lowest either and it's consistent in terms of revenue production for our site".
"It all adds up and while we have been very successful in fundraising for our site, we have big goals so every bit helps."
Hinkle explained how the Tribune became one of the first news sites to offer Google surveys.
"Early on we received a Google grant and so the relationship was already in place."
A Tribune board member was then introduced to the Google One Pass system and to surveys.
Hinkle was initially skeptical of surveys. "Honestly I thought it would last a few weeks."
Adweek: a metered approach
Adweek added microsurveys to its site as Google made the launch announcement on 29 March.
Doug Ferguson, general manager of digital for the title, told Journalism.co.uk that he concluded that it was worth experimenting with.
"We modeled it out and it seems to have the potential to do something quite interesting", he said, explaining that he believes it is a low risk test.
One of the elements that attracted Ferguson and colleagues is that "we really have the ability to set the dials".
"Some publishers, I have heard, are putting a microsurvey on every single article," Ferguson said, explaining that Adweek has opted for "a more metered approach".
The reader does not see the survey until the second article view and Adweek caps the frequency at which readers see a survey at once per 24 hours.The worst case scenario is that the reader sees one of these per day, and the majority of people won't see them at allDoug Ferguson, Adweek
"The worst case scenario is that the reader sees one of these per day, and the majority of people won't see them at all," Ferguson said.
He explained that after testing to see if the addition of surveys affects traffic, Adweek can "turn up the dial a little bit and increase the frequency".
Asked whether Adweek expects to generate much revenue, perhaps $1,000 or $5,000 a month, Ferguson said: "I don't want to share the exact numbers, but I'm expecting it to be more on the latter side in the low frequency model".
"In a higher frequency model where we would potentially show it on the first article view but cap it at once every 24 hours and that could make a nice chunk of change for the website and offset some of the operating costs."
And Adweek's alternate action to unlock the article? The site has opted for readers answer the market researcher's question, refresh to get a new question or to socially share the article to Facebook or Twitter.
"We are going to test that out quickly but then we are also going to play around with having a newsletter sign up as the alternate action.
"You can imagine that getting a newsletter sign up is worth more than the small little spiff we get for the question."
He also points out, as Hinkle from the Texas Tribune did, that "the nickels add up really quickly".
Microsurveys also helps Adweek to diversify its revenue streams, which include banner advertising, job listings, a self-serve ad platform, is currently launching white papers, and a partnership with social platform Meebo.
Is Ferguson nervous that he could lose or frustrate readers? "Absolutely, that's the big concern."
"We are in the same boat as other digital publishers trying to figure out how to continue to do premium journalism and monetise it.
"Compare the alternatives", Ferguson urged, a paywall or display advertising.
"We used to have a traditional paywall and it didn't make a tonne of money for us."
One way to think of Google microsurveys, Ferguson said, is to "go to your favourite online video site and sit through a 30 second pre-roll to watch a two minute clip".
"I think this is far less intrusive than that and much more easily digestible in terms of doing one little action that takes about five or six seconds."
- For more from the Texas Tribune and Adweek and for reaction from UK publishers and a media analyst, listen to our podcast on Google microsurveys.
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