State of the TechSideline Union 2018, Part 2: The Challenges We Face

Lane Stadium Skipper
(Photo by Ivan Morozov)

Thanks for the many comments on The State of the TechSideline Union, Part 1. As I type this, there are 112 comments on that article, including my responses. Sorry I couldn’t answer all the comments, but there were too many, in addition to emails and message board posts. But I read them all.

Part 2 is up next: The Challenges We Face. It occurs to me that following Part 1 with this topic is going to make things sound like gloom and doom, but that’s not my intent. Many of you took the things I said in Part 1 to be some sort of harbinger of doom, but that’s not it at all. Some comments were even along the lines of “sorry about the downturn,” but if you go back and read it, I (mostly) wasn’t describing a downturn at all. Subscriptions are flat, TPA revenue (third party ad revenue) has risen but has plateaued and is starting to fall, and sponsorships are at a peak. So, good news-bad news there.

The good news is that we have done a good job with all three revenue streams, but the bad news is that still doesn’t get us where we need to be.

Similarly, this part will sound at times ominous and depressing, but what this part is intended to convey is that we see some trends coming that aren’t good for us, and we must respond to those trends.

The way we choose to respond to those trends will be to leverage our strengths while simultaneously revamping some parts of our operation.

But before we can get to that part, we have to discuss the challenges we see coming. Let’s get started.

The Obvious Challenges

Let’s get a few obvious issues out of the way right off the bat, including some that have already done us a lot of harm. I discussed some or all of them in the first part: mounting competition, social media siphoning off traffic, a message board format double-take that cost us a lot of once-loyal visitors, and poor football and basketball performance for four years that dampened enthusiasm for Virginia Tech athletics.

All those elements combined to greatly reduce traffic over the years. Our current Google Analytics only go back to 2009, and in that year, we served 92.4 million page views. By 2017, our traffic had declined to 53.8 million page views, a drop of about 40 percent.

That sounds dramatic, and in some ways it is. As I detailed in Part 1, we are down about 800 subscribers from our 2009 peak. But due to advances in the online ad serving industry, driven primarily by Google, the network ad (TPA) part of our business has actually grown by about 30 percent in that time frame.

The network ad business grew so phenomenally for the better part of a decade that a site like ours could actually make more money off of it, despite a dramatic drop in page views. But that part of the industry has matured to the point where the only way to grow it is to increase traffic, and increasing traffic is … very, very difficult.

The Switch to Mobile

One challenge I believe we did overcome successfully was the transition to mobile. Here are our statistics for desktop (PC and laptop), mobile (phones), and tablet (iPad) use in the last eight years.

  • 2011: desktop 91%, mobile 9%, tablet 1%
  • 2012: desktop 94%, mobile 9%, tablet 7%
  • 2013: desktop 74%, mobile 14%, tablet 12%
  • 2014: desktop 64%, mobile 20%, tablet 16%
  • 2015: desktop 59%, mobile 25%, tablet 16%
  • 2016: desktop 41%, mobile 41%, tablet 18%
  • 2017: desktop 42%, mobile 44%, tablet 14%
  • 2018 (thru May 13): desktop 39%, mobile 47%, tablet 14%

After years of gradually moving towards mobile use, the percentages accelerated greatly towards mobile in 2016, when mobile use finally