Why Publishers Are Shifting Focus to Engagement Metrics Over Pageviews
Metrics is one of those words… one of those soulless new media words… Modern. Mechanical. Menacing. Say it out loud three times and you risk being forever haunted by a pivot-table demon summoned straight from spreadsheet Hell.
Or maybe that’s just me.
Some (sick) people have been known to get incredibly excited at the prospect of a day-long metrics review session, quite giddy at the prospect of custom dashboards, seasonal benchmarking and super granular behavioral analysis.
But love them or hate them, metrics matter -- the problem for publishers is deciding which metrics matter.
As much as I will always argue for the continuation of a "human touch" around publication planning and content positioning, to deny that the future of publishing is, to a greater or lesser extent, data driven is delusional.
Woe betide the publisher that ignores the power and the value of the audience data that they can, and should, collect around their audience interactions.
The "fire-and-forget" practices that once worked in old-school print are rapidly falling away. Digital pureplays like BuzzFeed built their success obsessing over the tiniest details of audience data and legacy publishers are catching up, connecting the dots between the online and offline behaviors of their audiences.
But equally, to talk about "Data" as if it is some magical publishing singularity waiting to be discovered is beyond wrong-headed. Data is a raw material of absolutely no use until it is molded and manipulated into a meaningful metric.
Although things may not be what they were a year ago at cat-gif central, that’s more to do with VC-pressures than any publishing reality. And BuzzFeed has options because it knows, in minute detail, where its content is shared and by who.
Metrics Are Changing
Our notion of what metrics matter most has evolved over the years. Remember hits?
The meaningless file count of a webpage soon gave way to proper publishing-style headcounts designed to support the sale of digital display advertising in much the same way as circulation figures worked for print. Visitor counts set the scale of publisher reach while pageviews weighed out the attention that published content could attract.
Cookies added a level of individual tracking and analytics technology began to build increasingly complex snapshots of audience behaviors. And while there are unquestionably still content farmers that continue to chase scale with clickbait, publishers serious about a sustainable future are shifting away from straight volume metrics.
That doesn’t mean it’s clear what metrics are most meaningful. In a survey earlier this year, analytics firm Parse.ly highlighted some disagreements around what analytics publishers think are worth paying attention to. Survey respondents still valued pageviews highly – 45% saw them as the best measure of successful content. But more, 50%, marked time on page as being the most useful metric and placed social sharing a very close third with almost 42%.
Loyalty > Scale
In place of visits, views, and clickthroughs, publishers are layering in numbers that demonstrate how much their audience values their content -- across platforms and over a range of formats.
Engagement metrics are the latest focus for publishers looking to bolster CPMs and, increasingly, to convert free readers to paid. And where improving engagement once meant upping time on page, it is now much more sophisticated.
The fragmentation of traffic sources has analysts looking hard at article level behaviors. And they are getting way more granular than whether a visit came from search or a particular social platform. They want to know: do readers coming from Google stay longer? Do Facebook users consume more content than Twitter users? Do Snapchat audiences move on to other articles within the site?
The difficulty in securing new digital display revenue has led to a renewed focus on subscription and membership revenue. Where scale was once the driver, publishers are now interested in audience metrics that identify loyal audience members that will pay for product; from what is the right number of free articles, to which newsletters convert best?
Making Metrics Work
A 2016 report from the Reuters institute emphasized that there is no one right way to do analytics. Instead, “How News Media Are Developing and Using Audience Data and Metrics” noted publishers need the right tools, an organization with the expertise to use them, and a culture that embraces data-informed decision-making.
To make sure that you are working with metrics that will make a difference to your business:
- Fix Your Objectives
Metrics are only meaningful in as much as they demonstrate how effectively you are achieving key business objectives. Siloed, top-down objective setting and analysis is unlikely to work. From increasing ad sales or sponsorship revenue to subscriber conversion, success increasingly depends on a cross-functional efforts. This means adopting metrics that make sense across the enterprise, bringing editorial, sales, marketing, and audience people together.
- Organize the Data
Publishers from The Financial Times to Buzzfeed have spent millions of dollars in developing their own analytics platform. Not every publisher needs that sort of budget, but every publisher does need to budget for a robust analytics platform. Modern SaaS solutions will deliver an incredibly detailed view of audience behaviors. Take the time to configure dashboards and reports to highlight exactly what you care about.
- Act on It
Metrics matter if they inspire action. Blindly measuring the latest “cool” indicator is meaningless; only metrics that can be used to direct changes in content creation, positioning, format, or distribution will help you improve performance. But the caveat is to avoid being data-driven and to become data-informed. Smart publishers are using data to shape Q&A sessions with real-life readers to help them interpret their analysis.
Related story: The Starting Point for Harnessing Magazine Audience Data
Peter Houston runs Flipping Pages Media, an independent consultancy and training firm, helping publishers build multi-platform success. He has run Guardian Masterclasses, spoken at Google’s ThinkPublishing and was formerly Editor-at-large for The Media Briefing. He now co-hosts the Media Voices Podcast, delivering a weekly take on the media news and guest interviews with senior players at a leading media organizations, from Facebook to Nieman Lab, The Economist to CNN.