The search for meaningful digital audience metrics took a turn for the better in 2014 when Chartbeat and others began touting time spent and engagement as a superior measure to uniques and page views.

In recent months, though, time spent is coming in for criticism of its own as too blunt a metric that shortchanges brief and engaging news summaries and potentially rewards time-wasters like clickbait photo galleries.  The newer audience metrics question is now whether "time well spent" can be quantified.

(Screenshot/chartbeat.com)
(Screenshot/chartbeat.com)

An opening shot in this little counter-revolution was fired last September by Cory Bergman, general manager of MSNBC's Breaking News site and a former member of Poynter's National Advisory Board. For a service like his built around speed and compact  summaries, Bergman said, he would rather focus on "time saved"  rather than time spent.

Good measures of that are tricky, Bergman conceded but he thinks combining a count of daily active users, retention/churn, app stores reviews and other indicators should give "a good sense of how well we are meeting consumer needs."

Serial digital entrepreneur Jim Brady sounded a similar theme at Poynter's NAB meeting earlier this month when he said his new BillyPenn.com site aims for "time well spent" reader satisfaction.

Brady elaborated in a phone interview.  "You need not to be too tied to what your dashboard says (about uniques and page views)," Brady told me. "We're trying to stay true to mission...with no pop-ups, no slide shows."  As for time spent, he said, better for a visitor to scan headlines for 15 seconds and feel up to speed, than spend 60 seconds in a cluttered environment searching unsuccessfully for something worth reading.

For right now, Brady continued, "we're tossing the term around" as a goal without any very exact methodology for determining success on the "time saved" dimension.

Chartbeat CEO Tony Haile was a leading evangelist last year for time spent/engagement as a better way to look at digital audiences.  So I thought Chartbeat might be defensive about the recent criticism, but that proved not to be the case.

Time saved and time well spent are also worth aiming for and trying to measure, brand manager Lauryn Bennett wrote in an e-mail exchange.  She said:

Absolutely you can and should focus on both (time spent and time saved). It completely depends on what your goal is. If you're looking at single sessions, someone reading one news piece -- like a breaking news article -- your goal is not going to be to get someone to read that article for 40 minutes. You want a reader to get the information they need and feel like they accomplished that goal, they come away from that visit informed on what they wanted to be informed on.

The question editors should be asking is did someone read/engage at all, for say, 30 seconds or a minute, enough to get that information and move on. Or did they just click the headline link and not engage at all or for three seconds and bounce. That's the difference between time well spent or time not spent at all in a single visit.

Some of these discussions are over-focused on single articles, Bennett continued:

Most publishers are thinking about return rate and building a loyal audience as their goal... They should be considering total aggregate time someone spends across a month or defined period of time -- how often are they coming back and reading when they do come back. How well are you building your brand of content people like and come back to read? That's how you know you're building an audience.

I asked whether advertisers are coming on board for this view, and Bennett replied that progress has been slow.

In theory, advertisers want to put a brand message front of mind to a given audience.  But that is tough to measure directly.  Also, as I noted in a post in October, agencies and clients have put uniques and page views first in buying and pricing decisions for more than a decade. Shifting abruptly to a different concept would upset a well-established status quo.

Still, Bennett said, the case can be made:

A campaign may have a smaller number of impressions than the agency/brand may have expected, but looking at time metrics, they're seeing a higher number of impressions in view for 6-10 seconds vs. 1-2 seconds. In the past, the brand may have seen this campaign as less than successful, whereas now they can see that actually, they're reaching the right people for the right amount of time.

The ground may be fertile for reform with fresh attention to basic issues about whether ads counted as served are actually viewed and whether uniques and page views, imprecise in the first place, are being inflated with bot traffic and other forms of click fraud.  Also, Chartbeat last year cast doubt on social media shares as a metric, finding large numbers of users forwarding content to a friend without actually looking at it themselves.

Some newer Chartbeat studies are finding that comprehension and retention (measured by propensity to return to the site) increase markedly if a visitor engages an article beyond a quick glance of a couple of seconds.

For an elegant summary of the state of play in digital metrics I would suggest an essay ("A mile wide, an inch deep") by Evan Williams, founder of Medium and one of the co-founders of Twitter. Simplifying his argument, Williams is not for jettisoning page views and uniques but prefers as "our top line metric" total time reading -- whether that be of a couple of long stories or many shorter ones.

But, he allows that there is "a problem with time" if that means the expense of an ad is pegged to time spent reading a story.  Time spent "is not actually measuring value.  It's measuring cost as a proxy for value."

Advertisers don’t really want your time — they want to make an impression on your mind, consciously or subconsciously (and, ultimately, your money)....

At Medium, we don’t really want anyone’s time. We want to create a platform that enables people to make an impression on others. To make them think. To change their minds. To teach them something or connect emotionally. It’s hard to measure any of that.

For that matter, wasting people's time, Williams writes "is actually the opposite of the goal" and traffic to such features create only "the illusion of success."

To which I'll add one other rude question.  I would like to believe that well-crafted journalism, long when it needs to be and succinct the rest of the time, puts readers in a receptive mood for brand messages.  But is that demonstrably true?

We are going to need to live with ambiguity in digital metrics for a while longer, Williams concludes, making for still more interesting times in the digital news space, however measured.