Time to ditch uniques and page views for engagement in measuring digital audiences

When Nieman Lab’s Josh Benton asked me in December for a New Year’s prediction, I leaned toward the bombastic and led my wish list for 2014 as follows:

Ditch uniques and develop a better metric. Then-Newspaper Association of America president Mark Contreras was right when he made this case four years ago. It still hasn’t happened. One- or two-time visitors are not a business opportunity — they are an accident.

So we are two-and-a-half months into the year, and I am sorry to report that uniques and its evil twin, page views, are still with us — offered as the basic yardstick for digital audience for both individual sites and whole industries.

But I took cheer last week when three separate sources made the case that attention and engagement matter more.

Chartbeat CEO Tony Haile led off with an iconoclastic essay for Time.com titled “What You Think You Know About the Web Is Wrong.”

Chartbeat’s existence and success are themselves indicators of the imperative to get beyond clicks. Chartbeat’s products are real-time measures of traffic, time on story and time on site that editors rely on for decisions on how to play pieces and how long to leave them up in a prominent position.

In my recent profile of USA Today, I found that its national news desk, like many other digital operations, keeps a billboard-size display of Chartbeat indicators in plain view.

Haile’s whole piece is worth reading. His lead graf postulates:

We confuse what people have clicked on for what they’ve read. We mistake sharing for reading. We race towards new trends like native advertising without fixing what was wrong with the old ones and make the same mistakes all over again.

He continues his case that attention should trump visits and clicks:

At the core of the Attention Web are powerful new methods of capturing data that can give media sites and advertisers a second-by-second, pixel-by-pixel view of user behavior. If the click is the turnstile outside a stadium, these new methods are the TV control room with access to a thousand different angles. The data these methods capture provide a new window into behavior on the web and suggests that much of the facts we’ve taken for granted just ain’t true.

Other highlights:

  • An internal Chartbeat study of 2 billion visits found that stories with strong news content far exceeded clickbait in time spent.
  • Many people who share stories on social media do not actually read them. Ditto the recipients. The same internal research found that only eight of 100 articles read were accessed by Facebook and only one in 100 via Twitter.
  • Banner advertising is not as dead nor are native ads as vibrant  as current coverage would have you believe. Part of the reason, Haile said, is that nearly two-thirds of those accessing a home page go “below the fold” of the first screen to see what else is being featured.

Jeff Jarvis, with whom I don’t always agree, played off Haile’s piece in a BuzzMachine post on:

What the right metrics for media ought to be….How do we create positive feedback loops that improve the news not degrade it as uniques, page views and other relics of mass media have done?

Drawn from his persistent efforts at City University of New York to birth sustainable local news sites, Jarvis considers time spent (maybe efficiency summarizing news should matter too), then suggests several other measures of engagement: outcomes, follows, bookmarks, citations and embeds.

Finally my colleagues at Pew Research (whose annual State of the News Media report will be out a week from today) offered a study documenting what you might expect — direct visitors to websites spend more than double the time there than those who come via a Facebook referral, search or other side doors.

As this post is being edited and produced, I am on my way to Denver for the annual Newspaper Association of American mediaXchange conference. I will be moderating several panels and auditing the rest.

The great metrics debate is not formally on the agenda but may come up in segments on big data, a new American Press Institute study of audience behavior tracking news and another panel on advertisers’ perspective.

If I hear something new, I will report on it when I’m back.

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  • Gregor Waller

    Rick, you are perfectly right. I am just pondering, whether given the two-fold business model of news it could be an option to continue satisfying the ad industry with simple and stupid metrics – AD-KPIS (as I do not know any advertising agency manager who intends to “confuse” advertisers … his clients … with the by far superior advertising effects of ads placed on article sites with high time-spent as opposed to low time-spent) like UVs (nondifferentiated in their loyalty) Visits and PIs. And on the other par of the news business model have the content site being focussed on CONTENT-KPIS like time-spent, reading-rate, number of loyale and highly loyal UVs. These are the debates with my – mostly Europan – clients.