The politics of reforming digital audience metrics -- don't underestimate the status quo

Long-time critics of imprecise unique visitor and page view metrics like me have had reason to cheer in recent months.

Both the Financial Times and Economist have started to offer advertisers the alternative of rates based on time spent rather than raw traffic numbers.

Chartbeat corrected a major flaw in existing measures of time spent, then got its system "accredited" by the influential Media Ratings Council. And Chartbeat CEO Tony Haile has been an effective evangelist in interviews and speeches for a more sophisticated way of looking at the attention of digital audiences.

That's real progress. But plowing through dozens of articles and interviewing a few key sources, I have concluded that it is way early to declare victory and a new day dawning in digital measurement.

Oddly, although we like to think of the digital world as fast-moving and progressive, there is an established status quo for counting digital audiences backed by powerful vested interests who remain mostly happy with the unholy triad of uniques, page views and clickthroughs.

Start with the digital big guys -- Facebook, Google, Yahoo, AOL. They lead the pack in traffic volume as conventionally measured. With targeting capabilities, they suck up a huge share of digital ad spend -- even more now with the shift to smartphones than they already did in the desktop/laptop era.

Uniques and page views have also been good to the most popular start-up digital-only content providers -- Huffington Post, BuzzFeed, Upworthy and more.

A more surprising source of resistance is a large slice of the advertising industry, as spotlighted in Ad Age's excellent takeout a month ago, "Is Digital Advertising Ready to Ditch the Click?" It summarized the resistance this way.

"Agencies are among the entrenched interests," said Benjamin Zeidler, director-research and analytics at digital-marketing agency Tenthwave. "They're good at buying ads. They know how to do it. It's probably scary to change the mode of how they do business -- how they sell it, price and benchmark it."

Also, as you may have heard, these are boom times for "programmatic buying" -- eliminating the middle men of sales people and media planners and instead relying on algorithms to locate and book available inventory at the lowest possible rate. Thoughtful consideration of a range of attention metrics would only get in the way of that process.

Pay-per-click may be a relic of the early days of internet advertising. But the measure still makes sense for a certain kind of ad -- trying to grab attention for the unfamiliar -- like the pitches for Harry's Razors or the Bellroy Skinny Wallet that stalk me as I move around the web.

A middle-of-the-road constituency may buy in intellectually to a case for more varied metrics, but as a practical business matter needs to keep selling the way most advertisers are buying.

That was the drift of a thoughtful rejoinder from News Corp.'s Raju Narisetti to an earlier screed of mine this spring denouncing uniques and page views. In his view, some of this kind of criticism comes from print traditionalists who would prefer not to give audience metrics a prominent role in news coverage decisions.

Narisetti made the additional good point that metrics like page views per visit or repeat visits per month, "variations on relatively conventional" measures, are a reasonable way to identify attention.

Trade groups like the Newspaper Association of America and the MPA magazine association also do versions of the straddle. Both have working groups exploring new metrics that may capture what they see as unique strengths of their digital offerings for advertisers. But neither is abandoning the standard measures just yet.

NAA, for instance, puts out regular releases on industry gains in uniques and page views. That has always been a charm of the two measures -- between the steady movement of audience to digital platforms and the easy tricks available to inflate the numbers, a growth story is all but sure to emerge.

Another slightly different middle ground position fits auditing, rating and standards groups like the Alliance for Audited Media (formerly ABC), Nielsen and the Interactive Advertising Bureau. They naturally watch carefully for any new metric offerings in their core business. The IAB even has instigated important reform with work showing that the majority of "impressions" as measured a few years ago were not even seen (because they did not load fast enough or were too low on a screen page).

But the heart of the auditors' business interest is that if something new is going to be measured, they want the contract to be the recognized verifier of those numbers. For example, Nielsen, facing some new disruptive competitors like Rentrak, announced Tuesday a collaboration with Adobe on a new set of measures it is developing for digital viewing of television shows and other video.

I also need to concede that the reformers have a self-serving agenda of their own. The Economist and Financial Times have strong paywalls, dedicated high-demographic readers but relatively modest total audience numbers. So it is to their advantage to shift the discussion with marketers to time spent engaged with their quality content and accompanying ad messages.

Chartbeat and CEO Haile have made a great case for the flaws in traditional measures and the logic of shifting to time and attention (which are finite) from "impressions" which seem to multiply endlessly and are often fleeting at best.

Chartbeat in its accredited "time spent" measure also did the good deed of correcting earlier stabs at such a metric -- the loophole that counted a tab left open while the user shifted to something else conceivably for minutes or hours, as time on site. The Chartbeat refinement is that "time spent" is counted only if some indicator of viewer action registers every five seconds.

Haile also announced this week that he will make the company's methodology public, aiming for even further credibility, accepting some risk of giving away competitive secrets to a knock-off vendor.

All that said, Chartbeat (and the similarly oriented Moat in the video sphere) are fighting the good fight for what they have to sell against established competitors who have built a good share of their business around uniques, page views and clicks.

More sophisticated digital agencies like Razorfish are also in the camp advocating a combination of metrics and strategies they provide that are missing from more perfunctory ad placement methods.

Where does this state of play leave legacy media or local digital startups in searching for a business model in the digital sun? Even the pioneers like the Financial Times are hedging their bets -- their minutes viewed metric is being offered to a limited number of pilot advertisers in a beta test (going well according to Haile) while the majority of ads are still sold the old-fashioned way.

I would look for companies like the New York Times, with good raw traffic numbers, to also explore alternative attention metrics. And the trade associations are likely to at least give a nudge to consideration of a suite of metrics in measuring audience and pricing ads rather than just the conventional big three.

Jerry Hill, Gannett's top audience executive and chairman of the newly formed NAA task force, told me the group is starting by surveying advertisers and agencies about "what they look at" now in evaluating effectiveness. The next step, he said would be to identify new measures that could be validated and "communicated out in simple terms."

The MPA has launched what it calls the "360-degree brand audience report," a monthly update by participating magazine sites that measures audience on multiple dimensions in a standardized format, including, for instance, referrals from five social media channels.

Mark Contreras, then of E.W. Scripps, led a crusade for better digital audience metrics during his term as NAA chairman in 2009. He hoped to establish a better "gold standard," perhaps with a nudge from government, as happened with a move from chaotic claims from competing vendors measuring television audience in the 1950s and early 1960s to the agreed-upon methodology Nielsen and others now follow.

A gold standard does not appear in the cards right now, but movement to a more  varied and logical set of metrics has at least started. Contreras, now CEO of a small private TV and newspaper company, Calkins Media, told me in a phone interview that the logic remains unchanged: "For local papers, relying on a CPM (cost per thousand impressions) economy is not going to grow digital ad revenue as we need to."

One alternative, Contreras added, is to "find niches and sell sponsorships" on roughly the same principle as "soap operas did in the 1950s," aimed at stay-at-home housewives. Targeting is more important than a raw audience count for a sports site or a food site, and smartphone apps or specialized sites lend themselves to the "brought to you by..." format.

A number of the articles on this fall's metrics developments stumbled upon the same summary phrase -- "a step in the right direction." That seems about right. The current system is unlikely to be turned on its head anytime soon.  But content providers who think they can offer sustained attention are beginning to get some tools to make the case to advertisers that they offer a superior value.

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