February 18, 2016

One of the biggest questions facing news organizations today is coming up with a way to measure audience attention in an increasingly complicated media ecosystem.

Three decades ago, it was easy — publishers could look at circulation numbers, newscasters could examine Nielsen ratings, and they could both expect to have a reasonable barometer of their success. Within the last decade, pageviews and uniques have been the coin of the realm, the standard metrics news organizations measure and tout to advertisers.

But within the last two years or so, things have gotten a lot more complicated. Audience attention has been fragmented across so many different platforms — Twitter, Facebook, newsletters, text messaging, YouTube, WhatsApp, etc. — that many industry leaders have begun pushing back against using pageviews and uniques as the best benchmark for audience attention. The rise of distributed content — the practice of publishing stories on social media and other platforms not owned by news organizations — has increasingly made pageviews and uniques an imprecise metric for measuring a news organization’s output.

Enter BuzzFeed. Earlier today, BuzzFeed Publisher Dao Nguyen published a concise treatise on how the Web giant thinks about data. Her post was wide-ranging and touched on many topics, but it contained this detail that explains how BuzzFeed evaluates its total reach.

Even two years ago, when we all lived in a simpler media landscape, we believed there was no “one metric to rule them all.” Today that is even more true. To measure the overall reach of the company, we look at a combination of metrics that are available across platforms.

The thrust of Nguyen’s argument: BuzzFeed has broadened its editorial footprint to extend to a wide variety of platforms, including all of the ones mentioned above. Why, then, should the company be wedded to pageviews and uniques as its metrics of choice? Nguyen goes on to lay out a series of metrics, including “content views,” that provide a fuller picture of BuzzFeed’s total impact.

Content views, she explains, account for “views of BuzzFeed content (videos, articles, lists, illustrations) regardless of the platform on which it lives.” This includes almost everything — distributed content, video, traffic to BuzzFeed.com and use of its apps. Excluded are homepage views or impressions of link promotions on social networks. She goes on to list other ways BuzzFeed reaches its audience, including subscribers to its newsletters and apps and video views on Snapchat and Facebook.

Taking all this information into account, Nguyen estimates that BuzzFeed’s comScore numbers — which take pageviews and unique visitors into account — actually represent “less than one-fifth of our actual global reach.” The actual number, according to Re/code’s Peter Kafka, is closer to 400 million:

UVs were useful for a long time. Now let’s stop talking about UVs as a way to measure BuzzFeed’s audience.

On Wednesday, Facebook announced that it was opening Instant Articles to all publishers within a matter of months, which will enable a huge increase in the amount of content published on the social network. As news organizations increasingly turn to social media and other publication platforms to reach their audiences, a more holistic view of audience attention — such as the one put forward by BuzzFeed this afternoon — could take increasing precedence.

The days of simply counting newspaper subscribers and tracking linear broadcasting data is gone. BuzzFeed’s argument, all tidied up: It’s a new world, with new ways to garner audience attention — and that requires new ways to measure it.

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Benjamin Mullin is the managing editor of Poynter.org. He previously reported for Poynter as a staff writer, Google Journalism Fellow and Naughton Fellow, covering journalism…
Benjamin Mullin

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