The age of ‘audience-first’ publishing needs a fresh set of metrics

At the tail end of 2017 many round-ups and prediction pieces (including my own) confidently asserted that 2018 will be the age of ‘audience-first’ publishing. It sounds an unnecessary description – surely publishing has always put audiences at the heart of their strategies – but it means something very tangible, and something that will hugely impact the media landscape over the next few months.

With Facebook and Google hoovering up all the growth in digital advertising (try to find a recent article about media business models that doesn’t contain the word ‘Duopoly’) media companies are turning to other means of generating revenue. So it is that the oldest means of monetising media, directly from audiences via membership or subscriptions, happens to be back in vogue. When you hear people talk about ‘audience-first’ publishing, it has the very concrete meaning of creating an environment most likely to convince audiences to take out a subscription.

Happily, news publishers are greatly aided in that aim by analytics that are orders of magnitude more sophisticated than they were the last time subscriptions were the primary means of generating revenue. So, in 2018, what will be the primary metrics we can expect media companies to crow about when it comes time to announce success in subscriptions?

The New York Times, which is leading the charge for subs, recently announced that people now spend an average of 5 minutes per visit on its site, up 35 percent from 2016. In an interview with Digiday, the Times’ social media editor Cynthia Collins was straightforward about what effect that has on a person’s likelihood of signing up:

“If we get people spending more time with us and reading more stories across our properties, it is good for our subscription business.”

Third party tools like Chartbeat are great for finding out the average engaged time per session, and the NYT is also aided in that effort by in-house tools like Stela, which are designed specifically to provide journalists and editors with metrics beyond the simple pageview (which we’ve written about the necessity of before). Similarly, the FT’s in-house Lantern tools also makes those more valuable metrics readily available to its staff, signifying its focus. Expect to see the ‘time spent’ metric rear its head again next year when publishers need to demonstrate success to their shareholders.

Relatedly, ‘recirculation’ – the measure of how many of a publisher’s readers go to another page on the site rather than leaving to go elsewhere – will be a key metric for ad-wary publishers. In this guest post for Mediashift, Andrew Sweeney explains:

“The first reason is to measure how well you’ve captured the loyalty of your audience. When retention goes up, as measured by recirculation, users are spending longer on your site, engaging more with your content, and hopefully starting a positive feedback loop to further increase loyalty.”

So attempts to create environments in which users are not only happy to spend time on your site, but also seek out more stories from the same outlet, are an expression of the ‘audience-first’ ethos that publishers are set on.

Those metrics are only barely scratching the surface of what analytics tools can do. Though it’s primarily in the service of advertising, BBC StoryWork’s eye-tracking and facial coding tools are able to determine exactly which part of a story elicits engagement from the audience, which could have huge ramifications for the audiences trying to create that audience-first environment.

Quartz’s managing director EMEA Simon Davies believes that mentality is beginning to take hold, not just among publishers but also from advertisers, suggesting that a sea-change is coming:

“From a more macro scale [I would like to see] something we’ve always tried to do… it’s more of a focus on user experiences, and the idea of focusing on an individual’s experience with a brand and the environment they’re having that experience in. You wouldn’t believe it, I’m starting to see the word ‘human’ in advertiser briefs.”

So if 2017 finally saw the death of the “scale for scale’s sake” mentality that led publishers down a dark road, then next year should see green shoots from the ‘audience-first’ mentality, particularly when it comes to publishers doing what’s best for their audiences, rather than their advertisers.

Image via Rob McBell on Flickr, used under a Creative Commons license.


Chris Sutcliffe

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Martin Tripp Associates is a London-based executive search consultancy. While we are best-known for our work in the TMT (technology, media, and telecoms) space, we have also worked with some of the world’s biggest brands on challenging senior positions. Feel free to contact us to discuss any of the issues raised in this blog.