How chasing “hits” has failed publishers

Most digital media businesses are slaves to the ‘hit’ – the number of clicks on or views of a particular page.  And that’s a real shame, because the hit was never a great measure of success for an individual piece of content, and has only become less so as social distribution skews publishing priorities towards creating content designed to go ‘viral’.

How Idiots Track Success?

Worse still, as a result of a focus on the hit that has been around since the birth of the banner ad back in 1994, ads are  mostly sold on a CPM (click per thousand) basis. When you sell in thousands of impressions, all you care about is how many thousands you have. As a result, in some quarters, ‘hits’ has become a damning acronym for ‘How Idiots Track Success.’

The truth is, the hit is a blunt instrument for attracting advertisers. It’s like having a thousand people come to your wedding, but you don’t know any of them, they are unlikely to remember you after they leave, and the only people who care how many people will be there are the caterers.

Smart publishers recognise the problem. For years now there have been attempts to sell to advertisers using different – or at least supplementary – metrics, and the number of monthly average unique users is typically seen as a better go-to stat.

Another metric which has been promoted by publishers is that of ‘time spent,’ arguably a better measure of how successful an article has been, since it provides at least a proxy measurement for how engaged the audience is with the content. Lately, however, this more intelligent measure appears not to be the saviour it once appeared to be.

The Economist was an early advocate of the system, but in a recent interview with Digiday Paul Rossi, president of The Economist Group, admitted adoption of the system is slow in coming:

“The time-based thing came out of a time when ad blocking, viewability was the conversation.

“Today, the conversation is about trust and brand-safety environments. The conversation has moved on. Viewability got solved when big buyers started to put in minimum requirements.”

But more fundamentally, a number of publishers are rethinking the idea of scale for the sake of the CPM. As the majority of growth in digital ad spend goes to the duopoly of Facebook and Google, a number of newer digital publishers are putting their eggs in the subscription basket.

De Correspondent, for instance, is a new breed of news publisher based entirely on forging a relationship between subscriber and creator. First launched in the Netherlands in 2013, following a wildly successful crowdfunding campaign, it has a subscription model that boasts an annual retention rate of around 83 percent, which its co-founder Ernst-Jan Pfauth attributes to the direct interaction between journalist and member.

Perhaps inspired by the idea of ‘member’-based subscriptions, the Guardian just announced that revenue from its members outstrips that from advertising: long regarded as an ailing news brand, the Guardian now has more paying readers than any time in its history. Quite a landmark (if not yet an end to financial challenges).

And in the US, The Atlantic is pursuing a more personal relationship with its most engaged audience with The Masthead, a premium membership model that allows its subscribers to, in-part, affect which stories its journalists focus on.

It’s the difference between having a huge, impersonal wedding, and a smaller, more intimate ceremony that everyone enjoys. In the long-run, it’s better for everyone if publishers stop focusing on blunt metrics like ‘the hit’, which are a relic from the age of the banner ad, and start concentrating on maintaining the relationships with their core audiences.