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InContext / An inside look at the business of digital content

Metrics got us into this mess. And they can get us out of it.

October 19, 2017 | By Mark Glaser, Founder and Publisher – MediaShift @mediatwit

The first dot-com boom was about tech startups collecting millions of eyeballs. About five years ago, there was a resurgence of that kind of thinking in digital media. BuzzFeed, Upworthy, Gawker, and many others made an art of clickbait headlines and viral listicles and quizzes. But the focus on “vanity metrics,” like sugar-spun cotton candy, wasn’t really good for them, or the bottom line.

As traffic declines and clickbait fatigue ensued, many of these publishers tried to reach audiences through their social channels and bore the brunt of algorithmic changes. This left them wondering if the chase for views, shares, and clicks would really pay off. Those measurements are imperfect at best, and often misleading at their core. However, doubling down on what really matters can move businesses forward so that they can surmount this problem. Beyond the obvious shift toward subscriptions, engagement, and impact, publishers know that the real difference-maker for their business is serving their most loyal customers.

Highs and lows in the chase for numbers

The underpinnings of how we got into this mess can be traced to two overarching reasons.

The first is the psychological boost of the numbers game. Just as a Facebook user beams when she sees the number of likes and shares skyrocket on an individual post, so too do advertisers and news publishers when they see rising numbers for corresponding clicks, views, social shares, impressions, and the like. In a competitive industry where measuring popularity can and often is boiled down to who has the biggest following, a quick glance at the numbers can settle — or aggravate — any existing tension.

Of course, the real point to metrics should be creating a long funnel that gets to something bigger. Metrics should assess genuine leads, conversions and end goals. But it’s easy for marketers’ performance measurement ABCs — acquisition, behavior, conversion — to be shoved aside when views and impressions — sometimes paid for in promoted posts or campaigns — already captivate so much of the budget. Still, paying for a click might not amount to anything at all.

Zane McIntyre, co-founder and CEO at Commission Factory, boils down this unhealthy relationship in AdExchanger with a strong case in point:

“When advertisers conduct tests to determine the best thumbnail for video views, for example, advertising ‘reach’ is determined by the number of people who see it — if only for a moment. But then viewers quickly leave, often after the premise they were promised is under-delivered. It’s a vanity metric and can be easily manipulated with clickbait and paid content promotion, both of which can get content in front of a targeted audience quickly and cheaply.”

Trust issues

This brings us to the second big trend fueling the vanity metric craze: trust in (sometimes unreliable) parties whose skewed metrics leaves little room for proper assessment. The often-tense relationship between publishers and platforms is just as much of an issue here as it is anywhere else. When Facebook and Twitter allow you to pay for promoted posts or tweets, the idea is that you sacrifice some amount of control to the gatekeeper in hopes of gaining more control (in the form of a following) with audiences.

But Facebook’s repeated metric discrepancies have included miscounting Facebook Live reactions, misreporting the average duration of video viewed, and over-reporting on the amount of time spent on Instant Articles. That’s highlighted the necessity for accountability, transparency and third-party verification in performance analytics. It’s an onus on the social giant, already reeling from issues of trustworthiness, to circumvent these problems. But it also lights a fire under publishers and marketers to take metrics back into their own hands — and not relinquish control purely for the sake of ego boosting and more reach.

Metrics that matter

In response to criticism over its misconstrued metrics, Facebook has established partnerships with verification partners. Automated analytics too, should be “machine recommended, but human approved,” as strategist Nasr ul Hadi emphasized at this year’s Online News Association conference. At ONA, the broader issue of getting distracted by the wrong numbers became a talking point.

The close cousin of measuring and increasing impact is increasing engagement, with the hopes that deepening a relationship can lead to a sincere boost in vested interest and more subscriptions. Take the efforts of GateHouse Media, with its chain of local newspapers. The large publisher launched a campaign last summer called “Newsroom Hero,” which profiled GateHouse Media journalists as more than just journalists. The campaign kept the focus on the positive influence and impact reporters bring to communities — whether in their reporting, civic engagement as volunteers, or in their own families. It’s the first such campaign for the publisher to focus on impact, and their hope is to translate that into more meaningful metrics — beyond the raw numbers of 35 million monthly digital visitors and nearly 23 million weekly readers.

Increasing engagement shouldn’t be mistaken for solving the metric conundrum. It’s hard to point to impact as a cost-cutting national chain of local newspapers. But as MediaShifts’s Jason Alcorn points out, it’s a milestone for a local news chain to talk in the language of non-profits, who aim for impact to satisfy funders and subscribers.

It’s a tall order indeed to turn numbers, whether high or low, into actionable insights that deliver real leads and results. But the fact that this inner conscience is being spoken aloud more and more shows that vanity metrics are no longer in vogue — and the quest for meaningful measurement might just lead to better business results for everyone.

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