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New metrics and business models for publishersAre publishers using outdated metrics? How should they be innovating and reinventing their business models?

Understandably there has been much debate of late around publishing business models. The rise of the internet, compounded by the global economic woes, are making it increasingly hard to see where the money is in publishing and media going forwards.

You can take your choice of predictions as to what will happen with online advertising spend this year. The IPA's latest Bellwether Survey shows 'record falls' in ad spend where "even internet advertising suffered a record reduction in spend in Q4" of 7%. The likes of NMA or Simon Waldman, of Guardian Media Group, on the other hand are talking about 10% or so growth in online display spend this year.

Metrics, as units, or levers, for callibtrating value and performance, are clearly important to any discussion of business models. Unsurprisingly, there has been a corresponding increase in recent agonisation over metrics.

Should we make the most of the array of new metrics that interactive media afford us? Or do these just confuse the picture for advertisers and media buyers and instead we should make our 'new' metrics the same as the 'traditional' ones? Are our new metrics stillborn - do Ajax, Flash, Air and the like really herald the 'death of the pageview'? Indeed, do RSS, APIs, data feeds, widgets, desktop and mobile apps herald the demise of the site visit and the unique user?

Data, data everywhere...

The metrics challenge has been furthered mired by the repeated, but doomed, attempts thus far to establish a 'single currency' against which online media can be planned and bought. Witness the recent demise of JICIMS - now reincarnated as UKOM, the UK Online Measurement Company. There are plenty who argue that it is futile in any case even to try and establish such a currency. 

There are two obvious high level metrics which should be relatively easy to understand, and buy, for an advertiser. If we take correct audience targeting, including any whizzy behavioural targeting et al, for granted for a moment then it is surely about:

- How much advertising am I buying? This is media "input" measured in terms of circulation, unique users etc.

- What outcomes am I getting? This is what happens as a result of the advertising e.g. clicks, sales, measurable shifts in brand metrics etc. 

Ultimately, it must surely only be about the latter of these two? What point is there buying 'input' if you have no outcomes in mind? Yet I fear the system still seems overly focused on the 'input' part of the equation. There is still too much talk of how much advertising stuff is available - be that media owners with reams of complex metrics and data that they're struggling to know how to monetise, or advertiers who I think risk over-obsessing about 'reach' and chasing big numbers when those numbers, on closer inspection might not be quite as big as they at first appear. 

Too little attention is given to measuring the outcomes. Specifically, digital media and digital publishing offer greater opportunity to track and measure outcomes that are not so readily available in 'traditional' media. 

I would argue that central to the success of the cost-per-click model made so wildly successful by Google, or indeed the entire premise of the affiliate model, is that outcomes are being sold, not inputs. The outcome may only be a click but it is a measurable outcome nonetheless. In these recessionary times it is little wonder that there is increased focus on ROI and buying outcomes, be those in the form of lead generation, clicks, coupons, registrations or sales. 

A closer look at media owners' traffic figures

Let's take a bit more of a look at the kind of "input" you can buy from publishers online. Specifically, the unique user "who's got the biggest number?" battle that is played out each month when ABCe publishes its figures. This seems to me to be mostly useful in the entertainment value it generates as senior figures scrabble  to belittle or big-up their respective numbers. 

Let's take the biggest of the big number achievers - Guardian.co.uk. Not to pick on them, indeed I'm quite a fan of The Guardian, but to pore through the big numbers a bit further in the same way it would apply to any other publisher. 

In December 2008, according to ABCe figures, Guardian.co.uk got 22.8 million unique users (+43% on the previous year). According to data from the : Newspaper Marketing Agency's new online tracking service the total number of UK consumers who visited a newspaper website in December was 22.6 million. Can it be that the Guardian got more users than there are, er, users? 

No, because, of course, a fair chunk of traffic to UK newspaper sites comes from abroad: almost 70% of the MailOnline's 20 million or so uniques come from outside the UK. In the case of the Guardian.co.uk the total number of UK unique users in December is 8.4 million (36% of the total number), so already the big "input" number starts to get smaller. Often the country filter is the only one to be applied in the reported press, but let's see if we can't shrink the number a little more.

The Newspaper Marketing Agency's data has a few further interesting data points which point to stories less often told:

  • 56% of newspaper site visits last for under one minute
  • On average people visit 1.8 different sites to get their news
  • On average they visit these sites only 4.3 times a month
  • In December only 23% of visits to these sites started at the site's homepage

Furthermore, one has to consider the, often dramatic, difference between the number of *daily* unique users vs. the number of *monthly* unique users. The MailOnline, for example, gets 1.1m daily uniques but 19.7m monthly uniques. You cannot just multiply the number of daily uniques by the number of days in the month because the same user may visit several times in the same month and be counted multiple times as a 'daily' unique user but only once for the month. So its 'reach' is not 19.7m unless you advertise for a full month. 

The data does not paint a picture of loyalty. It shows an audience snacking on content. A readership that is not loyal to the publishing brand. In fact, if I were looking for loyalty then I'd look for properties where the monthly unique users figure was as *close as possible* to the daily unique user figure showing that their users keep coming back - I'd be looking for a *smaller* monthly unique user figure in fact. 

Some metrics I'd like to see published which get under the skin of the above:

  • What's the "bounce rate" for the site? That is, how many visitors see one page and then leave straight away.
  • What's the average page load time (as experience by a customer) and how many visitors leave in less than that time period (i.e. never actually even see the full page rendered)?
  • What IP ranges are excluded from the traffiC? Is all employee activity from the office, and from home, being excluded? Along with any of your agencies/suppliers etc.? i.e. anyone who isn't a genuine reader.
  • What percentage of traffic comes from Google News or other news aggregators?
  • What percentrage of traffic comes from search engines (aka Google) vs. direct? Of those, how many were searches on the publishing brand versus 'long tail' keywords?
  • How many unique users visited the site via paid search? After all, anyone can buy traffic.

Some of the above data is published; and some of it is indeed audited/excluded as part of the ABCe process; and some of it is perfectly legitimate traffic. However, I know many site owners, not ad-funded publishers of course, but retailers, travel companies and so on, who exclude 'bouncing' visitors from their web stats when computing their site's conversion rate because they don't represent engaged users: 'bouncers' were never really there to be sold to so shouldn't be counted as a real opportunity. Should publishers do the same? Are you happy as an advertiser to pay for ads 'viewed' by a "bouncing" user who looks at the page for 20 seconds? Can you feel the big numbers rapidly shrinking?

I think if we knew all the figures above it would paint a picture that showed a scary reliance on search and a user base that is much less loyal even than already known. To a large degree I suspect that a newspaper's 'big number' figures are purely a reflection on how well they rank (internationally) in Google, both in natural search and Google News. Nothing wrong with this if one believes that Google promotes the best content perhaps; but, if true, has quite far-reaching implications for business models, policy and politics, and the 'big input numbers' of online advertising.

A new focus on value and outcomes

I think we should be getting away from big number bravado as soon as possible, not least because many markets are fast plateauing in terms of available internet users so publishers are going to need to get used to spinning a positive story of decline which will be all the harder if they've been trumpeting growth too recently. 

I think we need to get better at measuring, and delivering, value rather than volume. Outcomes rather than input. Ultimately I don't care how many squillion unique users you've got if it doesn't help me sell car insurance, holidays, TVs etc. 

This is a little scary for many publishers as the truth is they don't actually *know* what value they deliver, and they don't really want to find out.  

Digital media agencies I've talked to, when I ask them which sites 'work' best for them and their clients, tend to say the smaller, niche sites. But they are time consuming to deal with and the client may not know them so the agencies don't necessarily want to take the time selling them in to their advertising clients. I fear it is still the case that many big name publishing brands are getting away with trading on their brand heritages and advertiser fear of not going with the 'usual suspects'.

This is likley to happen even more so in the recession but, in the end, I cannot believe that efficacy and real value will not become transparent to the advettiser and therefore only those publishers delivering value will survive. Indeed, they will flourish - if all sides know the publisher's true, and measurable, and transparent, ability to drive brand and purchase favourability, or actual sales, then that publisher is in an immensely powerful position.  The internet means there will be nowhere to hide in the end if you don't deliver value.

To go back to the Guardian... I was recently trying to find a good family-friendly hotel in the South of France. Incidentally this taught me, among other things, that there is a fair degree of truth in the 'search is broken' argument as Google is still really poor for such searches. Nonetheless a Guardian article came up and I duly visited (1 of my 4.3 visits a month). I looked at one page which gave me enough information to make a decision about where/what to book and duly went off elsewhere to do so. The Guardian didn't just influence my buying decision; it pretty much made it for me. So they delivered a transaction worth four figures and got 1 page view in return. Doesn't seem fair on the Guardian losing all that value?

And recently, talking to a friend of mine who works in PR at a large public gallery, she said that they could attribute thousands of extra visits to the gallery following coverage in the Guardian, worth tens of thousands of pounds. And yet this was, in the end, measured as 'equivalent advertising value' i.e. a media input, not the actual outcome, with a value much lower than actually delivered. Again, doesn't seem quite fair on the Guardian?

Publishers need to think more like retailers

I think publishers need to start thinking a lot more like retailers. They need to look at their 'readers' as "customers" with RFM (recency, frequency, monetary) data and segmentation - when did this customer last visit? How often do they visit? How much value have they created (directly or indirectly)? How much more, therefore, can I charge in advertising for this customer / segment?

Publishers need to look much more at affiliate marketing and lead generation to track outcomes, not input. They need to get better at capturing user data, surveying their customers, to find out more about how they are influencing buying behaviour. Why not do more post-reading questionnaires to ask them what they plan to do next as a result of their reading or advertising exposure? Can an uplift in internet buzz or searches around the brand be attributed to online advertising?

Publishers need to get more innovative - the change in the FT.com's subscription model being the most laudable recent innovation in publishing business models recently in my view.

Crossing the editorial / commercial divide

I also wonder whether there isn't an opportunity, in this age of blogging, Twitter, Facebook et al, to re-evaluate the unwritten "contract" between the readers, the editorial team, and the business model. 'Editorial' has historically had to at least maintain a "church and state" / "whiter than white" separation from advertising/commercial. And yet I'm not convinced the average reader *really* trusts some journalists any more than some politicians. We know certain newspapers, or journalists, have a particular 'angle' or vested interest that spins their words.  

Meanwhile, we revel in reading the wild rants of our favourite bloggers, basking in their manifest, if sometimes misguided, honesty and almost pathetic transparency. Sometimes we don't even know who they are. Do we care? I think we care about the content itself and we're evolving very sensitive "fakery antennae" i.e. we can spot when we're being manipulated e.g. all those lame corporate blogs that have been 'outed'.

Equally, I think readers realise someone has to pay for the content, but, in many cases, they'd just rather it wasn't them. All of which means that I think it would be perfectly acceptable for newspapers to create content that is editorially driven and originated but then seeks to monetise it via clicks, affiliate deals etc.

If only the Guardian had put a bunch of links at the end of its travel article telling me where I should book/buy I would gladly have clicked and given my bit of value back to them. Digital Photography Review site dpreview.com did this very well, though it has since been acquired by Amazon so the affiliate links point, not surprisingly, at Amazon. 

To me there are all sorts of interesting PPC or affiliate-type opportunities for publishers willing to innovate. For example, why not allow affiliate-tracked links to be included in user generated content on the publisher's site? Perhaps the publisher could split the revenue generated with the user? This would encourage participation and reward it. You get free content, more traffic, and higher commerce revenues. How would you police it and maintain quality?

Just like the many other communities, rating and review sites out there - it's not perfect but it is doable and manageable. As has already been discussed in publishing circles I think the resourcing model will move away from loads of editorial staffers, production people and sales people, and more towards 'community managers' and 'sub-editors' who will manage the quality and input of users because they will be generating revenue for the publisher.

A gradual transition

Clearly none of the above changes can happen overnight. Not least because, however forward-thinking the publisher, the advertisers and media agencies themselves are often more backward and conservative than one would hope so publishers need to stick where the money is, however misplaced.

But I hope we'll at least see some more hybrid models starting to emerge which mix outcomes with input, which champion value over volume. And I think publishers should spend more time thinking of themselves as retailers, or membership organisations and communities, where sales, customer value and loyalty, rather than big 'reach' numbers are what count most. 

Ashley Friedlein

Published 4 February, 2009 by Ashley Friedlein @ Econsultancy

Ashley Friedlein is Founder of Econsultancy and President of Centaur Marketing. Follow him on Twitter or connect via LinkedIn.

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Comments (6)

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Rory Brown, Founder at Briefing Media Ltd.

Hi Ashley,

This is an interesting, useful and valuable post. I wrote recently that the focus on traffic figures at newspapers was pointless unless you understood who these visitors were and were also able to derive revenue from these eyeballs.

I have seen a lot of sites obsessed with writing content to rank highly in search engines and social media sites like Digg. They then shout about how their load balancing managed to keep their sites up but rarely about the commercial uplift from that traffic. This is because a large proportion of these visitors were transient and also that the media sites weren't set up to sell these people anything when they arrived

Your point about focusing on outcome is spot on. Media owners need to think about how they 'close' people in some shape or form on the site - affiliate deals, direct product sales, lead generation for advertisers, registration for an event etc. This might require a radical re-engineering of the sites around some form of e-commerce platform.



over 7 years ago

Graham Ruddick

Graham Ruddick, Managing Director at Digital Excellence

Interesting stuff Ashley.

I think there are a couple of significant factors in this mix. Advertisers are still relatively unsophisticated in the main. Of our top 10% of print advertisers fewer than 5% advertise online. Their expectations are, for the most part, hugely influenced by the language and thinking of print and their view of outcomes is still largely shaped by their legacy experience. This is unhelpful to our digital sales teams who have to overcome the twin burdens of an customer education process as well as a customer’s reliance on inappropriate metrics before they can make a sale.

As we try and use more sophisticated thinking to define the value from advertising on our sites we are constantly being told that ‘advertisers don’t get it/want it’. Change in this is marginal at best and until there is a step change in advertiser attitudes there is unlikely to be any rapid progress. (It must be said that the majority of our sales do not come through Agency and I’d certainly hope that, were the reverse true, we would be looking to prove value in more fundamental ways.)

The second factor in user value must be user intention. We are trying to nurture the belief in our sales teams that some of our less well trafficked sections of our sites are hugely more valuable for the very reason of that low traffic. This is particularly true in our B2B context where users tend not to be on the sites for ‘fun’. Indeed each click they take deeper into a site qualifies them better and should give them more value to a potential advertiser if/when they finally click (assuming a modicum of targeting).

If we can show the journey that someone has undertaken to get to a particular page and show that each step of that journey adds confidence about user intention then we can show value. This idea that where a reader/user was before has a bearing on their current value is largely alien to an off-line audience and is difficult to illustrate convincingly.

The final factor that I’d like to mention is the old chestnut of engagement. The ‘old’ metrics of impressions and uniques should in time be subsumed by the metrics of engagement -  we are focussing on ‘return visits’ and ‘pages per visit’ and are starting to put these into the organisation’s thinking. It will take a while before this translates through to a better relationship with our advertisers but I believe it is essential to make that move.

Incidentally we shy away from ‘time on site’ metric. I believe it is too easily skewed by factors like session time out and the time of day the page is viewed.

It is probably too early for a publisher to be brave and to reveal the truth about their figures however much other publishers would acknowledge reality. We have to accept that  online advertising  - especially display – is not yet a value based transaction. Until agencies find it easy to sell better performing small sites over poorer performing big brands it is unlikely that this will change. Much of the drag will be dictated by advertiser attitudes.

Publishers however, can help this change by bringing value, ROI and  effectiveness into the conversations they are having with advertisers. A focus on desired outcomes, mid-campaign account management calls and good post campaign reviews (by which I largely mean honest) will all help educate advertisers and encourage them to ask the right questions.

Which will force us publishers to give the right answers.

over 7 years ago

Ashley Friedlein

Ashley Friedlein, Founder, Econsultancy & President, Centaur Marketing at Econsultancy, Centaur MarketingStaff

@Graham - great post. My replies:

Of our top 10% of print advertisers fewer than 5% advertise online. 

Yes - this is what I hear from other publishers - particularly B2B (RBI, Informa etc.). Seems surprising, but also an opportunity for online as there would appear to be still so far to go?

some of our less well trafficked sections of our sites are hugely more valuable for the very reason of that low traffic 

Entirely agree though I can see this might be difficult to sell to some advertiers. You only need to compare it to search marketing: in most markets the longer, and more specific, the search phrases/keywords (whether paid or organic referrals) the lower the volume but the higher the conversion rate i.e. the better the value. If you look at search patterns they tend to start generic and become more specific as a user narrows his/her decision path. 

each click they take deeper into a site qualifies them better and should give them more value to a potential advertiser

Definitely - I really like your idea of the customer journey being a self-qualifying process. And it closely mirrors how search works. Of course, it gets trickier because Google increasingly owns a lot of the journey, not just the start, so users end up deep linking to content sites. So the number of page views drop and the journey, on the publisher's site at least, would appear very short. 

we are focussing on ‘return visits’ and ‘pages per visit’ and are starting to put these into the organisation’s thinking

I can understand the thinking here but isn't it in danger of becoming out of date even by the time the organisation and advertisers 'get it'? For example, and I know we're not typical, but our Twitter blog feed has more Followers than the our blog web page equivalents get unique users per day. So we are fast losing "site visits" but not losing 'reach' or brand value.

Equally, the notion of page views being a valuable indicator of customer engagement is very suspect. It depends what the user was there to do - 1 page view for 1 visit might represent the ideal customer experience. And, obviously, Ajax et al do indeed debunk the whole concept of a page view. As it stands media owners are interested in increasing average page views/session just because it gives more ad inventory.  

good post campaign reviews (by which I largely mean honest) 

Indeed. BTW, do you have any good examples of these you'd be happy to share? You could anonymise client/campaign, or do an older one where the advertising client gives permission? I ask because we're currently putting together a whole load of best practice templates and examples across a wide range of digital marketing / media topics and something we're looking for is just such a post campaign review.

over 7 years ago


Simon Elgar, Director of Marketing at Business Monitor International

An interesting article and you certainly raise some valid points. In terms of online advertising growth or decline, I would expect the number of companies using online channels to increase, even though existing online advertisers may reign back their spending over the next twelve months. At RBI the majority of customers who place print advertising in our magazines do not yet advertise online, with the exception of a few markets, but are starting to do so, which means there is still some way to go.
The issue you raise of the business models pursued by publishers on their sites is a good one. In many cases the focus is on generating user activity, measured in page impressions, with monetisation almost entirely reliant on display advertising. Having other ways of generating revenues is essential to build a sustainable website business and having sponsored or affiliate links on a page is a good way of achieving this. The key thing to focus on is 'context' and the French hotel links you mention is a good example of this. There are now adserving tools available that can deliver these sort of contextually relevant ads to publisher's web pages, which can perform a useful function for the user, generate revenue for the publisher and business for the vendor.
Lead generation and other cost per action ad models are growing rapidly, which is where there is greater focus on outcomes, as you mention. This means that the need for a common media buying metric is less important. Advertisers aren't simply buying an audience, but are paying for performance, which can be measured specifically for their campaign.
One last thing to highlight is that there needs to be an onus on advertisers to be clear what they are trying to achieve. Is it awareness or consideration for their brand, retaining exiting customers, or generating leads from new customers? The objective they have will obviously influence their strategy and the sorts of solutions publishers need to offer.

over 7 years ago

Jeff Molander

Jeff Molander, CEO at Molander & Associates Inc.

The opportunity now is to redefine brands in terms that marketers and operational executives alike can embrace.  The emergent definition of "branding" is to base brands on the objectively-measurable, real-time aggregation of everything marketers and their customers do together.  That’s different than the old school definition focusing on awareness and influencing how customers feel about a marketer.

As marketers, we need to create a mind shift among Officers of the companies we work for -- we need to be perceived as the money MAKERS not the SPENDERS.  It's the difference between being business advisors -- rising above our roles of being data reporters. 

over 7 years ago


Brian Critchfield


Fascinating (albeit long) post and discussion. One of the key points you mention in this article is that the way people use media online is extremely different from the way people consume traditional media. Nobody reads a website from cover to cover, but they have that propensity to "snack" on snippets of online content. This discussion is as old as the industry itself.

Traditional publishing has a measurement that everyone agrees to but is not an effective measurement - CPM. Just because 100,000 people had the opportunity to see an ad doesn't mean that it registered, made sense, and induced action. Too many advertisers simply port this metric over to the web, where it has now taken the form of page views. However, on the web, we have infinite ways of tracking usage. The problem is that we have no standard, quite the opposite of traditional publishing which has a standard but is limited in its tracking ability.

The other new reality with online marketing metrics is that more is not necessarily better. Better is better. That means that smaller, more targeted sites are better than the general, high traffic sites. This will affect metrics in a profound way and may require a new paradigm.

I love your suggestion on publishers becoming more like retailers. If an offline seller of "stuff" tracks every minute detail of a transaction, why can't we track influence online? Why can't we track introduction through transaction if most retail operations can track data throughout their entire supply chain?

Traditional publishing creates great content. The key is to monetize the conten. Contextual links have been used within the content and I would be interested in understanding what kind of numbers advertisers are seeing from contextual links.

At YUDU Media (www.yudu.com), we provide an interesting mix between traditional publishing and digital publishing. We have seen an incredible surge in traditional publications using our tool to move their content online. They make less of a leap since it maintains the same format (flip-style) as the physical format yet it gives them all of the benefits of online publishing (search, hyperlinks, video, audio, etc.). Advertisers seem to really understand this format since their ad they paid an agency to create is still there, it is simply hyperlinked to their website now.

This has also made it much simpler to launch new magazines and periodicals with very little cost. It makes testing new publications much simpler and creates a great new source for advertisers. By bringing all of these smaller publications together in one eMarketplace, we have seen the opportunity increase for new publications who are able to quickly build a following.

Thanks for a great article!

over 7 years ago

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