Reinventing the Newsroom

A New Focus on Relevance

Posted in Cultural Change, Social Media by reinventingthenewsroom on March 31, 2010

At Skeptic Geek, Mahendra Palsule takes an interesting look at the Web’s evolution from a numbers model to a relevance model. Clicks, page views and numbers of ads displayed are falling out of favor, being replaced as key metrics by interactions, returning visitors and time spent on site.

Palsule brings this discussion back to Facebook: “The success of Facebook and why it has garnered over 400 million users is because it grew on a base of real-life friends who were relevant in the users’ social circle. Other networks have failed to challenge Facebook partly because they have tried to go the other way around – from numbers to relevance.”

This wrong-way-around approach seems to fit news organizations, too: They spent years chasing empty traffic numbers at the expense of true engagement, and are now stuck trying to seine value from a sea of near-worthless ads users have been trained to ignore.

This goes right back to my conversation in the fall with Belden Interactive’s Greg Harmon. The first place Harmon tried to make sense of Web traffic numbers was the Billings (Mont.) Gazette. At the time, the Gazette was reporting monthly unique visitors of about 400,000 — curious given a print circulation of around 50,000 and estimated total readership of around 80,000. Harmon looked at the metrics, crunched some numbers (see the post for more detail) and concluded that average monthly traffic was really around 40,000, and half of that traffic came from Billings.

Harmon’s conclusions were met by cheers from the ad-sales folks. Why were they cheering having seen their world shrink by 90%? Because now they had a real number to take to the local businesses that were their potential advertisers, and it was part of a message that made sense for them. Those 400,000 monthly uniques might have seemed impressive, but they were somewhere between useless and off-putting for potential advertisers: The measurement seemed faulty, and even if it were accurate, what were your chances of selling a car to an audience that mostly wasn’t local, wasn’t engaged, or wasn’t either? The Gazette’s problem, writ large, became the problem of the entire industry: Big, amorphous pools of readers were impressive to corner offices but not to local businesses, which led to big, amorphous advertising, which was generally irrelevant, which commoditized page views, which drove low CPMs.

Now, more and more news organizations are realizing the folly of chasing big, empty numbers. There’s a useful convergence of realizing those big, empty numbers helped drive a ruinous business model and looking anew at how content is shared and distributed via social media.

Look at this memo from Gawker Media: “While most people track Gawker Media’s influence via reach metrics like pageviews or uniques, we’ve been quietly tending a metric that explains something more important — our depth.” Gawker is seeking to measure how many visits to its sites begin with “a declared intent to visit” — entering a Gawker property into a browser or searching for one by name. (I like “asking for us by name” better as a description, but same idea.) Gawker sees this as a way to measure audience loyalty, and reports that a third of audience sessions now begin with someone asking for Gawker by name, up from a quarter of sessions three years ago.

The memo then nails the issue and the lesson to be learned: “These recurring visitors weave content engagement and advertising ROI into our communities. And consequently, this core readership is the audience segment for whom a publisher’s halo is brightest and for whom brand marketing is most effective.”

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