Size doesn’t matter: The distributed media economy

No, size does not matter, not in media, not anymore.

I know that’s counterintuitive and counter everything we’ve assumed about mass media. But today what matters is reaching the right people by the right means. That has always been the case. Only now, thanks to connected, collaborative media, it’s finally possible.

I’ll pull together a lot of links around this topic below. But most of them are still trying to measure mass: the new pageview, the
new audience count, the new click. I say the change we’re facing is much bigger than just the obsolescence of the pageview, much more fundamental: Size doesn’t matter. Relevance, credibility, and attraction do.

Instead of measuring quantity, we have to measure quality. And only when we do that will the true value of these new media be unlocked for everyone.

Some of the discussion that is boiling up out there:

* The end of the pageview: Steve Rubel has been doing a good job hammering on the anti-meme that the pageview is over: “The page view does not offer a suitable way to measure the next generation of web sites. These sites will be built with Ajax, Flash and other interactive technologies that allow the user to conduct affairs all within a single web page – like Gmail or the Google Reader. This eliminates the need to click from one page to another.” See, for example, Yahoo grappling with the impact of the unpage. This is not entirely new; it was a problem I grappled with on refreshing chat pages a decade ago. But the phenomenon is growing in both an Ajaxed web and a Flashed video world: What’s a page now? What’s a view? What’s a viewer? A decade ago, I spent months on a tortuous committee of the Audit Bureau of Circulations answering just those questions. Now, it doesn’t matter, or at least, it matters less and less.

* Targeting and verification matter more than size: When I sat in those endless ABC committee meetings, our aim was to come up with the standards against which to audit the circulation or audience — old terms — of web sites. But that effort was eventually abandoned because advertisers didn’t care about verifying the size of a site; only publishers cared about those bragging rights and not enough to pay for auditing them. As it turned out, advertisers cared only about auditing their own flights of ads: ‘Did I get what I paid for (whether that was people or views or clicks or actions or demos or branding)?’ You see, circulation mattered only when you were stuck in the same pages as all the advertisers and you all got the same audience whether that audience gave a damn about you or not. But online, you could find ever-better ways to reach just the people you wanted or who wanted you. Travel advertisers didn’t need to care about the circulation of, only about who saw its ads in the travel section. Oh, yes, advertisers are still buying the old way, but that’s because it’s more convenient — albeit far less efficient — to buy us in bulk. But the mass is gone. Size doesn’t matter.

* The widgetization of the web: Niall Kennedy called it back in July: Pages are now made up of widgets that operate like multiple pages themselves. But this is about more than adding cool stuff to your site. See how MySpace is built with widgets from elsewhere and how Flickr is spread via widgets. This is a new means of distribution.

* The people are your distributors: One day this week, seven of the top 10 viral videos — determined by links and embeds, that is, by recommendations rather than just traffic — were performances by James Brown, following his death. (By the way, I didn’t see these videos on the most-viewed lists on YouTube; those are the old, mass lists people still look at but they’re pretty much meaningless). This tells me that the people will distribute your stuff if given a chance; they jumped onto word of Brown’s death and they served relevance. Note well that you don’t need everyone doing this; even as Wikipedia’s content is made by the fabled 1 percent of its users, so can the new networks of information be driven by 1 percent of their members.

* The distributed media economy is taking over: This last week, Google was said to surpass Yahoo as the second most visited site on the internet after Microsoft; this comes after MySpace surpassed Yahoo in pageviews. But the truth is that Google surpassed them all long ago, for Google is not a site; it is a platform. Every piece of Google — like the ads on this page — counts as another pageview, if you’re still counting them. This is why I keep saying that Yahoo is the last old-media company, relying on controlling content and marketing to attract an audience to see ads, but Google is the first distributed platform, no longer making the people come to it but going to the people wherever they are. And see James Brown: The people will take you to the people, if you’re good and if you’re lucky and if you let them.

Add to this the notion that advertising can be content (the viral ad) and that ad creative gets tangled up again with media and distribution (being on MySpace is itself the brand statement) and you continue to unravel all the old assumptions about the media economy; see Scott Karp arguing that the page view will be dethroned by innovation in advertising.

And mess things up even more when you start tearing apart the methodologies of measurement. Fred Wilson, on the board of Comscore, begins to address this. I argue that any paneled, sampled measurement scheme will simply not work in this new world. Full stop. The Nielsen method of putting together a sample of people who represented the rest of us cannot work in the mass of niches, for you cannot have a sample that is ever large enough to measure the tail. You can’t measure quantity.

So pageviews are obsolete already, thanks to Ajax and other unpage technologies and to the widgetization of content, funtionality, and branding: Again, what’s a ‘page’? Audience measurements are obsolete, at last, thanks to the fact that the former consumer is now also the creator and distributor: What’s an ‘audience’? Mass measurements are dead, thank God, because we are now joyfully fragmented into the mass of niches: Who’s a ‘user’?

The truth is that we, the former audience, have long paid only scant attention to the old, quantitative measurements: Box office numbers and Nielsen ratings were curiosities. We have always measured, instead, relevance, trust, usefulness, interest, attraction, action, value. Those are the measurements that matter, always have been, only now media must catch up to us. And when media and marketers do, they will give us greater value and get more in return.

This is about far more than the damned pageview.

See also:
* Scott Karp on the fallout for media and creative ad agencies.
* Michael Parekh.
* Evan Williams last summer on the dying pageview.

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  • For the most part I agree with the notion that the “page view” metric although I would take it a bit further. Any metric that is a proxy for a visitor’s passivity is dead. As the pay-for-performance redefines “inventory” as clicks and acquisitions and the cost of entry into this market continues to plummet, then the whole notion of buying demographics and psychographics becomes increasingly antiquated. Why try to predict what people will respond to when alternatively you can run inexpensive tests with a broad reach and subsequently optimize in virtual real-time? In the abstract, it shouldn’t even really matter to a marketer where their ads are running as long as they’re generating click-through, conversion, and order contribution in excess of breakeven.

  • Garbanzo

    If we can dispense with this abstraction for awhile, if you’re an on-line media outlet (yes, amazing to think there are still “companies” that actually generate revenue from the web), what is the metric you should use to measure traffic? And don’t tell me that metrics are meaningless — every business in every industry has them, it’s just a matter of finding the relevant one. And then figuring out how to get Omniture et al to track it.

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  • A personal, random example of how statistics don’t tell the whole story.

    A few days ago I started to get lots of traffic on my web site from a blog in China. They had used a “src” tag to paste one of my photographs into their discussion, but had not linked to the page on which the original image appears.

    The result is that I see lots of traffic in the site statistics about references (refers) from the Chinese site, but no “page views”. I could redefine a “page” to mean images as well, but then this would distort the counts for each actual page which contained images as well. Online material is now being consumed at the item level, so the whole concept of traffic is failing.

  • Hmmmm. Seems the Message itself is becoming the Medium.

  • Great article Jeff! I also think Ben Straley made a great point in his comment. The issue today is not where ads are running, but are they getting in front of the right eyes and more importantly, are they making the impact the marketer is looking for? It is truly about engagement and users are putting the responsibility back on the marketer to court them the way they want and not the other way around.

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  • You seem not to account for the fact that one needs to operate on a large scale inorder to get the most competative pricing and make large deals happen.

    Otherwise your just over paying for micro success and will get beaten up by the bigger players in the long run if your market is worth their attention.

  • This is absolutely true, Jeff. The age of the most popular and the top 100 of all time is fading. What the web is all about is delivering what is most relevant, not what is most popular. YouTube’s all time most popular lists get old very quickly. Even Tailrank, Digg, and those sites offering links to the stories with the most buzz are beginning to show their age.

    The Web is more nuanced in its ability to deliver what is most relevant to me, popular or not. It’s what we’re trying to do over at

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  • Long ago, my web sites eliminated page views and measured session time and visitors. Web architecture demands you design flow and furniture with the sensitivity to function that MIT’s William Mitchell describes in “City of Bits”. The analysis of how a visitor visits digital linkspace is useful to building out how the mass will best interact and commercially contribute.

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  • Jeff’s thoughtful post on the importance of measuring quality is music to our ears. We’re very grateful to him for leading the pack in this crucial new direction.

    Here at NewsTrust, we’ve been developing new ways to measure journalistic quality and source reputation, and our first public beta just launched this month. Check it out for yourself:

    NewsTrust helps people find quality journalism online, so they can make more informed decisions as citizens. Using our online review tools, our members rate news and opinions based on core journalistic principles such as fairness, context and factual evidence – not just popularity.

    We feature a daily feed of quality journalism from independent and mainstream news sources, based on ratings from our citizen reviewers. We also track the reputation of news sources and rate our own reviewers, whose ratings are weighted accordingly. We’re non-profit, non-partisan and member-supported.

    We’d love to hear your thoughts on this first stab. NewsTrust is still in early stages of development and we certainly don’t claim to have all the answers. But our focus on good journalism and careful methodology is already delivering a much higher quality news feed than some of the first-generation social news networks.

    With a little help from our community, we hope to provide a useful filter on the daily news, based on our new media literacy and civic engagement tools.

  • No, the problem here is that the media institutions still conceptualize in old school fashion of finite content (programming) which has unlimited shelf-life (think re-runs of I Love Lucy) vs organic “build-upon” content. When everyone (audience) is a participant in the process of creating content, you have an always on-going and changing entity (news, if you want to call it that). The ideal is to broaden the concepts of “creating” to include the no-longer-static audience.

    The media can no longer be considered a passive “museum exhibit” which audiences view and pass by. You have to include and incorporate the “audience” into the entertainment process. Another major misconception or no longer applicable concept is in marketing/sales. Large profit has to come from accretion, not from outselling your so-called “competition” in a weekend box-office. If, as McLuhan conveyed, “the medium is the message,” then the converse is also true, i.e. the message becomes the medium, or in this case the media. Now that the “globe” is adapted to “instant communication” and “content” is individually-driven (vs old school mass media driven) entirely new conceptualization of what “news” and “entertainment” are and can be must be adapted to.

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  • The CEO of is trying to come up with a theory for this exact issue in his recent post on his blog. He refers to the theory as Orbital Theory. It is a work in progress so feel free to leave your two cents.

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  • I was promoting collaborative networks during the videotext era (when characters crawled across a monitor). What was important during the ’70s and ’80s remains important.

    It is clear that the largest explosion in human history is commencing now and it may be the social explosion in the use of the spectrum.

    Those who celebrate greatness in existing media today will be the curiosity of history tomorrow.

    Those who believe to be in control of the new fingerprint of media, the territory of new culture and idiom, are in fact more vulnerable than ever before.

    I’m optimistic. The spectrum may be a new and tangible territory that shall not give easily to tyranny. But I’m worried too. Users can be terribly passive, perhaps more so in social networks. Continuing to encourage participation is important, not merely via a widget, but by continuing to help us and encourage us to build a piece of the internet — helping media to become active — to become increasingly useful and important.

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  • Demonstrating what you say i.e.: … “an open, collaborative, transparent new world” … requires a decreasing number of people who REFUSE to have access to webcams or the internet, because of their FAILURE TO BELIEVE that distributed communication needs to be implemented from the bottom up.

    Mass media slaves are not going to discover their freedom thanks to the resolutions of yet another World Economic Forum; first, they need to learn how collaboration may be achieved across competence and cultural boundaries and for what purpose.

    Instead of uploading a video message, which would only be good enough to prove that i’m an italian guy who speaks english and can use the internet, i’ve put up a blog experiment where i’ve posted a demo translation of your draft article on “Size doesn’t matter” .. it should allow me to measure my success in achieving collaboration in my own national language.

    Comment reposted using a gmail account, after it was filtered as spam with a account; tried a Video Cam Direct Upload … stared at “Connecting to server for ten minutes” … gave up :(

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