The problem with measurement

Measurement is holding back so much progress online — both because there’s not enough of it and because what there is of it is too often tracking the wrong things. Without good measurement, we won’t get money and without money we won’t be able to sustain so much of what we want to do online.

First, about measuring the wrong things. Nielsen just switched from measuring page views to time and that’s a step in the right direction — about a year and a half too late. It’s finally acknowledged that the pageview is dead thanks to dynamic content that makes act like shows. Heather Green talks about how time is also a meaningless measure, though, because we simply spend more time with some applications (e.g., IM) than others (e.g., content). Time is not a good proxy for engagement. This gets much more complicated when content and functionality becomes widgetized and distributed. There is no means of measuring traffic/attention/engagement for widgets. And this also means that the site itself becomes obsolete as content and functionality are distributed anywhere and everywhere; I predict that we’ll soon see brands that essentially don’t have sites but become huge because they are distributed (think apps on Facebook that have no home page). I’ve often said that Google’s audience is many times what is reported because Google distributes itself as widgets — ads, maps, feeds. Google doesn’t care because it’s measuring only one thing: revenue. And Google knows everything it needs to know. We don’t.

Now about what’s not being measured. There’s a very long list of applications — RSS, widgets, mobile, apps — and kinds of content — video, podcasts — but also of new sorts of measurements — such as influence, meme-starting, involvement, creation, engagement, popularity — that aren’t even being tackled. And there are new dimensions that need to be explored, such as measuring a person’s trust, influence, or even fame across many platforms, sites, applications, and so on.

If it’s not measured, advertisers won’t buy it. And if advertisers won’t buy it, companies won’t build it. And that’s the problem.

Well, but that’s only somewhat true. Big, old companies won’t build it. New inventors will and that gives them the headstart they need. YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, Pownce, and so many innovations started without measurement — or evenue. But they had to have the courage of their vision and enough money to make it big first. What else has died just because conservative advertisers and agencies and their outmoded measurement companies — who are still using sample panels that simply will not work in a nichefied world — hadn’t caught up with them?

I’ve suggested before the need for a measurement summit. Maybe that’s one way to tackle this. Or perhaps we need to find ways to better educate advertisers (but we’ll never educate them out of wanting metrics). Or perhaps this is something academics should take on with foundation help because it will support invention: measure it and they will come.

: LATER: More from Heather.