Chartbeat CEO Tony Haile writes an important piece about bad media metrics online. He pokes holes in the value of the click as the be-all-and-end-all of media measurement. He reveals that sharing turns out to be a bad measurement of engagement and value because we often don’t read what we “like” or share (we just bother other people with it). He deflates the value of native advertising, demonstrating with hard data that readers understand the difference between real content and — let’s call it what it is — advertising and they quickly abandon it.
The bottom line of Tony’s data is bad news for cynical publishers who have tried to manipulate readers with link-bait headlines and lists, and who are trying to pull the wool over advertisers’ eyes by selling them link-bait listicles and so-called native advertising. Certain emperors have no clothes. The readers know it. The advertisers will wake up and realize it.
But that’s the bad news.
Where we should turn the discussion next is to what the right metrics for media should be. As they say, you get what you measure. So what should we measure? How do we create positive feedback loops that improve the news, not degrade it as unique users, pageviews, and other relics of mass media have done?
I’ll start with the most important and most difficult thing to measure: outcomes. Were people more informed because of what we gave them? Did they accomplish what they wanted as individuals (Sally got new health insurance and saved money) or as communities (Riverdale cleaned up that messy park)? I just had breakfast with Robert Rosenthal of the Center for Investigative Reporting and he told me they start the process of reporting by considering impact and they end by trying to measure it. Why deal in bad proxies for good journalism, based on popularity, when we could get to the reason journalism should exist: to improve the world?
In his book News: A User’s Manual, Alain de Botton says that news has “the power to assemble the picture that citizens end up having of one another; the power to dictate what our idea of ‘other people’ will be like; the power to invent a nation in our imaginations.” And it has the power to help us get there. (Many more quotes in my post about the book, here.) Mark Zuckerberg says that platforms, including news, should offer communities “elegant organization.” These are higher aspirations than mere exposure.
On a tour of technology companies in Silicon Valley a few weeks ago with my dean, we talked about metrics and found different measurements being used for different platforms with different goals. Ev Williams’ Medium values total time spent reading. That is appropriate for a platform that wants to get people to explore ideas in depth — and I find I’m spending more time there reading more posts; it’s working.
Attention, in the form of time spent, is used by many in media as a measure of engagement. But that’s not always the case. Attention can also be another egocentric media metric: how many people come to look at my stuff; how many pages of my stuff do they look at; how much time do they spend with my stuff? No, sometimes, the less time spent the better. What if news were more efficient? Sometimes, spending less time to get what I want is the right metric. That metric doesn’t serve the old media business model of delivering as many eyeballs to as many ads as possible. That is why Yahoo shifted from — in the words of cofounder Jerry Yang — getting you in and out with the answer you needed as quickly as possible to instead trying to bombard you with content and keep you around as long as possible to show you as many ads as possible. Attention, in the wrong hands, can also be a corrupting metric.
Cir.ca has a fascinating metric: follows. When a reader follows a story, she is telling Cir.ca, “Please bother me and let me know when something new happens here.” That is a measure of true interest.
Similarly, Flipboard keeps track of how many people subscribe to a publication — and even to an advertiser’s publication. It also watches what people “flip” or save to read later, which strikes me as a much better indication of interest than sharing.
Google has long valued links as a digital version of citation. That has served search well. Google News also uses citations to try to infer which news organization created or is staying on top of a story — if everyone writing about Walter Reed Army Medical Center quotes the Washington Post then there’s a good chance it’s the Post’s story.
Repost.US and YouTube and now Getty Images track embeds — how many people truly want to share a video or an article because they repost it in their own space on the web. The problem with just “liking” or “sharing” on Twitter and Facebook is that there turns out to be no cost for those transactions; it’s too easy to just keep passing things on. Embedding uses my space and affected my reputation with you. I would like to see more such higher friction means of sharing that really do impute engagement.
What is engagement? It’s likely not one measure of one method of interacting with content. It could be that I spend time with something, that I interact with it or the people gathered around it (though don’t we know that comments are no indication of quality), that I save it, that I take action based on it.
We want to find good proxies for engagement in the hopes that they will lead us to indications of quality, which in turn should tell us something about the authority of the creator and the trust the public has in her. None of these is easy to measure, like “likes.”
Another word for engagement is relationship. I have been arguing that we in news should stop seeing ourselves as content factories and start seeing ourselves as members of our communities who are in the relationship business, who use what we know about people to better serve them. Thus, I ask media companies how many relationships they have with the people they serve and what they know about them — what signals they have, enabling them to improve relevance and thus value and often impact. Those are metrics that start with the public rather than with media. Those are metrics that matter.