Tony Haile is CEO of Chartbeat, a betaworks company that provides realtime analytics to websites and blogs.
Sam Slaughter of Contently elegantly argued that the pageview as a metric of traffic is failing both publishers and advertisers. In an environment where one piece of inventory can become six with little cost and the click is more important than the content, publishers find themselves selling a commoditized product with collapsing prices.
Brand advertisers are similarly ill-treated. They ask for their target’s time and attention and instead are given a count of how many server loads occurred. They ask to advertise around engaging content, but publishers sell them a unit of value related not to the content, but the provocativeness of the link to that content. Once a user has clicked on the link, no matter how misleading, no matter how good or bad the content, the monetizable act has occurred and the brand should pay up.
So if pageviews are killing us, now what? Any new metric for brand advertising has two jobs. For brands, it must hew to their goal of capturing their target audience’s attention. For publishers, it must be a unit of scarcity that enables premium prices for their inventory.
The metric that comes closest to that is simple: time.
For brands, time measures how successfully a publisher is capturing the attention of the audience they desire. Throw enough money around, and you can drive traffic to anything, but if you can’t capture a target’s attention when they’re there, it’s money wasted. An analysis of one international brand’s traffic from display ads found that of the thousands of visitors they bought over a multi-week period, only two users registered a non-zero engaged time. Meaning only two people read any of it.
Traditional metrics would say that campaign was a success, time calls bullshit.
For publishers, time is the one unit of scarcity on the Web: Mark Zuckerberg can add a box to Facebook and add another billion impressions to the world, but he cannot add a 25th hour to someone’s day. Moreover, monetizing on time creates viable business models for quality content. That long-form piece that holds someone’s attention for 10 minutes is worth far more than the content farm piece dashed off by the intern’s intern.
Advertisers have always rightly mistrusted traditional measurements of time on site. The naive and still predominant method of counting the difference between timestamps on consecutive pageviews is only marginally better than the careful application of saliva to finger in a windy environment. Visitors who bounce? Not counted. More than one tab open at a time? Screwed. User gone off to get coffee? Blind to that. Why would you buy on something so dodgy?
But time is changing on the Web. We’re moving from a simplistic count between server loads to understanding user behavior at a precise and individual level. We can tell if the opened page is the active tab in the browser, we can tell what part of the page a user is in view, and we can even tell if the user is actively looking at a specific piece of the content or if she’s been distracted. And we can do it all to a precision of time that makes traditional measurements of time look antediluvian.
So what do we do now? We use the unit of measurement that can satisfy brand advertiser goals and create viable businesses for publishers. We don’t have to follow each other down the death spiral of chasing pageviews: there’s still time.
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