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Why editorial metrics give journalism a boost

Attention is no longer the mere act of close or careful observation. More than ever, it is the golden shekel in the media marketplace. And within a now well-established, highly-competitive and challenged attention economy, fierce battles are being waged to secure a slice of users’ limited bandwidth.

“Where the attention goes, the money will inevitably follow,” writes Mathew Ingram in Forbes, citing the attention economy as the root of the “implosion” of traditional media. “And right now, the attention of a large chunk of the population is being diverted away from traditional content and information channels, and platforms like Facebook and Google are busy vacuuming it up.”

Facebook alone commands an average of 40 minutes a day of attention from a billion users. As would be expected, Facebook is keen to have them stick around to absorb more ads and thereby generate more revenue. So it’s not surprising that Facebook recently redoubled its efforts to rid its newsfeed of annoying clutter that could take away any of their users’ valuable attention.

“We’ve heard from people that they specifically want to see fewer stories with clickbait headlines or link titles,” Facebook explained on its blog

What this reveals is a pivot away from two decades of a punishing “click economy” based on CPMs. In the mad dash to recapture ad revenue, traditional media and other online publishers are fuelling a fast rise in attention metrics. As these changes are demanding new math surrounding ad rates and prompting a greater focus on ad relevance and engaging content online, an evolution is underway that may give publishers a much-needed competitive edge.

Editorial metrics ()

Where did the click economy go?

If there was a moment that marked the sea change within the “click web,” many would point to 2014, when Tony Haile, CEO of Chartbeat, insisted that publishers should stop treating users like lab rats. Drawing from user behaviour data that revealed that 55 percent of people spent fewer than 15 seconds actively on a page, Haile had an epiphany: Everything we thought we knew about the web is wrong. 

“Spurred by new technology and plummeting click-through rates, what happens between the clicks is becoming increasingly important and the media world is scrambling to adapt,” Haile wrote in time.com.

Chartbeat was the first company licensed to measure attention and introduced the “cost per hour” (CPH) metric, which measures how long an ad is viewed, rather than a mere view. With this new currency in digital advertising, Columbia Journalism Review queried: Can Tony Haile save journalism by changing the metric? It’s a tall order, but Haile effectively ushered in the concept of the “attention web,” which is a promising start.

“In addition to better serving advertisers, time-based metrics will benefit publishers,” the Financial Times announced, one of the first traditional media outlets to jump on board. “CPH values quality content over quantity, or real reader engagement over clicks.” 

New wave of new metrics

Chartbeat was a visible leader in new metrics, yet in the background, the Guardian was hacking away quietly to develop their own in-house analytics platform, Ophan, to break new ground. The thrust was to provide staffers with information they could use to improve how their stories performed, essentially shaping analytics around editorial content to boost traffic. By 2015, more than 900 employees at The Guardian U.S., U.K, and Australia were tapping into Orphan.

“Everybody can see the results that they’re having,” Mary Hamilton, the assistant editor of Guardian US told Nieman Lab. She noted that there are many hands in the production process, “… so if they make a change to a headline, or if they add a link or if they add something on the front, they can now actually see the results that that’s having in real time. They can test out a gut instinct and see what happens, rather than just flying purely on that instinct.”

Smart use of data for better editorial decisions

Though a trying transition, many publishers have now turned to more advanced analytic tools: ChartbeatParse.lyNewsWhip and Google Analytics. Beyond measuring page views, these tools rely on “universal analytics” to reveal what users are doing on a page, helping news organisations connect the dots between quality content, user attention and engagement to increased revenue. But there’s still a way to go: 76 percent of editors, CEOs and digital leaders said improving the use and understanding of data is critical in a 2016 Reuters Institute survey.

Chartbeat new visitors chart ()

Now, sharper and more precise tools are at hand wrote Benjamin Bathke in Media Shift. “The next big evolution in analytics is what experts are calling “scored metrics,” which take universal analytics, look at the relationships between different signals such as reader behaviour, rank them according to their importance and interpret hints those signals provide.”

The trend in the news media industry is coming full circle with “editorial analytics” — scored metrics tailored to newsrooms’ particular editorial and organisational priorities. Bathke highlights a recent Bulgaria-based startup, Content Insights, which provides scored metrics specifically for publishers with its content performance indicator, or CPI. An algorithm-based index, CPI evaluates how a piece of content performs relative to other content on a publisher’s website.

According to users, CPI helps evaluate content performance and provides insights into what drives reader behaviour. Editorial analytics offer publishing a fighting chance in the battle for attention with social media, gaming and other sectors, Bathke asserted. 

“Making use of editorial analytics may not be the silver bullet,” he concluded, “…but it is quickly becoming an indispensable weapon in the arsenal of media organisations near and far.

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