Mobile navigation


The Vanity, Sanity and Reality of Digital Publishing

Whether it’s performance league tables for hospitals and schools, the number of donated pennies per pound spent on charitable causes or, perhaps more subjectively, Arsenal’s appetite for possession over goals, focus on critical ‘outcomes’ is lacking across sectors and industries. Digital Publishing is no different, writes Fly Marketing’s Tim De La Salle.

By Tim De La Salle

The Vanity, Sanity and Reality of Digital Publishing

From a marketing perspective, Track Mavens 2017 Leadership Survey showed only 51% of the 200 executives questioned, evaluated the impact of their work via ‘leads or sales metrics’. Indeed, over 80% evaluate success using ‘consumption’ metrics.

Can you see where this is going…

To successfully execute strategies, monetisation or otherwise, digital publishers must stop focussing on vanity measures. This includes traffic. We need to prioritise engagement over page views and conversions over unique visitors.

We can turn to the world’s investors for some inspiration…

WWWD (What Would Warren Do)

Many of you may be familiar with the old adage that’s often referred to as the Banker’s Mantra;

“Revenue is Vanity, Profit is Sanity and Cash is Reality.”

Now the Snapchat investors of this world, placing their chips on pre-revenue start-ups, would presumably confess that these are risky bets. They’re gambling on the hope that someday, one of the companies in their portfolio will develop outstanding ‘fundamentals’. Then off on a yacht they will swan.

So, let’s instead turn to one of the world’s most famous, successful and arguably more conservative investors; Warren Buffett. How would the ‘Oracle of Omaha’ apply the banker’s mantra to Digital Publishing? I like to think he’d translate it as follows;

“Traffic is Vanity, Engagement is Sanity and Conversions are Reality.”

Traffic Is Vanity

When I speak to publishers about their marketing challenges, their elevator pitch often leads with some headlines about the number of “uniques” or “pageviews” their title receives over any given period.

Why is traffic so important?

If your answer is because your most valuable advertisers really care, because it’s an important competitive benchmark, because it helps you accurately measure internal ‘growth’ or intelligently inform editorial strategy, I’d argue you’re mistaken.

More problematically, those in the board room or other powerful stakeholders may be the ones over-valuing and demanding endless reports on these vanity metrics, in which case they are mistaken.

Let’s look at these in turn…

Your Most Valuable Advertisers Don’t Care About Traffic

They care about engagement.

When we think about ‘traffic’ in relation to advertisers, we invariably think about display.

Marc S. Pritchard, ‘Marketer of the Year’ and P&G’s marketing chief delivered a scathing attack on the Google/Facebook duopoly in his address at the annual IAB Leadership meeting this year. As Marketing Week put it, he was calling for the “clean up of the media supply chain” and to improve areas such as ‘viewability’, ad fraud and measurement.

Let’s indulge ourselves for a moment and assume the supply chain is cleaned up. Let’s imagine that we see a return to prosperity (if it ever were the case) of the tiny cut received by publishers on the insipid display ad. Even if the scenario materialised, this traffic hungry medium surely does not represent your most valuable and sustainable source of revenue, profitability or cash flow?

What’s more, I’d argue it doesn’t represent the most valuable opportunity for your potential advertisers either. Advertisers prioritise engagement and conversions. Sub 0.1% click through rates is indicative of neither engagement nor sustainable conversions.

Now I appreciate you may feel display revenues fill a gap but, your pursuit of pageviews in order to achieve profitability from this inventory is typically at the expense of the reader experience and by association [with demands for higher traffic] the erosion of quality content. These both cannibalise opportunities to grow much stronger relationships with your readers. These are the very relationships all stakeholders can capitalise on, including advertisers.

For example, The Guardian recently announced, “revenue from readers now outweighs advertising income”. Regardless of overall profitability, that’s a big turnaround and moreover, perhaps a meaningful trajectory. As chief executive of the Guardian Media Group, David Pemsel explains;

“The problem with reach is that it can breed complacency. You can look around the building and you've got screens with big [audience] numbers and monthly dashboards going out saying ‘Hey, we’ve got bigger’. But it masks the relationship you are cultivating with your readers…For every person that contributes we know more about them and that can be translated into a richness of understanding that advertisers can understand.”

There’s plenty of other examples. As Hearst’s new CEO James Wildman explains of their strategy around premium content;

“It means that it’s even more important that we’re providing our audiences with a fantastic experience that engages them and that they interact with. Because if you have an engaged audience, who love and share your content – and we do – that’s appealing to advertisers.”

Ignore Your Competitor’s Vanity

It’s tempting - and I concede sometimes necessary - to measure yourself against intelligence on your competitors. However, the very same metrics that tend to be available in the public domain, including traffic, are often the measurements to ignore. It comes down to some simple maths.

Take a competitor who claims to have double the unique users vs your website property. For example, they may have 200,000 ‘uniques’ per month vs your 100,000. What’s important is not these headline figures but conversion rates.

If your conversion rate for acquiring subscribers, or any other desirable outcome, is just 2.5% versus their 1%, then you’ll be outperforming them in conversion volume by 25%. This with just half the traffic.

In other words, by focussing on some relatively achievable improvements in the percentage of readers who sign up for your newsletter, who subscribe to your magazine or who purchase that event ticket, you don’t need the extra traffic.

Internal Vanity & Editorial Intelligence

A current affairs magazine client of ours had one or two articles which consistently received relatively huge numbers of visitors despite those articles being years old. These posts well ‘outperformed’ other’s in terms of traffic. However, they were utterly useless in terms of engagement and conversions. Should your editorial team write more of this kind of content. No.

What’s more, your MoM or YoY gains in ‘traffic’ are interesting until you realise they mean absolutely nothing without engagement and conversions. Even as a measure of any search engine optimisation efforts, organic traffic gains as a metric in itself isn’t hugely useful. What’s important is what that traffic goes on to do. Context is king.

Are These Numbers All B/S Anyway?

It would be remiss of me not to address the inaccuracies of popular reporting tools. As an agency friend of ours more eloquently puts it; “Analytics setups should be defined as trying to find the least inaccurate way of measurement”.

You’ve very likely got your figures from Google Analytics or another leading provider and therein lies some issues. For example, are you 100% certain your tracking code is installed correctly? Are your visitors concerned about privacy and as such blocking cookies from tracking their behaviour? Have you considered how GDPR (or more accurately the ePrivacy directive) will impact this in the future? Have you filtered out traffic from your office IP address? What about robots, spambots and spiders – are you filtering these out of your reporting?

If you answered ‘No’ to any of these questions (and there are plenty of others in the same vein) then it’s safe to say your headline ‘traffic’ statistics are inaccurate.

Now, of course, what follows is if you’re also deriving your engagement and conversion insights from the same source, surely these are polluted? They probably are. The solution is as per our agency friend alludes; it’s critical to ensure your setup is as tight and accurate as possible. It will never be perfect.

If you are using Google Analytics, then there are ways to rectify some of the aforementioned issues and you may like to start with filters. If you’re not using Google Analytics, then similar questions should be asked of the tools you are employing.

Engagement Is Sanity

I likely don’t have to tell you about metrics such as average session duration, pages per session and bounce rates. You’re probably already familiar with, and monitoring these. By themselves they certainly tell us something.

There’s the more obvious relationship with reader experience for example. However, quantitative metrics like time on site only tell you what’s happening and not why. There should be nothing stopping you from sourcing qualitative evidence though carefully implemented surveys and user testing. Both quantitative and qualitative measurements are essential in building a picture of overall user experience and this should be at the very heart of building valuable relationships with your readers.

Less obviously, engagement rates have a very direct link with search engine visibility.

Google et al use engagement metrics to make decisions about your search rankings. This is not to say that Google doesn’t reference ‘traffic’ metrics for the same purpose but, engagement metrics already have a significant role and will surely become increasingly important in determining what is a relevant result for searchers. Improving engagement will increase your visibility on SERPs (search engine result pages).

Finally, if you can shift your focus from traffic to engagement metrics, you’ll naturally begin to improve conversions and…

Conversions Are Reality

Conversions can be defined as any of your top level, desirable outcomes – more often than not tied directly to your organisation’s overall objectives. New subscriptions, subscription renewals, newsletter signups, e-commerce or event ticket purchases are all good examples.

Defining these is one thing. Measuring them is another.

If you’re not already measuring these outcomes, then you may consider implementing Google Analytics goals.

If you’re already confidently reporting on these conversion rates (%) but struggling to effectively lift them, you’re probably not looking hard enough at your funnels. This is to say, identifying the areas where your audience is ‘dropping off’ in their journey to a conversion.

Again, analytics might be able to tell you where, but you’ll need to engage in some qualitative research to really understand why, and find suitable solutions.

Finally, throughout, we must not forget the fundamentals.

What would Warren do?

3 Things You Can Do Today

  • Consider your organisational objectives and frame them against engagement & conversion metrics. Ignore and stop reporting on irrelevant metrics.
  • Ensure you’re accurately measuring these metrics. Consider using a unified Business Intelligence Dashboard to visualise your reports. Share this with all relevant staff.
  • Consider the role that conversion rate optimisation can play in achieving objectives. You may already have all the traffic you need to achieve your goals in which case a small increase in conversion rates (derived through a focus on user experience) is a more robust strategy than investment in traffic generation.

At Fly Marketing, we focus on visually stunning web design, metric driven marketing and best in breed sales & marketing technology for publishers.

Tel: +44 (0) 330 058 0161