Media sites measure differently

The pen is mightier than the checkout scanner.

At least that’s what Jim and I, who earned our stripes at and, think.  Call ‘em what you will – “media,” “content,” “ad-supported” – businesses that attract and monetize audiences via information might have to be tougher than e-commerce plays…because their job is tougher.

Media is our number-one client vertical, so we’ve learned and taught a lot about how digital measurement is different under the advertising business model.  Content sites face unique reporting context:

  1. The looser connection between visitation and revenue
  2. The ever-changing product
  3. The ever-changing demand
  4. The organizational dynamics.

But how unique?

Our media clients are just as likely to use Omniture, Webtrends, and Google Analytics as commerce and not-for-profit organizations.  They employ developers who implement enhancements and fixes that we recommend, just like any other website.  Their executives demand accurate, actionable data and recommendations, like good leaders in any field.  It is just more complex to meet that demand for insights in an advertising business.

1. Multiple Success Metrics
For one, media websites don’t get to focus on one success metric, such as transactions or leads.  Not even pageviews, a potential proxy for ad impressions and hence revenue, can withstand the spotlight, since not every impression is sold and those that are yield wildly different revenue per impression…or click…or action.  Instead, our clients track overall audience, content engagement, and numerous micro-conversions with equal fervor, so we’re called upon to establish useful KPIs.

Web analytics tools won’t match trusted syndicated sources like comScore and Quantcast when it comes to actual people visiting a site, but they can report trends for key audience segments useful for maximizing total reach.  Engagement can be defined as simply as pages or time per visit (though detractors worry about high figures for those lost in poor navigation) or be more nuanced to include return visitation, comments, and shares.  These last two cross into micro-conversions: user actions that the website encourages, but don’t immediately hit the bottom line.  Converting visitors to email subscribers, Facebook friends, and Twitter followers so that they (and their friends) can be reached off-site is particularly fruitful to measure, so we’ve customized tracking to do so.

2. Real-time Requirements
Since no one metric dominates, our media clients get more benefit than most from clear dashboards we create to highlight the metrics that are moving that day.  Or moving that minute: another difference with content sites is the frequent need for frequent updates.  Real-time data can be critical for news-driven organizations that need to understand trends in content consumption as they constantly re-merchandise their home pages and landing pages.  We’ve created content segmentations to simplify content reporting for section or topic managers.  We’ve also recommended tools like Chartbeat and Clicky (and now, Newsbeat) as a valuable supplement for this real-time capability.

3. Truly Organic Traffic Sources
Waiting for web analytics data to process can drive managers crazy as they research another common question: where did these people come from?  Search engines are a key traffic source, of course, and some news clients cultivate breaking stories’ organic search visibility, which web analytics tools are built to support.  Content sites are very susceptible to changes in visitation as fans, peers, and even competitors link to new or hot content via HTML or social media.  We’ve created reporting segments to drill down into social media visits for clients to stay on top of these surges in interest.  We’ve also enhanced analytics tools to track views of and inbound clicks from client content framed on partner sites, and the reciprocal outbound links.

As a result of their hot-and-cold organic search and organic social traffic, media clients worry less than others about tracking inbound campaigns.  Yes, many deploy the same acquisition marketing tactics as commerce sites, but without a clear conversion to track, ad-driven sites can’t optimize as easily and generally spend less.  Because email newsletters are hybrid content, promotional, and advertising products, we often create their campaign tagging or SAINT classification nomenclature and processes.

4. Competing Stakeholders
The exception, of course, is premium content, be it subscription or pay-per-view.  When this revenue is in play, the responsible managers are indistinguishable from their counterparts who sell widgets online.  They need to overcome cross-domain tracking issues as they test landing pages and host carts on dedicated sub-domains, for instance, so we customize cookies and code.

However, these subscription managers are nestled in organizational charts very different from those at retailers.  They must compete for resources and decision rights with departments called Editorial and Sales.  Sales at least shares the financial mindset with the marketer (Editorial often proudly does not).  But whereas boosting visits by 10% will —  all other things being equal — sell 10% more, say, eBooks, it won’t sell 10% more ads.  The most valuable advertising is sold via relationships, based on certain audience and/or content segments, when the audience size reaches certain thresholds.  So Sales has different priorities to make the website sellable, leading to different digital measurement questions.  We’ve advised clients on valuing custom sponsorships and recommended tools like comScore Digital Analytix (especially if site is already UDM-tagged) and Yahoo! Web Analytics for their built-in demographic reporting capabilities.

All in All, Different Context
So perhaps a better headline would be, “Media sites measure the same…but different.”  Yes, KPIs and dashboard dials, but carefully curated to track multiple business goals.  Yes, traffic sources, but for visits chaotically driven to the site by others, more than systematically pushed campaigns.  Yes, visitor click-streams, but for desirable segments and encompassing where they go next.

With ad-supported clients, we often deliver the same technical implementations, fixes, and enhancements as we would for a lead-gen or government site, but the context is different.  And that is really where our experience with content businesses pays dividends: when translating data into recommendations, we don’t have to take off our commerce hats and put on our media hats.  We can anticipate that a purely data-driven homepage revision won’t fly with every department…and might be overridden by breaking news in any case.

Please read more about our work with content organizations, or contact us to customize web analytics for your needs.

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