Engagement is nothing new for journalists. Long before the Internet, reporters had to create interesting and engaging stories that readers would care about, otherwise readers wouldn’t buy their newspapers. Newspapers then turned around and sold ads based on the time people spent reading their product. It was a win-win for journalists looking to fund reporting and for advertisers looking to market their products.
That model worked well for more than 100 years, until the Internet came to town with metrics such as CPM (cost per 1,000 page views) and click-through rates, which, for newspapers, have famously come in at a dime for every dollar they get for print ads. Worst of all, we confuse what visitors have clicked on for what they’ve actually read.
A new approach to measuring a web audience’s engagement is emerging as not only a better way to truly gauge consumption of content, but a way to monetize it better to benefit true content creators (think newspaper and media companies) over so-called click baiters.
Upworthy calls it “attention minutes,” Medium refers to it as “total time reading,” but really the concept we’re talking about is engaged time measuring the quality of a site not by page views, but by how much time readers spend consuming its content.
“Fundamentally, this is a metric that rewards content that engages readers,” Daniel Mintz, head of analytics at Upworthy, told Digiday.
When you think about it, newspapers and media organizations have been playing on a field that is tilted against them. While they’re investing the time and energy to create engaging content, advertisers value the link far more than the content itself. Shifting away from this flawed model seems to make sense, and align the web with nearly all other forms of advertising, whether it’s print, television or radio.
The Financial Times calls this metric “engaged time,” and earlier this month, they began experimenting with the idea of selling ads not based on how many times they are served, but by how long an audience spends viewing them.
Through the summer and into the fourth quarter, the Financial Times will try to leverage its engagement with readers (who reportedly spend about six times more time with the Financial Times than other business sites) by attempting to sell five seconds of ad time to “C-level” executives to prove the approach works.
The Financial Times has partnered with Chartbeat, a real-time data service for websites, to help develop tools to properly measure (and hopefully monetize) the time its audience spends on its site. Thanks to Chartbeat’s work, Chris Slade, the commercial director of digital advertising at the Financial Times, says he can now tell an advertiser out of 1,000 ads served how many were seen for one second versus 30 seconds, making the obvious step to sell blocks of time instead of individual ad impressions.
“Are we honestly saying that there’s no difference to the brand between one second of exposure and five seconds of exposure?,” Slade said in an interview with Contently. “Logic would say: let’s start to value the amount of time spent with a brand.”
In fact, Chartbeat is on the forefront of measuring “engaged time” and trying to convince publishers not only that it’s a better way to measure the interest and success of their content, but could be a much more lucrative way of funding and monetizing their content-creation efforts.
“When Tiffany’s buys a web ad, they don’t expect someone to click through and buy a ring,” said Tony Hale, the CEO of Chartbeat. “They’re just trying to reach an audience, and technology is making it easier for publishers to accommodate them better.”
Hale’s argument seems to make a lot of sense. In the arena of CPMs and click-through rates, media companies with a medium to large audience seem to have a never-ending supply of inventory, which drive advertising costs down. But if engagement and time are the chief measurements of success, we introduce back scarcity and increase the value of readers to advertisers.
“If I’m spending five minutes with Editor & Publisher, I’m not spending five minutes with Conde Nast,” said Hale. Here, the goals of creating editorial content change from chasing page views to focusing on quality content that captures more attention.
Chartbeat has developed tools that can easily measure this emerging metric by pinging websites every second (rather than relying on the old method of measuring timestamps). It paints a much clearer picture of who’s reading what content by knowing what’s currently open in the active browser window (as opposed to hidden behind a tab), exactly what pixels are in view and has a reader clicked, scrolled or interacted in some way in the last five seconds.
Hale notes there are two optimal strategies to maximizing value in the so-called attention web and both play into most newspaper company’s strengths engaging pieces that can capture an audience’s attention (investigative and longer-form journalism) and snappier content that people come back multiple times a day to read (breaking news).
“It’s not about short or long content, it’s about the total amount of time readers spend with your website,” said Hale. “It’s about maximizing attention.”
It’s not just a handful of pie-in-the-sky tech gurus who are pushing this new method. The Media Ratings Council, an online standards organization, set an ad standard earlier this year that said at least half of an ad had to appear on the screen for at least a second to be counted as a viewed impression. Yahoo has taken this a step further, and begun to use Portal’s Viewability product to charge some advertisers only for ads readers actually see.
According to Jason Kint, the CEO of the Online Publisher’s Association, this shift will overwhelmingly benefit newspapers and organizations that invested in great content, instead of being forced to base content plans on fleeting moments of distraction.
“The more we can simplify the way we measure our consumption and advertising units for marketers, and make it easier to understand the value, the better it is for everyone,” said Kint. “It’s hard to fake time as it requires consumer attention.”
According to Kint, using engaged time could also help media companies solve the problem of monetizing the growth in mobile readership, as “time normalizes all platforms and engagement with brands.”
For Hale, it’s about reseting the balance between publishers and advertisers, and going back to a time where publishers had to create engaging content in order to truly matter in the marketplace.
“You have to be good, goddammit,” professes Hale. “That’s the stuff that makes the difference.”
Rob Tornoe is a cartoonist and columnist for Editor and Publisher. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.