The age of the pageview is coming to an end.
This single metric has reigned as the supreme indicator of digital publishing success and the primary enticement to advertisers for over a decade. But leading publishers, such as ALM, Hearst Digital, and Condé Nast, are gravitating toward key performance indicators (KPIs) that measure actual engagement—and new data tools are enabling that shift.
A pageview can tell a publisher that an individual showed up to its site, but little about what they did once they arrived and the value of that visit. A share, a return visit, or time on site signify a level of engagement that could translate into robust audience growth and greater revenue opportunities. Publishers are turning to these KPIs in order to refine their content strategies and offer more compelling value for advertisers.
During a panel called “Publishing’s Future: Digital AND Data-Driven” convened at the Publishing Executive Live: Executive Summit on Digital Media in May several leading publishers spoke candidly about redefining their digital KPIs. Panelists included Daniel Stubbs, executive director of digital intelligence at Condé Nast; Jeffrey S. Litvack, chief digital officer and director of ALM Intelligence; and Brian Madden, VP of audience at Hearst Digital Media. Before sharing what KPIs have proven most effective for their organizations, the panelists offered a few words of caution.
“KPIs are very tricky things,” said Stubbs. “It’s easy to incentivize the wrong behavior among editorial by choosing the wrong KPI.” At Condé Nast, pageviews were once the ultimate metric, but that strategy led to unintended consequences. For example, Condé Nast editors tended to publish slideshows or articles with slideshows embedded in them because they serve as an effective vehicle for increasing pageviews. But the tactic actually hurt user experience, said Stubbs. The lesson here is that publishers must first determine the goals of the brand before selecting KPIs.
And depending on a publisher’s goals, multiple KPIs may be required. “Having one specific KPI like pageviews or time spent doesn’t make a lot of sense,” said Madden. “It ignores the content entirely.” Madden gave the example of a short article meant to attract a mobile reader and incite sharing. If the user enters the site, consumes the content, and shares it, but only spends 15 seconds on the article, the article would be deemed a failure when looked through the lens of time spent. The fact that it has garnered more social clout and traffic, said Madden, would be ignored.
While it is important to recognize that different content may require unique KPIs, publishers still need a way to measure the effectiveness of a site’s overall content strategy. What KPIs suggest that a strategy is attracting readers and keeping them on the site? The panelists shared three measurements that they believe are strong indicators of deep audience engagement:
Litvack suggests the distance a reader scrolls down a page is the best indicator of engagement. Unlike time spent, scroll-down indicates that the content is being read, or at the very least skimmed. Scroll-down has also proven to be an effective metric for optimizing the length of ALM articles. “How much time are we spending writing 1,000 word articles, when our audience is only reading 250 words?” asked Litvack. “We’re trying to figure out that boundary so that we can use the limited resources we have to the maximum value.”
At Condé Nast, the analytics team is measuring the volume of readers that read a certain piece of content and return to it over the course of 30 days. “We think that’s a greater reflection of brand health,” explained Stubbs, “and an indirect measure of the value of each piece.”
Although not every social share is trackable, Madden places the greatest emphasis on this KPI at Hearst. Not only does a share indicate that a reader found value in a piece of content, it’s also a powerful way to grow audience. “We’ve done analysis that shows for every Facebook share we get on a piece of content, we can drive on average 300 people back to the site. It’s a really powerful metric.”
Ellen Harvey is a freelance writer and editor who covers the latest technologies and strategies reshaping the publishing landscape. She previously served as the Senior Editor at Publishing Executive and Book Business.