Measuring digital success beyond the “click through”

I had an interesting conversation with an ad reseller we do business with this past week. They called to check in and see how our partnership was going. Specifically, they asked why our sales seemed to be lagging year over year. When taking a closer look at our revenue, it’s apparent we are mostly selling run-of-site ads with geo targeting. Our behavioral targeting ads (which allow advertisers to focus on a niche audience based on previous website activities within a section or topic) have greatly diminished.

A common objection I’ve heard to selling behavioral targeting is that “it’s expensive and results aren’t much better than run of site or our own inventory.” When asking what metric is used to determine success for banner ads, the overwhelming response is click-through rates.

Several interesting articles have been written lately on click-through rates and how they’re given too much relevance in measuring the overall success of an online ad campaign (Click Through Should Not Matter).

The problem runs deeper than just ad click throughs.  Today most content companies measure success of the individual journalists based on uniques and page views.  Both criteria driven by ad sales.  In reality most of a content site’s traffic is driven by a small audience.  The old 80/20 rule.  Building new and expanding an audience are more critical than driving page views.  Here is a paragraph out of Columbia School of Journalism I think is really relevant.

This shows how misguided current measurement systems are. Today’s obsession with the “Unique Visitor” metric drives the advertising market —and competition among news sites. Such fixation encourages an arms race in which, by all means necessary (games, fake URLs), news sites will shoot for an increase in their numbers of UVs and for the resulting ranking improvement. This is short-sighted: loyal readers—roughly the top 10% that will generate 80% of the page views —should be the measure of choice.” (Full Article)

Some facts about click-throughs: a small percentage of people actually click on ads, and in many cases they are clicked on by mistake. Even in cases where click-throughs are expected, the ads often do not have a clear call to action to encourage such activity. When click-throughs do occur, true success should be based on actions taken, such as time spent on referred site or a purchase on a deals page – and not the click-through itself.

In the case of our partner, we are primarily using click-throughs to determine the success of behavioral targeting instead of stressing the value in delivering quality brand impressions to an audience our advertiser seeks – even if people do not click through to their website or make a buying decision right at that moment.

If a person is going to Web pages that relate to buying a car, for example, then we know behavioral targeting ads about cars will be relevant to that person. And we know these people will be more valuable to advertisers.

Getting the right people to see your ad is critical, which means we can’t give up on behavioral targeting. In other words, it’s the overall quality of audience that matters most – and not quantity of clicks. Advertisers are already shifting their ad dollars. For now, ROS display ads still rule, but according to Borrell Associates, by 2015 the lion share of local online ad spending will be going towards targeted display advertising.

It comes down to the ability of my company and the entire ad industry to change the metrics used to measure success. It won’t be easy, but it’s necessary. So how can we address the problem?  We need to identify a core group of advertisers that are forward thinkers and see the world as something more than traditional page views and uniques.  We then focus on engagement factors with an audience they seek.  We create metrics around time spent with content and driving interaction.  There will need to be specific actions we seek that relate to an ultimate purchase or interacting with brand.  Ultimately we will need to show the advertisers insight about the audiences they are seeking.  As long as we show a level of engagement and specific actions were driven, we should not get into a page view and uniques discussion.

Specific to our own efforts with an iPad app we are seeing high engagement, especially with our feature stories, which are unique for the iPad.  We consistently see users spend more than 2 minutes per feature.  There are several studies that suggest people spend a lot more time with content on the iPad, here is one of them as reported by  As it relates to ad engagement on the iPad, the story is the same.  Here is a case study about a successful iPad campaign for Land Rover as reported by

I know it sounds foreign, but if we don’t move in this direction then we will forever be selling at a lower cpm ad unit.

(Photo courtesy of Davide Cassanello)

Can Traditional Media Companies Ever Become Non-Traditional?

How many times have you heard about traditional media companies having their lunch eaten by digital start up companies?  How can this be? Shouldn’t “traditional” companies be well positioned with an established business and loyal customers?

The primary reason is they focus too much on tradition and business models of the past.  Start ups look to fill in gaps that traditional companies leave exposed because they are usually not core pursuits.  Once the start up steals business the traditional business tends to think of the lost business as a small subset of the overall business.  The vicious cycle begins and the business begins to erode first by incremental losses and ultimately leading to significant losses.

So how does a traditional media company become non-traditional?  My hope is to discuss the many aspects of this effort over the course of several blog posts.  This particular post will be discussing an acquisition strategy versus a transition strategy.

Acquisition strategy versus transition strategy

From the late 90’s up to today most of the strategies related to digital content have been around re-creating experiences of core print products online.  Even with the advent of smart phones, much of the same information in print still act as the base for efforts online and in mobile.  Many of the new iPad products coming out of newspaper and magazine businesses are closer to replica editions of the print product than they are truly innovative.

Here’s what Damon Kiesow from Poynter Institute had to say:

So far those opportunities have gone largely unexploited as media companies try to figure out exactly what tablets are good for. As I noted last month, most of the U.S. newspaper apps to launch recently on the iPad are replica editions — basically PDFs of the printed product. While there may be a small audience for these replicas, this is a transitional model at best and will do nothing to build new audiences on tablets.

Likewise, many interactive newspaper apps are a lot like print products — but not necessarily in a good way. Apps from USA Today, The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times are well designed, but they still offer the same type of content as in print, with a similar look and feel.

The Augusta Chronicle ipad app from Morris Communications is an example of a replica edition.

With the ever declining subscription base of business and the disdain for newspaper and magazine print products by our youth, focusing on transition is a one way street with an uncertain ending.  I believe traditional media businesses need to use digital strategies as a way of acquiring a new rather than transitioning old audiences.  I’m not saying that transition isn’t important, but it does not address the need for new audience.

The pursuit of a younger audience

With the launch of the iPad, a major opportunity has presented itself in terms of gaining new audience .  The primary age group purchasing iPads is 35-45.  The second largest group is 25-34.  Both of these age demographics are not large users of print products especially newspapers.  Building a content experience around the iPad and a younger audience is exactly the pursuit required in traditional media.  If successful, it rationalizes building products based on an audience and not around a one size fits all strategy.

Elements of an audience acquisition strategy

So what does it mean to pursue audience acquistion strategy?  Without getting into every detail, there are two key areas to pay attention to.


The most important item is content.  Our research has shown that the younger demographic likes much of the same information as an older demographic but the level of importance is different.  Subjects like things to do, celebrities and photos are much more important than local politics.  Traditional topics such as commentary, classified ads and obituaries don’t even have a place in the product.

Once you have the content in place for the audience you seek you now need to make sure it is written with some text but in many cases a photo library or video will do more to tell the story than printed words.  It should also be noted that in many cases the type of content required may not be readily accessible from your own content centers.  You have to be willing to license content from other sources if you really want to build content specific to an audience.


Another area that is critical but sometimes overlooked is the experience the audience has with the technology.  If we are talking about iPad, the expectation is for a robust experience inclusive of video, audio, photos, text and interaction with content.  A pdf just doesn’t cut it.

As mentioned these are just a few high level considerations, but just thinking through the impact to a traditional media company is complex.

In the end, the most important aspect of any strategy is business growth.  Growth has to include increasing audiences.  In these early days of the tablet, moving people from print to online and tablets is important but not as critical as grabbing new audiences. We have a clear opportunity to be the first mover before the well funded startups get going.