Pageviews are Dead, Engagement is King

July 24, 2014
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ImageThe pageview as a metric is dying a slow death, and you need little more than to keep your eye on the new digital “disruptors” to see the once hailed metric’s downfall. 

ImageThe pageview as a metric is dying a slow death, and you need little more than to keep your eye on the new digital “disruptors” to see the once hailed metric’s downfall. 

Before we continue, let’s first define “disruptor,” because not all new digital ventures are such. In order for a disruptor to truly disrupt, the created revenue stream, if or when there is one, needs to flow to different pockets than those previously worn by the legacy brands. The internet itself was a disruptor, and often continues to be, through which startups can gain notoriety and thus scale in ways previously unachievable (without proper financial backing or connections). For digital publications, you can say the advent of “click-baiting” was a disruptor – giving rise to sites like BuzzFeed and UpWorthy, reallocating the ad dollars that follow pageviews from legacy brands like the New York Times

Unfortunately though, not all disruptors are popular, and for sites utilizing click-baiting as a key tactic in gaining unique pageviews, the feelings of animosity are growing. See, click-baiting, spurred on by social media sites, has a not-so-unknown dark side: “readers are being treated as stupid,” Jake Beckman, the man behind @SavedYouAClick, told The Daily Beast. “It’s social copy specifically intended to leave out information to create a curiosity gap. Some of it’s disingenuous. It’s not always, but the reader is always being manipulated.”

The Demise of Click-Baiting

Digital media companies have long aimed to capture an ever-increasing audience through clicks – but with click-baiting, it seems balancing bounce rate with uniques has taken a backseat. Instead, advertising dollars follow high unique pageview metrics and often, if not wholly, ignore bounce rates, time on site and/or pages per visit. Our digital sphere has become so obsessed with virality, we’ve forgotten one very essential ingredient to digital success: loyalty. 

Thankfully, loyalty, or engagement when included in metrics, is gaining new popularity, and you can thank mobile apps for that. On mobile, traditional digital ads get in the way, disrupt the experience and can cause negative brand association for both the app’s brand and the advertiser. For some apps, asking the user to pay a small premium for a better experience eliminates ads altogether. For apps produced by publishers, or any website that sees a significant amount of traffic resulting from mobile web search, the pay-for-experience option alienates readers, of whom can easily find a similar site or app with similar content that doesn’t have them accidentally clicking on a pop-up. 

This “Internet equality” through which users can easily locate free alternatives is the same reason why paywalls haven’t been effective for publishers – and as more and more brands become publishers (AKA anyone who produces content), this lack of ability to monetize content on the web becomes quite serious. It is also why click-baiting has become so commonplace. 

But there is a rising movement of anti-clickbaiters that are taking aim at the headline trickery. From the Onion’s new ClickHole website to the Twitter account that amassed 125K (and growing) followers nearly overnight for calling out publishers for their click-bait headlines, there is an accumulating number of people who are simply fed up with being treated as a number rather than a customer. 

The Quest to Monetize Digital Media

Certainly, there are potential solutions for digital content monetization. Branded content or native advertising is one, and nearly all publishers, from Mashable to The New York Times to Demand Media, are testing the waters. However, for proper branded content placement, a publisher needs to actually know their audience’s preferences and brand affinities – or risk backlash (Looking at you The Atlantic). 

Other sites have taken a more methodological approach (literally). Known as “method journalism,” sites like FiveThirtyEight, Vox, 2Paragraphs and more are addressing the digital media monetization issue with something a little different: niche engagement. While these sites are not wholly void of advertisements, they are lesser in frequency and often much more contextual. The goal on these sites isn’t to advertise to a unique view, but to gain the trust and ultimately the click of loyal audience members who build positive associations between a niche site’s content and the advertisers that place there. 

In other words, for method journalism sites, most of which have gained near immediate success, engagement is the key metric – and from there the pageviews (and the advertising dollars) follow. 

Whether utilizing method journalism or branded content, what most of these sites are doing is acting as an agency all their own. Using platforms like Umbel, which connects the dots between on-site behaviors and socially identified brand affinities, sites like Vox or branded content teams within legacy organizations can approach brands with high affinities within their audience, proving to them the value of a click from a loyal user, rather than an accidental click from a one-time pageview. It looks like this:

Big data makes this possible and is digital media’s newest disruptor, moving dollars away from third-party vendors and ad tech back to the publishers themselves (whether they be a brand, sports team or content publishing conglomerate like Conde Nast). 

The internet has spoken, and users are finished with irrelevant ads that disrupt a digital experience. As for the digital media companies themselves, the user is increasingly becoming the biggest asset, and those with high customer lifetime value (thus those most likely to share their data with a brand) provide the most ROI. 

High engagement is the new metric that matters most, and holistically knowing your audience is how you achieve it.