Want better prices for your ads? Improve your audience metrics

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As online metrics evolve, publishers have an opportunity to help advertisers break their obsession with impressions and click-throughs and focus on more valuable measures of audience engagement.

Better metrics will help publishers on two fronts: improving the audience experience and enhancing the ROI proposition to advertisers. Developing a more compelling story to advertisers could help publishers justify higher cost per thousand impressions (CPMs) once the ad dollars begin flowing again.

"We need to keep developing better metrics to help publishers identify, attract and retain the best audience they can and demonstrate the value of that audience to advertisers," said Josh Chasin, chief research officer at comScore. "It’s not rocket science: count the audience, sell to the audience."

Audience metrics may not be rocket science, but to many publishers and marketers, they may feel that way. The breadth and complexity of online metrics may explain why ad buyers and sellers still rely so heavily on traditional metrics such as page views or click-throughs. In a recent Forrester study, 35% of brand marketers said they use click-throughs to measure the effectiveness of interactive campaigns; only 13% said they track brand awareness, and only 12% said they measure site engagement.

The beauty of online publishing is that there are so many ways to measure how readers are consuming your content. Unfortunately, that’s also the curse. "Advertisers expect you to be able to measure everything, and that can be absurdly expensive," said Jim Sterne, chairman of the Web Analytics Association.

Certainly, too much data can overwhelm any audience development or sales team. On the flip side, relying on data from a single source can skew the true story of your website’s performance. Page views, for example, are useful only in the broader context of other metrics, such as time spent on site or bounce rate (the percentage of visitors who leave after viewing one page). A growing bounce rate in and of itself is a concern, but it may also signal that your search engine optimization (SEO) efforts are actually succeeding in driving more traffic to your site, albeit not the kind of traffic you want.

Publishers are also coming around to the fact that digital data, as plentiful as it is, does not tell the entire story about their audience’s behavior and activities. That’s why some measurement experts recommend augmenting digital data with surveys and syndicated research.

"An occasional survey can provide me with a little more psychographic information," said Sterne. "Whether someone likes to go to the movies or hike on the beach is useful for determining the right message."

The key is to find the right mix of metrics that provide the most relevant insights into your audience.

Tweaking the "old," layering in the "new"

Traditional metrics aren’t going away, but they are evolving. Service providers are constantly tweaking the way they measure Web traffic to provide a broader and more accurate picture of website users. comScore, for example, is expanding its Media Metrix service to track Internet usage beyond home and work computers. Media Metrix 360, the new tracking service expected to go live later this month, includes a "total universe report" that incorporates page view metrics from two key elements that have proven difficult to measure: shared computers (e.g., those found in Internet cafes and libraries) and mobile devices.

User demographics are also getting a makeover, driven by behavioral analytics.

"The expectation of visibility into who [online visitors] are is higher: how they arrived, how long they hang out, how often they come back, who else they buy from," said Sterne. "If you can share their behavioral patterns, I can use that to modify my messages so that I reach the right person at right time."

To that end, metrics that separate the frequent visitors from the "fly-bys" are increasingly important to advertisers. "I consider someone ‘valuable’ after they have passed some usage threshold that shifts them from accidental tourist to regular visitor," said Chasin. "Since that loyal audience will see a disproportionate share of impressions, it’s more important to serve them well."

That’s why metrics such as duration or time spent are emerging as key indicators of site performance. "Increasingly, duration is becoming more important than page views," said Chasin. "Not all content exists in terms of pages anymore. You can be deeply engaged with a site’s content – video, for example – but only consume a single page."

Other emerging "engagement" metrics include the following:

Reach: Who’s forwarding, emailing, discussing, or even copying/pasting your content. Zachary Steward of Nieman Journalism Lab wrote recently about software that tracks the text and images that users highlight and copy on a given page. "I’m not sure precisely what that’s measuring, but it feels like engagement," Steward said in his blog post. "Readers who are moved to copy a passage are likely sharing that content with friends — in an email as much as a blog."

Return rate/return conversion rate: How frequently do visitors come back to your site and, more importantly, how frequently do they come back and transact?

Sentiment: What are people saying about your brand? A set of social media metrics is critical for gauging sentiment beyond the confines of your website – this is just as important for publishers as it is for brand marketers.

Market share: More telling than the page views media sites are pulling in is how that traffic compares with other web properties. "The challenge to newspapers is not simply to improve their numbers over prior months, or to post numbers that look impressive at first blush — the challenge is to gain market share," Nieman Labs’ Martin Langeveld wrote earlier this month. "To do this, newspapers need to build not only unique visitors, but visits per person, pages per visit, and time spent per visit. At less than 1 percent of page views or time spent, newspapers are barely on the radar screen."

Outcomes: Is the content or ad driving the reader to a purchase, a download, a registration, or some other preferred action?

Propensity to buy: This is the big enchilada for most advertisers – how likely are a site's visitors to buy what the brand marketer is selling?

"From an advertiser’s perspective, it’s not enough to tell me their age or ZIP code," said Sterne. "I want as many eyeballs as I can who match the profile of people who have a high propensity to buy."

That straight line between advertising and a purchase is something service providers like comScore are beginning to hone in on. "We’ve kept our ad effectiveness data separate from the Media Matrix data," says Chasin. "But our product road map involves making ad effectiveness as turnkey as possible, which will allow you to seamlessly go from audience exposure to purchase." Those capabilities, Chasin acknowledged, are probably a year to 18 months off.

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