“Eyes so transparent that through them the soul is seen.” – Theophile Gautier
Audience transparency is the ability for advertisers, sponsors and readers to get a true picture of a publication’s reach. Why is this important, in particular with digital publishing? Because despite the belief that digital tracking is easy, there are a thousand ways to elicit and manipulate these numbers. Furthermore, the terminology adds confusion thus reports of stats and figures can mean different things for different people. Advertisers and sponsors deserve a simple, consistent, and yes, transparent, view of what they are buying.
Unlike a non-digital format, online publications can be tracked by:
- Unique Visits: The number of computers that visit a site
- Pageviews: The number of times a page is viewed
- Returning vs New visitors: A measure of repeat visits
- Time on site: How long do visitors hang around
- How many other sites are linking in: How many people link to a site?
- Email and open click through rates: if a publication is delivered via email, you can track the open rate (what % opens the email) and the click through rate (what % after opening the email clicks through to the publication). These stats are almost never public.
Besides, transparency is important in any business (something I plan to continue writing about).
Remember when people used to ask “How many hits does your website get?” (a term that is not in use any more because a single page could have hundreds of hits by the same person) Then there was an infatuation with pageviews – which people started manipulating. Then unique visits – until some sites started “buying” traffic. Seriously, what matters? After all, print magazines just report total subscribers, right? (Except magazines fudge numbers in their own way.)
What matters, for big publishers and small, is finding a consistent way to report digital reader statistics and demographics.
There are now many companies that can help measure your audience for advertisers and subscribers. The gold standard is Comscore. Neilsen (the TV measurement company) and Experian Hitwise are also good. But unless you are a big publisher, these are expensive. Fortunately there are now free and very inexpensive options for those who may be small now but are planning to be big.
Web traffic measurement is far from perfect perfect. Think about how fast the internet has grown. Since 1995, Internet usage has grown from 16 million people to over 2.7 billion today. It takes a while to catch up with that kind of increase. Fortunately, options are getting better and even small sites can participate.
The best traffic measurement tools I’ve found that are free/inexpensive are Quantcast and Alexa. Are they perfect? Not even close. However, they are directionally correct and seem to tie moderately well to Google Analytics and other internal tracking tools. Both provide rough demographics that can be useful in describing your audience. Both are also easy to implement requiring only a few lines of code added to your website or blog. If you don’t add the code, your traffic is estimated and you should expect the results not to be favorable – your traffic will appear low. However, they are still close enough, show trajectory growth, and correlate to other factors such as sites linking in to predict real traffic levels (i.e. they are hard to game).
As an experiment, I took known digital publications in my hometown of Nashville, TN and compared them using Quantcast and Alexa. In full disclosure, my wife is a co-founder of StyleBlueprint.com and they are also a client of SSB (which makes for fun conversations at home). I plan to continue this exercise monthly and perhaps expand to other cities (like our home office in Denver).
Some things to consider:
- Traffic does not always equate to success.
- Publications chosen for Nashville primarily publish about Nashville. There are plenty of other digital publications in Nashville that have a LOT of readers. See Athlon, 247Sports, Michael Hyatt, OutkickTheCoverage, Love and Olive Oil, and many others. But these are not publications for Nashville; they are equally relevant no matter where you live.
- Many publications listed here also have an offline or other media component. It is only fair to compare their digital performance apple-to-apples – but as an advertiser their reach is likely much higher than stated here (but they should prove those numbers also).
- There are plenty of great websites with small audiences that are wonderful publications.
- There are plenty of big publications that play every trick in the book to inflate their web traffic. Check out this Onion.com article (warning: it is fake – but just barely)
- Numbers that are easy to game: page views. Traffic can be bought or manipulated with site design.
- Numbers that are harder to game: sites linking in. If you are a popular site, it is common sense that others will link to you. These links can be bought, but Google and Bing take a dim view of this practice and will almost immediately punish you which will result in reduced traffic.
- This is an experiment. Missing a site? Think I am wrong? Email me at [email protected]
- Traffic does not always equate to success.
The charts below show the rankings I found. If you have a problem viewing them, here is a direct link: http://chkl.st/NashvilleDigital2013-08
Oh, and why even do this? Because last month I saw a post by a local publication touting their “50,000 readers.” I follow digital media statistics for clients both large and small. At SSB, our company motto is “Data Driven Results” and my belief is that advertisers in 2013 deserve to see the data. “50,000 readers” could mean page views, unique visits, estimate visitors – or just about anything else.
As a sponsor or advertiser, you have the right to request verified site traffic before making a purchase decision. Ask to see the numbers. Compare it to others. Numbers should not drive every aspect of your choice, but verified data should be an integral component.
Oh, and always run from someone who won’t show you anything.
Partner, SSB Consulting (home of the 464,764th most popular site in the world!)
(In the chart above, the shorter the bar the higher the rank)
- The only real abnormality is the Alexa ranking for wkrn.com (Channel 2) – it does not tie with any other metric. In this case, Quantcast is likely the most accurate. This will be interesting to track month-to-month