With media, as with fruit cake, quality matters as much as quantity

The media industry has been obsessed by audience size and click-through rates but time spent is just as important, if not better, as a measure of quality, Guardian News & Media's commercial director argues.

Imagine please, that you’re at a stereotypical village fete.

Prize bulls are being paraded, tractors are being driven, sheep dog trials are taking place.

In the marquee there’s a big commotion as Mary Berry (pictured) arrives to judge the best cakes.

The former queen of Great British Bake Off is as charming and gracious as you’d imagine as she moves down the trestle table.

After much pondering, she awards first prize to a fruit cake.

The crowd is surprised and one brave soul asks Mary why she chose the winner.

"Because it is the biggest", she replies.

The crowd realise that she hasn’t actually tasted any of the cakes and a mutiny is only averted when Mary gives an impromptu baking class.

She departs, reputation intact.

And back to media. It’s odd that in digital, the strength of a publisher is judged on one thing - size.

That’s not the same in other media: in commercial radio for example, the health of a radio station is determined by the size of the audience and by how long they listen for - reach and hours. Hours define quality.

In radio, people don’t hang around if they don’t like the output.

In digital, we focus on size first (number of unique users a month), and then we quickly disappear down a cost per something or click-through rabbit hole.

It feels desperately immature, crude even, that we ended up here because the tech allowed digital publishing to be measured in this way.

I heard a horror story the other day that a big high street retailer uses click-through rate as its primary success criteria for all its digital campaigns.

To determine the strength of digital publishers we should look to add time spent to the consideration process - an entirely objective measure that both the buy and sell side could agree on.

Yet, outside of the Financial Times and The Economist’s efforts to sell "cost per hour" audiences, we never talk about it as a measure of a publisher’s competence.

With PAMCo data now here, it is time for a reset - the data on time spent is available to all.

Here’s an example of the Mary Berry school of evaluation: Marie Claire is at number 6 in the digital reach chart, but it’s number 1 for time spent per day. Looking at both factors gives you a more rounded sense of the strength of the brand.

Publishers create the some of the most shared content on the planet, and are wise to the tricks that can create a big audience - tricks like clickbait headlines.

Putting the kick off time for a football match in your headline is a clever way to build reach via search, but says nothing to a buyer about your standards of journalism and the relationship with your readers.

We’re overdue a greater balance in our understanding of the health of publishers. The introduction of time would act as the best proxy for quality, as time is the best signal of the attention readers are prepared to give content.

Lumen, the eye-tracking experts, have evidence that attention leads to sales, so adding time as a consideration is important for real business outcomes.

A village fete cake competition needs more than one measure for it to be deemed fair.

With media, as with fruit cake, quality matters as much as quantity.

Nick Hewat is commercial director of Guardian News & Media 

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