Why I don’t care about pageviews

Written by Michael on March 23rd, 2011

eyeballPageviews don’t make money. Brands make money.

I’ve been doing my own thing for exactly 11 months. This does not make me a moneymaking expert. But I’m as certain as I get that I’m right on this one.

First, two points of information:

  1. Yes, pageviews and uniques matter to advertisers. I’m saying they’re not the main decision driver.
  2. Yes, a few people make money on traffic alone, or something close to it. I’m saying that for those of us at content companies, as opposed to technology companies — which includes almost everybody here at the local level — traffic for traffic’s sake is a sucker’s game.

Don’t take my word on this. Take it from Numbers Nick Denton. It’s the principle behind his ballsy, controversial Gawker redesign:

Many web advertisers, even those that buy banners, treat it as a direct marketing medium. For premium media properties such as ours, this is a contest that should be avoided at all costs. It’s a race to the bottom — for the lowest quality ads and the least valuable visitors. … Gawker Media has already put distance between our properties and those of the commodity ad networks. We booted them out from our titles five years ago; they were cheapening the sites and devaluing the brand benefits to our directly sold campaigns. … Critics say internet advertising suffers from limitless inventory, which depresses prices. These exclusive front-page sponsorships are not limitless. If HBO doesn’t move quickly enough, Showtime can buy out Gawker and Jezebel for the key fall TV season. On any individual day, there isn’t room for both of them; and that’s healthy. After falling by half from 2004 to 2008, revenue per page has now stabilized.

Is Denton’s execution crap? Maybe. But his reasons are sound and his figures don’t lie.

  • The Oregonian doesn’t make money on pageviews; it makes money by being the only website in the Northwest that prints 250,000 sheafs of paper every day and distributes them to a zilliion homes and every high-traffic location in town.
  • The Mercury doesn’t make money on pageviews; that’s why its writers are forbidden from seeing how popular their stories are.
  • ReadWriteWeb doesn’t make money on pageviews; the house ad on its front page plays up its audience of “tech influencers,” not its 2 million monthly visitors.

These publishers make money on the strength of their brands. They make money from advertisers who have heard of them, who like their content, who want their particular slice of the audience, who have a gut feeling that being associated with them would be a good idea.

Pageviews are dandy: more chances to see an ad are always better than fewer chances. And pageviews are useful: they’re a leading indicator of brand strength. More visits mean you’re probably doing something right. This is why journalists are attracted to them. (And yes, I check mine every week.) But do more pageviews bring more money? That’s correlation, not causation.

As a news-business reporter and a two-bit publisher, I see no evidence that web traffic is the key currency in profitable journalism, especially local journalism.

And without evidence, we should make sure that our attempts to sustain local journalism aren’t built around the assumption that maximizing pageviews is the road to profit.

(Creative Commons eyeball photo by Kaptain Kobold.)

 

2 Comments so far ↓

  1. It sounds like you are speaking from and about the perspective of the Journalist. Do you think there is a difference between the paper and the Journalist or are they one in the same?

  2. Michael says:

    Good question, Bret. I guess in my situation it’s hard to separate the two!

    But actually, I disagree: I think I’m writing more from a publisher’s perspective than a journalist’s. I think a journalist can get a lot of useful information from web analytics about what to cover and how to present it. And certainly it’s invaluable for marketers to measure how well different distribution methods are working.

    The danger for publications is that if journalists get caught up in traffic alone, they prioritize the sort of content that might not strengthen their brand.

    Brand consistency — there’s a word for it at the Mercury, actually! “crazy juice” or something a little cleverer — needs to be job one for content producers at all levels.

    You’re the analytics expert in this conversation, though. What’s your favorite metric, for use by either a publisher or a reporter?

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