Online Media’s Number Problem

Last night, the Awl passed around the internal memo from Nick Denton announcing that Gawker Media’s sites (Gawker, Deadspin, Kotaku, the obvious Fleshbot, etc.) had officially passed all but one newspaper in terms of eyeballs to its content. Being bigger than just about everyone online except for the New York Times and the Huffington Post is absolutely nothing to sneeze at, and you have give Denton credit for everything he’s done in the growth of one gossip/media/culture blog into a network of news sites.  As Denton wrote in his announcement:

The network as a whole drew 17.8m domestic visitors for the month. Let’s put that in context. How do we stack up, against the established names in online news. Last time we measured ourselves against the traditional newspapers’ online operations, we were fourth. But we’ve overtaken both the Washington Post and USA Today, according to Comscore. And, in this category, we’re behind only the New York Times.

Denton’s measurement is perceived to be the most important online, and for the sales side of media, impressions and the base number of people who view the content are crucial. It determines reach in absolute terms (as opposed to the imbalance inherent in the page-view measurement), and represents audience size. By this, Denton is right, he ultimately has a bigger visitor number to his network’s different sites. You have to imagine that a site or network’s visitors broadly depict the right volume of eyeballs and not just clicks, and according to Nick’s numbers, they are doing better than really just about everyone.

Well, kind of, and Lucas Graves explained at CJR the overarching number problem:

By comparison, computer networks are a paradise of audience surveillance. Why expect media outlets, agencies, and advertisers to abide by the gospel of one ratings firm, to only talk about one number, with so much lovely data pouring in from so many sources? “People use whatever numbers look good that month. It gives publishers some flexibility,” says Kate Downey, director of “audience analytics” at The Wall Street Journal, which subscribes to Nielsen, comScore, Omniture, and HitWise. “I think if everybody had the same numbers, we would hate that even more.”

What, you thought I was going to make the “Gawker’s network counts people twice because it splits the audiences across verticals and interest can overlap between, say, low-brow sports and high-brow adult content” argument? That’d be easy.

I can give you a decent guess at the number of people who come through my site, but even at the low volume I get (trust me, I’m a farm system blogger), the two tracking tools I use differ anywhere between three and five percent. Scale that to a real-sized media organization or blog, and the error of margin is getting grand. The moral of the story is that bloggers and media will always use the number that helps them the most, makes the best point. That’s right, this is the “Lies, Damn Lies and Statistics” argument.

Let’s take a lap over to another of my favorite examples in terms of fuzzy math: Mashable. At #3 on the Technorati Top 100 (and the irony of citing statistics is ripe here), it obviously has significant amounts of incoming links to accompany the other components that Technorati takes into its algorithm for comparison. They’re doing well, no denying, and the success comes from prolific content that is broad to the social media sect.

Alright, now the fun. If you ever get bored when looking at measurements, my favorite comparison are the number of tweets a certain Mashable article gets in relation to both the number of clicks and number of comments. There is some sort of social desirability in the vacuum of online media that pushes Pete Cashmore’s face out there through the retweet button as humanly often as possible, yet for the often 4-digit times these stories are tweeted…you’d have to expect greater discussions or clicks than a handful of comments. Thanks to BackTweets (h/t @AppleGirl), here’s some data for a recent Mashable piece (that, yes, I happened to be quoted in, so call it a diva moment if you will):

There are more tweets than clicks, and minimal comments across all these networks. But I know that if I’m Mashable, I’m talking about the Twitter reach, and that big impressions number that Backtype offers. Who cares that the conversation doesn’t really get going? You have something to say the audience was massive, and someone will absolutely be impressed.

Online Media’s Number Problem? It’s convenient. Whether you’re Nick Denton, Mashable, a part time blogger or the New York Times, the number you want is out there, and as long as volume means something to advertisers, that’s where it will be. This isn’t about editorial reach, it’s about eyeballs for sales. And there’s nothing wrong with trying to make money as an online media entity – but the challenge of determining who’s first will only get harder.

(CC) Photo via Flickr user Rogiro

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