Primary-engagement media needs better measurements

Welcome to The Rebooting. I’m trying to change up formats to add more sections. Also, big thanks to Permutive and BuzzFeed for their support this week. (Get in touch if you’d like to discuss partnership programs.) Before we get into the metrics discussion, a word from Permutive.

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Metrics that matter

My rule of thumb as someone who has moderated a disturbing number of conference panels is that if you’re stuck in a conversation going nowhere, just go to: “Let’s talk about metrics.”

And that’s because there are always issues with metrics. My first complaint as a reporter was in 2000 from a publisher complaining that the NetRatings visitor stats I cited didn’t match their analytics. I’d get those dozens of times over the years, constantly having to reiterate that analytics double count and ComScore, while imperfect, is used by media buyers, etc. The fact that Nielsen, which was once described to me as being “unable to organize a one-car funeral,” is still valued at $10 billion, even though everyone complains about its measurements, shows how every metric is media is imperfect.

And that’s mostly fine since everyone is stuck with the same imperfect metrics. The more pernicious impact of bad media metrics is when they incentivize publishers to take shortcuts. The scale era prioritized big top of the funnel metrics like uniques and views. That led every publisher, even the most reputable, to spin up SEO and Facebook chop shops that wrote to algorithms instead of audiences. The billions of Facebook video views publishers touted were on their face absurd, but they were tangible.

That should change. I believe we’re in a shift from publishing that’s pageview driven to primary-engagement media. (Both will coexist. SEO isn’t going anywhere any time soon.) The dynamics are different, needing different measurements.

I believe that slow growth ends up leading to more sustainable media. And yet there are still incentives to take shortcuts that inflate numbers. Newsletters are a great primary-engagement media product. They’re personal, usually focused, with the value derived from them being the strength of the list, particularly its influence. But unless you go with a pure subscription model, the incentives remain to pad top line numbers. Jacob Donnelly noted how newsletter open rates that are inflated by changes by Apple to count a preview as an open. Jacob’s point is that this metric is then a fiction.

But play this out. Many publishers, including Morning Brew, buy a lot of email subscribers, either through ads or contests. Indeed, buying subscribers through ads was a key part of the Morning Brew growth story that’s led to a subscriber base of 4 million email addresses and 6 million total subscriptions. (Thanks, Austin, for the correction.)

Paid promotion is now a regular part of publisher distribution strategies, and they make sense as a way to introduce people to the brand and, hopefully, build a deeper tie. Newsletters are awash in this kind of incentivized growth. Referral programs are the belle of the ball, but for the life of me, I do not understand how you get an influential audience with the offer of a newsletter-branded coffee mug. (Please let me know if the prospect of a TRB mug would lead you to refer this newsletter to 10 of your friends. I’ll get Vistaprint on the job.)

I’m assured by growth people who know more than me about this stuff that it “works.” The Publish Press is a newsletter about the creator economy started by YouTubers Colin and Samir. It ran a giveaway contest through its YouTube show that incentivized signups to the Publish Press with the lure of winning $1,000 in camera equipment. That netted 8,000 new subscribers in a day, according to its latest newsletter. That’s remarkable.

The approaches many take remind me of the years I spent covering direct marketing. Back then – I worked for DM News during 2003 and 2004 – direct marketing was thought of as a backwater, the home of guys from Massapequa with un-ironic mustaches wearing ill-fitting suits. The birth of the DTC industry helped DR morph into the sexier “performance marketing,” but the overall approach is the same. Cast a very wide net, focus on the fish that end up on the deck, not not those that slip through the net and back into the water.

Organic is more valuable than incentivized. But publishers from the beginning of time have been mixing in plenty of chaff with the wheat. Trying to grow slowly and focusing on a meaningful audience ends up being a competitive disadvantage if you’re selling sponsorships. The first question is still about overall subscriber numbers. Nobody asks how those numbers were gotten – and, surprise, there’s no way to check.

(This isn’t unique to advertising models. Publishers are regularly touting big subscriber numbers without breaking out how many of them are on trial offers — and mixing overall subscriptions with unique subscribers.)

The reason this works is because we tend to gravitate to the simple, big numbers that fit neatly on a spreadsheet. Efforts over the years to reward “engagement” with time-spent metrics and other gauges mostly failed, if success is widespread adoption as a regular measure of success beyond some campaigns that are trumpeted in press releases. The tyranny of the spreadsheet is alive and well.

Legacy publishers have even more of an advantage with email lists build over decades that tend to have low engagement. Most have open rates of 20% – they must welcome OR inflation – and an overall thin connection to their audience. Just in my own little corner, I’m amazed at the lack of engagement the institutional publishers have. Twitter is imperfect, but the media and marketing industries over-index on using it. How can these publications have several hundreds of thousands of followers and often send tweets that elicit no engagement?

The benefit of niches, particularly in business media, is quality matters more than quantity. There are only so many decisionmakers in specific fields. Performance is often a function of influencing a fairly narrow group of people. My bet is you have a better shot at doing that if you adopt a slow-growth approach that prioritizes actual connections vs flimsy ties based on the prospect of a branded coffee mug or laptop sticker. All businesses are different, but for one focused on decisionmakers I’ve found showing the types of people who subscribe and share an imperfect but useful signal. It’s what I focus on myself, after all, along with the type of feedback I receive. (Send me a note with your thoughts:

The only way for more meaningful media to flourish is if there are more meaningful metrics, beyond the brain-dead simple ones that correspond to reach, to emerge that can give some measure of influence. The cliche “what gets measured gets managed” applies. If marketers wants more meaningful partnerships with real audiences, even engaged communities, they’re going to need to adapt their spreadsheets.

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More on product

I’m trying something new in bringing in some of the feedback I received to previous editions. Last week’s newsletter about product produced many useful conversations. Some key points:

  • Product lives at intersections: “The news is the product and you have to understand both to imagine its potential. It’s about the desirability (of the audience), the feasibility (the actual tech) and the viability (the biz model). The simplest way I could describe my job then was ‘making things for people.’”
  • The balancing act: “There’s a fascinating tension at the heart of product in publishing – people come for the content, not for whatever bells and whistles you build around it, but someone has to be thinking about what the right balance is. You mention that ‘Substack has stripped away the frippery of products to arrive at their bare essence.’ Which is totally true, but arguably an example of a  good product decision based on what will best serve the audience and solve their problems.”
  • Empathy matters: “When I first started in news product, I had no sense of journalism. I was a transplant from another industry. So I got to go on a listening tour and shadow a few broadcast newsrooms around the country. I spent an entire day at one station, starting with the 9am pitch meeting and then ending by watching the 5pm news from the control room.  What you said is exactly what I experienced. ‘Holy shit, I just watched them build something from nothing and now they get to go home knowing they shipped something in eight hours.’ It's no surprise to me that some of the best product people I've hired have been journalists transitioning to the ‘business’ side.”
  • Most products (and companies) are dysfunctional: ”Conway's Law: Any organization that designs a system (defined broadly) will produce a design whose structure is a copy of the organization's communication structure. In other words, a company ships its org chart. Most media companies are not great at product because most companies aren't great at product. It's hard to build a culture of user-centric development and empowered teams.”

CNN+ could be the next Quibi

We used to joke that certain companies and new initiatives deserved the pre-written obituary treatment. Quibi was one candidate. Another would be CNN+. There was never a clear need for it, particularly as such a late entrant. People far more smart than me regularly rolled their eyes at its chances of success, particularly once it debuted with fare such as Anderson Cooper cooking and yet another opportunity to enjoy Scott Galloway hot takes. Sara Fischer has some eye-popping details on CNN+, including that Warnermedia spent $500 million on its launch – and that just two weeks after launch it plans drastic cuts in costs and ambitions. Never a good sign when it’s made clear that McKinsey was involved in the projections. One media executive texted me a harsh take:

“Can’t understand why consumers won’t want to pay extra money to watch marginally produced video of the same left-leaning opinion journalists they get for free on Twitter. My fave part of CNN+ is how most of the media pontificators/reporters were scared to trash it bc so many of them were working with them, or hoping to.”

Surprise, the top winner from Apple’s privacy changes is… Apple. Who would have thought? On a side note, I loved that this story was co-written by two people I worked with at different times.

Yet another reminder that advertising remains a very good model for many publishers: Digital ad spending rose 35% in 2021, according to the IAB. Of note, digital audio was up sharpest with 58% growth.

Growth is a long game. Thomas Baekdal breaks down why lifetime metrics are the ones publishers need to optimize to in order to achieve sustainable growth.

Ideology is better for moral and ethical principles than business models. The Guardian is relaxing its long aversion to paywalling content – it has built an admirably strong direct-revenue business through voluntary contributions – with a test of a paywall on its news app. I’m with the “long-serving” Guardian journalist who called the change needed if “surreal.”

Comedy shows are a good way to understand how regular people understand arcane industry practices. John Oliver aired a predictably funny segment on digital data brokers. The bottom line is trust was lost when so much slicing and dicing of data took place in the background by companies people never knew existed. It’s natural to assume the worst.

Thanks so much for reading. Send me your feedback at If you have a chance, share The Rebooting with a friend or colleague for a chance to win a coffee mug.