Publishers, Pick Your KPIs and Stick with Them

News publishers reassure themselves with the number of Key Performance Indicators at their disposal. The selection of gauges is always indicative of business priorities (or lack of thereof).

This is an ongoing discussion I have with publishers and digital marketeers: Which indicators should be prioritized? The “obvious” answer is: it depends on your business model, on your growth strategy, and on priorities — that tend to collide.

Driving by ARPU
The Average Revenue Per User should be the meta-indicator. How much a reader brings to the bottom line across all platforms and across all lines of businesses.

This comes with one imperative: kill the lowest performer without a second thought. I’m speaking from experience: the news industry is notorious for deferring painful decisions. Most publishers keep close to their chest an unspoken list of businesses that should have been killed long ago in order to free resources and energy for the most valuable activities.

For a subscription model, beyond the obvious revenue per subscriber, indicators such as the cost of recruiting a registered user, collecting her credit card through trial periods, and transforming her into a full paid-for sub, are also critical indicators. So is the churn rate, which tracks subscribers attrition.

Reconnecting with the reader
Mesmerized by the presumed power of platforms (Facebook, Apple News), publishers have accepted the dilution of their brand. Year after year, audiences tend to forget which media brand is the purveyor of their news stream. That trend must be reversed.

Measuring direct access to a website is sometimes seen as a mediocre indicator, traffic coming from platforms being the real thing. I believe this approach is outdated, especially in data-driven economics. That hierarchy should be reversed with more focus given to every indicator reflecting knowledge of, and connection to the reader.

Monitoring page structure and performance
The way a digital page (web, app, mobile web) is built tells a lot about a publisher’s priorities. Take page loading latency: “It’s still a horror show”, said recently a top Google exec, referring to the media industry. Very few publishers have put this indicator at the top of their list. The Washington Post does it. When he took it over, Jeff Bezos’ first technical demand was to focus on the page load time across all Post platforms.

The question of page structure is also directly tied to the performance of the advertising model. The viewability of ads is a daily tragedy for many media properties. Between ad fraud, pages that are read by bots, ads that are not served or do not show up one way another, experts say that no more than a third of ad placements actually fill their purpose of promoting brands.
Measuring the viewability of an ad can easily be done with a simple Mechanical Turk task: asking a few hundred people to look at pages while recording what they see could yield precious results.

Devising the right platform strategy
Google’s contribution to traffic should be seen as incremental. No more than that. The core business is elsewhere.

As for Facebook, it should be used as a formidable tactical tool, and only that, for two purposes:

— Capture new, noncore audiences: as an example, young and women audiences for a business publication.

— Test whatever you have in mind: formats, treatments, pricing… Facebook offers unparalleled hyper-targeting capabilities that can put any novel idea in front of a specific audience.

When it comes to publishing original and value-added content on Facebook, my personal recommendation is straightforward: don’t do it. Unless your publishing operation is designed for social dissemination (like BuzzFeed), stay away from Facebook. Not only will the social giant hijack most of the ad revenue, but it will also change its commercial rules without warning. And Facebook will capture most of the relationship with the reader, a connection that should never be lost at any price.

That said, Facebook’s execs keep insisting that very few publishers take advantage of the trove of reader data made available by the platform. They’re right: simply consider this list of 100 available data points , a digital marketer’s dream.

Dealing with contradictions
As stated at the beginning, the problem with indicators is they tend to fight one another. For instance, favoring fast load times means working on ad density and eliminate fat ad formats, but also mercilessly timing out sleepy ad servers. All of which will offend the sales team. So is the focus on user comfort. While at the core of subscription transformation, focusing on user experience inherently contradicts stuff-the-channel priorities of ads salespeople. Only clear vision supported by decisive leadership can resolve the dilemma. “Choisir c’est renoncer” (Choosing is renouncing), said French author André Gide. Time to pick your pain.

Originally published on Medium

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