Page views, time spent, clicks, uniques, and shares: does anyone really know how best to measure an online audience?

It feels like people have been saying this for years, although it probably hasn’t really been that long: essentially, the media game is changing. Here’s an article from today via The Atlantic, noting that outbound links off of Facebook went from 62 million (2012) to 161 million (2013); clearly, then, social is the value of the future, right? Another example: two years ago, Facebook and Google were equal in terms of sending traffic to Buzzfeed partner sites. Now? Facebook sends 3.5x more traffic. Hmmm. So if you’re a marketing/sales person and have some interest in digital, you should only be tracking social, right? Well, yes and no. You could also track the old standbys like “page views” or “uniques” or even … time spent. Or you could just throw in the digital towel and focus on TV, because goddamn it, that’s where the real eyeballs are! And plus:

An even bigger issue might be the lack of a great way to measure just who’s watching streaming video coverage. Advertisers are very comfortable with television’s rating system, but it is still early days for metrics of online audiences.Nielsen (NLSN) and comScore (SCOR) have products intended to measure how many people are watching online streams. But media companies and analysts say the systems are still being developed, leaving many advertisers wary about committing large sums to digital. A sticking point is mobile, where measurement is especially primitive. “That boil has not been lanced,” says Bob Bowman, chief executive of MLB Advanced Media, which runs professional baseball’s streaming video service.

Of course, TV’s a much more expensive ad buy, so … whatever do you focus on?

The answer is pretty simple, although complicated at the same time: the first thing you need to do is figure out why you have/need a website. In some cases, it’s to create news/content that can ultimately be paired with advertising (such as, say, NPR or The Atlantic). In some cases, it’s to explain your business to the broader world (such as, say, 3M or Coca-Cola). In some cases, it’s to house research or other works you’ve done (such as, say, a professor or a journalist). Eventually, though, each website has a why and a what; ultimately, there’s a reason you want people to find it — and then there’s something you want them to do while they’re there (click on ads, contact you for roofing work, share your content, etc.) Each case is different, but ultimately, metrics like uniques and page views and time spent and everything else related to SEO are just fancy ways of talking about conversions, which is actually something you can set in Google Analytics and some other programs: what do you want a visitor to do, and did he/she do it? If you’re not ultimately measuring and tracking that, you don’t really need to have a website. You might as well be cold-calling or using the limited network of connections you always work with.

It’s amazing that as the ability to harness data has become more nuanced, people seem to understand the necessity of data even less. If you know where your viewers are coming from, what they’re clicking on, what they’re doing, what they’re sharing and interacting with, etc — you can then provide a much more detailed and nuanced pitch to an advertiser about their potential ROI from a digital campaign with you (or learn how to get more into your sales funnel, or whatever your goal is). You need to start by understanding the goals and the processes, not just “We need a website because everyone has one” or “We need a digital presence because competitors have one!” I’ve seen/heard that a lot. And actually focus on this stuff: when done right, it can be very successful. No, it’s not television. But people interact with the Internet all day, so there’s power there.

The other thing of import here, to the bigger discussion, is that no one ever wants to look like they’re a buffoon or falling behind — so often, people will report the stuff that makes them look the best. (The U.S. government does this virtually every day, as do most companies.) If your page views are insanely high, you’ll report that — but that doesn’t necessarily mean anything about allegiance to the brand, sales conversions, etc. If your social shares are extremely high, you’ll report that — but bots could be sharing it, people could be sharing it derisively, etc. There is no perfect measure here, just as there’s no perfect approach to advertising on TV — not even the 1984 Apple ad — but if you have legitimate conversations about your goals and the processes of tracking and analyzing those goals (not hurried 20-minute meetings in between other meetings), your digital strategy will evolve beyond simple definition terms like “clicks.”

Ted Bauer