Felix Salmon has been getting lots of attention this week for his posts on ‘quantity versus quality’ in online news. It started with this post about the New York Observer [should it get italics if its mostly a website?] who Salmon argued has gone all in on a quantity strategy. Basically to publish more and not worry about quality.

And so, in the proud tradition of good blogs everywhere, readers are left with a highly variable product. The great is rare; the dull quite common. But — and this is the genius of the online format — that doesn’t matter, not any more, and certainly not half as much as it used to. When you’re working online, more is more. If you have the cojones to throw up everything, more or less regardless of quality, you’ll be rewarded for it — even the bad posts get some traffic, and it’s impossible ex ante to know which posts are going to end up getting massive pageviews. The less you worry about quality control at the low end, the more opportunities you get to print stories which will be shared or searched for or just hit some kind of nerve.

The Observer is going for high traffic. Salmon points out that it may not have achieved it although looking at the data he presents that is unclear. Actually, that data is ‘spiky.’ The spikes are posts that have been hits and there appear to be more of those at the Observer in the last year.

The notion that quantity without quality is what will make money on the web unduly focusses on total hits. Michael Kinsley appears to mockingly get at this. But Salmon comes back with a more nuanced view. He examines the ‘quality hit,’ for example, this piece in The Atlantic that looks like being its most viewed/read piece ever. Of course, it has to have cats in the title which is pretty much the formula for viral videos on YouTube etc. Salmon also points to Salon that has reduced the quantity of its posts by a third. In these cases, each outlet has moved to higher quality in distinct contrast to the Observer’s approach. And as Salmon estimates, it is expensive. A quality 6,000 word piece will probably be as costly to produce as 1,000 low quality posts. That much I can believe. That said, something closer to the right metric would be pageviews per dollar spent on content. If the Observer, by dropping its cost of content by 10 times, has only a modest drop in pageviews, it has come out ahead. Salmon sticks to his guns and argues that the Observer rather than the Atlantic is the way of the future.

But the entire discussion misses something critical: the money. And the money comes from advertisers. Will an advertiser, in the future, pay more for high quality Atlantic hits or generic Observer views? One school of thought is neither will command a premium. In that case, you want to spend money to generate the highest readership in terms of pageviews and earn fractions of pennies on each one. A second school of thought is the Observer. Quality posts distract the reader who actually reads them. A mass of quantity, however, of varying quality, forces the reader to flip through pages just like they had to in a newspaper of old. Along the way, they may find something but in the process they’ll see a ton of ads.

However, I would like to put forward a third school of thought and argue that the Atlantic probably has it right. Less quantity and higher quality is going to be attractive to advertisers. The theory is that consumers are switching around from site to site so high value advertisers don’t know where to place ads. This makes them adopt strategies that blanket many sites with ads (e.g., AT&T did 100 billion in the US in 2011) but are not willing to pay much for each. Outlets that emphasise quantity are not providing consumers any reason to keep visiting and so are not providing advertisers with anything over a blanket strategy.

In contrast, viral pieces have the quality that they hit a much larger share of consumers. If you could guarantee advertisers a viral piece, they would have a solid option against the blanket strategy. By simply advertising with that piece that achieve the same reach than thousands of duplicate ads across sites trying to hit a consumer can do. Outlets that produce less but grab a great share of attention when they do produce offer advertisers an opportunity to target their campaigns. They’ll pay more per page view than they would with a blanket strategy and help fund a virtuous circle that can generate more quality reporting. [Of course, this is predicated on the idea that quality will generate virality which is not a given. See also.]

And we have a model that suggests this works: television. Television has always been about the pieces that are hits (shows) than their platforms (stations). Advertisers care about how many people will be watching a given show and not an outlet’s average number of viewers. High rated shows command an advertising premium (more $$ paid per viewer) than low rated one. That flies in the face of the ‘a viewer is a viewer’ approach that underlies the ‘more is more’ content strategy. The hard part is being able to predict in advance what will be a hit so that advertisers know to pay more before the fact. And I suggest that an outlet with some form of reputation for quality rather than one who has none is going to have a leg up there.

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One Response to Reach vs readership: It’s the advertising, stupid!

  1. The debate which this is embedded in is this: does the print newspaper economic model work online if you have a “big” enough audience?

    I don’t think it does – most “news” was information manufactured for a channel. That channel collected demographic data which was sold to advertisers. Now, a vendor may have much better demographic data than the online “newspaper”. So, what do they have to sell – except clicks which gives the advertiser even more data.

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