Web analytics is a tricky game and often the different ways of measuring things confuse the very people they are there to help make better decisions.
For the museum sector, analytics seems even more foreign, largely because we’ve never had a very good way of generating such huge amounts of quantitative data about our visitors before.
We’re not alone in this.
As you’ve probably read in recent weeks there has been a fair bit of discussion, debate, and doomsday predictions coming out of the journalism world as it was revealed that, lo and behold, newspapers were using web analytics in their newsrooms.
This month, though, Lucas Graves, John Kelly and Marissa Gluck at the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University, have published an excellent report on the different types of traffic metrics that news websites are confronted with.
Provocatively titled Confusion Online: Faulty Metrics & the Future of Digital Journalism the report explains history and reasons for the widely divergent figures resulting from different types of reader measurement – panel and census-based approaches.
A lot of these reasons have to do with who the figures are being generated for, and the historical role that readership figures have played in the pricing and sale of advertising. So we need to take this into account when we in the museum sector work with the same types of measurement tools.
Indeed, the resistance to shifting from the historical panel-based measurement to site-based (or as the authors call it, census-based) measurement is largely to do with the enormous commercial implications for how advertising is priced and sold that would result. (Fortunately museums cannot afford the panel-based solutions so we’re already mostly committed to census-based site analytics.)
There are two telling sections –
This is the case at both the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, which sell most online inventory on a CPM [cost per thousand impressions] or sponsorship basis and do not participate in ad networks (other than Google’s AdSense, which the Times uses). “We sell brand, not click‐through,” declares the Journal’s Kate Downey flatly. “We’re selling our audience, not page counts.”
Marc Frons echoes the sentiment, pointing out that the Times can afford to take the high road. “For us as the New York Times, brand is important,” he says. “You really want to make the Internet a brand medium. To the extent CPC [cost per click] wins, thatʹs a bad thing.”
. . . the rise of behavioral targeting represents a distinct threat to publishers: By discriminating among users individually, behavioral targeting diminishes the importance of a site’s overall brand and audience profile. Suddenly the decisive information resides not with the publisher but in the databases of intermediaries such as advertising networks or profile brokers. A similar threat may be emerging in the domain of demographic targeting. As it becomes more possible to attach permanent demographic profiles to individual users as they travel the Web, the selection of outlets will matter less in running a campaign.
This is why online media outlets tend not to participate in third‐party ad networks if they can avoid it. “We donʹt want to be in a situation where someone can say, ‘I can get you somebody who reads the Wall Street Journal while theyʹre on another site that costs half as much,’” explains Kate Downey.
Museums and others in the cultural sector operate on the web as (mostly) ad-free publishers. We’ve traditionally thought of our websites as building the brand – in the broadest possible terms. In fact we don’t usually use the term ‘brand’ but replace it with terms like ‘trustworthiness’. Now we’re not ‘selling ad space’ but we are trying to build a loyal visitor base around our content – and that relies on building that ‘trustworthiness’ and that only happens over time and through successful engagement with our activities.
We invest in making and developing content other than the opening hours and what’s on information – the brochure parts of our web presences – because it builds this sense of trust and connection with visitors. This sense of trust and connection is what makes it possible to achieve the downstream end goals of supporting educational outcomes and the like.
But just as the base unit of news becomes the ‘article’, not the publication, we are also seeing the base unit of the ‘online museum experience’ reduce from the website (or web exhibit) to the objects, and in some cases to just being hyperlinked ‘supporting reference material’. This is where we need to figure out the right strategies and rationales for content aggregation, unless we do this is going to continue to cause consternation.
We also need to pay a lot more attention to the measurement approaches that best support the different needs we have to advertising supported publishers.