The current way we measure consumption whether it is on television or the internet is in its simplest forms. There are ratings, and there are hits. It is literally how many people watched, and how many clicked. We use the most obvious forms of measurement and it makes sense. That’s because the simplest form is the easiest way to sell advertisements associated with viewership. And, for a while, that worked for the market. There weren’t a ton of channel options on cable. Shows weren’t recorded or watched through applications on smart televisions or over-the-top devices. The internet was just articles, never mind short videos, podcasts, long-form, social media, and the existence of mobile consumption. The point of all this is that it’s time for everyone measuring consumption to agree on a change. Everything else has evolved so why are Nielsen ratings, viewership numbers, and clicks what we are still using? There has to be a better way.
The easy answer is that currently those metrics are still the best options for everyone involved. As much as cord cutting is the topic du jour west of the 5 and east of the Hudson, most consumers still haven’t shifted how they consume content. For now ratings work. It’s the easiest way to extrapolate viewer information and demographics. For now, hits work, they boil down an audience in its most digestible format. The problem is that they won’t work forever. Just like cable audiences moved to different types of content and ratings dropped for many leagues, just like cord cutting is eating into bottom lines for distributors, just like certain companies dragged their feet on digital and fell behind, there will be more change across the board. So we need to figure out what is better and more effective than what we currently have.
The simple ways have their issues as currently constituted. How many people tune into ESPN or CNN or Fox News or Nickelodeon and just leave the television on in the background? That’s not active viewing. There’s no true benefit for the advertiser. How many sites have funnels pouring into their sites that just garner clicks. MSN, Yahoo!, Facebook, and other home sites simply have content that looks clickable, but the consumer can jump right out if its a video or some slideshow they want nothing to do with. We aren’t even getting into click-farms, bots, buying followers. The simple forms are easiest to measure and also easy to manipulate. Here’s an example:
Those dates matter because Fox cut its written — and most of its other — digital team on June 26, 2017. They strictly post digital video content on their website, much of it from their FS1 studio shows. The numbers themselves are simply stunning. The website is currently doing almost 10-percent of its previous traffic. But did it make sense for Fox? We may never know. Did they actually turn a profit since they don’t have overhead and salary costs? Were people just being fed to Fox through Facebook and immediately clicking out of an article? We need to know if people are actually watching the videos on the 16.7 million hits. If the video they are watching take longer than it did to read an article that matters. It also matters that video advertisement is more expensive for advertisers than banner articles. Maybe the Fox Sports move actually worked. Maybe it crashed and burned in a dramatic fashion. The entire point of this is we don’t know because basic counting metrics are broken or will trend towards less useful as consumption changes.
There isn’t going to be one metric that is going to take over. In fact, it is very likely to be a combination of metrics people are currently using or still developing. MLS often measures its interactions with fans through its high engagement numbers. The thought is that the more engaged fans are, the more likely they are to interact with or use a sponsors brand. Barstool Sports and Outkick The Coverage may not like each other — actually they really don’t seem to like each other when it comes to social — but they tout their interaction with fans. Whether it’s created hashtags, militarized social media followers, Instagram, periscope, podcasts, or shirts, those sites have rabid followings. It’s better to measure them by some type of all engulfing brand loyalty metric. Barstool has put what seems like a heavier focus on branded content over the past eight months. That branded content should get more ROI for its advertisers. Since their fan base is so loyal, the thought process is they will purchase whatever the personalities tell them to. Trust me, it works. What’s more important to an advertiser a guarantee that 500,000 people will interact with their brand or a guess that 10 million clicks may lead to some sales.
The same goes for television. Engagement is much harder to measure. We aren’t going to let people track where our eyes are actually looking. We don’t want anyone to know when we get up from our seats to stop watching. There’s hidden information that is being tracked, whether we know it or not, so maybe make it more transparent. If possible cable companies could develop click out/return rates. A viewer watching a game or a certain show — like SportsCenter — changes the channel, clicks out, and then returns. If they return for a longer time period or click out coincides with commercials that actually isn’t complete bad. It means they are engaged with the content. Once we know that, we can sell advertisements and sponsored content within the actual programming itself. A lot of channels are choosing to keep a dual screen with commercials on and a camera on at the event splitting the screen. That’s another way to keep people engaged and staying on the game or show. Tracking digital viewership should be even easier. Again its a combination of digital whether it be engagement, how long people are inside an app or on a show, and how much they consume.
Eventually there has to be some kind of all-around score — which has already been developed by a lot of companies that measure those types of things, Nielsen and others are way ahead of me — that measures everything. The current method is simply too simple to continue. Everything needs to be taken into account, but the use of basic traditional measurement methods doesn’t work anymore. It’s that simple.
Michael Colangelo is Managing Editor of The Fields of Green and Assistant Director at the USC Sports Business Institute.