Ev Williams: Medium Has Never Done an Ad Deal Based on Impressions

Co-Founder Says Site Looks at Time Instead

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Ev Williams
Ev Williams Credit: Helena Price

Attention is an increasingly popular word among publishers and advertisers. It's a finite resource -- perhaps the only finite resource -- amid the digital infinity, where content is churned out constantly. To capture and hold someone's attention is becoming simultaneously more important and more difficult than ever.

Yet most digital advertising campaigns are bought and sold on impressions -- the number of people whose screens load a page with the ad -- regardless of time spent on the ad or if people even noticed it. There have been rumblings about charging advertisers based on the amount of time spent viewing an ad online. A few publishers, most notably the Financial Times, have tested it, but the practice is far from widespread.

This month, the burgeoning idea got a powerful ally in Ev Williams, the co-founder of Twitter and the blogging platform Medium. In a post on Medium, he argued in favor of the practice and criticized the idea of measuring a site's worth by the number of users.

We literally say one company or service is "bigger" based on a single number — specifically, number of people who have "used" it in the last 30 days. Even without getting into how "use" is defined, this is dumb.

Medium's primary way of measuring its own content is through a metric called total time reading, or TTR, according to Mr. Williams.

We pay more attention to time spent reading than number of visitors at Medium because, in a world of infinite content  --  where there are a million shiny attention-grabbing objects a touch away and notifications coming in constantly  --  it's meaningful when someone is actually spending time.

Mr. Williams spent some time with Ad Age -- via email -- answering our questions about attention metrics. The exchange has been lightly edited.

Advertising Age: One of my initial thoughts upon reading your post on Medium was whether you actually wrote it for the advertising community. Did you?

Ev Wiliams: I wasn't thinking of the advertising community at all, actually. I was thinking of the internet industry -- investors, entrepreneurs, and tech press.

Ad Age: The Financial Times has taken a leadership position on so-called attention metrics, charging a handful of advertisers on a cost-per-hour basis, or CPH, instead of the usual cost per thousand impressions, or CPM. (Microsoft and BP are among four brands that are buying ads in this manner from the FT.) Medium has booked a couple of content-based advertising deals. Do you charge advertisers based on a CPM or total-time reading? If it's currently a CPM, do you plan on charging by TTR in the future?

Mr. Williams: We've never done any advertising deals based on CPM. We've only done packaged deals in which time spent was the primary metric measured and delivered. All our revenue projects are pretty experimental at this point, though, so I can't claim we know exactly what the model will be for the future.

Ad Age: Do you plan on adopting a leadership role when it comes to attention? Ev Williams as its ambassador could be pretty convincing for publishers and advertisers. How important is it for the media community to rally around this idea of attention?

Mr. Williams: I plan to continue to say what I think is true. I have a pretty full-time job, though.

Ad Age: This 2013 post describes Medium's measurement of time:

"We measure every user interaction with every post. Most of this is done by periodically recording scroll positions. We pipe this data into our data warehouse, where offline processing aggregates the time spent reading (or our best guess of it): we infer when a reader started reading, when they paused, and when they stopped altogether. The methodology allows us to correct for periods of inactivity (such as having a post open in a different tab, walking the dog, or checking your phone)."

Do you use your own tools to measure this or a vendor like Chartbeat or Moat?

Mr. Williams: We use all home-built tools currently, and we're soon ramping up a team to extend and improve those tools (as well as expose more data to publishers on our platform).

Ad Age: In your post, you quote BuzzFeed CEO Jonah Peretti saying there isn't a "God metric," meaning there isn't one number that defines a site's value. But is there a combination of different measurements -- total time reading, unique visitors, etc. -- that add up to a "God metric"?

Mr. Williams: This is like the "Alexa score," which I referred to in my 2006 piece "Pageviews are obsolete." I think this type of thing could be quite helpful inside a company, but it's hard to understand what it means. And across companies probably no one would (rightly) agree on the definition. Would be interesting to try though.

Ad Age: And you refer to the emphasis on unique visitors as feeling "toxic." Why?

Mr. Williams: A culture whose measure of success is not something that brings value to other people is likely to drive self-serving and manipulative behavior.

Ad Age: How much is the emphasis on unique visitors contributing to a bubble effect in digital media? Will the valuations of media companies with enormous readership ultimately collapse?

Mr. Williams: "Enormous readership" is a great thing! Whether you're trying to build a business or influence people, more is generally better. So I would never say that the value of media companies with enormous readerships is likely to collapse -- necessarily. Companies (media or internet) that are at risk -- and there definitely are some -- are those that are being valued primarily on this one dimension and their other dimensions are slim. For example, people are spending no time when they show up, or finding no utility. Eventually, people stop falling for tricks, and systems that allow for trickery (be it Google, Facebook, or email) allow holes for a while but eventually shut them down.

Ad Age: Anything to add?

Mr. Williams: In my post, I was talking both about media and internet companies in general. Some internet companies are focused on utility, so attention metrics don't really make sense (and, in fact, would have negative value). Had I been talking more purely about media, I would have talked about who the audience is as another important dimension. At Medium, we think about this a lot. And obviously advertisers care a great deal about who's paying attention.