Attention-Metrics' Latest Ally: Twitter Founder Ev Williams

Stop Using 'Dumb' Metrics, He Argues

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Twitter co-founder Ev Williams jumped into the debate over so-called attention metrics this week when he took to Medium -- the blogging platform he founded -- to highlight what he calls the toxicity of evaluating digital-media companies only by their unique visitors:

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.

The idea of attention metrics is gathering steam in the media community as publishers look for new ways to value their advertising inventory -- a trend Ad Age covered in depth last September. For the last 20 years, advertisers have paid for digital ads based on the consumer impressions they pile up, but with web surfers clicking around an essentially infinite supply of content online, scarcity is a memory and ad prices are under pressure.

Mr. Williams explained it thusly:

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. After all, for a currency to be valuable, it has to be scarce. And while the amount of attention people are willing to give to media and the Internet in general has skyrocketed  -- largely due to having a screen and connection with them everywhere  --  it eventually is finite.

Several publishers have embraced this idea, most notably the Financial Times, which began selling digital ads last year by the number of hours spent viewing the ad and not total impressions. Four companies, including BP and Microsoft, have signed up for the cost-per-hour metric, the Financial Times told Ad Age last month.

Medium, which is experimenting with advertising, is also among the publishers using an attention-based metric, according to Mr. Williams. The platform's top metric is total time reading, or TTR. "We think this is a better estimate of whether people are actually getting value out of Medium," he wrote.

Ultimately, Mr. Williams calls upon the media to look at multiple measurements to determine value.

Numbers are important. Number of users is important. So are lots of other things. Different services create value in different ways. Trust your gut as much (or more) than the numbers. Figure out what matters and build something good.

Read his full post on Medium.

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