Is reach over-rated? Is a big audience enough to secure profitabilty in a digital media business? Is it time to re-think the importing of analogue measurement tactics to an online age?
Mail Online was read by 91 million unique browsers in May this year, 32 million of which were in the UK. In other words, if you believe in the ABC's method of counting users half the UK population reads Mail Online once a month.
(See here for my thoughts on ABC and the "unique browser" conundrum - Here's an article the ABC wrote on the subject for us. Incidentally that graph purposefully doesn't include thetimes.co.uk or FT.com). UPDATE: See the ABC's response to this article below.
With annual revenues approaching the £25 million mark, Mail Online is expected to be profitable on a monthly basis from July, according to site editor Martin Clarke. Its £1.4 million per month in online display revenue is predicted to grow by 70 percent this year. Reach is working out OK for the Mail.
Data, not content, is king
But behind the scenes, there's more to it than simple Big Numbers. Yes, advertisers want scale but they also want relevance and - ultimately - conversions or sales.
Mail Online has eight analysts employed to sift through, manage and monetise the site's audience data - who the readers are, where they live, what they click on and on on. The FT as 12 such analysts.
Increasingly, as the trading of display ads online becomes technology driven, with impressions being bought and sold through ad exchanges, real-time networks, data is the key currency behind growth.
How? Publishers are increasingly using technolgoy to serve relevant ads to user with real-time bidding and also selling their audience data. That's not as dodgy as it sounds: effectively it's telling marketers about your anonymised audience's behaviour and demographics.
As much as publishers don't like to hear it, their brand and history isn't as important online as it is in other media: advertisers want to reach people, not put some squares on a site.
Companies like Weborama, which is currently pushing hard into the UK through a joint venture with fellow French adtech player Hi-Media - work with publishers to help them understand and manage their audience data - pooling data from lots of publishers to serve ads across its network. It can be mutually beneficial - although the European Commission isn't so sure.
This white paper from online ad platformPubmatic explains the process well:
If you can't beat them - do something else?
How should the industry respond to this? The answer might not be to continue to engage Mail Online, Demand Media, HuffPo, Gizmodo, Answers.com... and all the rest in a battle for clicks with ever-diminishing returns.
As we learned last week at TheMediaBriefing's #MarketBriefing event (here are my six takeaway lessons from it), loyal audiences are worth more than occasional ones. A minority of any site's users will generate the majority of the profits.
So instead of continuing the unique user arms race, how about learning more about your audience and employing people to understand who users are, not just how many there are.
UPDATE 29/06/12: The ABC got in touch to add its own comment to this, to expand on my somewhat flippant comment on the nature of unique users. This is actually a very useful definition of what a unique browsing session is (the emphasis is mine):
"The industry agreed mandatory minimum metric for web traffic is Average Daily Unique Browsers, which counts each browser in the reported period. It does not measure each person and, unless otherwise stated, the Unique Browser data refers to worldwide Unique Browsers. This definition was agreed by the industry through its representatives that sit on the ABC board and JICWEBS (the Joint Industry Committee for Web Standards).
"The counting of Monthly Unique Browsers may overstate or understate the number of individual devices due to factors such as dynamic IP allocation, browser configurations operating through a proxy, cookie blocking and cookie deletion.
"ABC's role is to work with its audited members to help them adhere to the industry-agreed standards to provide a stamp of trust for advertisers, agencies and media owners. While there is continued discussion within the industry about big data, these industry standards enable trading to be based on comparable data that is independently verified by a recognised and trusted organisation.
"As an industry we need to encourage the wide-spread adoption of industry standards for census data to underpin and support any audience research data covering behaviour and demographics. There is a role in the industry for both and they should be working together to provide a complete picture."