Once again, Peter Kirwan has highlighted a subject which has big implications for PR. (Again, if you haven’t got a sub yet, get one).
He points out that publishers are more than happy to be selective with evidence when it comes to justifying their own ends – in this case, who has the highest online readerships.
The Telegraph, Guardian and The Times are embroiled in an unedifying spat on this subject – and all using different measurement agencies to back their claims.
As Peter says: "We’re steadily leaving behind an era in which it was safe to assume that Guardian Unlimited beats all of its rivals in terms of traffic numbers. From here on, debates about the nationals’ online audience figures are going to become a lot more intricate. The second point is that publishers need to work together to sort out the unholy mess that is online audience measurement. In the UK, some tech publishers have been exploiting this mess for years, making — and getting away with — claims that don’t stand up to the slightest scrutiny."
His last point is quite telling. PR agencies can only rely upon the data provided by publishers in order to demonstrate the value of the coverage they generate. If Peter’s right about much of this readership data being ropey, where does that leave the value calculations of PR agencies over the last few years for online coverage?
It also raises a more general point about how to value online coverage in PR terms. There still seems to be prejudice that print coverage is somehow more "valuable" than online. Which is curious, given that all print coverage has a finite shelf life. For example, the FT is usually held up as a gold standard of tech PR coverage – and yet the FT has a shelf life of around 4 hours ie it will be read between 6.30am and 10.30am on the day of publication – and after that, its chip paper. Online coverage on the other hand sticks around for, well, forever. So one would assume that because it has a longer shelf life, it may well have greater value over time. Of course, putting some kind financial value on that is even trickier. Ignoring the rights and wrongs of advertising equivalence, I’ve yet to find anyone who has come up with a meaningful measure of value for online coverage. For example, just because the Guardian claims 12.5 unique users clearly doesn’t mean 12.5 million people will read your piece of coverage – let alone act on it. Then again, the same is true of the print world – just because you appeared in the FT doesn’t mean all 400K+ readers will have seen the piece – and in our time-poor world, you do begin to wonder what percentage of people bother to read anything, anywhere.
However, the difference with online is that presumably the media owners know exactly how many people have viewed an individual article. I’ve made initial enquiries as to whether publishers would be prepared to reveal (for a fee of course) how many views an individual article received – at the moment, no one is prepared to discuss this proposition. They have their reasons clearly.
Ultimately, I think Peter is right – we need a level playing field in terms of online readership figures – and it would be nice if we could get some sense of what people are actually reading – both to justify or otherwise what value PR is delivering – and to make PR campaigns more efficient.