Without a doubt, the quantity of content available online is at an all-time high. One hundred hours of video are uploaded to YouTube every minute, and 500 million tweets are sent per day. But human attention is a finite resource. If nothing else, there are only so many waking hours in the day. So as we seek to create a media ecosystem that is vibrant and viable, we must recognize that attention is a true measure of success.
As Jon Slade, commercial director of global digital advertising and insight at the Financial Times, said, "It's about time we stopped counting quantity and looked instead at quality -- specifically for brand campaigns. Attention is what matters, not pings from an ad server. Let's look at outcomes that matter!"
In a survey conducted for a forthcoming report by Digital Content Next, which represents the top digital publishers, 100 percent of the participating members indicated that they either already use time-based metrics or plan to do so in the future, and 80 percent demonstrated interest in transacting on the basis of time.
A number of major industry challenges stand to be solved by time-based measurement:
1. It creates a true inventory constraint (finally). A complaint as old as the web is that there's no scarcity in online advertising. Show me a user and I'll get you clicks, pageviews and limitless banners. But time is a scarce resource (maybe the scarcest of all). It's the one thing the media-technical complex can't manufacture. To grow time-based inventory requires real consumption and audience growth.
2. It enforces the need for viewability. In her State of the Internet report, Mary Meeker tells us that the annual share of brand advertising for online (and now mobile) significantly trails the share of time spent online. Viewability was a first step in the industry's attempt to solve this problem by requiring ads actually appear onscreen and for a minimum of one second. Given that 69 percent of ad network and exchange ads weren't viewable in the first place, premium publishers were given the gift of one small but significant piece of proof as to why brand advertisers should care where their ads are running.
The reason viewability continues to create unrest is that publishers are realizing they're losing a percentage of impressions but not getting paid a higher rate for guaranteeing viewability. However, this is a transition issue, which will get fixed if more brand money enters the marketplace.
3. It aligns quality with monetization. It doesn't matter if consumers hit your site or app in 30-second blocks of time; the more time users spend on a site or app over the course of a month, the more likely it is that they value the content they find there. A paradigm in which time invested results in actual value -- rather than often-random clicks and taps -- encourages further investment in quality content by publishers and marketers alike.
4. It minimizes the damage of a direct-response model. Invested to evoke genuine enjoyment and value, time is much more than a function of impulse. When the serving of an ad for one second or the impulse of the finger defines impressions and engagement, you're dealing with a world that assigns value to reflexive direct response. In this world, the ability to collect data and track users across the web are valued above all else, with almost no checks and balances in place, in terms of the risk of trust, privacy and audience relationships.
5. It works across platforms. The inability to track audience across platforms and the necessity of browser cookies to do it is a recurring complaint online and a significant problem for mobile products. Time-based measurement, which can be conducted without requiring cookies, solves this problem by correlating to consumers per minute. If, for example, your app gets 50 minutes of consumption in a one-minute period, how many people per minute were on your app? Answer: 50 people per minute. Now, we're talking television language, which brings us back to "show me the brand money," because that's where it is.
Certainly, the measure of great content and brand marketing is the time, attention and emotion of consumers -- not the click of the mouse or a tap of the finger. Yet as an industry, we've spent far too much energy running on a treadmill of ephemeral attention. It's time (for lack of a better word) to focus on what matters most: consumer attention.