Why publishers should call time on clicks and clickbait

For media groups with confidence in their content, it’s all about ‘attention metrics’ now

“They’re only chasing clicks” is an accusation sometimes levelled against media companies in the business of “clickbait”.

Loosely defined as ultra-populist stories that don’t even have the decency to live up to their grabby headlines, clickbait is the online equivalent of the sensationalist print splash, but with one difference. A screaming front page still has to persuade people to part with their cash.

The relationship between the success of a slab of prime clickbait and the financial viability of a paywall-less media site is even more direct. Because online advertising has been charged on a cost-per-thousand-impressions (CPM) basis, the more page views a site can rack up, the more money it makes. The tabloidification of previously sober titles is built into their business model.

When media groups include digital subscription income in their plans, the supremacy of the page view starts to fade a little. But the importance of clicks might yet wane for another reason. Media groups that eschew the clickbait culture are examining a different metric for charging advertisers: time.


Unsurprisingly, it was the Financial Times that was first out of the traps to reveal it planned to sell online not on the basis of a CPM but rather a cost-per-hour (CPH). Now a report by the US online publishers' group Digital Content Next suggests more titles want to follow suit.

It wants to “advance the future of trusted content” – not that untrustworthy stuff you find clogging up the infinite arteries of the internet.

It argues that moving to a “time-based media currency” will provide a “deeper understanding of consumer engagement, beyond the click”. Time-based metrics, it says, “realign pricing with quality”.

Any media group that fancies itself as a premium brand should be interested in the dawn of so-called “attention metrics”, as it is producers of original, in-depth, specialist content – the kind of publishers that attract a relatively small but regular, engaged audience – that stand to benefit.

Selling advertising based on time rather than page impressions would not just allow them to stop pumping out lowest-common-denominator content – the kind aimed at passing trade – it would also influence how they organise their sites. Frustrating site design features such as the spreading of stories and picture galleries over multiple pages would be the first to die.

Online publishers, again mostly in the US, are realising that in the age of mobile, getting consumers to click is a big ask.

All publishers want readers drawn to their site by one story to stay for several more. But crowding web pages with links is beginning to look like an old-fashioned way to do it. Instead, such sites as Quartz, Forbes and the Daily Beast automatically load a succession of articles beneath the one that readers first chose, in some cases with display ads dividing the end of one from the start of the next.

It’s mobile-friendly, swipe-only design that further undermines the click. Or to be more precise, given that touchscreen device users are performing an action more akin to a jab or a prod, this newer type of site design may cut the number of links that users must follow during their visits, without reducing the length of it.

News groups already collate time statistics and analyse them internally. If their sites, or sections of their sites, have longer-than-average visit durations, they make sure advertisers know. But sharing such information is a long way from charging on the basis of it.

While 80 per cent of the publishers surveyed for the DCN report said they would like to use time as a measure to price and sell ads, only 4 per cent were already testing the sale of advertising on that basis. Among the most frequently cited barriers were the absence of standard measurement methods and a lack of interest among advertising agencies.

Indeed, advertisers will be reluctant to ditch the click if they cannot first get guarantees that ads will actually be visible on screen for more than a nano-second.

Publishers may agree to re-tool their digital platforms so that ad “viewability” improves, but to complicate matters, not everyone agrees that there even is a correlation between the effectiveness of an ad and the amount of time it is in view.

So there is plenty of behind-the-scenes wrangling that has to be done before digital media sites at the premium end of the market can wean themselves off page impressions, get out of the volume game and hone their ability to steal as much time as possible from the finite lives of their core audience.

But maybe, just maybe, if this happens, the business case for inflating moderately diverting nuggets into full-on clickbait won’t be so intense.