The media industry hasn't given up its addiction to vanity metrics
OZY isn't the only publisher that's fiddling with the numbers to craft a narrative.
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The media industry hasn't given up its addiction to vanity metrics
If you spend any amount of time on Media Twitter, you’ve no-doubt been following the discussion around OZY. It started with a Ben Smith column in the NYT telling the absolutely bonkers story of OZY’s co-founder impersonating a YouTube employee on a call with Goldman Sachs.
From there, people started digging into OZY’s social media accounts, Comscore metrics, and press releases, and they found all sorts of discrepancies between what the company claimed and actual reality. For instance, there’s often a wide disparity between OZY’s social media following and the amount of engagement it receives on its accounts, a clear indication that it’s purchased fake followers. My favorite findings were all the times an OZY executive would make a bold claim in an interview with a media outlet and then later attribute the claim to the media outlet itself.
But while OZY’s fake-it-til-you-make-it ethos is particularly egregious, the incident points to the media industry’s widespread tendency to rely on exaggerated and/or misleading metrics so it can avoid admitting to hard truths.
For instance, several years ago I was working in an audience development role at a major media company, and one day I went out to lunch with my boss. My goal for the lunch was straightforward: to convince him that we needed to focus more on original journalism. Instead, our reporters were spending nearly all of their time on lukewarm rewrites of stories that had already broken earlier in the day.
The meeting didn’t really go anywhere, mostly because my boss was able to point to growing traffic. Why invest so much energy to original reporting when both our page views and unique visitors were increasing each month? This was a clear indication that his aggregation strategy was working.
Nevermind the fact that this was mostly low quality traffic. Because we were always late to a story, Google’s algorithm seemed to assume we had new information and would often feature us on the front page of Google News. This led to huge surges in visitors who quickly landed on the articles and then bounced off. They rarely stuck around to peruse other stories or follow us on social media. The lack of a loyal readership meant that we had a difficult time securing direct sponsorship, and so instead we had to rely on low-CPM programmatic ads. As a result, our news division was never actually profitable.
Of course, I succumbed to the allure of fake metrics as well. One time Google+ added us to its recommended user list, and our account suddenly started growing by tens of thousands of new followers per week. I had nothing to do with this growth and it didn’t seem to result in additional readers on our stories, but I still got to point to a graph each week showing our social media following going up and to the right.
Every year, the metrics we glom on to shift a little bit. First it was pageviews. Then it was Facebook video plays. Then it was email signups. It’s not that none of these metrics matter (except in the case of Facebook video views, which really were a mirage), it’s just that it’s easy to use them to obscure harsh realities about a media company’s underlying struggles.
This is why it’s common for media executives to righteously claim in interviews that they’ve done away with vanity metrics. According to this narrative, the industry has finally woken up to what actually matters, and both investors and advertisers will no longer be duped by numbers that are specifically crafted to mislead.
Except if that were true, OZY would have hit a brick wall much earlier. As the NYT column details, it still managed to secure a new $40 million investment after it got caught impersonating a YouTube employee. There are still plenty of suckers in the media business.
Of course, there’s one metric that’s much harder to manipulate: revenue. A publisher can lie to itself for as long as it has money to spend, but once that runs out, then it has three options: fold completely, change its strategy (read: layoffs), or find a bigger sucker to pour more money into the pit. Obviously, OZY opted for the latter option.
Juggernaut founder Snigdha Sur talked about how she convinced YCombinator to let in a media startup, why she launched a hard paywall, and whether she’ll ever introduce advertising into her revenue mix.
The limits of a creator’s personal brand
There’s a growing trend within the creator economy in which social media stars are trying to extricate themselves from the day-to-day operations of creating content. This has to do somewhat with the desire to reduce burnout, but it’s also about building a self-sustaining media company that doesn’t live or die based on the involvement of a single person.
But is such a pivot possible? I attempted to answer this question over here.
The "pivot to video" wasn't disastrous for everyone. Conde Nast is now generating over $200 million a year just from video alone. [Digiday]
Mark Stenberg wrote about why recipe websites keep getting more frustrating to navigate. [Medialyte] From the article: "Recipes can have a lot of ingredients. If each one of them can be purchased, suddenly a list of 10 ingredients becomes a list of 10 potential purchases."
It's not surprising that advertisers are wondering whether the ad campaign numbers OZY presented them were on the up and up. [Insider]
Is OZY the new Theranos? [YouTube]
Nieman Lab digs into OZY’s consistent claims that it was first to spot upcoming luminaries. [Nieman Lab]
The Verge reports that star Clubhouse creators are struggling to attract sponsors. [The Verge] Every day Clubhouse doesn't launch the ability to record podcasts is another day it loses more relevance. On-demand podcasts will help it create a positive feedback loop that drives more and more people into live Clubhouse rooms.
Business Insider has seen some impressive growth over the last few years, so it's not a surprise that Fortune Magazine decided to poach one of its top editors. [Digiday]
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“The world’s coolest media water cooler”
That’s how some people are describing my private Facebook group. OK, that’s not true, but if OZY can make up fake quotes about itself, so can I. But seriously, my Facebook group has lots of industry folks in it and we get up to some pretty good discussions each week about the media business. You can join here: [Facebook]
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