When we were discussing this series at Storythings, I thought it would be nice to summarise my deeply nerdy interest in the cultural history of metrics into a neat little series. But almost as soon as I started writing it, I realised that it wasn’t really a guide or toolkit, but an epitaph. The metrics we’ve been exploring over this series – views, likes, shares and followers – are inextricably linked with an era that was dominated by the major web 2.0 platforms – Twitter, Instagram, Facebook and YouTube. Although these platforms (with the addition of TikTok) still overwhelmingly dominate social media usage, it feels like their era of cultural dominance is waning. This means digital publishers will need to develop a new playbook, with a new set of metrics. But what will these look like?
Why should I care?
What’s the big picture?
Whereas traditional media brands focused on driving users to their own website and paywalls, Peretti embraced a distributed platform model for Buzzfeed, building audiences as much on the social platforms themselves as their own websites. The problem with this strategy is that it made these publications ever more reliant on the capricious algorithms and product development strategies of the major social platforms. Many publishers ended up wasting millions shifting strategies to meet the platforms’ needs, most notoriously with Facebook’s ‘pivot to video’ in 2016, when they encouraged publishers and advertisers to move from text articles to video. The move was a disaster, leading to newsroom lay-offs and Facebook paying damages to advertisers after admitting to juicing their video metrics.
So what does this all mean?
One of the biggest trends of the last few years has been the rise in direct subscription models, whether on major news sites like the New York Times, VOD platforms, newsletters platforms like Substack or fan platforms like Patreon, Twitch or Bandcamp. The key metrics for subscription models are Acquisition (what content or value proposition gets users to sign up and pay for your content), Retention (the percentage of subscribers who keep paying when their subscription renews) and Churn (the percentage of subscribers who don’t renew). Traditional reach metrics are still valuable for ‘top of funnel’ growth of your subscriber base, but the core business model lies in understanding what it is that will convert users to paid subscribers, and what will get them to stick around.
Tell me something I don’t know
The launch hasn’t gone to plan so far, with journalists and editors leaving in protest at the ‘traffic at all costs’ growth strategy. At the heart of this strategy is Neetzan Zimmerman, a player from the Traffic era of viral growth, whose site The Daily What? was acquired by Ben Huh’s I Can Has Cheezburger site. Zimmerman seems to believe that the same playbook can work today, a viewpoint not shared by Ben Smith, who also launched a newsletter and subscription-based project called Semafor in late 2022. As Smith puts it in his newsletter covering Zimmerman and The Messenger – “Welcome to Semafor Media, where newsletter signups are the new traffic”. Amen to that.
Give me some numbers
At least five Substacks bring in over $1m a year in subscription revenue, with the most – Letters From An American – earning over $5m. However, like all platforms, Substack income shows a Pareto Distribution, so the drop off between these high earners and the vast majority of Substack publishers will be very steep indeed.
Ok, I want to know more
If you want to know more about newsletters and subscription strategies, we love Dan Oshinsky’s This Is Not A Newsletter, which is a newsletter-Google Doc hybrid full of brilliant insights and advice on growing your newsletter audience.
And a final shout-out to our friends at The Content Technologist – their guides and courses on how to use data in your content strategy are absolutely essential. They are the best source of clear-eyed, practical and just damn useful advice out there. If you want to start building a content metric model for the post-Traffic era, this week’s newsletter is a great place to start, with a call to widen your data sources from the usual ones you get from web stats and social platforms. Any post that includes a 4×4 matrix with ‘weird insights’ in one quadrant gets the seal of approval from the team at Storythings!