Does audience size matter?

I have been thinking about this post from Robert Scoble since I read it yesterday. (Go read it now.) In the post, Scoble makes three pretty strong points:

First,

“In the past few years I’ve had some success building audiences, but I found that that’s not really what’s important. It’s not what advertisers REALLY care about.”

He goes on to ask “What do they really care about?” and answers his own question by saying that advertisers care about content: that you get content that no one else does, that it causes conversations to happen, that your content gets noticed in the niche that you’re covering, and that it gets the most authoritative links back to it.

His second point:

“It’s not the size of your audience that matters. It’s WHO is in the audience that matters.”

And his third point:

“I never talk…about how large my audience will be. No, instead, we’re talking about who we want on the show for the first week. How can we make the quality better? Who is out there who is doing innovative stuff that we can learn from?…How can we take our art further? How come bloggers never obsess about THAT?”

There is a lot going on in this article, but first and foremost I have to disagree that advertisers don’t care about audience size. All you have to do is look at how advertising is sold online to know that they do, in fact, care very much about audience size. CPM (cost per thousand) is the standard measurement for online media sales. Just check out the advertising pages for CNET or PCMag.com  or CMP (all technology publishing companies). What is the first statistic that’s listed? Unique visitors per month. Second statistic? Unique page views per month.

Having worked for both Ziff Davis and IDG, two of the biggest technology publishers in the world, I know that when technology marketers are buying online advertising packages, the easiest question to ask – and the first one out of their mouths – is size of audience. They always want to know traffic stats and reach. In that market, advertisers do care about how big the audience is. And I think that this is only magnified in the consumer markets (with audiences like the one that Perez Hilton reaches), where there is no way to measure audience except by size.

And (this is still hard for me to swallow even though I’ve believed it for a long time), most advertisers do NOT care about how good the content is. I am just being honest here. Most technology marketers and advertisers do not pay attention to the content, or know how good or not good it is in and of itself. Instead, they measure content “goodness” quantitatively – by how big the audience is that is reading the content, and by who that audience is.

Which leads me to the part of Scoble’s article in which he was dead on accurate – advertisers do care about how targeted the audience is, WHO is in the audience. I believe that this is actually the statistic that matters the most to online advertisers.

Take another look at those advertising pages that I linked to earlier. There are some pretty strong arguments made by the publications that they have the specific audiences that advertisers are looking for. I believe that this trend of advertisers trying to reach the specific individual – with the right title, job function, industry and size of company – instead of reaching just a whole lot of people and hoping that the message has an impact, will continue. This desire to reach the RIGHT audience is why new models of online advertising are emerging, such as lead generation, in which a company will pay $100 PER LEAD as long as they are targeting the right person with their message. Scoble is reaching the audience that his advertisers want to reach – so the size of his audience isn’t as important. And this is why sites like Perez Hilton, which have to rely on audience size (because they are reaching a disparate consumer market) are going to have a hard time selling advertising by any measurement except audience size.

As far as content is concerned, I have already made the point that I don’t believe that advertisers care as much about quality content as Scoble claims that they do. I wish that they did, but I’ve been in this industry long enough to realize that they really just don’t. They like the latest and greatest thing – because it’s good for their brand to be associated with that innovative content – but advertisers aren’t content specialists and just really don’t have a good understanding of quality content.

HOWEVER – and this is a really big however – I think that Scoble is writing from the perspective of a content producer, not an advertiser. And his point is RIGHT ON that content producers MUST CARE MORE about their content than their audience size. Because without good, innovative, cutting-edge content, content producers will never draw the type of audience that they need to get advertisers. Scoble says that the right question is “how can we take our art further?” And I agree that is the right question for a content producer.

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