How Many People Actually Consume Your Content?

by Jason Falls |

How do you measure the number of people your digital marketing efforts reach? More specifically for those of you using content marketing, blogging or similar activities on your website, how are you quantifying that success? Is it Google Analytics or other website measurement tools? Is it the number of RSS feed readers for your syndicated content? A combination of both?

To put it bluntly, if your CEO passed you in the hall five minutes from now and asked, “How many people read our blog each day?” what number would you quote?

Google Analytics v2.0
Image by vrypan via Flickr

Erik Deckers, Paul Lorinczi and I have had an ongoing debate and discussion about measuring the impact of your content. While none of us are foolish enough to think you can definitively measure how many eyeballs consume every bit of your content (someone can always copy and paste it into an email that you never track), we all agree the current playing field of website analytics packages doesn’t do enough to quantify content marketing metrics.

(Erik and Paul run ProBlogService, by the way. I’ve used them for a couple of client content needs over the last year and have been quite happy with the results.)

While I’ve dabbled in explaining the nearly impossible task of determining how many people consume your content before, it just seems to me it’s high time someone figured this puzzle out and productized the solution. Since I stay fairly busy helping clients solve problems and most investors would laugh at the notion of letting me drive the bus, I’ll pour out the thoughts for all of you to run with.

The Problem With Website Analytics And Content

Let’s use Social Media Explorer as an example. Not because it’s all about me, but because it’s the one business I have total access to all analytics services for. Fair?

Google Analytics tells me that from Oct. 28, 2010 until Nov. 26, 2010, 55,401 unique visitors and 44,641 absolute unique visitors graced the hallowed halls of SocialMediaExplorer.com. They accounted for 70,210 page views.

Quantcast, a service whose code I also have installed directly on my site, and should thus also be an accurate measure of my website’s traffic, has different numbers. (They have different methodologies, as do most analytics services, which is the crux of the problem. But bear with me here, the numbers will illustrate the point.) According to them, Social Media Explorer saw 36,700 (rounded to the hundreds) “global people” in the exact same time frame. They also report 47,400 “visits” and 70,500 page views (okay … that one is close).

But keep in mind that for many of you, the content on Social Media Explorer is accessed via RSS feed. This means you never actually visit SME and, thus, do not count as a visit, unique visitor or page view. For that audience, we have to turn to FeedBurner, FeedBlitz or similar RSS feed management software. I happen to use FeedBurner (because I mistakenly thought when Google bought it in 2007, they would solve this problem).

Feedburner says from Oct. 28 until Nov. 26, an average of 16,043 people per day accessed my feed. That’s 481,290 people in a 30-day period. (Don’t worry, I called bullshit on it, too.) The problem is that many of these 16,043 people are the same people. My reach is not half a million. But that number is also inflated as it counts the number of times your feed is requested, not read. Feedburner says 338 subscribers accessed my feed via Bloglines, which is all but dead. The subscriptions still exist on a server somewhere but the likelihood someone is actually using them is slim to none.

Fortunately, FeedBurner also displays a “Reach” metric that it says is the total number of people who have taken action — viewed or clicked — on the content in your feed. My “Reach” metric for the period was 1,159 people per day, or 34,770 in the month.

So, if you’re counting, my absolute uniques (Google and 44,641) and my actual RSS actors (Feedburner and 34,770) means my total audience is 79,411 for the 30 day period. But wait! Is Quantcast’s 36,700 “people” more accurate than Google Analytics’s 44,641 absolute unique visitors?

And what about the social media monitoring and SEO aspects of your content? What other blogs have picked up and republished your content? Shouldn’t you also tally back links and SEO value for the content you’re providing?

Now I’m crankier than a gay rights activist pot head after Election Day.

Regardless of the coolness of the tool, the standards, measures and methodologies differ from service to service. I use Posterous for my personal blog. A whimsical list of 15 Things My Family Has Taught Me posted two Fridays ago 45 pageviews and 43 unique pageviews that day, according to Google Analytics. According to Posterous, the post was viewed over 1,000 times in the same time frame. While Posterous’s help topics point out that a post view is counted each time the content is loaded, whether on the blog’s home page, the post page itself or even when it’s pulled via RSS (which is a lot closer to the number I expect to see for a post’s metrics) and that Google Analytics is better at measuring visitors, there’s a big damn difference in 45 and 1,000+.

There are two primary takeaways from pointing all this out. Consider these and tell me what you think in the comments.

All Measures Are Guesstimates

Since there’s really no mark of consistency in all these measures of the number of people who consume your content, we are forced to pick one or two and monitor trends and percentages, rather than totals. We cannot say that 1,000 more people saw Friday’s post over Monday’s in definitive fashion. What we can say is that our numbers went up 6.5 percent.

Pick a couple of measurement platforms you’re comfortable with (ease of use, reports, exporting data, etc.) and stick to them. Look for trends and percentage changes, not hard numbers. If you must report a hard number, go with unique visitors in Google Analytics (or WebTrends, etc.) but explain to your reports that analytics isn’t perfect. The numbers you’re reporting are at least from a consistent source.

We Need Better Measures

Google owns Feedburner. I thought one of the reasons they bought the company was to marry the RSS service to its Analytics package and give us more complete reporting of what happens to and with our content once it’s published. While I’m not sure why they’ve never put two and two together here, (though they unveiled a new design beta for Feedburner last week and might be starting something) someone needs to build a better metrics mousetrap. The first company that does will get a huge jump on the competition. (But since the competition’s metrics are mostly free, they’ll have to have some compelling reasons we’d pay for it.)

And while I’m sure some community manager from Compete or similar service will want to jump in the comments and offer their $200 per month entry point services, they don’t do it either. Services like these use aggregated user data from Internet Service Providers, then extrapolate those numbers out over the total Internet population. It’s the Nielsen way of doing things. Ask 100 people, multiply their preferences by the U.S. Population divided by 100 and you know your statistics. While the ISP data is far more data than Nielsen’s, it’s still monkey math. At least Google and Quantcast measure stuff happening on your site directly.

Give me a service that I can plug in website analytics, content syndication analytics and maybe even backlink or social sharing data based on the individual pieces of content … and one whose measures are generally accepted as being a valid interpretation of the server’s logs or other data … and I’ll recommend it to the world.

If that animal exists, I’m guessing it’s tucked away in some $10K per month enterprise system that 99 percent of the world can’t get to. The question then becomes who will build the same mousetrap and set it free?

Okay stat geeks … tell me what I’m not seeing. Tell me what’s right or wrong with the existing measures. And tell me how you can combine those four major factors into a metrics solution I can just hit “Print” on. The comments are yours.

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About the Author

Jason Falls

Jason Falls is a leading thinker, speaker and strategist in the world of digital marketing and is co-author of two books, No Bullshit Social Media: The All-Business, No-Hype Guide To Social Media Marketing and The Rebel's Guide To Email Marketing. By day, he leads digital strategy for Elasticity, one of the world's most innovative digital marketing and public relations firms. Follow him on Twitter (@JasonFalls).