Content Marketing

Can the Attention Web Save Publishing? Upworthy, Quartz, and Refinery29 Weigh In

There’s been a common refrain in the media and marketing industry lately: The relationship between advertising and publishing on the web is broken. Selling ads based on impressions and pageviews has resulted in a seemingly never-ending stream of slideshows featuring adorable baby chicks and sexy, cleavage-baring chicks alike. But other than building a time machine and stopping CPMs from taking over the Internet in the first place, what can be done?

Last month, as part of Internet Week, Chartbeat, a company that measures real-time engagement for online content creators, hosted a panel in its sprawling New York office to discuss one promising solution: the Attention Web.

For the uninitiated, the Attention Web is a movement to sell ads on the Internet based on how much time people spend engaging with content, instead of mere pageviews. It involves measuring user behavior based on metrics such as engagement time, mouse movement, and scroll depth, and it’s encouraging publishers to produce and promote higher-quality content.

Among the panel speakers was Daniel Mintz, Upworthy‘s director of business intelligence, who insisted that despite its highly shareable, clickable headlines, his company has never sold advertising based on clicks. In fact, Upworthy wants to change the way online ads are sold entirely.

“If we’re a clickbait shop, we’re doing it entirely wrong,” Mintz said, noting Upworthy’s creation of an “attention minutes” metric. “We care deeply about our mission: to draw massive amounts of attention to the things that matter. We also believe you are what you measure, so we care about attention and want to measure it, and that’s why we built the system that we did rather than buy something off the shelf.”

“Clicks were the old currency, which was misleading,” Mintz argued, “and it screwed up the whole web.”

One way clicks are misleading, the panel noted, is that they imply that an ad has been seen. But that’s often not the case.

“Just because you have an ad that appears on a page—for whatever the ID standard is—doesn’t mean it will be seen,” explained Joy Robins, Quartz’s vice president of advertising & strategy. “What I think is becoming more of an important metric is ‘viewed ads’ as opposed to ‘viewable ads.’”

Earlier this year, the IAB (Interactive Advertising Bureau) determined that an ad is viewable as long as it appears in the browser for one second. But, as Robins notes, that’s no guarantee that the ad is seen, and publishers are getting paid the same whether an ad’s in view for one second or a full minute.

So can display ads be saved? Chartbeat CEO Tony Haile posed that question to the panel, and it seemed that everyone from the intellectual-techie Quartz, to supposed clickbait factory Upworthy, to Contently Editor-in-Chief Joe Lazauskas were all for a new way of selling ads.

“Nobody inherently hates display ads. We hate the way display ads are bought and sold,” said Lazauskas, who added that branded content also needs to be measured based on metrics like engaged time.

But what would a new model look like? Chartbeat recently partnered with the Financial Times to develop a new currency for advertising “more closely aligned with TV advertising, which focuses instead on the time users are exposed to ads and trades inventory using that currency,” according to The Drum.

“We can now report back to a client and say, ‘We served you a thousand ads, and of those, 500 were seen for one second, 250 were seen for 10 seconds and 250 were seen for 30 seconds,'” Jon Slade, the Financial Times‘ commercial director of digital advertising and insight, told The Drum. “The next obvious step is to sell blocks of time.”

But as Mintz noted, “There’s no one metric to rule them all.” At least not yet.

What’s important is that publishers are creating them. By selling ads based on a real, engaged audience as opposed to pageviews driven by quick-clickers and bots alike, publishers and advertisers both profit. In the words of Chartbeat CEO Tony Haile, “The most valuable audience is the one that comes back.”

“It’s not about where a piece of advertising is placed, it’s about the engagement,” said Patrick Yee, VP of marketing at Refinery29.

Five years ago, as Daniel Mintz explained, it was a big “technological stress” for companies to measure engagement data, but it’s much easier now and imperative to the future of web advertising. And speaking of that future, the panel members all agreed that it looks quite bright.

“I think about what Upworthy and Quartz and Contently have done in a year, which is unbelievable, so a lot can happen in a year,” said Yee.

It looks like we may not need that time machine after all.

Want your business to tell great stories like this one? Contently gives brands the tools and talent to tell stories that people love. Learn more.

Get better at your job right now.

Read our weekly newsletter to master content marketing. It’s made for marketers, creators, and everyone in between.

Trending stories