Measurement is the key to success for content businesses; but measurement of what?

From Michael Schrange, writing for HBR:

Newspapers are indeed in information and digital content businesses. But their decision-making is typically far less data-driven than the big box retailers whose advertising they’re so desperate to get. As a rule, newspapers know less about their readers and advertisers than an Amazon, Google or Facebook does. These institutions built their brands not by focusing on customer experience or using strategic analytics but by successfully defining the most important and newsworthy stories in their communities and beyond. Those days are officially gone. So are the business models that made them profitable. The competition has both bigger and better data while offering much better customer experiences. There’s little these papers do that deserves to command a marketplace premium from customers.

Traditional newspapers, he argues, built their organizations to optimize for content quality. But content quality now matters less to content businesses than data (knowing your readers) and “customer experience”.

Is Michael right? It depends on your business model. If your main revenue stream is ads, you’ll optimize for page views, namely ad inventory. You’ll find that many levers are more important than content quality, such as titles, populist subjects appropriate for social sharing, and page-maximizing formats such as slide shows. But if your main revenue stream is paid subscriptions, then quality — the key determinant of willingness to pay — comes first.

This isn’t to dismiss the importance of data and user experience for quality-centric content businesses. If you’re a quality-oriented content business, you still need to ensure that you are data driven, and that overall user experience, which is primarily determined by content quality, has measurable metrics.

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