A new normal for digital media requires a new way to measure audiences

If the audience measurement industry wants to remain relevant, it needs to adapt to a changing media landscape for advertisers and digital publishers, writes Richard Skimin.

The year 2020 has seen an acceleration in trends that have created a ‘new normal’ for Australia’s digital media market.

Consumers are now allocating more of their time towards consuming digital news media. According to Nielsen, with four months still remaining for 2020, Australians have spent almost the same amount of time consuming digital new media as they did for the entire year of 2019.

Publishers are also adapting their business model towards direct relationships with consumers, as Australian’s willingness to pay for digital news content increases. These direct relationships allow new levels of engagement with audiences.

Digital news is changing how publishers connect with audiences

And advertisers, many with tighter marketing budgets, are demanding ever improving returns on their marketing investment. They are striving to find the right audiences that will deliver them measurable outcomes.

Despite all the changes in the media landscape, the audience measurement industry still defines success based on the decades’ old scale metric of ‘Monthly Unique Audience’ – the ratings currency for digital publishers, as agreed by the Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB) and measured by Nielsen.

In a discussion about the Monthly Unique Audience metric, one advertising agency executive explained to me: “Does scale matter? Not as much as it used to.” So what does matter?

We need audience measurement that has evolved beyond just counting eyeballs. Instead, we need audience measurement that is helping advertisers make better decisions.

To keep up with a changing digital media market, the audience measurement industry needs to focus on improving the transparency, frequency and quality of audience data used by the industry.



 The Monthly Unique Audience metric treats all audiences as equal. To game this metric, any publisher need only focus on attracting the most shallow audience. 

A shallow audience is one where visitors are referred to a publisher, usually from Google or Facebook, and as long as they stay for a few milliseconds, they are counted as unique audience.

This is good news for Google and Facebook where the algorithms take primacy to attract these shallow audiences. But it’s bad news for publishers looking to build loyal and engaged audiences whose daily habits count for nothing after their first visit for the month.

If Facebook ends their stream of referrals to publishers, we will find out which publishers have been swimming naked in a stream of ‘traffic’ and which have been building loyal and engaged audiences. 

As audiences layer themselves into anonymous, registered or subscribed, each layer represents a better opportunity to drive effectiveness and outcomes for advertisers. 

The IAB has the opportunity to improve the transparency of these layers of audience so that advertisers understand where their traffic is coming from and how they are likely to behave.



The IAB advocates for a ratings currency measured monthly. A monthly metric might make sense if we were measuring print magazine audiences but we are dealing with digital audiences that can be volatile on a daily basis.

A viral burst of momentary audience on a single day can have a major impact on a publisher’s ranking in Nielsen. These outlier events are not evident when eyeballs are just cumulatively added up over the course of a month.

Instead, the IAB should be advocating for rating currency based on daily moving averages, where the impacts of short-term fluctuations in audience are mitigated.

Despite the need for daily audience data, Nielsen is indicating that it may cease producing daily and weekly digital audience data from 2021 as its methodology pivots away from relying on cookies.

Any decision to cease releasing daily and weekly audience data would be a major step back for digital publishers. The IAB should ensure that daily and weekly audience data continues so that the digital audience data is at least on par with television.



Despite all the focus in audience measurement on reach, engagement is the true north star for publishers in our attention economy. Engagement comes from quality content, quality creative and quality ad product, but there is no quality quotient in the audience measurement industry today.

Publishers should be striving for quality audiences who scroll more deeply, spend more time, click more links and return more frequently. These quality audiences are more likely to engage with an advertisement, read a native placement and convert to a transaction.

The industry would be better served by a refreshed ratings currency that focused on quality of audiences. Nielsen does measure some engagement data which can be a proxy for quality, but it is suppressed beneath a reach- focused rating currency. 

We should develop a new ratings currency that is a function of both reach and engagement measured over a daily moving average. Engagement as measured by frequency of visits and time per visit is a good place to start.

However, as digital publishers find their own way forward, audience measurement risks being left behind. 

At news.com.au we have not found a correlation between movements in the ratings currency and financial outcomes or even advertiser interest. 

More recent digital publishers are increasingly not bothering with the industry’s audience measurement. Junkee Media and Mamamia are two, preferring to instead publish their own unaudited metrics. 

Subscription-led digital publishers will also need to make a choice about whether they can justify the cost of paying for the IAB’s audience measurement as subscription economics take primacy.

It is these choices by digital publishers that the industry needs to consider – as the possibility of wider splintering that could occur from larger publishers – should audience measurement not evolve from where it is today.

With 2020 bringing accelerating trends that have been building for years, now is the time for the audience measurement industry to find a better way to measure what matters for digital publishers and advertisers.


Richard Skimin is News Corp Australia’s managing director of news.com.au and eCommerce.


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