2016 was the year when numerous publishers publicly abandoned reach as a goal. Metrics around total unique were derided as vanity measurements and the narrative in the industry became about building smaller and more valuable audiences.
This was understandable. Advertising revenues had begun to stall. And it looked unlikely that digital advertising alone would prove to be a viable economic model. Even the promise of off-platform revenues through Google’s AMP or Facebook’s Instant Articles failed to dramatically shift many publishers’ economics.
But 2017 will likely see a resurgence of reach as a key metric in journalism. After all, maybe it was not the metric that was broken, but the way it was used — especially in terms of monetization and better understanding and adapting to users.
The power of reach is not reach in itself. As a measurement, it fails on many counts and reveals little in isolation. But over the coming year, some in the industry will reconnect with the idea of reach as it allows publishers to constantly acquire new audiences, boost trust and relevance, and identify several new veins of revenue.
This is not a new practice. One example is Guardian News & Media, which several years ago analyzed its digital audience to discover a new and growing group of users with a keen interest in all things green and sustainability. This was an emerging, hard-to-find, and therefore valuable segment for advertisers. It transpired that The Guardian had probably the best reach within this user group in the U.K. (if not globally at one point), not just for green consumer audiences, but also within the sustainability industry itself. This led to the growth of healthy B2C and B2B revenue streams.
But the difference today is that it can be done in realtime and on multiple platforms at the same time. The flows of users are a constant river of new information and nimble publishers will begin build on this information to identify emerging, valuable audience segments and to better understand the ebbs and flows of the world’s information gathering.
Under this world, publishers can work proactively with advertisers to mend today’s very broken model and to help deliver advertising that is more relevant, more timely, and more impactful (and because of this, I believe, less intrusive).
Therefore, reach allows publishers to cast their nets widely. It will allow publishers to move beyond the common user segmentation of verticals such as news, politics, or sport (which, amazingly, often reflects how newspaper layout was organized a hundred years ago).
Last year’s retreat from reach may prove harmful. The mantra of “know your users and just concentrate on them” may leave some news organizations fishing in an ever-shrinking pool of similar users. And one person’s like-minded community is another person’s echo chamber.
But for others, the fluid nature of audience reach can provide an exciting path forward. Publishers will embrace the fact that audiences and interests change every moment of every day. And they will embrace the knowledge that broadening their journalism’s reach today could capture tomorrow’s most valuable users.
Tanya Cordrey is a non-executive director of Schibsted and the former chief digital officer of Guardian News & Media.