Anyone know how to measure content output?

14/05/2013 — Leave a comment

Confusion at formatsA senior sales manager once told me that content staff “must be doing less than they used to do”. I politely suggested that if he said that in a room full of editors he’d probably get stoned… and not in a good way.

To be fair, the misconception that editorial staff generate less content than they used to is not as mental as it first appears. It stems from the obvious decline in the number of print pages published and a complete failure of the publishing industry to properly measure digital content output.

Don’t tell the wife, but I would actually bet my house that content people create more content today than they ever did in the good-old-bad-old-long-gone days of print-only publishing. I know instinctively that the average editorial team is putting out more “stuff” than ever. The problem is quantifying it.

Imagine a typical B2B magazine staff of four or five people 10 years ago. Say they published a monthly magazine with 100 edit pages at 500 words a page for a total of 50,000 words a month in print. They had a website, maybe even an email newsletter, but the chances are their digital content was pretty static and, for the most part, lifted directly from print.

A decade on, that magazine (if it’s still in business) probably has two staff. As often as not, they’re working across multiple titles but to keep the arithmetic simple, let’s pretend they are assigned to just one publication. Pretend the number of print pages published has declined by 50%, so they now do 25,000 words a month in print. But they now do daily blogs (10,000 words) and web news (10,000); and a series of weekly enewsletters (5,000). There’s 50,000 words without including digital magazines, social media, webinars, whitepapers or eBooks.

These numbers are pretty arbitrary. Some titles do more or less news, some do more repurposing, but there’s a ball park figure there somewhere and I’m 100-percent confident that content people are producing more, not less, these days.

But this doesn’t actually help quantify how much they are actually doing. Counting words and more importantly pages, used to be immensely important. Print publishing was all about space management. Sell 30 pages of ads, wrap them in 60 pages of edit, everyone knew what they had to do. Today space is elastic.

This is good, liberating even; editors hate nothing more than to be hobbled by print pagination. But while digital real-estate may be unbounded, editorial capacity is not.

Publications could develop some kind of notional digital content unit (DCU) to substitute for page counts and keep track of output: Johnny did 20 tweets and 5 blogs and that equals 12.5 DCUs. But the problem is not just quantpty, it’s quality too. A really good blog post takes longer to write than a mediocre blog post which should take longer than a crappy blog post. We can possibly judge quality by page impressions, but if page views are the only metric, we’re in danger of encouraging editors to pack their headlines and leads with linkbait. Great for the quick hit, not so good for developing ongoing audience loyalty.

If we can’t measure how much is being done the danger is that content teams are pressured to produce more and more content until they collapse under the strain or, more likely, go and work for a content marketing agency.

Right now, many publishers have no idea how much their content teams are doing or how long it takes. I have to admit I can’t see an easy solution to this problem. The formula has to include some form of stock take alongside page views and audience engagement. If anyone has done this I’d love to hear about it. Just make sure that whatever you suggest it shows content people doing more than they used to. My wife really likes our house.

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