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Simple benchmarks for success

October 29, 2010

Over the past week or so there’s been much talk of “measurement” at the BBC. Inevitable really given the recent licence fee agreement and it’s impact on those who create output online and on air.

I’ll confess that I often shudder when these understandably important discussions kick off. The implications are considerable. They hover about above the heads of otherwise confident creatives like clouds of volcanic ash threatening aircraft engines and everyone below who rely on them.

OK. So maybe that’s a borderline histrionic analogy. It’s not like I haven’t got form where that’s concerned. Even so, the truth is that I do sometimes panic a bit when I hear the phrase “value for money” used. My defensive cynicism always sees me screw up my nose. Soon after, I tentatively stick my hand up in the air and venture to speak. The question usually turns out to be rhetorical.

How can one accurately measure value? How can we pinpoint exactly what value our creation (whatever it might be) represents to the audience we’ve produced it for? Indeed, is value really down to how many people read, listen or watch the stuff we’ve created? Or is it down to who consumes it?

Statistics about statistics about...

I speak personally when I say that I don’t put much store in statistics. They are for my cynical, untrusting often paranoid mind meaningless, shallow and flimsy. They are the equivalent of the stage set in a production of a Shakespeare play. Sure, they’re nice to have but they aren’t central. What’s central to Shakespeare are the words and the delivery of those words. What’s central to any content produced for radio, tv or the web is whether or not someone has actually taken anything away from the experience.

Look at this way. Next week a blog post on this blog could garner something ridiculous like 500,000 page views. That would be unheard of and would – in some respects – be one big massive stroke for me personally. But part of me thinks .. is that really 500,000 people viewing my blog post? Is that 500,000 people really chiming or interacting or sparking off my view? Or is it – more likely – some kind of spambot somewhere hitting my blog post because its got keywords in it the spambot is looking for? No really, there are those people out there who set such things up. The last two posts that happened on were ones about Tomasz Schafernaker and the MGM concert a couple of years back.

Great Value Peas

No, for me a more realistic measure of value is one which is also the subtlest. And, by definition it’s the least quantifiable and the least spectacular in terms of wowing those who chase numbers to prove their worth.

A case in point is a short video piece I helped distribute via the College of Journalism website today. The producer who sits behind me worked on it with another producer who sits beside me. The idea – a series of video “gobbits” from the BBC’s former North America editor Justin Webb – was simple. It was even more simply executed – a camera pointing at a journalist in an office. We prepared some promotional graphics, got the editor Kevin Marsh to write some copy to launch it from the site and then we sent it out via email and Twitter.

Here’s a confession. More often than not, working in my insitutionalised bubble in the BBC’s White City building I assume most of the time that hardly anyone actually reads the stuff we put out on the web. Publishing to the web is – regardless of how and to what extent you interact with other people on the web – a hugely passive, one-way experience. You spit the stuff out and (if you’re spitting stuff out which is learning based at least) you won’t get responses back. That’s how learning is. People don’t comment on learning in a public space.

So, if you factor in my cynicism over statistics into the whole process too you’ll understand why I found myself taken completely by surprise when a few hours later I found myself in a meeting at BBC World Service in Bush House. Mid-way through the meeting with a producer, I looked over his shoulder and watched as someone over the other side of the office opened an email and clicked on a graphic I’d prepared hours before. Then I watched as that person picked up their headphones, clicked on the link in the blog post and started watching the video slide.

I was momentarily stunned. I had to interrupt the meeting and point aghast at my colleague with me saying “Look over there, they’re looking at the stuff we put out earlier.” It was like I’d discovered how the internet worked and how wonderful it was at distribution.

It was one person. Hardly a big number when it comes to value for money. But for me, that one piece of unexpected, unsolicited evidence counts for far, far more than any series of statistics about hit-rates, page views and click-throughs. I’m interested in the smaller details. I’m interested in seeing whether at least one person actually watches the video say – and watches through to the end. There’s no guarantee they were listening to it, giving it their full attention or indeed took anything away from it. But to see your content consumed unbidden proves a fundamental point incontrovertibly. It is of value to that person.

That starting point is vitally important. Imagining that one person – your only audience member – is vital in progressing. Seeing a real life example of someone reading what you’ve produced feels considerably more valuable to me than any statistics I might have been monitoring. It makes the audience tangible.

And at time when we’re all going to have to consider how our work is “value for money” it’s vital to remember the real-life examples of what ‘value’ actually means.

:: The picture used at the top of this blog post was published to Flickr by Horia Varlan. The second picture used here was published to Flickr by Frits Ahlefeldt-Laurvig. The third picture – Great Value Peas – was taken by Anthony Crider. All three shots are very good and are used here in accordance with the Creative Commons License. Insodoing I’m adding to their own intrinsic value through endorsing their work. A big raucous round of applause to all of them, if you’d be so kind.

  1. Merlin Sibley permalink

    There are ways you can attempt to measure value for money that go beyond churning out the visitor stats. Customer surveys are one way you can get people to say how much they value the content and if they’ve done anything as a consequence of viewing it.

    I’d totally agree though that seeing real people view and use your content is much more meaningful than fancy charts and tables of numbers. Don’t you ever get given the opportunity to talk to your end users in the real world through focus group type events?

    • You’ve uttered the dirty, dirty word “focus groups”. On a personal level they leave me cold. Because they are in a sense a staged affair. And because they are staged (ie organised) they immediate lose their personal worth to me. I am – as I point out – hugely cynical about such things, often rating the chance unsolicited comments of people I talk to far more valuable than those in a staged ‘situation’. Clearly I have some baggage to deal with 😉

  2. cyberguycalif permalink

    I have a blog page on another site and a number of people who follow it as well as people who are their contacts but not mine. I know when I write something, post some photos, add some youtube videos, etc I get a good feeling when people leave comments. If maybe one or two people leave a comment or no one at all I feel down about it. I’m not a numbers freak, but I like when people think enough of what I posted to comment and/or comment on the comments others left. The more people who comment makes me feel like what I did was worth while.

    So I always try and have something to say on what others post because I know they spent time to gather their thoughts, photos, etc and took even more time to post it all.

    It’s kind of funny how you can spend time on a blog and it can be full of good information and you can poor your heart out in it, and have only a couple of people comment. But you post one short “nothing” blog and you’ll get 50 comments on it. It can almost be a study of what gets people motivated to visit your site and/or comment.

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