Pay per performance

There has been quite a stir in certain quarters caused by this account of my PPA panel appearance on Tuesday. The main thrust of the furore (if I may call it that – storm in a teacup may be more accurate) is that paying journalists for page inpressions they generate inevitably leads to lowest-common-denominator journalism which will undermine the credibility and ultimately the very existence of specialist b2b websites.

Clearly, if any pay for performance scheme were ever to be implemented in a blanket fashion that very well might be the result – which, for the record, would be a bad thing!

However, in an online world where attention is firstly more valued and more difficult to get, and secondly increasingly measurable it surely comes as no surprise that questions about how to maximise it arise from time to time.

Leaving aside the somewhat dramatic “RBI contemplates pay-for-performance pay for journalists” headline (which conjours up images of the company’s top brass locked in a room thrashing out time-and-motion plans for journalists – which, again, for the record did not happen, I assure you) there are clearly some audience-building activities which are more valuable than others in attention terms. Finding ways to maximise them is therefore a worthwhile goal.

But there are lots of subtleties: some audiences are smaller than others but may be more valuable; some types of customer are more prone to consume the web than others; some subjects respond better to SEO than others. And there may be altogether different reasons for wanting particular types of coverage to appear, other than naked traffic. For all these reasons, and many others, I doubt that pay-for-performance schemes will be seen in mainstream publishers for a very long time, if ever.

But characterising the debate about optimisation as an inevitable dumbing down does not further the argument much.

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3 thoughts on “Pay per performance

  1. What’s wrong with incentivising journalists in that way? It looks pretty similar to the way that Ad departments are motivated. I guess the devil is in the detail, and there’d need to be conversations around the idea. But you could see a bonus system based around this.

  2. I think many people throw their hands up in horror at the idea because they are still used to the economics of print where the publisher sets the issue size depending on their sales forecast, has a model that shows what the ratio of edit to ads should be for a given issue size, and from there it is easy to work out how much the pages of edit will cost to fill.

    Suppose a reasonable going rate for a decent-sized trade publication is £250 per thousand words; you can fill 40 pages of, for instance, a 100 page publications for a reasonable amount. The sums add up for the publisher and for the freelance.

    Now suppose you’re working in the online world on a site that has a yield of, say, £20 – that is for the month of May you reckon you’ll make about £20 for every thousand pages you deliver (you’re cpm may be higher of course, but in reality you’re unlikely to sell every single bunch of 1,000 pages).

    If you still pay £250 per thousand words then that one thousand word piece has to do 12,500 page impressions before you’ve even covered your freelance costs, let alone your overheads.

    So I think that even if a website doesn’t pay per performance, the editors have a clear duty to keep an eye on performance and to coach writers – who may be used to the relatively passive world of writing to print – in the art of writing copy that will attract traffic while upholding the standards of the brand.

    When ZDNet.com announced they would pay their network of bloggers according to performance there was uproar. That was a year or so ago now, and guess what? It works for the site, for the writers and for the audience.

    The crucial point is to understand what you’re selling your traffic for, and how much it costs to generate that traffic. Ignore it – and you may have piece of mind that you’re upholding a strong tradition of journalism, but you won’t stay in business very long.

  3. I agree, Matt. There seems to be a dodging of the issue of revenue. The one thing that keeps us content producers living.

    Coming back to Jim’s point, I think the whole discussion around dumbing down misses the point of what we do online and that is interact.

    Measuring on page impressions would be a measure of one type of interaction. Then there is engaging in blogs, micro-blogs, forums, video etc – and what about the filtering and pointing job of a digital journalist?

    The debate needs to be had because the role of the journalist is changing rapidly.

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