Who cares if Buzzfeed has more social shares than the New York Times?

By David Holmes , written on January 19, 2015

From The News Desk

GigaOM's Mathew Ingram is on a bit of a campaign lately to convince the world that Buzzfeed is "beating" the New York Times -- which to some, is a little bit like saying Coke is beating UNICEF. Although both media outlets publish a great number of pieces of content both good and bad, they have very different business models. As Simon Owens recently pointed out on Medium, the revenue of the Times and Buzzfeed differ immensely both in scale and source.

Today, Ingram is at it again, publishing a chart of the average and median numbers of social shares per article for a variety of news organizations. Buzzfeed has an average of 7,950 shares per article, and if you discount the outliers, the median is 966. For the Times, those numbers are only 829 and 11, respectively. In Ingram's mind, that means the Times has a lot of catching up to do.

But by placing so much emphasis on social shares, Ingram misses a major point about how many media companies of the future will earn their revenue.

First off, it's important to reiterate Owens' points that the Times is a freemium product. After ten articles a month, visitors have to drop some actual cash to keep reading. Moreover, Owens quite rightly argues that one of the Times' 870,000 digital subscribers is a far more attractive target to advertisers than one of Buzzfeed's millions of monthly freeloaders. Times readers have enough disposable income to spend some of it on a premium version of a product (web content) they could otherwise get for free, albeit in an ostensibly lesser form.

But even if we disregard the benefit of having real paying customers, there are other reasons to doubt "social shares" as the end-all-be-all metric of the new web economy. Tony Haile, the CEO of Chartbeat, the analytics platform which is used by some of the biggest web publishers in the world (and Pando) to measure real-time traffic, made waves last year when he revealed, "We've found effectively no correlation between social shares and people actually reading." In other words, it's often a lot easier to convince somebody to share a story than it is to convince them to read it. Even if the reader does spend a few seconds on the page, that's barely enough time for the writer of the article to grab one's attention, let alone an advertiser that slaps their logo on the story.

Even when examining raw pageview numbers, there is not always a strong correlation between that metric and social shares. While many of our most-shared Pando stories are also our most-read, that's certainly not always the case.

Chartbeat also found -- unsurprisingly -- that visitors who arrive at a site via a social channel, as opposed to heading directly to a news organization's homepage, are "amongst the least likely to return to your site." That's not a great way to build trust and authority, and if readers don't trust the journalism on a website, they're even less likely to trust the brands that run ads or sponsored content on that site.

And finally, while there will be many hugely-profitable media companies built on the backs of pageviews and social shares, for other companies these are merely "vanity metrics." Twitter and Medium cofounder Ev Williams recently wrote a smart and frankly heartening post about how the importance and revenue-potential of many companies will depend on creating deep ties with smaller numbers of users. Williams cares less about Medium's pageviews than he does about a metric he calls TTR or "total time reading." And while sites like Buzzfeed can certainly make a lot of dough one loosely-engaged reader at a time, he believes that a site's true value lies in how much reader attention it attracts, whether it does so with a 100 million readers a month or 100,000.

That's not to say the New York Times isn't vulnerable. As the paper's leaked innovation report showed, the Times has many challenges to face if it wants to compete in the new media landscape. But let's not pretend that social shares is the only metric by which to judge its ability to face those challenges.

[illustration by Hallie Bateman]