The End of Attention Metrics

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March 10, 2020
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The End of Attention Metrics

The attention economy, which spawned listicles and tweet roundups, isn’t as easily measured as previously thought.

Key Insight

The attention economy, which spawned listicles and tweet roundups, isn’t as easily measured as previously thought.

Why It Matters

Measuring how consumers allocate their attention depends on how you count—and who is counting.


Researchers estimate that more than half of web traffic is fake. Fraudulent traffic is generated by bots that can fake clicks and by click farms in which a single user can interact across scores of devices simultaneously. Nevertheless, vast portions of the digital economy are built around quantifying how users consume media online.

One week after the film “The Irishman” was made available for streaming, Netflix (who had purchased the rights to the production) reported that 26.4 million households had watched the 3.5 hour-long feature to at least 70 percent completion. Independent measurement firm Nielsen calculated that the film drew half that audience (13.2 million viewers) in the first five days it was posted. The vastly different numbers can shape whether we think the film was a success, how we perceive Netflix’s future strategy and more.

Beyond different ways of counting, there’s also outright fraud online. Schemes to manipulate metrics follow the money: MadHive, a digital TV advertising company, estimates that 20% of video ad requests are fake, which accounted for nearly $1.4 billion wasted in 2019. That growth comes as digital advertising budgets are shifting to video to match the growth in ad-supported streaming options. This is a serious problem for both publishers that rely on ad revenue and for advertisers that need to satisfy client metrics.

Facebook reached a tentative $40 million settlement with advertisers in 2019 over a miscalculation of video metrics in 2016. A federal judge in California should approve the settlement this year, and an unrelated suit—over allegedly inflated “potential reach” estimates—will move forward, keeping the issue top-of-mind for publishers and advertisers.

What’s Next

Newsrooms have relied on real-time analytics platforms for years. Chartbeat blinks and nags every editor’s station. Broadcasters depend on Nielsen ratings. But if so much internet traffic is fake, why bother with analytics platforms that measure everything rather than only what’s verifiably real?

Watch for sharper, more discerning real-time analytics platforms, as well as more home-grown engagement metrics that reflect how people value content.

The Impact

As mainstream browsers increasingly block third-party tracking cookies by default, it will be harder to connect individuals to their actions across the web. Digital marketers and advertisers must find new ways to quantify the impact of their work—and to ensure that their partners trust their metrics.


Amazon Connect, Chartbeat, Financial Times, Google Analytics, Interactive Advertising Bureau, streaming platforms.