In all the hoo-ha yesterday about online advertising taking a bigger slice of the ad pie than TV in the UK (yes it's a big deal in the sense that its the first major market for this to happen, but let's understand the context – the online figures are driven by the beast that is search advertising (aka Google) and incorporate many myriad forms of online marketing whereas the TV ad figures are just, well, TV advertising) the to-ing and fro-ing about whether TV was bigger than online completely missed the point. That this kind of comparison is largely irrelevant.
But it's a good example of our continued obsession with scale. It reminds me of the perennial headlines about which national newspaper website is biggest this week – yawn. Scale is everything in broadcast. Broadcast thinking assumptively groups large numbers of people together based on socio-demographics or 'likelihood' to behave in a certain way. A viewer is a viewer. An opportunity to see is an opportunity to see. The more you have of them the better it is.
But scale is far from everything online. Its very easy to generalise on the web. It's very big. There are a lot of people. Lots of websites. Lots of stuff. So lots of people do generalise. Broadcast thinking on the web chases the big numbers. A user is a user. An impression is an impression. A click through a click through. It groups things together for the sake of efficiency. Scale equals revenue because a page impression results in at least one ad impression which can be monetised, even if it is at ridiculously low cost per thousand rates. So we chase impressions and we chase eyeballs. And this is how we judge value.
If you want this kind of scale, it's not hard to get it. Let me give you an example. Hundreds of people visit this blog everyday (thanks for stopping by). Most of them come here because they seem to like what I do and want to read and interact (at least that's what it looks like from the stats). Some posts are more read than others. One of my most visited posts is one I that wrote about Chuck Close. Why? Not because of some insightful observation I've made on the merits of photo-realism . It's because it has a picture of Kate Moss on it (from Chuck Close's excellent Family and Others exhibition) that Google images has indexed. Much as it pains me to say it, people are arriving at that post because of Kate Moss, not because of me (admittedly she is slightly better looking than I am). So, if you want lots of that kind of traffic, stick a pic of Kate Moss up. Or write posts with lots of lists in them called 'Top 50 awesome ways with CSS'. Or something.
The point is, how valuable is that traffic? I mean, really? How many of the people who arrive on websites because they are searching for a specific piece of information, or image, are going to stick around? How many of them are going to come back again? The internet is a does medium, which means there is a wide range of interaction from passionate involvement to none at all. So the people who are of most value to any content owner are those who are most engaged in what you're doing (for me that means those that have stopped by because they are interested to read and comment on what I'm saying, or the many more people that have taken the trouble to subscribe to the feed).
It's the difference between creating a platform, and chasing eyeballs. It's delivering real value, and getting real value in return. And guess what? A user is not a user, they are a person.