When newspaper publishers began launching news websites 15 years ago, there was all sorts of talk about the potential for this new medium to offer at least one unprecedented boon to advertisers.
This, some said, would become the most measurable and accountable medium known to humanity. It was to become a palace built on a foundation of exact science, where every engagement and every action was, by definition, recorded and available for analysis.
And who better to guarantee an important part of this exact science than the Audit Bureau of Circulations, the arbiter of one of the industry's most important offline trading currencies? It could surely provide the online equivalent of circulation figures.
It was never going to be as tidy as that. The ABCe system was set up in 1996 and almost right from the off, the major newspaper publishers were squabbling. Some didn't have their figures audited at all; or didn't always publish the figures even if they did.
And, alarmingly, they played fast and loose with the definition of the system's central currency, the "unique user", and chopped and changed their measurement software systems. User figures for individual titles lurched madly up and down from report to report - to the frustration of those who had simplistic expectations of the ABCe.
They wanted an unambiguous league table like the one provided by the offline ABC, something that would show who had the biggest electronic dick in town; and something that could indicate whose stars were rising and whose falling.
Digital aficionados have always argued that this misses the point. The digital operations of publishing groups may have whole families of domain names, for instance. And they may want to focus on very different measures. Some might want to highlight visits by subscribers, some will major on page impressions rather than visits, some will have a bias towards mobile traffic.
The industry's joint industry committee recognises all of these metrics. And the ABCe has never been in a position to be proscriptive. It's not the manager of a panel survey like the National Readership Survey. All it does is audit and validate the research metrics provided by its members.
Which, of course, it continues to do. And all of the major newspaper groups continue to subscribe, despite what people might think from reading recent headlines about publishers supposedly defecting from the ABCe system. It's just that the Financial Times and News International, while continuing as ABCe members, have decided to stop publishing conventional unique user data.
1. Last week, the FT launched its own independent metric, Average Daily Global Audience. Audited by PricewaterhouseCoopers, it measures the number of people globally who, on an average day, read FT journalism across print and/or online. It melds unique user browser data with figures from syndicated national and regional readership surveys.
The measure will, according to Anita Hague, the global research director at the FT, reflect the paper's unique footprint. She states: "If offers clients and their agencies a new way to better understand and quantify our audience as a multiplatform environment."
2. In April, News International announced it was to withhold publication of ABCe-validated figures for the foreseeable future. The Times and The Sunday Times have introduced a pay-wall, a move that will impact significantly on user figures. It clearly wants to diminish the opportunities for rivals to highlight this discontinuity. A statement read: "News International continues to subscribe to and support ABCe and is working with ABCe to help evolve metrics related to engagement as the business models evolve."
3. The ABCe's remit is to "manage standards for the online industry ... and to promote credibility, comparability and transparency for digital media". All ABCe data is prepared to standards agreed by the Joint Industry Committee for Web Standards, which is comprised of members from the Association of Online Publishers, ISBA, Interactive Advertising Bureau, IPA and Newspaper Publishers Association.
4. ABCe's most significant recent innovation earlier this year was a change in terminology - it now refers to "unique browsers" rather than "unique users". And it is promoting a shift in emphasis towards daily rather than monthly figures.
WHAT IT MEANS FOR ...
- Some advertisers and their agencies worry about the long-term credibility of ABCe - and suspect that it's all too easy for publishers to pull the wool over its eyes. In the best of all possible worlds, they'd love it to provide clarity, simplicity and standardisation.
- Equally, though, they can see why some publishers feel they have to go their own way and introduce quirky and individually tailored measures. They're happy with that situation as long as such measures are robust and independently audited. Many believe that the ABCe can continue to be the ultimate auditing guarantor, even in an ever-fragmenting research landscape.
- Denise Turner, the head of insight and effectiveness at MPG Media Contacts, says she's supportive of the Financial Times' ADGA initiative, for instance. She adds: "Something like 70 per cent of its traffic is non-UK, so like-for-like comparisons with other UK-based titles aren't entirely relevant. I think you can say its motives are pure and anything that helps us with an integrated onand offline viewpoint is welcome."
- The ABCe argues that diversity actually augurs well for the future, not just for the online publishing sector but for the ABCe too. The industry just has to learn to think in less monolithic terms.
- As Richard Foan, the managing director of ABCe, puts it: "New business models, such as those from the Financial Times and News International, are a feature of digital media evolution and innovation. The fact that both the FT and NI - and 300 others - continue to subscribe to ABCe, to ensure that industry-agreed metrics continue to evolve in line with their needs, should be applauded."