BuzzFeed stands out among both traditional and new media entities for its obsession with data related to the content it produces and how (and where) stories and videos are shared. But it’s about more than just raw data for BuzzFeed. It’s about focusing on the specific data that matters—and that is changing.
In a recent blog post about the company’s approach, publisher Dao Nguyen talked about how BuzzFeed thinks about its publishing model in the age of “distributed content.” Close to 75% of the company’s content never actually appears on its website but is created for and consumed on networks such as Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest.
One of the biggest challenges in online publishing, Nguyen says, is the continual process of re-evaluating what criteria the company should be looking at in order to gauge its effectiveness in reaching an audience, a process that BuzzFeed calls “re-anchoring.” In effect, it’s an almost scientific approach of checking to see whether the thing being measured is actually the thing that is most important.
Re-anchoring is a process where we identify the ways we’ve historically done things (our anchors) and question their relevance. (BuzzFeed Motion Pictures President Ze Frank taught me about this.) Re-anchoring is hard for “successful” companies because the way you’ve done things is how you became successful in the first place.
Like many other publishers, BuzzFeed used to look at unique visitors as an indication of how well it was doing, Nguyen says. But that number—which is around the 80 million mark for the United States, and almost 200 million or so worldwide—has become less and less relevant as the company has moved to a platform-agnostic approach.
Peretti: We want to make media for the way the world is today
Now, the BuzzFeed publisher says, the company is thinking about other metrics that come closer to measuring what media companies and advertisers call “engagement,” which theoretically matches up with actual interest on the part of an audience. For a video, it might be time spent, for other content it might be sharing, and in some cases, it might be whether a user signs up for an email newsletter or downloads an app.
Nguyen isn’t the only one thinking about trying to move away from measurements of raw traffic like unique visitors and find something that tracks engagement. Chartbeat CEO Tony Haile, whose company provides analytics for many large and small publishers, has been pushing for metrics that focus on “time spent” for some time. So have other media brands such as Upworthy and even the Financial Times, which has tried to get advertisers to change the metrics they focus on.
In effect, what Nguyen is saying is that there is no single “silver bullet” measurement of engagement or usefulness that publishers like BuzzFeed can use. The right thing to pay attention to depends on what the goal of the content is, where it appears, whether it’s a video or a photo or a news article, and how the network or platform it is on functions.
Sign up for Data Sheet, Fortune’s technology newsletter.
In the old days, publishers mostly just had to worry about the number of subscribers or readers, and the latter number was exceedingly fuzzy. Now, media entities like BuzzFeed have to track dozens of different metrics across a vast universe of content and platforms. For example, the company has more than 90 separate Facebook pages, and its presence on the social network generates a large chunk of the five billion video views it gets.
It’s not a stretch to say that continual re-invention and adaptation don’t exactly come easily to many traditional media companies. Some only recently got accustomed to thinking about traffic to their website as something worth monitoring and figured out unique visitors were worth more than just raw pageviews. Now BuzzFeed is saying they must rethink all of that and come up with new metrics.
It’s true that BuzzFeed is out on the far end of the spectrum when it comes to embracing the new distributed, platform-agnostic approach to media. So things may not be quite as complicated for many publishers—at least, not yet anyway. But the way Nguyen thinks about content and how it is found, what purpose it serves and why it gets shared, is worth considering for almost any media company that wants to survive the current upheaval.