In defense of impact points
5 min read

In defense of impact points

No metric is perfect, but people follow people.
In defense of impact points

A song to read by: "Be Sweet," by Japanese Breakfast

What I'm reading: "Carceral Capitalism," by Jackie Wang

Impact point impact

Yesterday afternoon, Daily Beast media reporter Maxwell Tani shared a leaked memo that the management at Insider had sent to their staff.

In the memo, Jim Edwards, the editor-in-chief of the news division of Insider, explained how the publication would be allotting what it calls “impact points,” a qualitative metric that some publications use to track whether a story made it in front of the right people, so to speak.

In the case of Insider, Edwards broke down who counts as a strategic mouthpiece and who does not: yes to major publications, TV appearances, and high-profile Reddit threads; no to local radio, local papers, and, famously, Tani himself.

His only crime? Tani’s 36,000 Twitter followers were too few to pass the threshold of relevancy for a publication like Insider, Edwards tweeted in response.

Understandably, the leaked document did the rounds on Twitter, producing a number of tasty dunks. The critiques are obvious and well-deserved: Why deprioritize shares from local publications? Why praise shares from popular social media accounts? Why even mention Yashar Ali at all?

These questions rattled through the garbage sink of the internet for a few hours, after which most of the journalists involved closed Twitter, returned to whatever word processor they were writing in, and began hammering out their next piece, in many cases probably eager to file copy so they could meet the quotas hanging over their heads.

And thus the irony emerges: Everyone knows that any metric, devoid of context, paints an incomplete picture. And yet, how else are we to measure performance?

Traffic was once king, forcing entire site architectures to bend their knee in fealty, slideshow click after slideshow click chasing the dragon. Sessions too, a kind of enlightened traffic, had their moment in the sun. Lately, subscription-conversions have become trendy, though their logic is far from airtight. And of course, who could forget the short-lived scroll depth?

Since the advent of the internet, when the performance of individual articles first became a trackable entity, data wonks have sought the El Dorado metric, the one numerical figure that could determine the “success” of an article. A couple of decades later, á la Edison, we have only found ten thousand ways that wouldn’t work.

But the impact point debacle touched a fresh nerve because it moves the debate into a new realm, shifting the focus from number of shares to nature of shares. Which is more valuable: 10,000 retweets from readers, or one share from Bernie Sanders?

Well, it depends on what your goal is.

Inside Insider

As many of you know, I worked for Insider for about eight months and genuinely enjoyed every moment of it. From the outset, they made it clear that they were tracking metrics; every publication I have ever worked for does this, in some form or fashion.

Editors encouraged reporters to share when they had been retweeted by a politician, invited to speak on a podcast, or had their article mentioned in a prominent newsletter. Nowadays, at Adweek, we have a Slack channel dedicated to that very purpose. It is nice!

You get to share when your peers have forwarded your work to their peers, which produces one of the more primordial kinds of serotonin kick: You feel that their action, in some small way, affirms your work.

Back when I worked at Insider, we noted impact points but did not track them with any fastidiousness. That might have changed, but nothing in Tani’s tweet suggests that it did. All the memo does is clarify what does and does not count as an impact point.

I can guess with some confidence that Insider has not reduced the scope of its performance analysis to a metric as fickle as impact points. I imagine the publication, like many, incorporates the data point into a larger equation to determine the relative “success” of a journalist. In this equation, impact points and subscriber conversions probably sit alongside less tangible variables, like the newsworthiness of their coverage and the rigor of their reporting.

I could be wrong: Someone leaked this to Tani for a reason, presumably because they disliked it or thought it was ludicrous. I did not reach out to any former Insider colleagues for comment, because that seems like far too messy a proposition for this little newsletter.

Nonetheless, impact points, as a metric, have just as many merits and demerits as any other individual metric. They are flawed, but when they are taken as part of a larger whole, their shortcomings are mitigated. The real question is: What do they reveal that other metrics don’t?

People follow people

Impact points wade into the murky depths of psychology and social networking, rather than the kiddie pool of data. They say that not all shares are equal, that a retweet from an influential thinker can be more valuable than a retweet from a popular athlete with the same number of followers.

And according to everything I learned about network effects and behavioral analysis in graduate school, they are generally right. My former Northwestern professor Rachel Davis Mersey, who now teaches at the University of Texas (a great combination, if I do say so myself!), led a class that explored why people read what they read and how it shapes and reflects their identities.

The course delved into the machinations that led people to choose certain publications over others, a critical piece of knowledge if you are in the business of trying to attract readers.

What her research found indicated that in the digital world, especially in one connected by social media, individuals take cultural cues from thought leaders they admire.

Cringe at the phrase “thought leaders” all you want, but consider how you get your information. Is it from a publication, or a journalist? What prompts you to watch a movie: Letterboxd, or your friend with great taste in film? When you shop for clothes, do you browse the website of a brand, or scroll the Instagram of a stylish influencer?

In the words of Ben Thompson, from a Clubhouse conversation in February, “People follow people.”

We increasingly make decisions about what to consume, how to dress, and what to think based on a handful of people to whom we have given that authority.

The world grows more granular every day, a premise upon which the entire creator economy concept rests. You subscribe to the thoughts, art, writing, culture, language, and dress of those whom you admire.

So, when that person retweets a story, it might move you to read it far more than when that same news blurb pops up on the radio. The Insider policy of tracking impact points takes its rationale from this train of thought.

If you want to scoff at it, please be my guest, but then consider why you’re reading this article in the first place. Is it because you trust me, or did someone you admire share this article? Perhaps you just found me trawling on the internet, in which case you can ignore this paragraph.

The point is: People make decisions based on the decisions that people they admire make.

Impact points reflect that we are social beings, motivated to read and share articles for reasons other than pure edification or enjoyment. Ignoring that reality is a misstep on the path to understanding why people read.

Resting an entire performance evaluation on a metric like impact points would be absurd, but incorporating them into the larger equation makes a lot of sense. After all, for all the advances made in the world of behavioral psychology, few have proven more durable than “monkey see, monkey do.”

Some good readin'

— I wrote about Ghost's rise for Adweek. A careful reader might find why I switched from Substack to the platform. (Adweek)

— Some poetry! (Tyrant Books)

— The saga of Tribune Publishing, which should fascinate me but unfortunately does not. Still, very important. (Wall Street Journal)

— The Texas blackouts were a crime, though the state will never do anything meaningful about it. (Texas Monthly)

— And finally, a fun one! There is still so much mystery in the world. (New Yorker)

Cover image: "Golconda," by René Magritte