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The Argument Against Accountability

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The Argument Against Accountability I've been working with several magazine publishers who want to move their titles to the iPad and—eventually—the entire tablet market.

It's a completely rational decision, one I agree with for most of them, and a shift that—made intelligently—can bring magazines to a whole new level of depth, interactivity and community participation.

Where I get stuck is in their almost unanimous determination to utilize every possible information-gathering tool to churn the metrics on everything they're doing. Adobe's Digital Publishing Suite, to name just one example, includes “Omniture analytics for digital magazines” (thanks in part, no doubt, to the analytic company Adobe purchased last year for US$1.8 billion).

What do tools such as this Omniture do? They help publishers trace how readers move through their magazines, where they click, how long they stay on a page, whether one kind of article is more likely to promote clicking on an ad than another and so on. Numbers.

On one hand, such information is really useful for publishers as they develop their magazines. How do people actually read this stuff? Front-to-back? Back-to-front? Skipping all around? Do they use the table of contents or search features? Since we know so little about the way people navigate digital spaces, any data we can get on what works and what doesn't is valuable.

But I've never seen metrics used to help people and ideas—only as excuses to pay them less or shut them down. We use our newly acquired digital skills not to free our innovators and creative-types, but to prove that they are ineffective. It's an immature and shortsighted tendency that doesn't even make financial sense in the long run. And this hurts everyone, from writers like me to event professionals like you. Even the smarter bean counters should be alarmed.

I first ran into the faux accountability trap in the early 1990s, when I began a new column for a fledgling website about the Net, published by a Net company. Determined to make use of every tool they had at their disposal, they decided to make all decisions about their content by looking at the “hit counts” for each page. If you dipped down below a few thousand page views for more than one month, you were cut.

I made it three months before getting the axe. Only later, did the publisher realize my pieces were being forwarded to thousands of people and getting read (advertisements and all) by 10 times more people than they thought. Worse, Time magazine printed an article mentioning my column—the week after the website let me go (oops!). And no, I did not agree to go back when they changed their minds.

Likewise, the publishing industry, which used to be about writers, lunchtime martinis and making magic, has grown increasingly dependent on metrics. The combination of corporatization and digitization has surrendered that magic process to market-based calculus. Now, the advance an author gets is calculated with the help of Nielsen's “Bookscan” cumulative sales estimates and Barnes and Noble's sales algorithms of “sell-in” figures and inventory liquidity. How a book industry professional feels about an author or a work is trumped by what the computer says about her track record or the supposed success of “similar” titles.

For you in the meeting business, it's precisely the same. The number of people who show up at your conference may be entirely less important than who they are, what they do and how much they share about it later. The number of full-paying participants might matter less than the unmeasured and perhaps immeasurable impact that a conference has on the sponsor's public image. The amount that participants actually learn at a conference may not even be captured on the best surveys, or realized by participants until weeks or months later. That's when they sign up for next year's event and begin to tell others.

Misused numbers kill life. It's really that simple. They destroy the mystery we all use, at least occasionally, to sell our products, overcome temporary challenges and help our customers and clients past their misgivings. An executive's judgment means less at a certain point than the fact that the TV pilot he's unsure about was written by the creator of The Sopranos. A sponsor may not really “get” the purpose of a particular conference, but may be swayed by enthusiasm of an organizer for the community she serves.

So, the cold metrics of digital information gathering may not really tell the story. Sure, it shows how much short-term money you made, but it says almost nothing about long-term investment and return.

In a sense, capitalism itself is dependent on mystery. We live in an economy that runs just as much on faith as it does on hard numbers. Banking and stock market failures usually come at the moment when people start to think about exactly what it is they own. My cash is being devalued? This company actually earns just one-fiftieth of its share price? One-thousandth?

What gets us all to the other side of the transaction is our faith in growth, our belief in the ineffable value of what we're doing or getting, and—yes—the mystery and excitement of being content not to know. There are metrics we just don't record: the number of new job applicants that show up unexpectedly, the number of times people tell their colleagues about you or quote something they heard at your conference (whether or not they did it through Twitter).

I am all for transparency and accountability in business dealings. But when that honesty is limited by the language of metrics, we end up using our tools to kill our jobs, our industries and our abilities to fake it until the real results of our activities become apparent. One+
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