Do You Need Big Traffic Numbers to Verify Your Worth as a Writer?

“I think the days of dropping content on people and considering our job done are ending.” — Fellow Freelance Writer

Not too long ago, I had an interesting conversation with a fellow freelance writer on Skype. She was trying to recruit a writer for a major web site, and asked if anyone in that particular Skype chat possessed journalism experience.

I raised my virtual hand. After all, I've written for print newspapers and magazines, and I've done reporting for a number of web sites. Oh, yeah, and I have my master's degree in journalism from Syracuse University, which is consistently ranked as a top journalism school. Sometimes it's even ranked above Columbia and Northwestern, depending on the year and the criteria.

Now, I don't normally get all high and mighty about this sort of thing, but as part of my effort to continue to better market myself as a freelance writer (and because I'm constantly told I don't talk myself up enough), I emphasized the hell out of my professional background. Because if you're looking for journalism training, I've got that.

What this publication wanted was someone with a journo background plus blogging experience. I've been blogging for the better part of a decade and I have the “right” background. I thought I was a shoo-in, especially since the other writer bemoaned the lack of “qualified” people. She asked for a sample, so I posted the link to one of my better (I think) reported pieces. It included controversy, more than one side, and primary sources.

This was the gist of her reply: “[name of publication redacted] isn't going to be impressed by a low number of Facebook likes.”

Turns out this publication, while asking for quality journalism, also wants someone who can consistently drive 50,000 views to a piece, and who knows what “sells.” And this, it turns out, is the main qualification. (Edit: I was reminded that the requirement wasn't 50,000 pageviews to a piece, but rather per month, over four to twelve pieces. But that's still quite a few pageviews. And, while my clients probably get that from my pieces combined, I can't point to it for a single site.)

This is not the forum I use to go off the state of journalism in this country, or the way that most of our “news” media is little more than infotainment. However, I will say that I was disappointed that pageviews and social media likes were the main concerns of this venerable online publication.

Blog Traffic

Driving Traffic and the Search for Viral

I didn't fight for the position too hard after that. Yes, I've had a few pieces of mine go viral. However, it's not a consistent thing for me, mainly because I provide content to so many sites. I can't really point to one site and say, “Look what I've done to drive traffic and build up this site.” I'm prolific, but in a solid, you-can-count-on-me-to-provide-content-of-reasonable-quality sort of way.

People don't pay me to drive traffic to their sites; I'm not a community manager or a social media consultant. They pay me to provide them with authoritative, usually accurate content. Many of them pay me quite well to do this (for those of you who like to measure worth by money).

But, increasingly, everyone's looking for virality. This publication isn't alone, and the writer for this publication isn't a lightweight by any stretch. She's solid. But that's increasingly less important to many publications. Upworthy and Buzzworthy are changing everything about the Internet, and the Way We Do Things when it comes to content creation and marketing. As a result, I might have to think about changing the way I do things. Apparently, if you don't write a viral hit every single time, you must suck as a writer.

Do I need to spend more time promoting the content I write? So far, I've not really had to deal with that. As I point out in [easyazon_link asin=”149361116X” locale=”US” new_window=”default” nofollow=”default” tag=”marquit-20″ add_to_cart=”default” cloaking=”default” localization=”default” popups=”default”]my book[/easyazon_link], I make it clear that I am not a social media consultant. I'll share the content when it's published, but I don't go much beyond that.

However, another of this writer's comments, stating that the days of just providing content without doing anything else are coming to an end, hit me. Is my worth as a writer really going to be determined by the traffic my pieces drive to a site? Is the worth of a writer no longer going to be quality and accuracy? Is it all about clickbait now?

While you don't have to be perfect all the time to be professional (we all make mistakes, no matter how many times we proofread something), and I try to make allowances, there are times I'm underwhelmed — and even downright disgusted — by the writing that receives a bunch of pageviews. A lot of the time, the traffic comes because someone wrote a clicky headline and then promoted heavily, and not because the article is well-written or even reasonably well-researched. Sometimes it's practically incoherent and verging on downright wrong.

But, hey, it got a bunch of traffic, so it must be good.

If this is the new way to judge a writer's worth, I really am screwed. If my writing is worth nothing unless an article sees 50,000 pageviews, my days really are numbered. Because most of what I write is (I think) useful and relevant. And I often present it in a straightforward, non-hyperbolic manner. Which is probably boring (as Facts often are).

What do you think? Is traffic the main measure of worth these days? Or is there still a place for solid reporting and informational writing?

0 thoughts on “Do You Need Big Traffic Numbers to Verify Your Worth as a Writer?”

  1. I witnessed this conversation. Like you, I was stunned at the criteria used to filter you out of the running for that opportunity.

    The publication seeking talent is not like those you’ve mentioned above. Their audience is mature and not likely to be lingering on social media platforms waiting for a juicy story to flow by in their Twitter stream.

    You’re absolutely right about the “clicky” headline. What you don’t say is that such headlines often lead to articles that barely, if at all, relate to the title of that story.

    If the reality presented that day about what qualifies a writer is factual, it seems that the short-attention-span society has become more interested in fluff than substance.

    1. Miranda Marquit

      Well, it was definitely something of a “wake up call” to me. I’ve never, before this, been asked about whether or not my content has gone viral. Most of my current clients approached me after reading something I’d written for another site. They’ve read something, somewhere, and want to know if I’ll write for them. But if I have to start applying for writing jobs based on my virality in the future, I might be in trouble.

  2. This is the digital age Miranda, where electrons matter more than smiles.

    Personally I think that anyone who IS impressed by a number of Facebook likes should reconsider their life.

    1. Miranda Marquit

      I think that social media engagement has it’s place, but it’s not really an indicator of quality writing. And it is kind of disturbing that it’s becoming so important.

  3. Something else that might come into play here is who you’re writing for.

    If you do an epic post on a smaller blog, it’s going to be difficult for that post to get 50,000 views… even back when I’ve seen your posts make the front page of Digg.

    When you’ve written articles for Lifehacker or Yahoo Finance they probably had over 50,000 views due to the active readership, not really because of anything you did after it was published.

    It’s almost like looking for a job… you can’t get the job without experience, you can’t get experience without the job. So it’s probably easier to say you need 50k when you’re already at the site getting 50,000 views per post.

    1. Miranda Marquit

      That’s a good point! When my stuff appears on “bigger” sites that are known for viral content, it’s almost automatic. I feel good about those situations, too, because the content was picked up for its merit, and then it became exposed to more eyeballs. I didn’t have to spend time and energy trying to fluff it up or spending all that time trying to promote it. Although I guess I could spend more time promoting. 🙂

  4. Great post! This is something I’m struggling with as a new freelancer. I don’t have a journalism degree or have tons of journalism experience yet I know for a fact I write far better than some writers that have a large following, get lots of shares, and likes.

    I read somewhere (I really wish I could remember the source) that people are no longer looking to buy quality articles. They’re buying the person who rights the – their brand, likes, and audience.

    1. Miranda Marquit

      That’s starting to become a real issue. People want to buy a following, rather than content. While there are plenty of good writers with good followings, in some cases, it’s more about “viral” content and clicky headlines than it is substance. Which is too bad.

      1. It’s absolutely an issue. Especially when you’re an editor with a limited budget like I have been in the past – you need to get the most bang for your buck, and with page views still being the holy grail of measurement for many sites, you’re going to look to people who will write stuff that gets read and who have a following already. Look at all the big ‘personality’ journalists who now have their own spinoff outlets.

        1. Miranda Marquit

          That’s a really good point. When you’ve got declining numbers, you want to bring on some who can drive the traffic (and the revenue!). Looks like it’s time to rethink my business model. *sigh*

  5. I wouldn’t sweat it, Miranda… you already know, I’m sure, that you’re a great writer. I know the pub. and their metric is skewed by the fact that with their circulation, they could probably attract 50K page views to a classified ad. It’s their loss!

    I tried to apply, too, but I didn’t have enough niche-specific work in my portfolio.

  6. I’m torn on this issue myself.

    “I don’t know the key to success, but the key to failure is trying to please everybody.” — Bill Cosby

    I’ve had useless/fun posts go viral and hit huge traffic. Then I’ll put together something I’m really proud of to only find out that it had the least amount of views possible.

    And what’s going viral even considered? Having a bunch of folks come to your site once, laugh, and the never return again?

    What about building up a solid audience up over time. Is that not valuable at all?

    1. Miranda Marquit

      I guess the idea is to build up an audience that routinely shares your stuff. But, even though I think engagement is important, to a certain extent I also think that if you spend all your time trying to craft something that panders, you lose…something. I don’t know. It’s a tough thing to put your heart and soul into something only to be told the worth in it is eyeballs.

  7. If virality could be predicted, which implies it can be learned, then publishers and movie studios would never have flops.

    Having a larger platform obviously leads to more hits but that doesn’t mean the article was any good.

    I think writers are better off digging deep and saying something meaningful so they can influence the few rather than trying to go viral. True fans will stick around because you have earned their trust. The masses just move on to the next spectacle.

    I thought this Seth Godin post was also relevant.

    http://sethgodin.typepad.com/seths_blog/2014/06/more-people-saying-less-and-a-few-people-saying-more.html

    1. Miranda Marquit

      That’s a great point, David! Also, thanks for sharing that post from Seth Godin! I guess I need to really dig deep and think about what I care about, and how I want my business model to look in the future.

  8. “…I’m underwhelmed — and even downright disgusted — by the writing that receives a bunch of pageviews.” Oh.My.Gosh.Yes! And, when I see a blogger promoting their latest ebook on “How to quadruple your pageviews” but, yet, they can’t string together a sentence without typos I want to scream. I don’t claim to be the greatest writer but if pageviews are validation for being a good one, then I too am screwed!

    1. Miranda Marquit

      Yeah, it’s hard to compete with clickbait, and with all the people making money showing people how to make money. Sometimes, you just have to plow through and do your best to show what quality is really about.

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