Why “ticker packing” is a danger to business journalism
But we might start seeing it more in the hot new sales sector: Video. (Deep sigh).
“Ticker packing” is the practice of jamming as many stock symbols as you can into a story.
Why do that?
Well, stock symbols are what the major portals and platforms use to direct stories from content partners to specific stock quote pages. The idea is actually pretty reader friendly; if you are looking up Facebook stock on Yahoo, AOL or MSN, you probably want to see recent news stories about it, right?
The more stock symbols or tickers a story has, the more quote pages that story will go to. More pages = more eyeballs = more potential clicks.
So the business folks at many Web operations encourage the editorial folks to put as many tickers into a story as possible. Readability and relevancy be damned.
What’s it look like?
Sometimes it takes the form of an editorial stretch, like:
“Earnings at banks like J.P. Morgan (JPM) and Bank of America (BAC) would likely be affected by new Dodd-Frank regulations, the analyst added, while sipping at Coke (KO) at the podium during the speech.”
Sometimes these stretches are intended, either by a cowed editorial department or a short-sighted click hungry writer. In other instances they are accidental, perhaps the work of an over-enthusiastic junior staff member with an under-developed sense of journalistic nuance.
Then there’s templating tricks — routinely inserting a table or box containing popular stock tickers into all articles and features, regardless of whether those stocks are discussed or not.
Why’d it stop?
Most portals and major business sites over the last few years, realizing that their stock quote pages were being flooded with irrelevant junk, established some safeguards. Now distribution programs often will disregard tables or only read and act upon the first five stock symbols in a story, for example.
Other times the human editorial aggregators at the portals will do spot checks and make a phone call if a partner is getting out of line (kind makes you wonder about that “partner” definition, no?).
As a result you’re seeing less ticker packing these days. Sure, if you cruise through major portals and check out some of the more popular tickers, you can find occasional examples. But the heyday seems past.
So why worry about video?
If you haven’t noticed, everybody wants to get into the Internet video business. The ad rates and resulting returns are better. Business news Web sites are no exception.
So we’re getting more business news videos (bubble, anyone?). And that will increase competition and pressure for eyeballs, particularly when you consider the production costs that need to be covered.
More eyeballs come from more distribution. In business news, the ticker is a handy way to distribute.
Why won’t existing safeguards work?
Often the technology used to tickerize and distribute videos is different from that used to handle text stories, so ticker packing tactics may not be detected by current programs.
Human spot checks? Harder to do. It’s takes more time and effort to watch and vet a video than it does to simply scan headlines on a quote page.
Also, the sales math is different.
Text story ad rates are typically well below a $5 cpm (how much it costs to show an ad 1,000 times). Video ad rates, especially in the business news sector, often command rates above a $30 cpm. So you need less eyeballs to make a buck. You don’t need to pack to the point of getting thousands of eyeballs. You just need to pack enough to get a thousand or two. So a five ticker limit isn’t all that limiting (at least at today’s ad rates).
That means a video doesn’t need to be on dozens of pages. Just a few quote pages, particularly if they are widely held stocks, should do the trick, from a business standpoint.
But for the viewer, clicking on a video that has nothing to do with the stock in question is a bad experience, regardless of whether it was distributed on 20 quote pages or just five.
Will it get fixed?
Problems tend to get fixed once they get out of hand, be it the real world or the Internet. Just how long that takes depends on how crazy it gets.
But time is becoming a precious commodity on the Internet. (Indeed some Internet movers and shakers, like Chartbeat’s Tony Haile, think it will become THE metric for dividing good content practices from bad ).
If that’s the case, reader reaction to time-wasting practices should be noticeable and measurable.
Of course, it would help to recognize that baiting readers into clicking on headlines or watching videos that aren’t on point doesn’t help brand reputation in the first place. But while the Internet business is smart, it’s rarely wise. Ticker packing makes that case.
Allen Wastler is former managing editor of CNBC.com and former managing editor of CNNMoney.com