What We Learned by Studying How Publishers Use Analytics
Journalists used to learn about news distribution by taking a tour of the newspaper printing plant or broadcast studio. Now, learning about distribution amounts to learning how people find information on the internet. And the only way to do that is through analytics.
Online distribution means that each reader has a unique experience with every story, article, or other piece of web content. Social media has also provided each reader a voice that demands attention.
Analytics show how each reader found a story, and what they did once they found it. Analytics can power decisions about the distribution of the next story -- a more malleable option than changing a manufacturing plant. In a world where everything from story assignment to site design needs to change moment-by-moment, analytics can guide the choices editorial teams need to make.
But analytics is one word that encompasses many tasks. They aid decisions that range from the wording of a specific tweet to the revenue strategy for an entire company. Taking a tour of your analytics data can therefore seem overwhelming: a dizzying amount of customization options, complicated Excel exports, often confusing charts and terminology.
It's important that data analytics serve as an insightful aid, rather than an overwhelming labyrinth of information.
Analytics on the Analytics Users
My company, Parse.ly, provides an analytics platform to many of the web's top media companies. My co-founder and I, interested in the web's ability to analyze words and content unlike anything available in print, designed an analytics product that focused on usability.
Our goal is to organize and understand the complex data that media companies are being inundated with. We do this by joining audience data with content metadata. "What's content metadata?" you may ask. In laymen's terms: the title, the author's name, the CMS tagged keywords, the section it's in, the publication date, and more. Much like reporters using the vernacular that the audience understands, we've found that users like seeing data in the language that they understand.
All this is to say that we've made analytics about the information people at these companies care about and want to see. But, we wondered: What are they most interested in seeing? Out of all the ways to look at the information we're offering, what's actually worth their time?
We took a look at a selection of our monthly users, approximately 3,500 employees of media organizations, from larger general news sites like The Telegraph and Fox News, to magazines like The New Yorker and Parents.com, to B2B sites like IEEE Spectrum, Investors.com, and even digital upstarts like Cheezburger.com and Upworthy.
Here are the highlights: On average, users were logging in 70 times a month, or around 2-3 times a day. Each time they logged in, they spent about 10 minutes and looked at 3-5 different pages.
When we dug into the individual user roles, that's where things got really interesting.
Writers & Reporters
Writers and reporters spend the majority of their time, around 60% of their log-ins, looking at an individual author's data or an individual story's data. Presumably, this is their own data. In this case, egotism works well: Being able to understand the readers of their stories can help to craft individual strategies matching those audiences. In terms of absolute engagement, writers and reporters far outweigh every other role. This supports the widespread narrative in the industry that individual journalists are becoming increasingly involved with the distribution and discovery of their own digital work.
Editors (Managing Editor, Editor, Executive Editor)
Editors spend more time than any other group on our real-time screens. They can see which stories are getting more traction with readers as it happens, and they can keep an eye out for anything unexpected. Most people assume this is just to watch for viral surges, but many of our clients tell us they watch for lower-than-expected traffic to know when they should pull in extra resources, like additional social media posts or tweaking a new headline that just went live. Editors also have the most broad usage, spreading their time much more evenly among the various drill-down screens in our dashboard. They move between detailed and aggregate views of data to try to understand the ebb and flow of the site's overall traffic.
Editors-in-chief follow the trends of the other editors, but they stand out for being most interested in understanding the performance of all the contributing authors over time. We learned from speaking to these editors that many of them use analytics as a conversation starter in their newsrooms. During daily editorial staff meetings or retrospectives, analytics will aid the conversations about what worked and what didn't.
Social Media & Audience Development
Social media managers and audience development roles easily outrank everyone when it comes to looking at our "big board" screen. They are using traffic source (referral) data to understand where traffic comes from, and why. They are analyzing viral spikes and monitoring the stories that are grabbing attention right now.
We also looked at business-focused units: ad operations, sales, and audience and business development roles. While they also spent a decent amount of time on real-time screens, they were the most likely to look at the audience for individual tags, possibly an indication of strategy planning, sales tactics, or reporting for native advertising. We found that these teams used analytics the least frequently, tending to pull up data only for specific strategic projects that come along.
Those on the revenue driving side of publishers' efforts want to see more than where people come from -- they also want to know what kinds of actions they're taking once on the site. Maximizing the conversion rates of subscription sign-ups, event registrations, or app downloads is important, but has to be tied into the broader picture: What got the audience to get that point in the first place. We're in the early stages of examining these conversion details in the context of the content -- and looking forward to sharing it once it's complete.
Web Developers and Data Analysts
You may have thought, as I did when we started to look into this, that people with titles of analysts or web developer would have the highest usage. It wasn't the case.
Though we interact frequently with product or analyst teams to get Parse.ly set up at their companies, many of them pull data directly from our API or send themselves reports in Excel format. In speaking to analysts, we quickly learned why their usage is lower than expected: they're focused on more nuanced analyses of the data. They don't pull "top ten lists" or "daily/weekly roundups" anymore; instead, they go into the dashboard periodically to export the data they need, and then they work with premium analyst tools (Excel, Tableau, even programming languages like Python!) to mine the data for further insights.
Technology is not just about a personalized experience for site visitors. It can also lead to personalized decision-making at media companies, guided by data. The creative staff behind the strategy, stories and assignments can see what matters most, and act accordingly. After years of being kept in the dark about this kind of information, what will these teams do with it?
That's a story that's yet to be written. As more companies adopt analytics broadly, and make sure that everyone has access to the information they need, no doubt we'll start to see more examples of this. Early results? Many of our clients tell us about how their editorial teams have a better understanding of online operations, from product development, to site design, to monetization.
That's what we hope the future of analytics brings to journalists and publishers everywhere: a clearer understanding of the internet as a distribution machine, and a better understanding of how to be successful with data in this new world.
Sachin Kamdar is the CEO and co-founder of Parse.ly, an analytics platform that provides audience insight for publishers.
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