How The Atlantic, Mic.com & Quartz Use Engagement Metrics to Drive Editorial Growth Strategies, Part 1
The later is an exploration of an extraordinary piece of journalism by The Atlantic (What ISIS Really Wants) and the measurable interest it garnered from readers over the course of time. It’s a worthy read that reveals interesting insight about how certain types of content inhabit the world, how that content is discovered and shared, and how those dynamics ebb and flow over time.
To give a bit of context on what it means to be a “most read” article in a given year, the top 20 most engaged articles from 2015 accounted for a total of 685,231,333 engaged minutes and are a mix of content types, from long-form content to live coverage to personal accounts. A few examples are the Rolling Stone published essay penned by Scott Weiland’s widow after his passing, live coverage of the Paris attacks, and of course, The Atlantic's aforementioned ISIS article.
At the American Magazine Media Conference last week, Chartbeat presented a session on How to Put Audience Attention Data to Work, which featured James Bennet, editor-in-chief and president at The Atlantic, as well as editorial leads from Mic.com and Quartz.
The panelists pulled back the curtain on some of their top articles and revealed how they’re using engagement metrics to drive growth and editorial strategies.
(Next week we’ll dig further into what can be learned from articles like The Atlantic’s What ISIS Really Wants).
Mic Let’s the Data Help Craft the Story
Millennial news site Mic.com has 16 million unique monthly visitors and a higher concentration of 18- to 34-year-olds BuzzFeed and Vice. Relying very heavily on the distributed content model, Mic wants to reach all 40 million millennials.
When asked by moderator and Chartbeat's Adam Clarkson how Mic measures audience growth goals, Mic VP of growth Adam Jaffe responded with a formula: reach x trust = impact
To measure impact, Mic looks at time-spent and scroll depth. But Mic is also always trying to measure how satisfied its audience with its content, so it explicitly asks readers at the bottom of articles to rate their impact with a “Was this article worth your time?” meter.
Jaffe also said that when Mic puts attention metrics to work, editorial behavior and distribution strategy change. Take for example, the Mic article, “They Killin' Us Off": This Is What the People of Flint Have to Say to the World.
Looking at the metrics in real time, Mic observed that the click-through-rate and engagement rate were 15 times the normal. “On day two, we noticed the click-through was very low,” said Jaffe, which can be common with “like activists” (or social media activism.)
Feeling compelled that the attention was there, Mic looked for a new way to tell the story. Taking a more image-based route, Mic put statements by Flint residents over images and put those on Tumblr to much greater effect.
Quartz Unifies Editorial & Growth
Quartz has an audience growth team that is composed of editorial people and sits right next to its coders. Thomas McBee, Quartz’s editor and director of growth, said Quartz is begins a story by considering what will resonate with its audience. But it also aims to find the broadest audience possible, reach people that didn’t know they were interested in a given topic, and inspire conversations and other reporters to write on the topic.
Asked whether there a tradeoff between editorial and reach, McBee said that the goals of editorial and growth are the same – and the proximity supports this unified mission. For example, their goal is to do a great business story that has broad reach but doesn’t sacrifice editorial integrity.
Read More: "The Death of The Pageview"
The Atlantic Earns Loyalty
James Bennet, editor in chief and president at The Atlantic, says that the temptation is always to think in terms of unique visitors, but that his team pays attention to a series of metrics that indicate scale, engagement, and loyalty.
Of course, reaching as many people as possible and converting them to loyal readers is still a driving goal. Bennet said the ISIS story was the perfect example of a piece that reaches a wide audience and converts new audience. The metrics indicate that people engaged with the ISIS article and returned to visit the site to continue their engagement with The Atlantic brand. And The Atlantic saw significant subscriptions sales from that engagement, “which is what we want,” said Bennet.
Bennet said that some people coming to The Atlantic through an article like the ISIS piece might not even know The Atlantic has a magazine. To grow loyal audience, they’re hitting new visitors with old-fashioned subscription ads and newsletter signups. (All three panelist attested to the value of newsletters: Mic uses Facebook Instant Articles to convert on newsletters and McBee said The Quartz Daily Brief is often the first places many people interact with brand and boasts one of the highest open rates in the industry.)
Like many publishers, The Atlantic has come to see each article as a homepage, where visitors come through the door and then stick around to explore. “At the atomic level, each one of these pieces needs to be a brand ambassador for The Atlantic,” said Bennet.
The Atlantic also makes game-time decisions based on real time metrics. As the editors see a piece start to go viral, The Atlantic staff will share it in each other’s feeds to give it a boost. They’ll also sit down and plan ways to make it even bigger. For example, Bennet said regrettably there was no video when the piece launched. “We very quickly cut one and put it in the top of the story.”
(If I recall correctly, I think I was led to the ISIS article when I saw that video in my Facebook feed.)
Denis Wilson was previously content director for Target Marketing, Publishing Executive, and Book Business, as well as the FUSE Media and BRAND United summits. In this role, he analyzed and reported on the fundamental changes affecting the media and marketing industries and aimed to serve content-driven businesses with practical and strategic insight. As a writer, Denis’ work has been published by Fast Company, Rolling Stone, Fortune, and The New York Times.