By Kevin Davis, MIP Senior Fellow
Big Data and metrics are changing the way businesses of all types operate in a digital environment. From automotive (think Uber and Waze), to retail (think Amazon and Gilt) to content (think Netflix and Facebook) to advertising (think Google) big data is changing the way today’s most successful businesses and industries operate.
While data has changed the way news organizations are producing and packaging content (think data journalism and data applications), the business of journalism has not been as fast to adopt and adapt to a world where every consumer action and decision point can be tracked, measured and analyzed.
The reasons for this have been stubbornly persistent even within news organizations that grasp the concept; that see metrics and measurement as an opportunity to improve their products and services, and which have committed resources to the effort.
This was a key takeaway from three intrepid and determined news leaders from independent publishers from around the globe after participating in “Measuring Digital Media Impact 101,” a media metrics training course conducted by the USC Annenberg Norman Lear Center Media Impact Project on the USC campus in early June 2016.
The Open Society Foundation’s Program on Independent Journalism sponsored participants from three nonprofit news organizations: El Faro (El Salvador), Efecto Cocuyo (Venezuela), and Himal Southasian (Nepal). The course was led by Dana Chinn, MIP director. Three other media metrics analysts – Jason Alcorn, Justice Haque and Alana Victor – also helped with hands-on training in both English and Spanish.
The program provided an intense if not practical crash-course on leveraging ubiquitous measurement tools to help newsrooms answer the most persistent questions in newsrooms today:
Who is reading our content? What are they doing on our platforms? Where are they coming from and where are they going? What content is and what is not working? How do we translate these findings into action that increases our effectiveness, revenue and impact?
The course syllabus stated the objectives of the program this way: “After completing this course, participants will know how to prepare, interpret and present basic and customized reports from Google Analytics for their staff, board members and funders.”
Participants were told that as a result of attending the seminar that they would learn how to:
Working from early in the morning to late in the evening for an intense two days, each participant was taken through a rigorous agenda that started with asking the right questions and ended with how to share answers.
One of the first lessons learned is that most of the metrics that people cite today are actually not very good and don’t actually say much about what’s really going on. Hits, page views, and even aggregate demographic information were each knocked off their perches as go to data-points. Instead, analysis of things like bounce rate, primary traffic sources and user segments were all shown to provide a far more nuanced picture with greater potential actionable effect.
At the end of the two days, each exhausted yet enthusiastic participant hopped a plane back to their respective organizations to take back what they had learned and, hopefully, apply it in meaningful ways.
It was my responsibility to find out just how effective the program was in helping these smaller, mission-driven news organizations become more responsive and therefore more effective in their business.
Within a few days of returning back to their homes, we first asked the participants to complete an online survey. What we heard back was not that surprising. While the participants rated the program, the staff and the curriculum very highly, it was clear that each participant would have liked more time to absorb and practice what they had just learned. While the generosity of the Open Society Foundation made this program possible, the agreed-upon budget for the program dictated the time and level of effort – particularly post-seminar - that the Media Impact Project staff were able to provide.
Not surprisingly, when asked what else we could provide to each of these newly minted practitioners when they returned home, the answer was almost unanimously that they needed more support and follow-up. It is one thing to perform a task when you have a one-on-one dedicated resource in the classroom helping with every step. What each participant reported was that it was much more difficult to reproduce the functions and do the work when they were back home on their own.
Two months following the seminar in Los Angeles, we conducted Skype interviews with each participant one-on-one. Those conversations yielded even greater insights into the reality of putting these lessons to work.
“The management team of El Faro are trying to figure it out without having the benefit of being there [in Los Angeles],” said seminar attendee, Ivonne Veciana. “The El Faro team do have some hypothesis; but they want the answer to all of their questions in Google Analytics.”
This reflects a common perception that there are hard and fast answers to these important, but complicated questions. The answer, it turns out, is rarely a yes or no or fixed response, but more often “It depends.” The “on what” is what these organizations have to figure out.
Upon returning to El Salvador, Ms. Veciana had a hard time meeting the expectations of her management team who agreed for her to participate and who are anxious to learn more about their business.
“The hypotheses of the management team required additional context, including qualitative data, not just metrics,” said Ms. Veciana. In the real world, it wasn’t as simple as identify a business problem, design your questions, form a hypothesis, test and measure it, draw conclusions, act on them and repeat.
That is not to say that she was unable to provide any insights or value. Ivonne has become, in effect, the “data whisperer.” In order to provide more context to the data she is providing her team, she has created an index of external site data, particularly of distribution partners, in order to provide more insight into the reach and impact of their journalism.
Laura Weffer, co-founder and editorial director of Efecto Cocuyo, had a similar experience back in Caracas. “Before, my interpretation of the data was much more intuitive,” said Ms. Weffer. “Since being in the Los Angeles training I now have a greater understanding of what to look for and how to get it.”
Another lesson learned is that metrics, measurement and interpretation require constant commitment. Said Ms. Weffer: “I work with deadlines and work best when I have a deadline to manage to.” As a result she has instituted a weekly report and meeting where she reviews the data of the prior week and communicates her findings to her staff on a regular basis.
Metrics, it turns out, are not just about gaining a better understanding of what’s happening on the site, but also how the technology is performing. Armed with her new knowledge and understanding of how Google Analytics can be used to, Ms. Weffer uncovered a data point that was alarming.
“All of a sudden, we were seeing abnormally high bounce rates one day on the website” she said.
After writing to professor Dana Chinn for further help - a common behavior for all the participants - it was discovered that the analytics tags were incorrectly deployed on the site leading to an abnormal and inaccurate reading. “Before, I would not have been able to figure out what was wrong. Now we were able to troubleshoot and fix the problem in a very short period of time.”
Unfortunately, problems with technology platforms and the ability to come up with a solution and get it fixed was a limiting factor elsewhere as well. Smita Mitra, desk editor at long-form publisher Himal Southasian, ran into multiple technical issues that negatively impacted the benefits of deploying a rigorous analytical regime. “Unfortunately, the benefits of the program have been delayed until we can address the larger issues of our underlying technology platform,” said Ms. Mitra.
What is apparent from each of these participants experience is that this type of training and competence in both deploying and analyzing performance data can be invaluable for these organizations. With this type of training, newsrooms of all sizes can deploy and utilize these tools to gain a far greater understanding of how their product and services are actually being used.
What is also apparent is that most of these efforts will fall short or even fail when newly trained practitioners are not provided with sufficient ongoing technical and analytical support when they are back in the real world.
Given the high expectations going in, and the lack of understanding coming out from management both on the editorial and business side, it appears that more can and should be done to bring the other members of the leadership team up to speed and bought-in to the program.
While all three participants suggested having an additional online resource to refer to when back in the “wild,” it appears that relying on one individual within an organization (no matter what the size) produces less than optimal results and does not promote cultural change.
Instead of flying out a single individual to participate in a training program away from the organization, this analysis leads me to believe that a more effective means would be to teach and train publishers where they are.
As previous programs by the Media Impact Project have demonstrated, the ability to go into a publisher and train both business and editorial leadership on metrics integration not only helps set expectations, but also helps solidify a culture of evaluation that can lead to real action within an organization.
By introducing and maintaining an experimental methodology into a news culture, we can help independent and mainstream publishers alike establish a metrics regime that can lead to meaningful and actionable answers.
Author’s note: Himal Southasian has since suspended publication.
By Jessica Clark, MIP Senior Fellow
Producing a high-impact media project can be a befuddling prospect. What starts as a germ of an idea—“I’ll make a film about X to solve Y!”—quickly snowballs into a social media campaign to reach Z, an app to accomplish A and B, and so on. And then there are all those outcomes to track for each platform. How are you supposed to keep this all in your head?
Don’t fret—instead pick up our newly minted Media Engagement Strategy Deck:
The deck was developed by our MIP Senior Fellow Jessica Clark. She set out to understand how makers and funders can best assess media projects on emerging platforms. She quickly realized that part of the problem was a gap in shared language around impact models and outcomes, and began to develop a symbol font to begin to fill in that gap.
The font in turn morphed into this deck, designed for producers, funders and developers of media projects that aim to have a public interest outcome.
How does it work?
The deck is divided into multiple parts—a Core Deck focused on the question “How do you engage your audience?” and Expansion Packs designed to help users dig further into content strategy or work directly with audience members to prototype projects.
Different “suits” are organized by color. In the core deck you’ll find suits that answer these questions:
In addition the Core Deck contains Connectors (peach) which will help you to build and edit strategies or impact stories, and Key Concepts (aqua) to consider as you go.
The Connectors allow the deck to work a bit like an equation—you can begin with the factors that you already know (either your desired outcome or your starting platform) and then build an impact story from left to right.
Or, if you’re using multiple platforms with discrete outcomes, you can stack or stagger strategies. The cards are meant to be flexible to reflect the many different creative approaches that media makers are taking.
The cards can be used in multiple settings: by individual makers and funders for planning or assessment; by a team to articulate and debate next steps; in a conference or classroom to prototype different media projects. While we’ve done our best to think through common platforms, outcomes and social tools, we’ve also included a few blank cards for you to customize for your own needs.
Using the Expansion Packs
Each of the expansion packs is available separately, or you can order the full deck to get all four:
Learn more and order your own cards today!
By Anjanette Delgado and Rob Gates
Gannett recently honored nine of its newsrooms for devising creative audience strategies that led to growth.
The winning newsrooms — ranging in size from small town to metropolitan and tackling topics from the county fair to the Kentucky Derby — all had one thing in common: They studied metrics before planning coverage.
Most gave new thought to time-worn beats, while some launched entirely new projects.
We asked the journalists behind those strategies to explain their ideas, share what they learned about audience and revisit their biggest challenges. (Full disclosure: Rob and Anjanette are audience analysts at Gannett, and Rob provided the foundation for the winning Derby strategy in Louisville, Ky.)
Here are the Smart Growth Award winners:
THE COURIER-JOURNAL, LOUISVILLE, Ky.
Looking back to move ahead
Since 1875, The Courier-Journal had hardly changed the way it covers the Kentucky Derby. Sure, over time the staff added some digital elements (photo galleries, especially), but the heart of their coverage remained feature stories on horses, owners, jockeys and more. “Nothing makes a newsroom analyst cringe more than the notion that we have covered the same event the same way for the past 140 years,” audience analyst Rob Gates said. “We knew we could grow the digital Derby audience. We just had to figure out how.” The answer was sitting right there in the newsroom’s historic data: Above all else, the digital audience was interested in betting information.
What they learned about the audience: Their thirst for betting information was unquenchable. More than two dozen videos of experts picking horses multiplied video traffic on race day by 10 times.
Results: In some subject areas, year-over-year traffic (page views and visits) more than tripled. And because they cross-linked feature stories to that wagering information, traffic to those was also higher than in previous years.
Biggest challenge: Anticipated challenges were actually larger than the challenges themselves. “We were concerned that reporters who had been covering Derby the ‘old way’ would not be too receptive of this new strategy, but we found them more willing. This no doubt played a role in our success.”
DETROIT FREE PRESS
Make something popular just that much better
Inside the newsroom at freep.com last year, Ashley Woods and Elissa Robinson noticed a surprising trend in their metrics — advice columns they had been thinking about as mostly a print feature were getting significant traffic from search.
So Robinson, a web editor, and Woods, the consumer experience director, turned their attention to optimizing the columns, replacing writers’ mug shots with stock photography to make them more visual, crafting better headlines and linking to additional advice content. They branded their site with an advice tab, promoted the columns on social media and created a video to raise awareness. They created polls to increase reader engagement.
“The advice columns submission is a winning entry in big part because of its simplicity,” the judges said.
What they learned about the audience: Mothers older than 30 are the ones searching for these columns. They’re opinionated, engaged and increasingly loyal. Social media doesn’t drive much of the audience yet, but Woods said she believes sharing these pieces will eventually build awareness of her site as a source for advice — increasing direct traffic to freep.com in the long run. “Search isn’t a long-term strategy we can rely on,” she said. “So what more can we do to improve our browsing audience awareness of this section?”
Results: Optimizing the advice columns initially doubled their page view traffic, and adding the advice tab pushed the site to the first page of Google search results. Creating branded videos for these columns powered the site’s increase in video views.
Biggest challenge: Finding ways to make their loyal, local readers return for advice.
THE DES MOINES (Iowa) REGISTER
A template take state fairs to the digital audience
State fairs have been a summer staple in Iowa long before anyone had ever heard of a computer, let alone the internet. In 2015, the Register took a whole new approach to coverage of the Iowa State Fair that led to a huge increase in audience. Some of the tactics they used:
Consumer Experience Director Nathan Groepper and Storytelling Coach Lisa Rossi led coverage instead of the features editor because they wanted to pursue a true digital-first approach. “Almost all of the new efforts started with the mobile audience as the primary target,” Groepper said. He used Adobe Analytics data from the previous year to help determine what events to cover and what topics might need more resources. Page views grew by 91 percent despite the staff writing fewer stories than the year before because they avoided writing the types of stories people hadn’t read.
What they learned about the audience: The year-over-year traffic increase, especially on mobile, demonstrated that the audience is willing to engage with State Fair content that was presented in a new way that was outside of the traditional features stories and photo galleries.
Results: Social media traffic to fair coverage increased by more than 500 percent. Munson, the columnist, doubled his state fair audience.
RENO (Nev.) GAZETTE-JOURNAL
Pay attention to voice
Reno devised a newsletter strategy for a younger audience. The key? Humor and consistency. The Reno Memo, which has published three times a week for a year now, features humorous commentary on local news that’s designed to be mobile-friendly and conversational — like your friend explaining a story over beers at a bar. Before launching, they took the time to understand both the medium (email) and audience through focus groups and interviews. They realized they were missing audience by thinking their mobile site or text alerts were reaching them; email could fill that gap.
What they learned about the audience: Voice matters. Assume nothing about your audience. “Snark is easy, but a curated, smart voice to cut through the clutter of news with authority is a bit tougher,” said Executive Editor Kelly Scott. “That’s also the sweet sport for our audience.” Most of Reno’s newsletter readers are new customers. "Overwhelmingly positive” feedback suggested that they had hit a nerve among their target demographic.
Results: Key metrics include the newsletter’s open rate (holding steady at 41 percent), click-thru rate (13 percent) and subscriber count.
Biggest challenges: Ensuring consistent subscriber growth and developing a social strategy around the newsletter. “If the newsletter is the product, then what should our social strategy be?” Scott asked. “At first we tried to drive sign ups and minimize social. Then we tried to use social to create buzz. In the end, we’ve decided to use social as a voice — and that seems to be the most organic use in-line with driving sign ups.”
ARGUS LEADER, SIOUX FALLS, S.D.
Tap into a new community
Jodi Schwan, who is both audience analyst and Sioux Falls Business Journal editor, launched "Sioux Falls Made" in late 2014 around the emerging maker movement.
The idea was to broaden Argus Leader Media’s audience for business coverage and make it more accessible to younger readers and women.
The new brand includes frequent coverage of makers in the Sioux Falls Business Journal, the Argus Leader and related digital products. It includes everything from farmers’ market vendors to artists, crafters, chefs and tech entrepreneurs.
Sioux Falls Made has its own presence on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Pinterest. A semi-annual pop-up market of locally made items began in a converted garage in December 2014 with vendors grossing $10,000. When the December 2015 market was announced, the response on Facebook was so overwhelming (more than 7,000 people said they planned to attend) that Sioux Falls Made worked with one of its corporate sponsors to move the event downtown. The market featured work from more than 50 local makers and grossed more than $50,000.
What they learned about the audience: “It is an extremely engaged audience that is eager to share content and interact, both in person and digitally,” Schwan said. “Our most engaged demographic on the Sioux Falls Made Facebook page is females ages 25 to 34 so we feel we hit our target.” We also noticed the Sioux Falls Business Journal audience skewing younger and more female, which suggests that Sioux Falls Made is serving as a gateway to other business content.
Results: The metrics showed clear audience growth. Page views on business coverage in 2015 grew by 79 percent on desktop and 320 percent on mobile. Reach on the December Facebook event was 438,000 (the Sioux Falls metro area population is 250,000). Overall business content ended 2015 with 7 million page views with Schwan as the only full-time content producer.
Biggest challenge: Finding time to fit the brand launch and market project into the workflow.
ST. CLOUD (Minn.) TIMES
Draw on expertise in the room
This Minnesota newsroom applied both analytics and additional reporting time to solve the problem of its flagging entertainment section, Up Next. “Readers and advertisers were losing interest,” said Sue Halena, content coach.
They restructured, turning a part-time beat of 16 hours into a full-time beat. Kate Kompas, the entertainment reporter, enlisted her colleagues to help cover subtopics in which they had interest or expertise — food, tech, drink, music, movies, anime, pop culture. They experimented, measured the results (metrics: Twitter and Facebook followers, page views, time spent, unique visitors, return visits) and then experimented again.
What they learned about the audience: “They want to know what they can do with free time,” Halena said. “They want ‘true gossip,’ such as little details about venues or performers or restaurants. They want variety.” Strong response to a social media post, though, didn’t necessarily mean those readers would become regulars.
Results: Kompas grew her own page views by 84 percent in a single quarter. Page views for one of those niche entertainment columns are 10 times higher now than before the change. The main Up Next Twitter account doubled its followers in a year, and social media accounts associated with that brand (movies, etc.) grew by 13-16 percent in a quarter.
Biggest challenge: “Consistency of content” from those drafted to support Kompas, Halena said. “Some columns are scuttled when staffers are forced to focus on higher priorities tied to their beat.”
THE DAILY ADVERTISER, LAFAYETTE La.
Give ‘em a month of football
Preseason coverage of high school football used to be an annual print tabloid at the end of August in Lafayette, but moving the coverage online and spreading it out throughout the month made it more immediate, engaging and financially successful.
“While I still love the concept of the football tab from an anticipation and football-nerd readership aspect, it always bugged me that we’d worked so hard for that one big bang at the end of August and had so little actual high school football coverage each day throughout August,” said Kevin Foote, sports engagement editor.
This extended online coverage, reflected in print each day, focused on a single school. “We didn’t run a huge story on it, but instead broke each team’s prospects down into 3-4 categories that were a lot more readable.”
The staff also used its archives to reinforce its authority, publishing shots from football picture days 10, 15, 20 or even 30 years ago “to remind everybody exactly how far back we go in covering high school sports in our area,” Foote said.
What they learned about the audience: While some readers are “still stuck in the old ways of doing things,” more of them said they enjoyed not having to wait for the end of the month and getting more information on their school.
Results: More page views. “We always struggled with how to present the football tab online,” Foote said.
Biggest challenge: Being ready with a new school every day.
YORK (Pa.) DAILY RECORD
Take advantage of your archives
Coverage of an annual event can become rote, but this Pennsylvania newsroom used analytics to retool its York Fair strategy and focus on quality, not quantity. “I was really focused on not doing the status quo,” said Kate Harmon, then the paper’s dayside metro editor.
She and Joel Shannon, the innovation editor, studied the data to prove a theory — that stories about hot-dog races and tractor pulls, those daily features that pulled a rotating schedule of reporters away from their beats, weren’t getting read but more in-depth fair stories were. They were right. “For years, our coverage had been extensive, routine and low-impact,” Shannon said. “Once we recognized this, we had a strong desire to use data to update our approach — to give our readers more of what they did want and less of what they didn’t.” Harmon focused a single reporter on two or three larger stories and let photographers handle the rest for a fresh approach that paid off.
What they learned about the audience: Fair readers valued news and information they can use. They wanted stories with emotion, stories that surprised. Anything other than that wasn’t worth the investment, Shannon said. Readers who seemed to value “fair news for the sake of fair news” were actually nostalgic and loved the historic photo galleries the newsroom produced instead.
Results: The number of page views per story improved. “We cut the number of bylines in half and doubled the number of page views,” Shannon said. “We worked less and got more results by only writing stories we knew our audience wanted to read.”
Biggest challenge: Planning. “This could never have happened if we didn’t conduct the analysis and work to assemble the galleries weeks in advance,” Shannon said. That, though, is key to York winning the company’s Smart Growth award. “Analyzing audience metrics takes time that some newsrooms, large and small, sometimes feel they can’t afford,” the judges said. Clearly, though, that time can pay off. “I've always tried to look at work and life that way,” said Harmon, who now works in nonprofit marketing. “Not everything needs to be done better, or can be done better. But I really believe that you have to stop and take a look at how and why you're doing things often. The world and people are always changing and we have to adapt to keep up.”
THE NEWS STAR, MONROE, La.
Reporter finds that politics is social
Greg Hilburn, Gannett’s Louisiana political reporter based at the News Star in Monroe, expanded his reach by sharing stories to social media pages of topical interest. “In a story I did about the warming relationship between the United States and Cuba and the possible benefits to future trade – Louisiana rice, Cuban cigars, etc. – I shared the link at least 15 times on Facebook, from the Louisiana Farm Bureau to national and state rice industry groups to cigar lovers,” Hilburn said. “It drove thousands of readers to our website, where we try to keep them there with other related links. I’ve had similar success with many other stories.”
What they learned about the audience: “There is a great demand for our work, but we can no longer expect the audience to find us,” Hillburn said. “We have to find the audience in the platform they frequent, then coax them to spend more time with us. “
Results: Hillburn said he was surprised by the effectiveness of such a simple strategy. “Success is measured not just by the additional people who read the story I’m promoting, but the amount of time I can engage them in our site once attracting them there,” he said.
Biggest challenge: Taking the time to find the social audiences to target. “I might spend a few hours reporting and writing the story and an almost equal amount of time (sharing) it,” Hillburn said.