What analytics metrics really matter?
Pew’s 2016 State of the Media report notes that a lack of good digital metics makes it difficult for publishers to always have a firm understanding about their constantly evolving digital audience.
As someone who spends a fair amount of time looking at Google Analytics, Facebook Insights and MailChimp A/B testing results, as well as eagerly awaiting the day Snapchat releases some sort of engagement tracking ability, I can wholeheartedly say that figuring out who wants to read what, where they want to read it and how long it takes them before they get bored and move onto the next thing is not for the weak of heart.
I reached out to some great digital minds from across GateHouse Media publications to get a sense for the major metrics they look at when trying to judge the impact of a digital story.
Social media clicks
Mobile technology and the growth of social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter continue to have a significant impact on the way digital content is consumed by readers.
Personally, I am one of those people who will email myself stories to read that I’ve found while on my phone, though I fully realize I am probably in the minority there. With constantly shifting algorithms, Facebook Insights show how sometimes even getting the average user to see links is a challenge in and of itself, and asking someone to actually click on said links can be an even bigger ask.
While there are numerous things that seem to help content published to social media get seen by users, the next question is perhaps what sort of content are people even interested in reading at all?
“Breaking news and ‘hot topics’ typically perform best on mobile,” Sherry Jones of StarNews in Wilmington, North Carolina said in an email. “We also see quite a bit of interest in photo galleries from mobile.”
Peoria Journal Star’s Adam Gerik admits that social media and mobile clicks are inextricably linked. “Anything we publish on our Facebook page garners better numbers from mobile – whether it’s breaking news or soft features. But the old adage stays true, whether desktop or mobile: ‘when it bleeds, it leads.’”
Pageviews vs. Time on Page
For Jones, pageviews are her newsroom’s main focus, because it’s what most of her content goals are based on, mainly due to pageviews being a major focus of advertising.
“That said, I think time spent is a more valuable metric,” she says. “What we’re struggling with is how to move the needle on a consistent basis in that area.”
Cape Cod Times’ Anne Brennan has seen a huge different between her site’s mobile and desktop traffic, especially when looking at time on page and bounce rates.
Though more serious content, like the Times’ ongoing “Lost to Addiction” series about drugs in the cape, had much higher pageviews on mobile devices than on desktop, those numbers don’t tell the whole story.“Taking a deeper look at the analytics shows a bounce rate of 49 percent for mobile users and 1.6 percent bounce rate for desktop users,” Brennan said. “In addition, average time on story for desktop users was 2:40 versus 1:40 for mobile users.”
She has found the same to be true of lighter content like a viral post about a local stir caused by a sand sculpture of a mermaid, though the bounce rate was even higher on mobile devices when compared to desktop.
“Bottomline, while our content is driving a lot of mobile traffic we have work to do to increase engagement among these readers,” Brennan said. “If readers are landing on your site – or a story – and leaving rather than clicking on another story, then strategize a way to increase engagement.”
Effective analytic interpretation
Jones admitted that knowing exactly what analytics to look at is still a bit of a challenge.
“My best advice is to have one person who’s constantly watching the needle,” Jones said. “I can see Parse.ly on the big screen from my office. I’m always watching the chart. If I see a spike, I dig deeper to see what caused it. I’m also checking Google Analytics at least once an hour (because Parse.ly doesn’t show photo gallery traffic the same way). It’s hard to quantify what I’ve learned, but experience has given me a pretty good idea of what will work and what won’t.”
Brennan finds that tracking metrics over time helped her see longer terms content trends.
“Year-over-year and month-over-month comparisons can help spot trends – both good and bad – so adjustments can be made,” Brennan said. “We started back in 2008 tracking page views and unique visitors. Over time we added desktop and mobile numbers, social media referrals, pages viewed and bounce rate.
“Parse.ly is an effective tool for real-time metrics. If a story isn’t getting the expected traffic, you can spot that quickly and adjust the headline or tweak the lead. If a story is doing well then we look at what elements we can add to further increase engagement or what related stories we can report.
“I use Google Analytics to get a longer view of what stories and storytelling tools did well, and to see if there are trends emerging.”
Analytics in action: Increasing engagement
You have clicks and views, but now what? What can you do to keep people interested once they’re through the door?
“We start with: ‘What’s the best way to tell the story?’” Brennan said.
The Cape Cod Times experiments a lot with different sorts of embeds based on what type of story is being told.
“Is it visual? Then we plan video, photos or an interactive with visual components, such as Digital Tools’ Story Map. When the local maritime college got a new training ship we created a virtual tour that included a graphic of the ship and embedded short videos of different parts of the ship graphic. This interactive had a lot of engagement that continued over a long period of time. It’s no secret that videos under one and a half minutes do best, but make the most of those 90 seconds. Use video to tell a different part of the story. We try hard not to duplicate the information in a story and accompanying video as a means of increasing engagement.”
Sometimes creating embeddable elements can take a it of work on the front end, but the increased reader engagement and time on site can be totally worth the effort.
So now what?
While there might not be a magic analytics metric that will tell you everything you need to know about your digital content, experimentation with your content and using your analytics can reveal quite a bit about your individual audiences.
What works well in Cape Cod might not work for your own content, but taking a dive into your metrics and sticking with tracking them can reveal a great bit over time. Figuring out one piece of the puzzle to the best of your ability can make finding the next piece a little easier.
Finally, Gerik’s advice to digital publishers is that “they should be paying attention to story subject above all else. If you’re creating content that people want, the rest becomes easy (and maybe even fun).”