Why Reporters Need to Understand Analytics [VIDEO]

Apr 16, 2013

Knowledge is power. A cliche, yes, but it's something that many digital newsrooms forget about when it comes to studying analytics. Or maybe they're selectively ignoring the numbers. Is it because the audience might be too small? Or that story they invested huge resources in is only managing a few retweets and likes on Facebook?

When you know how your audience is arriving at your site (a Google search vs. a Facebook share), what they're doing on your site (streaming audio vs. reading news stories) and how much they're absorbing (reading one story and leaving vs. seeing several articles and commenting), you'll be able to make better decisions with your newsroom resources. Remember, knowledge is power. Editorial values matter most but data can help guide your decision making and help you focus on your audience and know what they're looking for.

Some Basic Terms to Understand (definitions from Wikipedia)

  • Unique Visitor: the number of distinct individuals requesting pages from the website during a given period, regardless of how often they visit.
  • Sessions or Visits: the number of times individuals request a page from your site. The first request counts as a visit. Subsequent requests from the same individual do not count as visits unless they occur after a specified timeout period (usually set at 30 minutes).
  • Page View: a view of a page on your site.
  • Bounce Rate: the percentage of visitors to a particular website who navigate away from the site after viewing only one page.

What we’re seeing

Over time, we’re seeing a gradual decline in the consumption of content through desktop computers and laptops. This is due, in large part, to the growth in mobile consumption of content, most often via mobile web (on a mobile browser) and also via apps on iOS or Android.

An example of one website's page views, hour by hour.
Credit NPR DS

  We also see a standard consumption curve with a peak in audience during middays and a smaller peak in the evenings. This presents some interesting challenges for workflow since our radio newsrooms are primed to meet morning or afternoon drive deadlines. So what about this audience that comes to our site at midday? How do we give them what we’re looking for? Stations have adjusted workflows to capitalize on this available audience - for instance, publishing stories to the web as they become available rather than holding them until they’ve aired on the radio.

In cases where we’ve done surveys (at NPR.org, for instance), we’ve discovered that the online audience has very little overlap with the on-air audience. Naturally, this result varies from station to station and site to site.

Where does our audience come from? Most visitors don’t come to our homepage: they click a link to a particular story or section of of our site as the result of search and social (Facebook and Twitter) sharing.

Where does most of the audience go? By a wide margin, they come to read and to share our stories. There’s significantly less traffic, on average, for other parts of the station site. Mobile users are even more likely to come to the site for stories.

Three Conclusions:

  • We spend too much time haggling over how our homepage looks, when, on average, around 60% of our audience never sees the homepage. At some stations, that number is much higher.
  • Stories are the fuel for growing audience. Stations that publish more stories per week tend to see more page views. Naturally, the stories need to be of high quality with good headlines and compelling content. Quantity alone is not the deciding factor.
  • Look at your metrics. Average numbers are interesting and can be helpful, but you want to understand how your audience is responding to your stories.

We use two high level questions to start the analytics conversation:

  • Are you growing your audience?
  • Is your audience engaged?

The first question can be measured by the number of unique visitors to your site. You can calculate engagement by looking at pageviews per visitor (not the more common pageviews per visit). With those two you'll know the basics.

Now, how do you calculate all of this? With Google Analytics and Chartbeat. Google Analytics gives you a baseline for your site. It's great for the long term. Chartbeat tells you what is happening right now.

Combine the two and you have a wealth of knowledge, which you can use to drive content decisions. What you'll find is that there's room for both heavy duty reporting on major topics as well as those fun pieces like slideshows of cute kittens. But be sure your newsroom is talking about the numbers and making decisions based on what works.

Use this webinar to create an analytics foundation for your newsroom. Don't be afraid. Analytics are like that aphorism on the truth. They will set you free.

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Highlights (based on video timestamp)

  • 4:00 Definitions of some of the terms used in digital audience measurement
  • 7:15 Key questions for quickly gauging the success of your service
  • 9:30 How Google Analytics and Chartbeat work and what they measure
  • 18:00 Understanding unique visitors
  • 21:40 Units of time matter for measuring (a week is a good unit of measure)
  • 23:40 Metrics that show engagement: pageviews per visitor, not pageviews per visit, and how to calculate it
  • 27:30 Three types of audience (search, direct and referral) and how each behaves on your site
  • 38:50 Strategies for growing audience based on specific goals
  • 47:30 Balancing the pursuit of audience numbers against the newsroom’s mission and goals
  • 52:00 Experiments that you can do to understand better how your audience behaves