Five big digital analytics mistakes

For many working in digital news outside of the top-tier enterprises, analyzing metrics is a do-it-yourself project. This is a brief primer — admittedly not an in-depth tutorial — on five pitfalls:
analytics provider logos1. Focusing on the greatest hit. The tallest bar on a bar chart may be a valuable clue for a marketer who wants to know which product is hot. But what do news publishers learn by seeing their coverage of a celebrity death was off the charts? Of course everyone was interested, but it’s not like you   can replicate the story by ordering up another Michael Jackson death. If you recognize that the biggest hit is an outlier, you’ll either need to ignore it or mine it deeper: Does the geographic origin or referral source of this wave of drive-by traffic provide clues to your potential audience that your regular coverage is not capturing? If you did some follow-up stories to the big hit, which ones worked and which segments of the original audience came back for more?
2. Automating display. Tools that use real-time metrics to automate display can be tempting for a short-staffed website. What could go wrong if the most popular items are automatically given the most prominence? This is a recipe for more traffic, more revenue, and horrifying unintended consequences. A silly item could climb to the top of the homepage because readers are linking to it on Facebook in a discussion about whether it is offensive or inaccurate. Have you ever laughed at how Facebook decided your news feed or ad interests, or how YouTube’s “Recommended channel for you” missed the mark? Every data-driven formula works differently, but assuming you wield a lot less data than Facebook or YouTube, you’re bound to get some brand-tarnishing displays.
3. False equivalency. To create a user-friendly dashboard, some analytics providers rank content by number of clicks or video streams as though each content item is competing against all the others of that same type on the site. In fact, all the content on your site is competing with everything on the internet that is a click or two away. A story that typically would draw a relatively small base audience may be important to the site’s mission and its retention of loyal return visitors or growth of paid subscriptions. It’s important to understand what’s working in those stories to avoid wasting time and money on low-margin content. In other words, it doesn’t matter if the story about the puppy being saved beat the story about the dumbest cat ever for first place, but let’s find out why there is suddenly a town council story in the Top 25 if that never happens.
4. Misunderstanding engagement. Once you have gotten some insight from a particular metric or set of metrics, it’s tempting to give it too much weight going forward. Imagine that your community of readers has somehow gotten into the habit of sharing all your stories about the town council — because of its heroic action to save puppies earlier this year. That issue is over, and few are reading the stories now but they persist in sharing, burnishing their civic-minded, puppy-loving image among friends. That sounds far-fetched but a well-publicized Chartbeat study of 2 billion pageviews on 2,000 sites found that a majority of clicks don’t result in significant reading time, and those sharing stories on social media are not more likely to have read through them than the non-sharers.
5. Tuning out completely. Perhaps your digital metrics seem obvious or suspicious. They may be baffling because of coding errors on your site or interference from the bots that infest the web. You can easily find someone to tell you that the system you are using is useless or even inadequate — they will sell you a better one. But it would be a mistake to ignore or write off whatever data you have. The ability to have real-time audience measurement and quantification of readership and viewership is too valuable to give up.

Disabling comments

Disabling comments – a debate that cuts to the core of online news

I was in the office of the editor of a mid-sized daily newspaper several years ago when he confided in me about a new, frustrating task that was eating away at his time and morale. His website, a corporate-designed template, allowed anyone to comment anonymously. His staff had to moderate – or more accurately censor – this stream of communal wisdom and invective. This involved executive-level judgment calls often enough that the editor took the task mostly upon himself.

It was like a second job – in a newsroom where everyone who still had a job already had at least two jobs.

Fast-forward to the present. The editor left journalism after watching his newsroom undergo layoffs, consolidation, regionalization etc. The newspaper still moderates comments, but requires all commenters to log on with valid Facebook accounts, outsourcing the policing of its no-pseudonym policy to a 200 billion-dollar technology company. This hack was at best an interim solution for the newspaper industry that grew out of backlash against anonymous posting described in this 2010 New York Times story. Facebook is sophisticated at blocking spam and deleting offensive posts, but readers of a community newspaper may be understandably offended that their ability to join a local forum requires membership in and submission to the rules of a global technological behemoth.

Perennially, some news organization disables comments somewhere, setting off a trend-watch: Maybe comments are not just in the toilet but are about to be flushed down forever. One reason the debate over whether to enable comments keeps coming up is that it encompasses the essence of online news, the interactive culture that made “new media” new.

Think about what interactivity means in digital news, and you can’t get away from the requirement for audience participation. Digital news prophets such as Jeff Jarvis and Jay Rosen, noting that any barriers to publishing are gone for the average person, have promoted the “former audience” concept. All those people who no longer tune in to the evening news at an appointed hour, subscribe to newspapers, frequent a newsstand or even bookmark a homepage make up a formidable former audience that have to be targeted with – new buzzword – engagement strategies.

Disabling comments is the opposite of an engagement strategy since it can simply drive those with something to say to another platform. Some publishers are OK with that, as explained when it surrendered its social media discussions to Facebook and Twitter:

“The passionate discussions we see on our Facebook page — as well as the conversations our audience is having with our writers on Twitter — are more productive and organized than what tends to happen in our comments section.

“Rather than assigning team members to manage the comments on our site, we are investing our engineering and editorial resources in new products and storytelling formats that benefit our audience.”

Knowing whether this makes sense for your site requires a strategy. And it all starts with some basic questions every digital news operation already should have answered for itself:

  • What percentage of our content do we want or expect to come from our users? (I’ll address how to measure this in a future post.)
  • Can we make a platform for this ourselves or do we need outside technical help? (If you have a story of success or frustration with this, please share in by responding.)
  • Will it be something off the shelf, custom designed in house or by a vendor?
  • How can social media help make this work better for us?

The news industry can and will develop more technologically advanced ways to screen comments. Filtering software can be customized to reflect local standards and give precedence to locally trusted commenters. Mozilla, the software developer known for its Firefox browser, is engaged in an initiative backed by major newspapers and the Knight Foundation.

In the meantime, sites should use comments as a playground for experimentation as much as time allows. The space for composing a comment can be highlighted or semi-hidden, open to all or only to registered users. Content filters can be tightened or tweaked. Taking note of how these experiments play out can save time and money when buying or implementing future software solutions.