Tip sheet: What your readers are really telling you

See where your online traffic is coming from. Page views aren’t the only thing that matters. Try new things. Pay attention to trends.

Three panelists offered those suggestions and over a dozen more Saturday at the PSNE’s breakout session on using analytics to understand your online audience and inform how to engage with readers.

Most importantly, the message was that data and analytics are your friend. Here’s a look at all the suggestions mentioned during the seminar:

Erica Palan, Philly.com

– Track the metrics you care about yourself in a way that makes sense to you. Making your own spreadsheets instead of relying on whatever gets spit out from Google Analytics or Omniture can help you get a clearer picture of what’s actually happening and what it means to you.

– Make notes so that you can watch for trends that help you. For example: If a particular story impacted traffic, make note of that. Perhaps over time, you’ll see a pattern of what kinds of stories drive readers to your site.

– Do a post-mortem/mini report/brain dump after a big event. Writing down everything you did right (and wrong) can help you prepare better for next time. Including numbers—like pageviews, social shares, comments, etc—can help you make decisions about how to approach future coverage.

– Don’t forget to look at where your traffic is coming from. Social and mobile matter!

– Pay attention to engagement in addition pageviews. Keeping track of social shares, traffic from Reddit, comments (on your story and on Facebook) is just as important as how many people clicked on a link.

Michael Sedor, Pennlive.com

– Make sure that your writers have access to your company’s analytics and that the point is clear that they are an essential tool for a writer in 2015 …

– …and that data analytics and reader traffic numbers are your friend, not your enemy (and the enemy of journalism.)
They are your friend in that they tell you who your audience is, where they come from (physical geography and web geography) and how they ingest your product.

– In turn, when you know these things you can better target and market your product to that sector.

– You cannot rely simply on superficial data like page views or uniques even if you are being judged on these items.

– Drill deeper and find the reason for big successes or unexpected failures. Bounce rates, referral rates, search terms, traffic sources, etc… will help you improve. Just knowing what had the biggest overall number won’t.

– Get to know your audience, pay attention to them and join them. Studying the data will tell you where they come from if you didnt already.

– Join that community via twitter, message boards, facebook, comment sections or all of the above. This doesn’t mean solely snarky responses to trolls, this means breaking down the ivory tower barrier between writer and reader and becoming their representative on your beat.

Carl Lavin, CNN

– Test: Be scientific: develop a hypothesis, write down your plan to test the hypothesis, collect the data. Share the results. Act on the results. Repeat.

This can be as simple as comparing two hedlines. Your newsroom might have two theories about where to put a related link on your article page or competing concepts for how to edit your videos. Devise a test. Be clear about the parameters of the test and be sure to share the results widely across the newsroom. Establish and cultivate a culture of experimentation. Ask others to propose tests. Have regular meetings to solicit ideas for future tests and to consider ways to improve the testing process. Encourage others to run their own tests and to share results.

– Try: Try new analytics tools. Try to concentrate on a different metric for a week to see what you might learn. We juggle an algebra book of formulas and numbers: pageviews, video starts, uniques, dwell time, social referrals, videos per visit, pageviews per unique, exits to partners. For a week, pick one metric or one category (social, mobile, video) and help your entire newsroom learn as much as possible about that. It could be one tool (Chartbeat, Outbrain, Google Analytics, Twitter Analytics, Facebook Insight). It could be one format (video, galleries, recirculation modules). Narrow your thinking.

One of our most successful efforts to concentrate on one area was a week in May we called “Mobile de Mayo.” We made sure to go over mobile numbers in every meeting, to have a mobile stat of the day and to have several “lunch and learns” about mobile metrics.

– Teach: Everyone in the newsroom should understand how to listen to what the audience is saying. Expose performance dashboards to as many people as possible. Set up large monitors throughout the newsroom to display real-time data. Hold sessions to help journalists and others at the company understand how to read and interpret data, and what actions editors and other take — and don’t take — based on the data. Bring in journalism students and expose them to this part of your operation. Ask j-students for feedback. (Ask them to test your prototypes for your apps, your site refresh and your social media strategy, too!)

– Fail Fast: What if…

What if we added a “follow us on Twitter” button at the bottom of every article? What if we use more branding around our content? Test these “what if …” ideas, gather the data, then follow what the data tells you. If it doesn’t work, drop it.

– Take Their Assignments:

Readers list their interest every day. Search metrics, social metrics and homepage click-through rates show what your audience craves. You can turn this behavioral information into assignments. You can — and should — be even more overt: “Send us your FIFA questions with the #FIFAQs hashtag.” Or search for discussions about your brand. I have a Tweetdeck column for “CNN typo” for example. I also watch for mentions of our brand on social platforms that can help us make smart decisions about coverage. It’s been clear that the audience wants respectful coverage of the victims of violence and would prefer not to see the names or photos of perpetrators portrayed in an endless loop. We’ve heard our audiences say that and we have responded. For example, at every significant stage of the Boston Marathon bombing and Tsarnaev trial, we’ve posted our portraits of the victims — on our site and on social platforms.

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