The onset of the digital age has brought with it many challenges and opportunities for the institution of journalism. None more revolutionary and monumental than new and nuanced methods of gauging the success of a publication: digital metrics. Pageviews, monthly active users, unique visitors, pages per visit, time on site, social media engagement and more — journalists today can measure the success of their stories and make key gatekeeping decisions using numerous parameters.
According to a report published by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, news organizations “need to think about how they can develop their analytics capability by making sure they combine the right set of tools, an organisational structure that incorporates the expertise to use them, and a newsroom culture that embraces data-informed decision-making. Falling short in any one of these areas undermines an organization’s analytics capability.”
Newsrooms often pick metrics that don’t actually map the goal that they are working towards. In 2017, the International Center for Journalists (ICFJ) conducted a survey which received more than 2,700 responses from journalists and newsroom managers in 130 countries.
The study revealed that 'pageviews' is the metric that gets the most attention from newsrooms (73%). Much less attention is given to engagement metrics: social shares (46%), conversion rate (18%), and scroll depth (16%).
But here’s the problem with tracking pageviews: they don’t actually measure how engaged your audience is. Pageviews were a major source of ad revenue for publishers. But with publishers shifting their focus to subscription conversions, tracking pageviews is a futile exercise. Taking pageviews at their face value will be misleading as there is no way to know how your audience landed up on your page. Was it out of interest or because of some misdirection?
“Things like views, reach, clicks and impressions may look impressive on aggregation but are very superficial. They aren’t actionable metrics — meaning we can’t really use them to feed into editorial or content strategy.”Esra Dogramaci, Senior Digital Editor at Deutsche Welle.
Although pageviews are still a valid measure of site traffic, in order to drive better engagement, you need to focus on metrics that allow a deeper insight into audience behaviour. 'Sessions' is one such metric that newsrooms ought to focus on. By tracking sessions, publishers can glean data on returning visitors, time spent on each story, user journey on a story, from which part of the story have they dropped off, etc.
Large publications like Financial Times (FT) have started measuring variations of the Acquisition – Behaviour – Conversion (ABC) cycle in order to set and achieve organisational goals.
This cycle uses a combination of different metrics to provide a comprehensive understanding of audience behaviour on your website and the success rate of your content. 'Acquisition' measures traffic to your website and tells you how your website acquires visitors. 'Behaviour' tells you how effective your website is at engaging visitors; it also points out what pages they view and the actions they take on the website.
'Conversion' tracks the effectiveness of your website in persuading website visitors to take a desirable action. “Conversion” is the most important metric for a subscription-based publication’s success. It helps in measuring how effective your content is in monetizing your audience’s loyalty.
The Financial Times has more than 846,000 paid subscribers, 647,000 of which are digital. They have been using the RFV formula (Recency, Frequency and Volume) to monitor their success. These metrics are tracked over a 3-month time period. They measure when a user last consumed articles on the site (R), how often the user visits the site in a given time period (F) and how many articles they consumed per visit (V).
The formula is not only effective in measuring user engagement, it also predicts user cancellation rate (churn) for their subscriptions. They charted the churn vs RFV score and found a direct correlation between the two. Consumers with a high RFV score were more engaged and hence, less likely to cancel their subscription and vice-versa.
FT ran a series of A/B tests on their site to determine how site speed affects engagement and revenue. With a one second increase in page load time, a drop of 5% engagement was observed. This amounted to a loss of $1 million in opportunity cost.
Tracking these metrics helped them make key decisions regarding their website. If a widget is causing a 1 second increase in page load time, it should bring in at least $1 million in revenue. If not, it is not worth adding.
Similarly, FT avoided adding images when not absolutely necessary as images cause an increase in page load time.These metrics thus allow journalists to gauge what their audience wants, which then enables them to create better content.
This leads to an increase in traffic and as all publishers know, an increase in online readership will translate to increased advertising revenues and, consequently, higher overall revenues. In this climate of financial uncertainty for journalism, it is imperative that editorial and business goals converge and are achieved by tracking the right metrics.