In the late 1990s, “America Online” was the shiny new company everyone watched, feared and tried to copy. Just “AOL” now, it’s hardly as fresh or inspiring. With its new CEO, logos and use of web analytics to select the stories it covers and evaluating its reporters, has AOL once again become a news organization to watch?
AOL’s announcement that it will employ “judicious use of Web-analytics software” sparked the expected flutter of coverage. It’s admitted to using data to inform (dictate?) news decisions, so you could be led to believe that AOL is adopting a true audience-based approach. However, after reading the Feb. 22 story in BusinessWeek and the reactions gathered by Media Post News, it seems like AOL is still using a traditional advertising-based mass media strategy. It’s still trying to be all things to all people. It’s just using web analytics to decide what those things are.
“Audience growth and audience engagement have to be the things that we judge the most off of our journalist investments,” AOL CEO Tim Armstrong is quoted as saying. So far, so good.
Armstrong also said that “brand ads should be a lot bigger on the Internet today,” talking about how online advertising revenue should pick up. But there was no mention about AOL’s own brand strategy, something that would answer the question of “What is AOL?” for audiences and advertisers once and for all. On which niches will it focus? How much of its content will be unique and compelling enough to those niche audiences so that they’ll come back regularly?
Patricia Handschiegel, who blogs as Daily Patricia, sums it nicely:
“The right approach to the content business is to KNOW YOUR AUDIENCE, or
the people that come to your site, and create a product for THEM. AOL’s
approach is clearly not centered on this….it’ll drive up page views and therefore, revenue but that’s not
likely to last as the industry becomes more analytics savvy. Today, a
million uniques with zero session times, high bounce rate and no repeat
visitors isn’t seen as a sign of a lack of audience but in the not too
distant future it will.”
I haven’t researched AOL myself, so I don’t know if all of the details in the BusinessWeek and Media Post News stories really reflect what AOL is doing. So I’ll just note some some things news orgs should think about when using web analytics to inform news decisions and evaluate journalists.
- Evaluating success (either a site’s or a journalist’s) by total page views doesn’t work. A large number of page views may just indicate visitors got there by mistake or clicked around trying to find something. Plus, dynamic content (Flash, etc.) will not be counted as page views. Page views can be a useful metric, but only when combined with other metrics – such as ratios – that give context.
- Engagement can’t be determined by web traffic or behavioral data alone. Attitudinal research is essential to find out why or why don’t people come to a site regularly, what they want and what they’re not finding.
- If journalists are going to be held accountable for web traffic and audience engagement will they also have control over the factors that drive traffic, such as design, navigation and marketing? Or will they just submit their stories and hope for the best?
- “AOL is even considering sharing a portion of quarterly profits with staffers whose work fetches the most page views.” BusinessWeek
How will traffic goals be set? If journalists will be rewarded for generating “traffic” (however it’s defined), will they be fired if they don’t? Will the benchmarks or starting points – and the time journalists have to reach the required traffic levels – be based on whether a topic is already established or whether it’s one a news org wants to nurture and grow because the topic is essential to achieving its strategy?
- “Tacked to the newsroom walls in AOL’s downtown Manhattan headquarters are pages and pages of Web traffic data.” BusinessWeek Uh, this would cause even me to shut down. It’s definitely not “judicious use of Web-analytics software.” Does AOL have a few key performance indicators that everyone understands and on which they can focus as a team?
Software and reports don’t make decisions; people do. Successful use of web analytics depends on the decision-makers understanding and using the information correctly. If news orgs believe the success of their websites depends on being truly audience-focused then they must also ensure the analytical resources and processes are there as well.
AOL may stumble again but at least it’s trying something different. I look forward to learning from AOL whether it succeeds or fails.