Wasting time

Time spent on a site or a visit ranks right up there with total page views and monthly unique visitors as widely quoted metrics masking as indicators of success for news organizations.

No, it's not a crime to misuse a metric, but isn't a shame to waste your time on something that's not absolutely essential to your site's success? 

Dali-clock-compressed Plus, the way that time spent is calculated is flawed.  All web metrics are flawed somewhat, but time spent is really misleading.

More on the ugly methodology later – let's tackle time spent's uselessness first.  In other words, if the methodology were acceptable would time spent still be a key performance indicator?

Advertisers have always made decisions based on the level of engagement a news org's audiences have with its brand and content.  But both content and the ways people use and interact with content are different – and thus the way engagement is measured is different, too. 

Man_reading_newspaper In the past, time spent was an important measure of engagement for news orgs and advertisers.  People spent whole chunks of time with one medium or another.  Readership surveys measured time spent per day or per week.

Because these were surveys, time spent was based on self-reported information.  It was what people said they did vs. what they actually did.

Picture 1 But it didn't matter whether what people said matched with what they did.  What mattered was how engaged people felt.  People who reported they spent an hour a day with Monday's newspaper but actually only spent twenty minutes believed they spent a large chunk of time and attention with a news org.

In stark contrast, web advertising decisions depend on knowing actual behavior as reported via rows upon rows of numbers ruthlessly pouring out every second.   Among many other things, advertisers track the number of times their ads come up and are clicked upon. Sites and audiences are more niche and are highly segmented.   The algorithms for and definitions of "engagement" vary for every site and every company.  

Time spent just isn't a good indicator of engagement.  Someone who spends five minutes a day on a site, goes to five different stories each visit and adds comments twice a week is clearly more engaged than someone who comes onto a site for 30 minutes a week and clicks idly on a few pages while talking on the phone.    

How many times have you spent 30 minutes or so on a site, flipping and flapping through what seems like a million page views in a fruitless attempt to find something?  Maybe you spent 30 minutes in such a visit once – and never went back.

A news org's success in the long-term will be based not on how much time people spend on a site but what they do once they're there.

————–

How Time Spent on a Site is Calculated

Continue reading “Wasting time”

AOL analytics

AOL logo - old1 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 logo - new 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.

AOL logo - swirl 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:

AOL logo - tongue “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?
  • Money “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 Stacks.bill.pages.giUh, 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 logo - fish AOL may stumble again but at least it’s trying something different.  I look forward to learning from AOL whether it succeeds or fails.

Always a bridesmaid, never a bride?

Engagement-ring-1 It's almost Valentine's Day, so let's muse again about what it means to be "engaged."  In this day of figuring out whether people will pay for web news, defining success by measuring engagement is more important than ever. 

It doesn't matter whether you love or hate a news organization if you're engaged with it – as demonstrated by behaviors such as going to the site frequently, contributing content, e-mailing a story, rating a video or paying a monthly subscription fee.

Many worthy people have come up with all kinds of complicated mathematical formulas for measuring and tracking engagement.  Nothing's stuck.  In other words, just because a number was produced ("Disaster!  Our engagement rating was 14 last month but our goal was 19!") doesn't mean site traffic and other key performance indicators move in conjunction with it.  A metric is just a number if it doesn't move up or down as a result of some action or mistake on your part. 

Although measuring engagement still eludes us, I hope news orgs will still adopt an engagement philosophy and an audience-focused culture that will guide the decisions that do lead to measurable results.

A philosophy still needs some definition.  I like this quote from Dave Smith, CEO of Mediasmith, a digital advertising agency.  The interview is in "Digital Engagement," a book by Leland Harden and Bob Heyman.Digital engagement book

"Engagement is an unconscious tick of the mind that causes you to think differently about and notice a brand differently in the future."

In the same interview Smith also quotes Erwin Ephron, perhaps the "founder of modern media planning," as saying that "Media engagement and advertising engagement are very different things….Historically, media are measured by audience delivery.  Advertising is measured by response.  Engagement-based ratings would measure media by response."

In other words, it's not enough now just to put content out there and hope your audiences will like it.  Traditional audience research that produces various numbers for loyalty and satisfaction isn't enough either.  Audiences can't just tell you how they feel.  They have to show you.      

Pop-up videos make government engaging

Today I watched over seven minutes – from beginning to end – of The Texas Tribune’s Nov. 9 news video coverage of Kay Bailey Hutchison‘s gubernatorial campaign stump speech.

The video, one of The Tribune’s “Stump Interrupted” series, uses pop-up bubbles and illustrations to add context and value to a normally boring but important story.  The pop-ups are entertaining without being silly.

Picture 1

 

When KBH is saying, “Our taxes have gone up too much in the last ten years,” the pop-up points out that “But…since 2003, Texas still had the 14th lowest per capita tax increase in the country.”

 

KBH: “I think that we are seeing too much power in one person, the power of appointment.”

Pop-ups:  A large hand illustrating someone being appointed glides in from the left, followed by the fact that “Governor [Rick] Perry has made about 5,530 appointments since first taking office.”

On the site, people can also see the sources The Tribune used for the pop-ups.

Picture 2

 

The metrics angle:  Counting how many times a video was viewed doesn’t give any info on whether the viewer was engaged.  The more relevant measure is how much of the video was viewed, and whether the video was viewed from beginning to end.

I would also look at video metrics by topic, and set goals accordingly.  I would imagine (no, really?) that the number of complete views of a Dallas Cowboys video is usually much higher than that of anything having to do with politics, even in Texas.

The Texas Tribune got California-born-and-bred me to watch a KBH video from beginning to end.  I’m now more interested in both Texas politics and in how The Tribune covers it. Imagine how engaged a Texas resident who has a stake in this would be.

Picture 5 Actually, The Tribune doesn’t have to completely guess at this.  In
addition to commenting and e-mailing the story, people can rate a story
as a “must read.”

 

I’m really intrigued about what The Tribune will do next.  It’s a nonprofit news org that, according to WebNewser, didn’t cover the Fort Hood shootings because it’s “dedicated to covering ‘the politics and policy of Texas state government.'”

I love this focus on identifying a niche audience and topic, and sticking to serving the needs of that audience.  WebNewser reported that editor Matt Stiles said that the Fort Hood story just “wasn’t our story.  Should we have jut been one more news organization rushing to Fort Hood?  I don’t think so.”

The Tribune’s a great example of a truly audience-focused news organization with unique and compelling content that provides value.  Despite being staffed by “newspaper refugees,” it’s refreshingly not content-focused.  It doesn’t build the content first and then hope the audience will come.