Embracing Analytics: Get to Know Your Audience

MSNBC (now known as NBC News) has learned to embrace analytics and social media to help drive traffic to its various properties, and if you're smart, you should be doing the same thing with your websites.

This was the message at an info360 session in New York City called How Big Data Is Changing the Newsroom. You have to use data to your advantage to drive at least part of your editorial decision making. Sometimes a story develops organically and goes viral, and everything is hunky-dory. But more often, even for well-known publications, drawing decent traffic takes a lot of work. There's just no getting around it, and the data gives you insight into that traffic.

The session-which was hosted by Josh Belzman, social media manager for msnbc.com, and Rajan Shah, VP for publisher services at AddThis, a social-sharing tool for websites and blogs-gave lots of insight into how to do this.

Belzman said that in the old days the newsroom reacted to the news by relying heavily on partnerships with The Associated Press and Reuters to drive editorial decision making. Today, he said, the process is much more nimble. Newsrooms are always trying to make closer connections to readers who come to their properties, so it's not just a one-and-done process.

The message was clear: You need to embrace analytics, but you have to be smart about it, or you'll only publish linkbait stories and abdicate your responsibility as a journalist. As such, you have to walk a fine line between what attracts the largest audience and what you need to cover because a story is important.

Shah says that as a publisher you have to ask yourself how you are going to leverage the power of the network. He told the audience members they have to derive intelligence across the network's entire reach-whether it's social analytics, the path users take through the website, the material they search for, or a host of other information.

In short, you have to at least begin to think about how you can customize the experience for your users, so you don't treat new visitors the same way you treat repeat readers. Using a web content management system, you can employ a data-driven strategy to begin to serve your users content that is increasingly based on what you know about them.

Even though that ideal is still quite far off for most publishers, you still need to be studying the numbers and looking at metrics you find meaningful. One thing we've clearly learned is that not all traffic is created equal. Numbers for numbers sake is not necessarily the most worthy goal. But you have to come to an understanding of what works and what doesn't, whether you're a journalist or an editor, and you have to use social media to help drive traffic to your content.

In 2009, when Google's Marissa Mayer testified before the Senate Subcommittee on Communications, Technology, and the Internet on The Future of Journalism, she made the case that Google drove traffic to newspaper and magazine websites, but what happened after that was their responsibility. In other words, it's up to the media companies to keep readers on their sites. It's a lesson that many media companies haven't quite learned yet, but Shah says that tools, such as those from his company, can help by including items such as the five most popular stories on your site right now. Your reader might come to the site to read one thing, but see some other links that keep her engaged-and that's the key to success.

Meanwhile, editors can monitor stories and see what's hot and what's not. If you're running a story that's hot on other websites, but not on yours, you can use data analysis to figure out why. But Belzman cautions that you can't just use numbers, or you'll end up with a site full of strange cat stories. Sure, it's linkbait, but it's probably not what you want to be about. That's why you have to exercise common sense editorial judgment while looking at your numbers and balancing the numbers versus your own knowledge of your audience and your goals as a news organization.

The bottom line, though, is that you have to take advantage of social networks. You have to understand your readership and the tools that let you gain that understanding. You would be foolish not to use this information because once you start to refine the process, it should translate into more traffic, more targeted ads, and higher revenue-and that, my friends, is the name of the game.