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What Analytics Experts Really Think About Data in Digital Media

It has become increasingly rare to come across a journalist who doesn’t think analytics are important in the era of digital publishing. In May, the International News Media Association World Congress surveyed its media executive attendees, and found that 92% of them felt that data analytics were a top priority in the year ahead. It’s clear that data is a hot topic in the publishing world, but it can also be confusing and even divisive in the newsroom.

We’re aware of the mixed feelings out there, and know that we may be a tad biased in our love for data here at Parse.ly. But the consensus in the media industry is that regardless of whether you think analytics are something to be feared or something to be fawned over, they’re important enough to warrant an ongoing discussion about their application in the newsroom. Why? Because analytics are how readers tell publishers more about themselves. And truly knowing their audiences is one of the best ways for publishers to thrive.original

Our belief in data-driven decision making is what sparked last week’s Summer Series event, “Analytics IRL: Lessons from the Experts.” While the panelists have different backgrounds and varying skillsets,  they were all tasked, at least in part, with introducing analytics to people who were unaccustomed to them. Part of the reason there is such hesitancy about throwing data into the editorial mix is because of this unfamiliarity, so it was exciting to hear from our panelists, who are dedicated to shifting the mentality towards analytics at organizations like The Daily Beast, ESPN and Vogue.

What did all of our panelists have in common? They were all in agreement that shifting focus towards analytics doesn’t mean that metrics should dictate newsroom culture. In fact, the panelists agreed that data should not trump editorial judgement.

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“Analytics is a tool, not a strategy. People want data to be facts, but really it’s just a point of information to be interpreted,” said panelist Benjamin Alamar, Director of Production Analytics at ESPN.

Publishers tying editorial value to metrics is a valid fear, given that it has been known to happen and can result in demoralization.  Media organizations shouldn’t live and die by any single metric. The numbers are simply a supplement to journalists’ editorial judgment.

“This is just data,” said panelist Chris Bruderle, Director of Research and Analytics at The Daily Beast. “You still need to use your brain.”

That involves being aware of the myriad of metrics out there, and realizing that it’s more important to have the right data, not more data. Bruderle explained that writers often approach him, disappointed that their stories aren’t performing as well as they had hoped. Bruderle would counter by asking how exactly they were measuring performance. Was it pageviews? Social media referrers? And if those metrics were down but engagement minutes were up, what did that mean about the story’s success?

“Data can be absolute, but interpretation can be relative,” said Parse.ly CEO and the panel’s moderator, Sachin Kamdar. In the end, it’s about finding hidden truths in the metrics, and drawing conclusions based on a careful combination of analytics and journalist instinct.

Beyond the recognition that analytics have a powerful place in the newsroom, each panelist shared how data plays into the overall strategy of their individual roles. Vogue’s Rachel LeSage told the audience that Condé Nast  values loyal readers the most, and so the metrics she helps her team focus on highlight what creates, fosters and engages that segment.

Michael Keller, a Tow Center fellow, pointed out that metrics and analytics have a unique role to play in nonprofit newsrooms, where getting grants and funding requires some proof of impact. He discussed his thesis project “NewsLynx,” which is an effort for newsrooms to combine quantitative and qualitative data.

Metrics are here to stay, and conversations like the one we had at the “Analytics IRL” event put their importance into context.  We hope you’ll join us for more insights into the publishing world at our next event, “The Economics of Digital Media,” which will be the last in Parse.ly’s 2015 Summer Series. Speakers from Medium, Gawker, Apartment Therapy and the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation will discuss the many revenue streams available to publishers.

See you on August 25 in NYC!