Put Your Data Into Action With This Step-By-Step Guide

When it comes to data and analytics, newspapers have more information at their fingertips than ever before. “Metrics help us see what readers are and aren’t reading. That’s a good thing,” said Michelle Nicolosi, director of digital, video and Life & Culture at The Oregonian and Oregonlive.com.

And that means good news for publishers, according to Matt Lindsay, president of Mather Economics. There’s a misconception that newspapers publishers have continued to be sloth in their digital adoption and innovation. In his estimation, newspapers have a healthy lead on broadcasting, in terms of how they’re leveraging data.

“We’ve found that a lot of the larger newspaper companies have made a lot of investments in data infrastructure, and they’ve bought a lot of tools and hired a lot of people,” Lindsay said. “There is a lot of attention going into this, but I think where the industry is now is that everyone is trying a lot of things. There’s a lot experimentation.”

Brad Ward, TownNews president and COO
Brad Ward, TownNews president and COO

Brad Ward, TownNews president and COO, said, “It’s important to make sure you’re collecting data that’s relevant and actionable. Collecting data for the sake of collecting data is useless. In the early days, many websites collected user registration data, but failed to use it in meaningful ways. All this accomplished was adding barriers to entry for the reader.”

In his role and travels, Ward has become cognizant of the challenges that news publishers face when trying to determine what data to capture, how to get it and what to do with it from there.

“Our customers have been eager to embrace a more data-driven world,” he said. “They are looking for guidance on best practices, what kind of data (to collect), and how our partners are utilizing that data.”

After speaking with a few data experts, E&P has put together a step-by-step process (a blueprint if you want to call it) on how publishers can leverage the information that is being collected behind the scenes.


Step 1: Have Objectives

Data can be revealing in two ways. It can inspire a news organization to hypothesize and set new goals related to content, advertising, and audience. It can also be used to measure the results of those strategic efforts.

“These examples are playing out every day in our newsroom,” Nicolosi said. “We are all paying attention to metrics, because they can help us figure out when we should stop for a minute and ask: Are we doing this right? What can we do to better reach the reader?”

Working with data isn’t always a linear process; in fact, the starting point is often based on an assumption.

Matt Lindsay, Mather Economics president
Matt Lindsay, Mather Economics president

“What we often tell is to start with the end in mind and work backwards,” Lindsay said. “The common applications for data are related to the pillars of the publishing model. You’ve got audience revenue, advertising revenue, and then content. On the audience side, you’re going to acquire customers, retain customers, renew customers, or alter or raise their prices. The goal is to continue the relationship as long as you can. These are things that publishers have been doing in the print world forever. But on the digital side, there’s just so much more data and what you can do with it. You can see what they’re reading, what their engagement level is, and utilize all that information to make decisions about how to acquire or retain customers. Similarly, on the advertising side, there’s a lot of innovation occurring.”

Like with any scientific experimentation, theories are the origins of conclusions.

“What it takes is what I call ‘the learning agenda,’ or ‘test-and-learn.’ We come up with a hypothesis and then say, ‘Okay, how do we test that?’” Lindsay explained. “Then we implement some change and observe what happens. Then, we build on that. Getting historical data is great, but if you’re thinking of doing something that you haven’t done in the past, historical data isn’t as valuable. What you really need is a workflow that tests.”


Step 2: Be Selective

Ward suggested that there are three categories of data that every publisher should be monitoring and creating strategies around. The first is site analytics, which will reveal from where your customers are coming—mobile versus desktop, for example. It shows what content has drawn them in, and what content may not have inspired them to stay longer. There’s crossover there into audience data, which is equally another source of insight. Audience data tells you who your readers are, and what content they’re reading.

Finally, Ward suggested using data to tell both the publishers and the advertisers about what ads are performing and why. Looking at ad data can reveal patterns that demonstrate what types of creative content works best. If the publishers and advertisers are working together to target audience segments, which of those segments are most engaged by the ad content being served. Ward stressed that it’s important to understand and track “RPM,” as well—total revenue per page.

“Recently—and what’s been really interesting—is that we can combine advertising data with audience consumption data,” Lindsay said. “We’re able to show publishers the relationship between the content and the advertising, and the ad revenues they generate. That helps with monetization when you can determine the ad-to-edit ratio based on what blends of content and ads work best.”

Bernie Kosanke, Miami Herald Media Co. regional director of audience development and circulation
Bernie Kosanke, Miami Herald Media Co. regional director of audience development and circulation

At the Miami Herald Media Co., Bernie Kosanke serves as the regional director of audience development and circulation, and he noted that the audience and marketing teams had been working with data long before the advent of digital and mobile. Today, it’s more complicated.

“They leverage not just demographic, geographic, and payment history data, but online usage data. They target segments for win-back campaigns, when focusing on reader look-a-like targets,” he said. “Important work includes acquiring and appending email and phone records to reach more prospects. All of this is critical to drive digital copies growth.”


Step 3: Get at It

Lindsay offered some more good news: The costs associated with capturing and storing data have steadily decreased, especially in the past few years. For smaller or community publishers that don’t have the wealth of resources that larger corporate papers are afforded, there are some reasonably priced off-the-shelf applications available today. He cautioned against two possible scenarios, however: big, expensive systems that promise to be a central repository for all things related to data, but may not be scaled to what you need; or other types of applications that promise to layer in data mining and analysis.

“What we’ve told a lot of publishers is that it’s expensive to connect every piece of data within an organization to every other piece of data,” he said. “It’s like trying to boil the ocean and it’s very costly to do that…By word of caution, a fulfillment system isn’t designed to be a robust data platform, so don’t try to make it one.”

Ward described what/how data is collected by TownNews technology: “We have several areas that we mine data from. The simplest and most obvious is with site analytics. Understanding how people navigate our site, where they come from and how often they come back is very valuable to the newsroom, advertising, and marketing departments. Layer in real-time analytics that the newsroom has access to helps them react and focus on content that needs more promotion or has the potential to go viral.

“Our iQ program has been very successful in helping our partners create audience segments that can be used to target both local and programmatic advertising,” he continued. “We’re able to collect behavioral data and layer in third-party data, as well as additional first-party data—like the user registration data we’ve been collecting—and build audience segments. We’re working on being able to target content recommendations using this same tool.”

In Miami, Kosanke said, “Our toolkit includes an online metrics tool, Adobe Analytics, otherwise known as Omniture. This allows a deep dive into online usage, to gain insight on the content that attracts visitors. We know how the reader arrived on our site, and the engagement level, such as page views per unique visitor, time spent on the site, and the number of visits per visitor. Equally important is to know the type of device our visitors used to access our content. We utilize Nielsen tools, as well as Scarborough to analyze our local websites’ visitor demographics, how it shifted over the years, and to analyze the psychographics and other media usage.

“Today, we have access to live data,” he added. “Our newsroom uses Chartbeat to constantly monitor traffic on our sites—and what stories are garnering the most interest. This allows us to know what’s trending and how to maximize traffic. Access to live data is transforming how we do business.”

Companies like TownNews can help news publishers mine their websites for data to help their newsroom, advertising and marketing departments.
Companies like TownNews can help news publishers mine their websites for data to help their newsroom, advertising and marketing departments.

Step 4: Parse, Compare and Analyze

“Before metrics, we had no way of knowing if our approach to a beat or a story was resonating with readers,” Nicolosi said. “Now, metrics help us see what’s being well-read and shared, and they help us see areas where we need to do a better job with how we’re creating, presenting, and sharing coverage.

“Metrics helped us see, for example, that readers were not reading our book reviews. Those low readership numbers were a signal that we needed to innovate our approach,” she explained. “So earlier this year, I pulled together our Life & Culture team to brainstorm our books coverage. We dug into the numbers to look for trends, and found that when we gave people guides—The Best New Reads for Summer, Best Books to Buy for Mom, etc.—our readers shared and read those stories much more than they read or shared individual reviews. So we now gear our books coverage to guides, and as a result, our books coverage has gone from some of the least-read coverage on our site to pretty well-read.”

Comparing data is an essential step in this process, and it should be perpetual. There is “useless” data, according to Ward, and that’s data without context.

“Data that has no association with time or place (is ineffective),” he explained. “Knowing when and where is a necessity for value. It’s hard to assess value when you don’t know what you’re comparing it against.”


Step 5: Learn and Launch

Some of the most insightful data Ward has helped publishers gather is rather simple to round up and spot its patterns. For example, it’s easy to see when the load time of a page may be affecting the readers’ experience, causing them to “give up” on the content before reading a single sentence. Sometimes particular pages are abandoned more rapidly than others, and it may be that the page isn’t loading properly, or that it errors out. Knowing that sooner rather than later means that resolving the problem can also happen sooner rather than later.

In other cases, leveraging data smartly profoundly impacts how news companies publish across all their platforms and channels.

For Jim Puryear, data is absolutely critical to the business. Puryear is regional vice president of audience development for seven McClatchy publications: Charlotte Observer, The News & Observer, Rock Hill Herald, The State Sun News, Island Packet, Beaufort Gazette, and Centre Daily Times.

“We need to know what people like and are reading, so we can give them more of it,” he said. “That will make it easier to convert them to a paid subscriber and also keep the ones we have. We’re working on several projects that will help us market to consumers’ reading habits, as we want to be a part of their daily routine. It’s important that we form a 3D relationship with our readers, throughout the day.”

To work toward that goal, Puryear revealed that the publisher has some data collection and analysis tools in place already and is working on some new innovations in that regard.

“One is a digital ‘sub’ manager, which will be a more modern platform to handle our paywall, desktop, and mobile digital product offerings,” he said. “All of this will be linked to several audience tools in place, or (those) being developed at our newspapers.”

One of the ways in which data is captured by the publications is through a consumer loyalty program. It doesn’t merely request and take data from readers. It gives them a lot in return, too, Puryear said, in the form of value, and opportunities to more deeply engage with the newspapers and affiliated brands. Also in the works is what Puryear referred to as an “audience research database,” intended to help the publications transition to a new sales and marketing model.

“We’ll also utilize advanced digital marketing as we learn more about our customers and their preferences and desires,” he said. “This will also send and track, as well as target our emails and messages. This will enable us to improve our messages to consumers, and therefore improve the overall results.

“Finally, we want to provide world-class service through our customer membership center and satisfaction bay,” he added. “Instead of a subscription model, we want to transition to a membership model, which will be enhanced by all of the tools (I’ve mentioned): digital sub manager, loyalty program, and audience research database.”

For the larger publishing organizations with many titles, having some consistency across all of them can ensure that data analysis is more meaningful, Puryear suggested. “I think it’s important to make sure all of our markets are pulling their stats, using the same reports, and following the same rules. If we’re not comparing apples to apples, then that data is not that valuable.”

At The Miami Herald, Kosanke said that data is seen as actionable intelligence.

“Traffic is growing exponentially with our most recent month’s digital traffic rising to the highest level ever for unique visitors across our websites,” he said. “We are constantly adding new customers into the process flow to receive our newsletters, and have greater access to our content. Data analysis provides the support in our decision-making, and sets the course for audience engagement. Having that actionable intelligence is what accelerates our audience growth. It tells us where the business is going and keeps us on a successful track.”

It was supportive data that led to the launch of new titles in Miami, including 32 newsletters, 19 blogs, 24 apps, and several social media sites. They also debuted a luxury lifestyle title, Indulge; an LGBT community lifestyle magazine, Palette; and Family Matters for parents and caregivers.


Taking the Next Steps

Even when newspapers were print-centric, publishers were accustomed to gathering data about readership. This is not uncharted territory, after all. However, in the digital world in which print and electronic publications cohabitate and compete, the sheer volume of data is exponentially increased. That can certainly be overwhelming for publishers that don’t have the resources to assign to the tasks of making some sense of it all.

“Too much data can be like sipping from a fire hose,” Ward said. “Start small and understand what your goals are with the data. From the goals, you can define what data you need to collect and how to analyze it.”

As a consultant to publishers navigating data, Lindsay often works with cross-discipline team because that’s how data impacts the entire publishing model. Often, it’s the director of audience leading the team, but it’s not unusual for the chief marketing officer or the advertising executives to join in. While it never hurts to have some real statistical muscle on the team, Lindsay said it’s neither essential nor prudent for publishers to run out and hire PhDs. What they do need is staff who have the ability to analyze data but also have an entrepreneurial sensibility to suggest ways to act on it.

Nicolosi said at The Oregonian and OregonLive.com, although using data is important, they’re not a slave to metrics. “We do investigations and other important stories, regardless of what the numbers say. The metrics help us here, too. They tell us when our most important work is not being read and helps us identify when it’s time to put in extra effort marketing those important stories on our social platforms.

“Smart use of metrics means you take the numbers into account and use them to perfect what you do within the context of your mission,” she continued. “Reasonable, smart, balanced, nuanced use of metrics is a great thing for newsrooms and journalists. It helps us get better at reaching readers. I wouldn’t want to do my job without them.”

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