Why metrics matter: Understanding your online audience

“The future of journalism relies on math,” say Kenny Yum and Brodie Fenlon of Huffington Post Canada, “journalists need to get comfortable with numbers.” The two managing editors spoke about the importance of audience metrics and understanding behavioural patterns during a session at the Canadian University Press’ national conference in Toronto earlier this month.

It is easier for newspapers to reach audiences if you know who they are, where they’re going and when, and how they’re getting there. Newspapers can collect and analyze audience metrics order to better understand numerous aspects of reader behaviour including: when they visit the website (time of day, weekdays or weekends); what content they consume; how long they stay on your site; and what’s being clicked and how often.

Metrics are powerful research tools that give newspapers instant access to audience behaviour. This means you can react to digital intelligence in real time and use it to guide your second-by-second decision-making on your site. For example, if you notice a particular story is gaining a lot of page views you can decide to promote it to the top of your homepage, ensure it is updated frequently, tweak the content and add photographs to give it even more value for your readers. “You can experiment with your content in this live environment and gain a better understanding of how artwork, photographs and headlines can increase traffic to certain stories,” says Fenlon.

One of the most important questions metrics can answer is how users are getting to your site. Yum and Fenlon identify four common channels readers use to access a newspaper website:

  • Typed/Bookmarked: Loyal readers who visit the site often as part of their routine. For these readers, focus on making your site their homepage.
  • Search: These are drive-by readers, typically new visitors but definitely an important part of any websites’ traffic. Pay attention to popular search data of the day and make sure the information and keywords people are looking for are being covered by your paper.
  • Social: Readers who access your content through some sort of social network site (Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn). These visitors are more invested than those who reach you through a simple search as they trust their friends and are interested in the sites/stories they link to.
  • Influencer sites: Readers who reach your site via external influencers in your content area. Be mindful of which aggregators and partners link to your site often.

Yum and Fenton point out that most readers are coming to newspaper websites via external search or social platforms and by-passing the homepage all together. “Don’t think about the homepage as your homepage – the story page IS your homepage,” says Fenlon. “Make sure the real estate around the body content is well used; integrate social links and encourage people to share your content.”

One of the small but effective strategies newspapers can use to help increase traffic within their site is to add a Most Popular Stories widget to their homepage and inside pages. “A list of popular content helps to perpetuate well-read stories and keep visitors on your site,” says Yum.

By understanding metrics, newspapers can develop a more flexible and adaptive publishing strategy and use responsive tactics to address and grow readership. Take the time to do the math and ask questions about the results.

Questions newspapers should ask when analyzing metrics