Guest Contribution by Jessica Patel, Executive Director of Content, 101 Network
Digital publishing has always touted itself as a data-driven medium. Unlike traditional print or TV, the internet makes it possible to count page views and measure time spent on articles. Publishers finally have a sense of the kinds of stories that their readers are actually interested in, rather than simply guessing or relying on reader surveys and polls.
With margins tighter than ever, digital publishers have been eager to embrace these data and insights to keep their readers active and engaged. But a scary media landscape has made publishers quick to rush to any port in a storm, which has the potential to push the pendulum too far toward the data-driven editorial camp. While metrics are vital to the future of publishing, editorial directors must balance the data-driven possibilities with an experienced eye, combining analytics and practiced “gut feel” to publish the best performing and most engaging stories amid an uncertain market.
The key to finding the balance between an experienced eye and analytics is to first grasp what analytics can actually accomplish. Measurement can show what kinds of content are popular, but chasing pageviews can dilute a publishing brand. This practice leaves you pursuing a fickle audience that lacks loyalty and will quickly move on to another outlet as they chase the next story.
Data is better used to understand how to branch out and find content opportunities. For example, a site may have a “Living” vertical built around stories about health, wellness, and home life. This might make a natural place for parenting content, which represents a rich vein of potential content opportunities on its own. Because there are so many opportunities in the parenting vertical, it’s important to monitor the traffic and engagement to decide just how much time and talent to invest in parenting related stories. Does it make sense for a separate parenting vertical, or even a standalone website? No outlet wants one popular topic to cannibalize a vertical and drown out other topics.
Then there is analyzing the business opportunity. Changes in cookie policies and how data are collected have many publishers hopeful that they can work much closer with brands to execute branded and sponsored content opportunities. Analytics is hugely valuable when it comes to understanding where different markets are going, potential profitability, how the ad market is operating, and the potential for direct deals. Ad support remains critical for digital publishing, and publishers need to use their analytics to understand where they can grow by giving their audience high-quality content and also matching up ad opportunities that make sense.
This is why engagement metrics — such as time spent on a page, site, or total articles consumers read per visit — are incredibly important to publishers right now. When site visitors read a quality story, and then have the choice to consume even more quality content, it increases those metrics, simultaneously increasing the publisher’s value to advertisers.
A well-trained editorial eye
However, publishers must be careful about how much they pursue niche audiences. Chasing after a market without a clear editorial strategy is madness, and it’s undone many digital publishers over the past half-decade. Hot-take culture leads to diminishing returns, and the only way to build brand equity with readers is to develop and deliver stories that take fresh perspectives and find unique angles. That’s more about feel than it is about math or science, and it takes experienced editorial staff to define and maintain a vision.
The tricky thing about trusting your gut is that it’s extremely hard to create workable metrics around it. Knowing what “works” comes from years of practice as a journalist, time spent studying the competition and its voice, along with frequently listening to an audience, coworkers, and even family and friends.
Data only takes you so far. Audience insights and data research can identify story ideas, but the story can’t be built around a single keyword and then crammed to hit a minimum word count. Success in media today comes down to engaging copy that draws readers in. This requires doing research and actual reporting on a story, interviewing experts and other individuals who support the ideas of the piece, and making sure the piece resonates with anyone who reads it. “Engagement” may be a buzzword in digital media, but within journalism and publishing, it’s about an editor and writer sitting down and asking “is a reader going to learn something from this story? Will they understand it? Will they connect with it?”
Ultimately, the best editorial strategy works to develop content that always answers those three questions. Data can illustrate what’s popular, and where there might be an opportunity, but it needs to be balanced with quality writing and a clear editorial vision, things that can only come from humans. Profitability is about brand equity as much as it is traffic. Higher pageviews may be a short-term solution to ad revenue, but building a brand reputation through stories that resonate is a much greater long-term strategy.