A good use of Web analytics can help you identify what pages your readers are visiting and how long they stay—and this information provides editors and content managers with the insight they need regarding what topics interest members most.
By Kevin Heubusch
Seasoned editors usually rely on instinct: Know your industry, know your audience, and you’ll smell a good story. However, without letters coming in the door or copies flying off the newsstand, you may never know how many readers lingered to read past the headline.
That’s one way that publishing on the web is so different. Editors—and anyone responsible for creating or promoting content—can see each click readers make on the site, and they can learn from the results.
At the Association Media & Publishing Chicago Program last month, titled, "Measure, Write, Measure," Michael Carr and Stacey Moncrieff described how web analytics can help shape online editorial.
Carr, search marketing strategist at Aspirant Marketing, offered an overview of common analytics measures and the insights they offer. Moncrieff, editor in chief of REALTOR Magazine (National Association of Realtors), shared how she and her editorial staff use analytics gathered on the magazine’s website.
What to Measure
Web analytics are generated by software programs that record user activity on a site. They can identify a range of actions, such as how many readers visited the site, what pages they looked at, and how long they stayed.
The first step in putting the data to good use is being selective in what you track, Carr says. Focusing on a few core measures will keep you from drowning in data.
What you want to achieve determines what you will measure. Carr recommends selecting the site’s key business goals and tying each goal to an event on the site that will indicate success. For example, if you want to increase registration for a conference, your measurable goal may be the number of members who reach the registration confirmation page.
Once you have goals to measure, you can begin to establish benchmarks—a useful way to gauge success. And when you have a year’s worth of data, you can begin to see monthly and seasonal trends, which can explain sudden dips or spikes in traffic. At REALTOR Magazine, Moncrieff says they now know not to panic when site traffic dips in April. That happens each year when the market picks up and realtors become busy.
What to Do
Analytics will tell you what occurred, but they can’t tell you why. You may have to read between the lines, Moncrieff points out, or seek additional information. In the end, it’s up to staff to turn the data into intelligence.
Sometimes the answers are apparent, such as doing more of what you did well. For example, analytics told Moncrieff and staff that the stories they were publishing on short sales were very popular. They began to focus more coverage on the topic, and they were certain to include the words in the headlines.
They then began looking for other ways to cover the topic. Knowing that short sales often fall through, and learning from members that buyers can become frustrated as a result, the magazine created a handout that members could give buyers explaining what to expect in short sales dealings.
Other times analytics can help test ideas. Carr offered an example from the Institute of Food Technology (IFT), which is nearing launch of a major web redesign. Some of IFT’s content is available only to members. Nonmember readers who find restricted content are presented with an opportunity to access the information by joining the association.
Many associations have considered or tried a similar approach, but without tracking user response, it is hard to know how successful the strategy is. IFT will. The association will know how many site visitors clicked to join and proceeded all the way to the confirmation page.
"Democratizing" the Data
Carr stressed the value of giving all staff direct access to the data. Decentralizing access helps ensure data reaches the staff members who can best apply it in their areas of focus and are best positioned to ask the right questions when traffic spikes or time spent on the site dips, he explains.
Customized views, determined by a person’s role, keep staff from wading through data they don’t need. For example, the editorial staff may be most interested in gauging reader interest in a new feature series, while the advertising team may only track the pages that generate enough traffic to support advertising.
Moncrieff and staff act on this principle, reviewing site statistics at weekly editorial meetings, discussing what the results mean, and planning new content based on what they learn.
Putting the right data into many hands helps the whole site get better, according to Carr. "Individuals using data to improve the content that they are passionate about helps the entire organization," he says.
Kevin Heubusch is editor in chief for the American Health Information Management Association. Association Media & Publishing thanks him for doing a great job of covering the May 2010 Chicago Education Program for those members who were unable to attend.