Emphasizing Internal Data Literacy and External Feedback, Industry Dive Finds Right Metrics Formula

“We are trying to build a culture of data analytics in our newsroom, and we want to bring a balance to that culture,” said Davide Savenije, editor in chief of always-growing Industry Dive. “Data is powerful. And it can tell us a lot, but as there are also limits and blind spots in the data, so context is always critical to knowing what data really tells you.”

With 80-plus journalists working on 20-plus online trade publications—and every indication that these numbers will only go up—Industry Dive may provide as good an example of any for how media companies are using metrics and analytics to grow. At a recent AM&P Network webinar, Savenije joined three other industry publishing decision-makers to give data its due but also to highlight the value of some type of “feedback loop” to fill in gaps where metrics may fall short.

“We want to empower our people in the newsroom and train them on how to be literate in interpreting the data and in digital media,” Savenije said. “We have a lot of ways to gather information about our audiences, whether it’s clicks and opens, time spent [on page], where people came from and how they got here, how loyal they are. We’ve arguably never had more ways to measure things.

“But metrics often [yield] very one-dimensional results that are affected by many factors, and there are blind spots in the data. So for us, it’s all about knowing what our goals are and how we can measure them in such a way that they can impact strategy, the decisions we make, and the behavior within our newsroom.”

Savenije noted that it’s easy to get caught up in the clicks and opens we all covet. So instead, they try to ask more pertinent questions. “What is the value of a story? What is the importance of our coverage to our audience? And how does our overall audience view us vs. our competitors? These aren’t easy to answer with traditional out-of-the-box analytics.”

Here’s more of Industry Dive’s successful recipe:

Start with your goals. “We want to use the analytics that we have to build feedback loops for our editorial team that help them make better decisions,” Savenije said. “And it has to be aligned with what our journalism and business goals are. So I talk a lot internally about you have to measure what matters. If you’re measuring a certain metric, is it going to lead folks within your organization to behave in ways that optimize for it?”

Use a combination of metrics. “There’s always a notion of chasing what is the perfect metric, and it seems to change every year,” Savenije said. “It’s kind of a fool’s errand. Bringing together analysis from multiple metrics is often what forms a fuller picture and the more nuanced understanding of how our readers behave in ways that are easy to understand… It’s all about measuring our relationship with our reader through the interactions that they have with our product.”

Use your model to help determine your metrics. Industry Dive monetizes engagement from senior executives and business leaders “by working with marketers that are looking to reach those kinds of folks and promote offerings that they might purchase, such as enterprise level software,” Savenije said. So target audience behavior “is very critical to that. It’s really important to know how valuable we are to them. We want to know how they’re engaging with the content; it’s more important to us to have 10,000 really highly engaged target readers than 1 million random readers who we don’t know.” A target subscriber report helps them measure core reader behavior. “We also look at reader loyalty and conversions so sign-ups on stories and repeat visits and things like that [are important].”

Monitor your websites. Savenije calls these “the mothership of our publications, where we have the hub of everything, where you can sign up for our newsletter, so this tells us how readers engaged with the site, how they come to the site, how they leave the site when they come back and how readers engage with stories on the site.”

Supplement metrics with feedback. “Our audience team has built or tailored various measurement tools to give our editorial team a better feedback loop,” Savenije said. “If you talk to any journalist, they really want to focus on the quality and the value and the impact of their coverage, and that’s absolutely what they should focus on. There’s a gap there in measuring those things with traditional analytics, so we’ve tried to close the gap… We conduct an annual reader survey to measure reader sentiment and understand their perception. We started doing this a couple years ago to address exactly this kind of qualitative gap in our data, and as we’ve done it more and more it becomes a really helpful benchmark for ourselves.”

Know when stories are getting picked up. Industry Dive uses a PR tool to “measure earned media coverage.” They believe that stories that get picked up or referenced by other media outlets or in legal proceedings or in legislative documentation reflect unique coverage. The tool has capabilities to send weekly reports and look into deeper analytics such as times cited and the breadth of publications involved.

Resist the clickbait. “A really extreme example of this would have been the kind of big traffic boards that you might have seen in digital media organizations 10 years ago, and that that led to a lot of clickbait,” Savenije said. “But none of those tactics really lead to sustainable relationships with readers. So you have to be really disciplined, I think, about understanding what you measure, what you value and, ultimately, what you reward people for.”

Know your competition. “We also look at market sentiment and perception,” Savenije said. “How does the industry feel about our coverage? How do we stack up vs. other publishers? What is their view and feelings about our coverage? That’s a lot harder to measure. And then we also look at industry impact and recognition, so this could be reactions from the industry or actions taken by the industry after our coverage. It could be awards for coverage, it could be earned media coverage of our reporting, and those are things that can be really unique and impactful for our publications.”

Build a loyalty dashboard. “This is based on repetition of engagement,” Savenije said. “We can measure that at given time frames, and we can also measure different buckets of our audiences depending on that. How are those buckets not only performing but how are they growing in total and proportionately over time?” The dashboard helps to close the gap between having one story or one issue that does really well and the consistency of coverage that readers value. In addition, sign-up reports let Industry Dive see what stories are driving the most conversions.

Educate your editorial staff. The audience and marketing team creates actionable dashboards for the editorial team. “This not only helps us measure more of the things that matter to our audience, but it makes it really easy for our editorial team to get actionable insights that they can make decisions on and can really inform what they’re doing.” A data and analytics team, nested within that group, works closely with the newsroom and also helps to build custom dashboards. A central analytics hub for the newsroom has a repository with all the reports. During onboarding, a training session walks new people through those reports and how to read them. They offer that training on an ongoing basis, so people may want to do it each year.

It all pays dividends. “When they’re looking at the data with more experience at that point, and then we’re weaving these insights from analytics into regular meetings and decisions, that’s the huge kind of cultural component of this,” Savenije said. “You really want to develop that comfort level internally with using data, being data literate, and understanding what the analysts say and don’t say. Knowing that we need to exercise our judgment when we make decisions based off of [the data], that’s how we look at analytics within the Industry Dive newsroom.”

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‘Insights Were Phenomenal’; Audience Conversations Fuel Agenda’s Growth

Let’s say you run an enterprise subscription-based publication for corporate board directors and have seen two years of declining traffic (2016-2017). You’re an accomplished journalist—like Melissa Anderson, managing editor of Money-Media’s Agenda—so you think sensibly. “Maybe if we position ourselves as covering the news of the day, as it pertains to corporate boards or a corporate governance angle. Yes, that’s what we need to do.” She paused. “But it really wasn’t working.”

Anderson recounted this in her excellent, there’s-a-moral-to-this-story section of a recent webinar hosted by our AM&P Network—titled The New Content Metrics: How Publishers Are Measuring Engagement and Using That to Grow.

In September 2018, Money-Media managing director Dan Fink launched a growth plan with several prongs for all divisions, including marketing, sales, operations and tech. “But I can only speak to the editorial ones that I was involved with,” Anderson said, “which were to perform a traffic and audience engagement analysis. And what we found doing these things was that we were on the wrong path—which is why I titled this presentation, Talk to Your Audience.”

Because Agenda, which also prints and mails twice weekly, only sells enterprise subscriptions, you’re not going to read it through search engines or on social media. It has to come to your inbox or mailbox. “That drives the need for us to tend to our audience really carefully, as a community almost,” Anderson said. “Because the same 12-15 people on each license who are reading Agenda are the ones who are going to vote up and down each year if they want to renew the subscription.”

The first problem she found was a biggie. “If we had a company’s name in the headline for a story, people didn’t read it. They weren’t as interested if they knew who the story was about which suggested that we were we were on the wrong path [with] that kind of this news-of-the-day sort of approach.”

(Interestingly, the next speaker, Davide Savenije, editor in chief at Industry Dive, said that seeing company names brings a completely opposite response for their audience. But that only underlined the moral here, that talking to your audience—not reading what specifically worked for Money-Media—is the elixir of choice. I’ll be reporting soon on Savenije’s also-superb presentation.)

“But that didn’t tell us the whole story,” Anderson continued. “So beginning in January 2019, we launched this audience engagement analysis. We basically emailed a bunch of prospective readers as well as a large chunk of our readership. I ended up doing extensive one-on-one conversations with more than 40 corporate board directors and about a dozen other executives who were in our audience, like corporate secretaries, chief legal officers, people like that who could be reading Agenda, even if they weren’t a director. These conversations took about an hour each. They were very lengthy and detailed, and people were really excited to share what they liked about publication, what they thought we could do better and how they use it. It was a really great exercise, and the insights were just phenomenal. We built them into how we cover corporate boards, our news for our readers and build out our audience. And it’s really been successful.”

That assessment speaks highly of Fink for giving the time for that process to play out, and, of course, to Anderson, for engaging and listening—such a time-honored but often under-appreciated skill—and not rushing through that.

“What we found was that our audience reads Agenda for the analysis,” Anderson said. “They print out—I heard over and over again—‘I love to print out your issue and take it into the boardroom.’ They mark it up, they talk about what they want to do and don’t want to do—things they think are good ideas or bad ideas about how they want to run their own companies. So that’s what we found.”

And the results?

“In 2018 we began implementing what we found from the traffic analysis, and we saw a 15% lift in traffic in that first year and then we continued to see traffic increase over the next three years by positioning ourselves as a resource for our audience,” Anderson said.

That included a pandemic-related, pop-up newsletter that ran for about nine weeks around the beginning of the crisis last year. “We had extremely high engagement from that,” Anderson said, “contributing to the new sales, and it also led to something really interesting and I was excited to see: a double, year-over-year rate for forwards and sales for a newsletter.

“Our readers really aren’t on social media; they’re not sharing these things with their network that way. But they largely are forwarding them and that rate had been pretty stable for the past few years, and this year it skyrocketed… which shows us that people are really finding a lot of value in the content that we’re producing about how to solve problems and how they can take these into their communities. That was really exciting for us.”

What’s next on the agenda for Agenda? “We’ve been piloting an influencer program where we’ve heard again and again from people in the consulting space that they wish they could get our publication, but since they’re not a corporate board they can’t,” Anderson said. “We’ve experimented with providing a few comp accounts to those people [who] we want to be sharing our stories with their clients, and that’s been really successful. We have seen those come up through influential people who want to be sharing our pub.

The most exciting thing, she added, was that the tech team at Money-Media has been hard at work on building an entire new “stats platform that’s going to include metrics like scroll depth and time on page to produce this view into how in-depth our readers are looking at our stories, which again is another view on that value beyond just click-throughs.”

We’ll definitely stay tuned for that.