Data That Matters – The Blaze

August 6th, 2012 by Lauryn

Data is everywhere. Big data, ambient data, real-time, benchmarking - there’s so much that there’s no one metric or one way of using it that works for every company or every industry. The data leaders are the ones who take risks, who look at all the information available and decide what matters right now. We’re spotlighting these innovators in this “Data that Matters” blog series. We’re talking to people in various roles across multiple industries to see how they collect, make sense of, and act on their data. Read the full series.
Today we’re hearing from the president of The Blaze, Betsy Morgan. Betsy's previous experience as CEO of The Huffington Post and her current role building The Blaze - through an audience-focused, risk-taking, iterative approach to content creation - has been driven by the use of transparent, democratic data by every newsroom team.
I’m a big believer that unless the whole company understands your audience, then nothing is going to work for you.
At CBS, Huffington Post, and now The Blaze, we’ve always concentrated really, really closely on audience. Who are they? How are they interacting? Who’s new and who’s loyal? We think in the context of the audience.
At The Blaze, we’re looking at a potential audience that’s about 50+ million people; how do we retain those who are seeing us and how do we get new people every day? We have to have a really good sense of who’s coming to the site, when, and on a very immediate basis.
That’s why Omniture didn’t work: it wasn’t real time enough, and it was too backward looking. We need to understand the flow of things right away.
That’s why only having an audience measurement team doesn’t work. Everyone has to care about audience measurement and content, all the time, and in real time.
If tech is sitting alone, and product is sitting alone and editorial is sitting alone, and they’re solving problems discretely - then editors largely ignore the needs of tech, and vice versa.
It’s so key to take editing teams and tech teams and put them on a level playing field;  no hierarchy. And, everything is completely collaborative. It drove the growth at HuffPost, and we do pretty much the same thing here.

Having every team within your organization work together to solve a problem changes everything.

For example, in the last 24 hours, we’ve had two stories do uncharacteristically well with traffic coming primarily from Twitter.  The person who noticed the spike on Chartbeat wasn’t even the author or editor of the piece -- he was someone on the tech team. Which is great! Everyone is looking at our data at once. It’s no one person’s responsibility.
And, then you can try a lot of different stuff. You can take risks. If it’s just one person’s eye on things then you’re not solving big problems, you’re getting little things done.

The big problem with legacy media companies is that they’re trying to preserve audience. We wake up every day with the goal of growing our audience.

Everything is additive. The more iterative you are - and the better you iterate - the more your audience will reward you. It shows that you care about improvement, be it big or small. The iteration is the easy part. The hardest thing about data is that when a lot is thrown at you, how do you determine, what matters?
So, we’ve always concentrated on some very basic metrics. 
How many people come to the site in a month? How many in a day? How many people are on the site over a given hour?
If we’re doing things right, then everyone in the company knows those numbers. After that, it’s a drill down to find the problems. We try to figure out what we’re not doing right and how we can do it better, obsess over it, and then make some changes.
Eventually, that particular problem won’t be interesting anymore, and we’ll move on and fix something else.
This week for example, we’re obsessing over Facebook geographic data from a few specific cities.
It may be useless. It may lead to nothing. But usually it leads to something -- some other problem to solve or question to answer.

Data just starts the conversation, and that’s what matters.

One of the reasons companies don’t share data externally is because they treat data as punishment, which isn’t useful at all. Data as a pat on the back is useless too. Data needs to be used as a conversation starter - a way of getting people to think about things in a different way.
For example, our weekend traffic since the spring has been enormous, and that started a conversation about our audience.
Are they catching up on news over the weekend more? Do we need to add more recap and analysis stories?
One of the worst things an editor said to me a long, long time ago was: “Betsy, it's a slow news day/week/month.” What is that? Slow news day? Weren’t there tons of interesting stories published today?
That’s just not how we think about things here.
And, it’s not how sites that we admire think about things - like the Gawker or the Buzzfeed families. I've always loved them (especially Jonah Peretti, my former partner in crime at HuffPost). Both sites have always been really ahead of the curve, and we watch and learn from them all the time.
Of course, we also learn from HuffPost, who continue to do smart and innovative things that are clearly always informed by the data they have.
And, Flipboard, also, gives such a customized and relevant user experience for content. And, as a result, their audience reach is really far and diverse. They understand their audience.
When you think about innovators, you think about these guys: Companies that make decisions based on what matters for their audience, are hyper transparent about the data they collect, and who take risks - big and small.
We'll be covering a new company each week - big & small, media & not, data junkies & analytics allergic - so let us know if there's someone you want to see featured. Hit me up at lauryn@chartbeat.com.