Create a culture of newsroom experimentation

Reader behavior patterns have changed dramatically over the past few years. Readers used to be addicted to things like newspapers, but now they’re addicted to something else — instant insights, platforms, and news wherever they are. In order to be successful in today’s digital world, news outlets need to be agile as possible — they need to move with the speed of their readers.

Combining an understanding of your audience with a culture that celebrates experimentation can accelerate growth and build the right processes and best practices from the very beginning. You’ll find editorial data of some sort in every newsroom across the world. But data in and of itself isn’t necessarily a good thing. Choosing the right metrics to define success can often be the difference between a newsroom with a strong connection to their readers and one that chases clicks at any cost, or the difference between a staff that feels motivated by the data, and one that feels judged by it.

Each site is unique and there’s no silver bullet when it comes to building an online audience. So at the outset, you should be asking some key questions that will help define your approach to editorial data.

Who are the readers we’re trying to reach?
You can’t be everything to everyone. The more you know about — and can focus on — a specific group of readers, the easier it is to carve out your niche in the competitive world of online publishing. Once we know who we’re targeting, we have to ask:
What reader behaviors are we trying build?
In the early days, your mission will likely focus on building awareness and showing value to your audience. As the site matures, the focus will shift to building engagement and loyalty among that key group. Once you define your target outcomes, the question becomes:
How do we measure those reader behaviors and set benchmarks for success?
There are a million different metrics for measuring content. As my data science team constantly reminds me, relying on a single metric can be dangerous. Combining different datasets and looking for the bigger picture can help us avoid false conclusions and celebrate the stories that are really building the longterm health of our site.

And that last point is an important one: as leaders, we need to understand the strengths and weaknesses of different kinds of metrics so we can make the right decisions. Quantity metrics like pageviews, uniques and shares have their place. After all, we do need readers to see and click on our stories in order to share information with them. But volume metrics have limitations. Not all pageviews are created equal. A pageview where a reader reads for two minutes is worth more in the long run than a reader who bounces in the first fifteen seconds.

So we need to augment those quantitative metrics with data that helps us understand true reader engagement. How long are they reading? Did they read more than one article? Are they seeing value in our work?

A focus on reader engagement – how long a visitor reads an article (Engaged Time), how far through the article they actually get (scroll depth), and if your content provides links to bring them further into your site (Recirculation) – is the best way to augment those volume metrics and allow you to have a deeper understanding of your audience and how they interact with your site.

We also need to take action on those metrics. The best way to put the data to work and refine your strategy is experimentation, and I mean that in the true scientific sense of the word. Use editorial data to create a hypothesis about your content or readers. For example, we may postulate that a particular type of story is going to do well on social based on past performance. Design newsroom tactics that test the validity of that theory. For the next two weeks, create stories that fit your hypothesis and post them on Facebook. And then close the loop: Did those stories do as well as predicted? Did they get read by Facebook visitors? Did they get shared? Sometimes, the answer is “No.” That’s not a failure, it’s a learning opportunity.

Experimentation gives your staff the freedom to innovate in a way that brings value to both your readers and your site. Everybody wins.

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