The Marshall Project on engaging new audiences, supporting its mission with data

Editor’s note: This post has been adapted from a video case study (clips included below) conducted with members of The Marshall Project’s editorial team in late 2019.

The Marshall Project’s reputation for in-depth coverage of the criminal justice system in the U.S. is rooted in its data-focused reporting. The nonprofit, nonpartisan newsroom uses data as a centerpiece for its impact-driven journalism, supporting its mission to foster a greater sense of urgency around major, systemic issues.

The organization’s data-savvy editorial and executive teams also rely on insights in the form of real-time and historical data from Chartbeat. With this information, the team can quickly understand what is resonating among its loyal readers and elevate the types of content that engages new audiences.

“Data is very important to our product, because it helps us understand how our readers are interacting not just with our content, but also with our website,” says Gabe Isman, The Marshall Project’s Director of Technology.

Instant insights into content that resonate most with readers

While the impact of The Marshall Project’s reporting can resonate over years, knowing how readers interact with newly-published content in real time is as critically important to achieving its mission.

For Isman, Chartbeat’s Heads Up Display provides instant insights into which areas of its website readers are consistently finding and engaging with content. This allows him and the editorial team to make proactive enhancements across the site well before the next piece is published.

“Chartbeat helps us understand how many people we’re reaching, how the stories we’re writing are resonating with our readers, and what we could be doing better,” he says.

Tip: Use the Heads Up Display to measure the impact of your content in real time, while making timely adjustments based on where readers may be dropping off.

Identifying and capitalizing on audience growth opportunities

The Marshall Project also leverages its strong social media presence to ensure information reaches the widest audience possible. Social Media Editor Tatiana Crane uses Chartbeat’s Offsite Social tools to identify and capitalize on referral trends, which is especially important in the short hours after a new piece is published. 

“Chartbeat makes it really easy to see where that traffic is appearing from, whether it’s Twitter or offsite social like Facebook or Reddit. It’s a great opportunity for us to grow our audience and reach new readers,” Crane says.

Tip: Chartbeat users can get a deeper view of reader engagement by using the Historical Dashboard and filtering for Total Engaged Minutes.

Both Isman and Crane also place a great deal of weight on Chartbeat’s Total Engaged Minutes metric, which helps them understand what is truly resonating with The Marshall Project’s audience over longer timeframes. Crane and Isman say they want a more holistic view of the reader journey — not only knowing what brings readers to the site, but what keeps them there longer.

“[Engaged Minutes] is much more valuable to us than pageviews,” Isman says. “It gives us a much deeper understanding of how our readers are interacting with our content.”

Tracking the pulse of readers’ interests   

The leaders of The Marshall Project are also paying close attention to Chartbeat data when it comes to building a long-term audience engagement strategy. For Tom Meagher, Managing Editor for Digital and Data, data like Engaged Minutes and tools like Spike Alerts — which inform teams when traffic suddenly picks up sharply for a given story — serve a critical purpose for organization’s understanding of its audience.

“Engaged Minutes is really big for us,” he says. “Looking at how audiences are diving into our stories — that’s a nuance we hadn’t really thought about before we started using Chartbeat.”

On the subject of Spike Alerts, he and Managing Editor Geraldine Sealey believe the email notifications bring attention to content that could have previously been flying under the radar. For instance, a single Spike Alert notification sets off a chain of events that informs impactful content strategy decisions.

“I went to take a look to see where people were finding the story, who was tweeting about it, what Facebook groups had posted it. I then followed those to see what people were saying about it,” she says. “Really, without Chartbeat I wouldn’t have that kind of information about how our stories were reaching readers in that kind of an instant way.”

Tip: Use Spike Alerts a real-time opportunity to make adjustments to trending content that can yield stronger reader engagement across your site. 

When leaders receive a real-time view 

President Carroll Bogert also sees the bigger picture when it comes to the relationship between data and the organization’s mission to keep public attention focused on the criminal justice system. 

“Having data about our audience and how well we’re serving our audience is critical.”

“Having data about our audience and how well we’re serving our audience is critical. So Chartbeat helps us just to have a better idea of what stories are really engaging and what’s resonating with our audience,” she says.

Chartbeat’s ability to provide data in real time so that the team can respond in kind is crucial when every second counts, she says.

“Data is at the heart of what we report on, and it’s at the heart of what we need to understand in order to reach our audience and fulfill our mission. Our mission is to make more people care about the criminal justice system. If we can understand how audiences are interacting with our content, we can do our jobs better,” she says.

See how you can use Chartbeat’s analytics and optimization tools to inform your organizational goals — request a free demo.

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