Why publishers must build data into their product planning

Why publishers must build data into their product planning

I’m not naturally a data guy. I’ve been known to describe publishing metrics as soulless, mechanical, even menacing. But it would be a brave (or stupid) publisher that tried to argue that data doesn’t matter: Knowing what your audience is up to is a key part of modern publishing practise.

However, broad agreement on the importance of data doesn’t mean that every publisher is making the most of the data available to them. One of the problems of the modern data analytics tools available to publishers is that they provide so much information publishers don’t know what to do with it.

As with so much in publishing, quality matters more than quantity. The smartest publishers would far rather have 1,000 engaged readers than 10,000 drive-bys. The same quality-over-quantity calculation holds true for data – to see the patterns, the information that you collect and measure has to be organised and highly relevant.

There’s no doubt that the data picture in publishing is way more complicated than it used to be. In the bad old days, page views and unique visitors numbers were everything. Now, a deeper understanding of audience behaviours is not only possible, it is essential in developing a sustainable digital publishing presence.

Metrics that matter

Explosive change in the digital media landscape has put enormous pressure on publishers to adapt stalling business models to fit new commercial conditions and consumer habits.

  • The collapse of the platform-publishing dream, particularly in relation to Facebook, has focused publishers on re-building direct relationships with their audiences.
  • Challenges from the Duopoly, problems with viewability and privacy concerns have pushed publishers to try to optimise the advertising campaigns they service.
  • The need for revenue diversification, driving both reader revenue and ecommerce efforts, has increased the need for performance data across all types of content.

This means the metrics that matter most will vary depending on the change you are trying to drive.

In meeting audience development targets, profiling your established audience to allow you to target ‘lookalikes’ will support growth. Monitoring referral sources will help you to re-target promotional campaigns. Analysing page views and dwell time can make it easier to focus on the content types that are attracting and engaging new visitors.

The same metrics will help you judge subscription sales efforts and retention, but you’ll also need to know what offers or messaging is actually converting casual readers into subscribers, maybe even using A/B testing. A whole other set of numbers will tell you what advertising positions and formats are working on your sites.

Only once you know what is key to growing your business, will you be able to collect, organise and analyse the right data to deliver the insights that will allow you to meet your objectives.

Data at work

Real world examples of publishers using data to plan business improvements illustrate the breadth of change data can bring to publishing.

The Post and Courier of Charleston, South Carolina,  grew its digital subscriptions by 250% over two years by shifting its analytics focus from pageviews to engagement metrics. Stories that don’t get 500 unique visitors and at least 1.2 minutes of engaged time are potentially re-written and given headlines to improve performance.

The Wall Street Journal improved subscriber retention by tracking the number of days a reader engages with content. Its “Habit Project” project identified “16 different engagement opportunities” to encourage subscribers to stay with the paper. Positive actions tracked include email registration and app downloads, loyalty to particular content types and article shares. The project then increased member messaging around these actions to build habits and reduce churn.

Bloomberg Media has adapted the data infrastructure it built to sell subscriptions to support its advertising business. The business information company’s ad ops team has begun using its A/B testing tool in its work to optimize advertising products and campaigns. The data infrastructure now used to identify audience segments for campaigns is also used to build segments for marketing to would-be subscribers. The company is creating internal dashboards to help both groups understand the impact changes have on both areas of business.

Using real-time analytics to assess exactly what and how much of its content was being read, The Guardian cut the number of articles it published every week by a third. Audience data showed that the content that was cut was reaching less than 1% of the site’s audience. Reducing the quantity of content produced actually increased site traffic from 23.4 million monthly unique users in December 2018, to 25 million in December 2019.

The Atlantic, Bloomberg and Group 9 (Now This) have all recently launched dedicated climate change verticals tying neatly into publisher data aggregated by recommendation engine Taboola. The data from Taboola shows that, although coverage of the climate crisis has declined since March, reader interest in climate change content has not dropped highlighting an opportunity for publishers who continue to invest in climate coverage.

What all of these publishing projects have in common is they place data at the centre of the decision making process and use it to inform content and business planning.

In a recent LinkedIn post, former BBC editor and digital consultant Dimitry Shishkin wrote that ‘editorial and tech used to belong to different universes’. Dimitry is writing about the development of product managers in digital publishing, but much of what he has to say can be applied to the role of data in digital publishing.

Once an afterthought, crudely measuring whether readers liked a piece of content or not, data can now be used to support and shape the whole publishing process. From content creation to subscription and advertising sales well managed data should be playing an integral part in publishers’ planning.

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