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The Metrics That Should Matter vs. the Metrics That Actually Matter to Publishers

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Parse.ly recently surveyed 270 professionals at publishing sites, brands, and agencies about their use of content analytics. We’ll be highlighting major themes from the results in a series of posts on our blog. Get the full report here: “Getting There: Content, the companies that create it and the data behind it.” 


The good news: 81% of people creating content today have access to analytics about the success of their work. The bad news: analytics come with some disagreement about what to pay attention to. When you talk about the success of content online, you have to consider the merits of metrics you use.

Metrics shape how we interpret data; they define what we value. Sometimes, they come up short and plenty of long think pieces exist extolling the virtues of one metric over the other.

In our latest research, done in partnership with Digiday’s CUSTOM studio, we asked about the reality on the ground concerning the metrics the publishing industry wants to report on, and which ones they’re still being asked to measure.

The publishing metrics the industry deserves, but not the one it needs

What metrics do publishers want to use to define success? Survey respondents selected time-on-page and pageviews as the two biggest indicators. Social sharing came in at a close third choice. At the bottom of the list? Click through rate and scroll depth were only picked by about 8% of digital publishers as a metric that means a piece did well.

Survey data showing successful metrics for publishers

Publishers agree less about which metrics they don’t care for. More people selected pageviews as the least useful metric than chose conversions or new vs. returning visitors. This wouldn’t be the case if you simply reversed the order of preference for most useful metric, which indicates that people have strong feelings about pageviews, one way or the other.

Survey data showing least successful metrics for publishers

Everyone has a boss, and sometimes they don’t ask to see the metrics you care about. Employees reported being responsible for pageviews, first and foremost; social sharing and impressions tied for second. Time-on-page, the favorite of survey respondents, ranked 6th.

Survey data showing metrics publishers are asked to report

Metrics for making the right decisions

Beyond the success of each piece, no matter who’s deciding, metrics should help digital publishers make the best decisions for their content strategy. Yet that hasn’t always been the case: Pageviews have famously been blamed for clickbait, slideshows, and curiosity-inducing headlines. Social sharing has given rise to other suspect tactics, including “hate-sharing” and fake news. Those looking to increase their time-on-page metrics have looked to videos, which may not be the best solution, according to Parse.ly data.

From the Getting There report, one publisher interviewed pointed to the steep learning curve of using metrics, saying: “This is an educational process for all the people we deal with all the time. This is new to everyone. Some of us have been doing it for a few years, but if you’re not immersed in it every day, then you have no idea.”

What needs to happen at these organizations to ensure that everyone understands the usefulness (or lack thereof) of metrics? According to a report published this year by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, news organizations “need to think about how they can develop their analytics capability by making sure they combine the right set of tools, an organisational structure that incorporates the expertise to use them, and a newsroom culture that embraces data-informed decision-making. Falling short in any one of these areas undermines an organization’s analytics capability.”

Another publisher interviewed for the report pointed out that metrics are only part of the story when it comes to success:

“[Certain stories] are not going to do well. You do them because you know there’s some segment of your audience that’s going to appreciate that and it’s going to help define who you are. Rather than just being analytics-driven, it’s analytics-informed. That worked well: having an awareness that traffic is the overall goal, but not the only goal.”

Finding the Right Metrics to Help Your Team Stay Analytics-Driven

No matter the metrics you use, people creating content must be able to understand the data provided to them. To make the best decisions about future work, metrics and data education will have to go hand in hand.

Survey data showing how publishers use metrics insights

47.4% of digital publisher respondents answered that they can easily or very easily use data insights to make decisions about future content and distribution. It seems that the industry is on track for mass metric adoption.

Now, we just have to make sure that everyone uses metrics that match the goals of the organizations measuring them.

Interested in taking a look at additional findings from our report? Download the full report here.

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