How audience metrics dispel the myth that readers don’t want to get involved with serious stories

Does focusing on audience metrics damage journalism? Regular readers of this blog won’t be surprised to read that I don’t think it does – but there are important caveats.

If you use multiple metrics – such as unique browsers, page views, time spent on article and bounce-rate – you quickly develop a quick, yet broad, picture of what appeals to people. Knowing what sort of audience is your priority is critical.

Focus on just one metric, be it just unique browsers or page views, and the risk is that you end up hitting a number but don’t build loyalty, and, in effect, are having to run very hard to effectively stand still. Focus too much on just engagement metrics such as time spent on article and you can end up super-serving a loyal, but very small, audience.

In other words, journalists and newsrooms need to produce content – and by that, I really mean stories, regardless of how it is told – which both attracts readers but also doesn’t disappoint. In an ideal world, that first story or piece of content needs to make a mark on the reader’s memory so when they find the brand in search or social in the future they are more inclined to click.

Especially within regional journalism, we face a greater challenge than ever to grab the attention of readers and make them care about the things we think they should care about. This is why I think it is so important that audience metrics are spread far and wide in newsrooms so that everyone involved in writing stories sees how readers respond to what they are writing.

That data also puts paid to the myth that readers will only be attracted to the frivilous and the light-hearted. I have no problem with websites I work with writing content which is intended to make people smile and share – surely it’s no different than the old principle of mixing the light and the shade in newspapers.

But I do find it bizarre that there is an assumption that this is the only way regional news brands can reach big audiences. Time and again, the data proves otherwise, especially if newer digital storytelling techniques are applied to make sure the story goes far and wide.

The deprivation widget on the MEN website
The deprivation widget on the MEN website

Last week, for example, the data unit at Trinity Mirror took the incredibly dry deprivation statistics from government and turned them into a visualisation which was searchable by postcode. The Manchester Evening News used it as a way to hook people into a wider piece on deprivation in the area. Across TM, more than 200,000 people put their postcodes into the widget – far more than I would imagine would read a straight-forward ‘data tells us x’ story about deprivation, an issue which manages to be both abstract and utterly relevant at the same time.

Last weekend, Chroniclelive published a story about homelessness in the city, a powerful insight into what one young woman experiences sleeping rough in Newcastle. I found the story when I received an email alert from Chartbeat flagging up the fact the story was delivering a spike in readers to the Chronicle website.

The story is a great example of two strands of journalism skill combining: The ever-important art of finding a great story and writing it well, mixed with the ability of a brand to share it widely on Facebook :

By the end of the week it had been liked by over 126k people, prompted a wide-ranging debate on the causes of homelessness and become the third best-read story on the Chronicle site that week.

As journalists, we may have all sorts of rights to information and to witness various aspects of public life, on behalf of the public. But those rights only stand the test of time if we can demonstrate we are acting on behalf of the public. It’s not enough to be reporting, we need to be seen by readers to be reporting, and whether we like it or not, we have to work harder than ever before to attract the attention of the reader.

And that’s where metrics are our not-so-secret weapon. They tell us what’s worked and what hasn’t and give us clues about how to make the stuff we consider to be important, work too.

The idea that readers don’t want to read stories which are serious or about important issues is clearly wrong. Reading multiple metrics quickly proves that. Audience metrics, shared widely with everyone involved in a story, help ensure the stories we think are important reach wider audiences – especially when we make the most of the digital tools afforded to us.

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