Categories: Case StudiesMetrics

Parse.ly CEO: Turning ‘Data Exhaust’ into Action

Parse.ly is an analytics platform whose popularity has seen rapid growth in the past year in part due to its inclusive functionality. It organizes the ability to put metrics in the hands of content creators, as well as content and organization administrators.

In this Jan. 8 podcast, I interview Sachin Kamdar, co-founder and CEO of Parse.ly, about the value, use and future of content and audience analytics.

Kamdar is the latest guest in the University of Florida College of Journalism and Communications’ Innovator Series, which hosts discussions with information industry leaders focusing on media innovation and new ways of communicating.

At 6 p.m. on Jan. 13, my Q&A with Kamdar will be live-streamed here on the MediaShift site.

Here is the podcast transcript as we get ready for the live-stream.

Transcript of podcast

Welcome Sachin. First let’s talk a little bit about your interesting background. After receiving a degree from NYU, you taught in a high school for a couple of years. Tell us about this journey of yours, from education to technology, and how that experience prepared you for the role of CEO at a startup like Parse.ly.

Sachin Kamdar: I do come from a nontraditional background when it comes to entrepreneurship, and it did start out with one of my own personal passions, which is education, so I’ve always been involved with education in some form. I graduated with a degree in economics, and I knew that I wanted to pursue one of the passions that I always had, which was teaching, educating and being involved in that space, and so that’s what I followed.

I did a program called New York City Teaching Fellows, which is pretty similar to Teach for America but it’s focused only in the city, and so from there I started working with an alternative high school in Brownsville, Brooklyn. A school where there are a lot of students who couldn’t finish their degree, or dropped out of high school for one reason or another, and were coming back to finish their education and hopefully graduate.

One of the big challenges that I had there was that, with a lot of the students, they were coming in with a variety of different skill sets. You might have a student that had a math level skill of a sixth grader, and another student that had a math level skill of a tenth grader, but they were all in the same classroom. And so, for me, being a technologist, I thought this is actually an interesting technology problem. If I can have some way to understand the baseline of where these students are at, maybe [I can use] that data to create a personalized curriculum for each and every individual student that I was interfacing with. It was something that got some attention from the administration at the school I was at, and also translated into getting a little bit of attention from the Department of Education in New York City, too.

So, I used that to actually think about how I can solve this on a larger scale with multiple schools. We started consulting and working with several different high schools in the city to build, manage and implement this type of process for them. From there I was able to think about what I wanted to do next.

The Department of Education was an interesting place to learn about how big organizations operate, both what to do and what not to do. I saw a lot of it being bureaucratic politics and not really getting down to how to help the students, and so, with that kind of frustration built up in me working with the Department of Education, I started thinking about starting my own company.

Let’s talk about Parse.ly. Your company has been growing so fast, I think more than 100 percent year over year. Tell us, what do you think are the industry drivers for the growth of analytics companies like yours?

Kamdar: So, I think there’s a couple of things at play that happens with analytics companies that’s pretty interesting.  The first thing is just the nature of digital. When you think about the digital space, almost everything that is happening, whether that be through a website or a mobile app, is creating some type of data exhaust.  So when you visit a site, when you click on things, how much time you’re spending, where you’re coming from… all of that is data exhaust. You are telling the company about what you’re interested in, what you care about, how you want to be shown things. And that data is actually valuable.  But, the flipside of that is that’s actually a lot of data. So, the question is: How do I actually translate this huge amount of data exhaust into actionable ways that I can make better decisions at my company?

That’s where I think you get to the other end of the spectrum, after collecting all of the right data how do you actually show it in a way that is meaningful to companies? I think there are a lot of companies that are on both sides and Parse.ly tends to fit across the whole sort of spectrum there, where we want to collect the right data and then show it in a way that our customers can actually make use of.  That actually turns out to be really useful to them, and I think it’s one of the big drivers of why we’ve been so successful over the last couple of years. Really trying to deliver key insights at the right time so that our customers know more about their content or about their audience.

Parse.ly reports page screenshot.

How have these web analytics and content optimization platforms influenced digital publisher’s content strategies in your view?

Kamdar: When people traditionally think about data, they think of it almost in a non-natural way — you think about it as being very distant from what is actually happening in reality. But, I think the key thing that publishers have started to recognize is that the data that they’re looking at, in its kind of reductionist form or minimalist form possible, is actually feedback from their audience. They’re telling them what they’re interested in. They’re telling them where they are coming from. They’re telling them what they care about. So, that becomes really powerful; not just for people that are traditional analysts or business intelligence professionals, but it actually becomes very empowering for everybody across the organization.

And so, now this becomes a big opportunity as a content creator, or as an editor or a journalist, you now have all of this robust information at your fingertips where you can use that to make a better decision about how you want to craft your content strategy, where do you want to start to promote this stuff. That becomes a really powerful mechanism that has just never existed before, prior to moving to the digital state.

We know all these great benefits of the analytics platforms.  What are some wrong ways of using these metrics and analytics for news organizations?

Kamdar: You have to realize that data, in and of itself, doesn’t tell the story. The story gets told through asking the right questions and contextualizing the data as much as possible with any other pieces of information that you have. Whether that be quantitative, qualitative, anecdotal — all of that stuff becomes really relevant and so that is what is really important. First let’s start with a question. If you don’t really know what questions to ask of the data, it’s not going to tell you anything. What are our goals for the next quarter? What are our goals for this next year? And then, how can we use data to inform the right mechanism or path towards accomplishing those goals?

And it’s going to be very different from one organization to the next. For example, you might have a new digital upstart that really cares about growth. And they care about growth to a degree that they are willing to focus everything toward that end goal of growth.  When you have that level of information, automatically you start to understand: okay, well, what is the type of data, or the way that we should structure data, to inform growth? We want to look at new visitors to our site, that’s going to be something that we care about. How are new visitors finding our content? What type of topics do they care about? What authors are creating content that are driving new visitor growth overall?

That might be very, very different from a company like the New York Times, where they have reached scale from the growth perspective and what they really want to do is extract the most monetary value out of the audience that they have. And so, for them, they might care more about loyalty or causing deeper engagement with their site.  Without those right sort of pieces around what our goals are, what questions should we ask, it becomes really hard to make effective use of our data.

I think that’s really, really important to have from the get-go when you’re thinking about what data to use and how you can use that data. And if you don’t have that, and you just sort of say, well here is all the data about your audience, then you can make a lot of mistakes because people aren’t going to find a way to tell a success story through data if there’s not the right constraints around what success means and how to accomplish it.

Thank you, Sachin. I will save the rest of the questions for Jan. 13, when you come by the University of Florida. So, thank you for your time and talking to us today.


Sylvia Chan-Olmsted is professor of Telecommunication at the University of Florida College of Journalism and Communications where she teaches brand management, consumer and audience analytics, media research, and media management. She is also director of consumer media research for the College’s multiple TV, radio and digital properties.

Sylvia Chan-Olmsted: Sylvia Chan-Olmsted is professor of Advertising at the University of Florida College of Journalism and Communications where she teaches brand management, consumer and audience analytics, media research, and media management. She is also director of consumer media research for the College’s multiple TV, radio and digital properties.