How to Use Analytics to Understand and Improve Audience Engagement

    by Alexandra Kanik
    March 16, 2016
    Photo by Karen via Flickr Create Commons license.

    When we talk about audience engagement, we can be talking about two things:

    1. How we engage with our audience
    2. How our audience engages with our content

    The first point has us looking at how people come to our site, whether by social or email or other avenues. We would want to look at our analytics with this filter to understand how well we’re marketing our content to different types of audiences and also how people from different referrers are interacting with our content. For example, if the majority of our traffic from Facebook is staying for less than 1 minute and not exploring other pages on our site, we might be marketing our content in such a way that sets Facebook fans up for something they’re not receiving when they arrive to our site.

    Understanding ways to bring new users to your site is only valuable if you first understand how to keep them coming back as engaged users.

    The second point has us looking first at what type of people are coming to our site, and more specifically, are they new or returning visitors? Unless your mission statement is unlike all others in every way, you should be very interested in returning visitors. New visitors are important, but it’s the returning visitors who are actually engaging with your content. New visitors browse your site. Returning visitors engage with it. Understanding ways to bring new users to your site is only valuable if you first understand how to keep them coming back as engaged users.


    Transforming new users into engaged, returning users requires us to try to understand how readers are using our sites and what obstacles they’re facing. It also requires us to take steps in making their consumption of our content as easy and as meaningful as possible.

    Looking at other media organizations

    Using analytics to determine what your audience wants is much harder than understanding whether or not they’re happy with what you’re giving them.

    If your returning visitor numbers are low, or if your returning visitors aren’t staying long enough to read even one of your articles, or if they aren’t completing tasks that you define as goals (commenting on stories, making donations, signing up for events, etc.), these are all indicators that your audience isn’t getting what they want or expect when they arrive at your site.


    But what do they want? There’s a commonly quoted but often unfollowed expression, “Copy the best.” Copying the best doesn’t actually mean copying another person’s work, but it does mean keeping an eye on what other people, particularly those with more resources and perhaps dedicated staff, are doing.

    For example, there is a more-or-less recent trend around online media bookmarking. Last year, the New Yorker released a tool that tried to anticipate when a reader was going to leave an article. It did this by analyzing the scroll patterns of the reader. If the reader was scrolling down, down, down, presumably reading a story, and then all of a sudden started scrolling back up, a little box pops over from the side and asks “Need to stop reading?”, then provides an email field where you can get an email reminder of your place in the story later.

    Screen capture provided by the Niemanlab. Read their post on the New Yorker's tool here.

    Screen capture provided by NiemanLab. Read their post on the New Yorker’s tool here.

    Similarly, the Washington Post just released a tool that lets the reader save their spot via email, opens up to the last place they were when the same article is opened on the same browser and anticipates when the reader might be too busy to complete the article.

    For most of us, developing tools like this for our site is a pipe dream. There’s just not enough time or money to invest in it. However, we can use the innovations of larger companies to learn a thing or two about trends that they have noticed and problems that they are trying to solve.

    This recent trend in bookmarking indicates:

    1. Media organizations are interested in returning visitor engagement, like high page scroll depth or finishing an article.
    2. Media organizations have noticed that on their longer-format articles, people aren’t making it all the way to the bottom, meaning that they probably aren’t reading the full story, they’re not commenting, and they’re missing all the links and context that appears lower in the story.
    3. They don’t necessarily think that these problems are related to the uninteresting-ness of their stories or people’s lack of desire to read them.

    Depending on the content that you’re publishing, your goals and analytics might be different than The Washington Post’s or the New Yorker’s. But this problem of engaging users and making sure that users return to the site to complete goals is not unique. It’s something that plagues most media organizations.

    So what can I do about it?

    If you’re a smaller media organization, you might be wondering what you can do about this problem. We’ve already acknowledged the monetary roadblock that stands in the way of developing robust site tools, but that doesn’t mean that all is lost for the smaller media companies.

    While this is not an exhaustive list, here are a few things that you can try on a small budget:

    Provide a table of contents for longer articles

    How often have you arrived at an article then immediately scrolled to the bottom to see if you even have time to read the piece? Yeah, I do it too. But providing people with a table of contents at the top of the article might allow them to better understand what they’re in for and entice them to read the full article.

    List estimated read time for an article

    Many sites are taking advantage of the Estimated Reading Time feature. Again, allowing readers to know what they’re in for before they start helps them prepare for it and continue reading an article that they find engaging.

    I’m not a WordPress guru, but here are a few WordPress plugins that will do this for your website: Reading Time WP and Reading Time. And an open source one that will work with (almost) any site: Reading Time.

    DISCLAIMER: These reading time plugins were not tested by the author. I would advise you to speak with a web developer before attempting to implement them.

    Give the reader a synopsis of the article

    Headlines are too often relied upon to convey the entirety of what an article is about. And especially with a longer story, a headline, no matter how expertly crafted, just doesn’t get the job done. Consider providing a synopsis or context summary at the top of your longer articles. It can summarize major points in the story and prepare the reader for the main takeaways.

    Include frequent links to your newsletter, and send out older stuff from your newsletter

    As the reader progresses down your story, make sure they have an opportunity to sign up for your newsletter at one if not several points along the way. And don’t be afraid to send out some of your older content in your newsletters. You can either contextualize the older content with newer content on the same theme, create a “throw-back” newsletter every week or month, or just highlight the content that is “evergreen.”

    Analyzing your site’s audience engagement with Google Analytics

    Go to Audience > Behavior > New vs Returning


    How you engage with your audience

    You can further analyze how well you’re engaging with your audience by adding Acquisition and User dimensions.

    Directly under the horizontal line chart, you should see a button labeled “Secondary dimension.” Click that then click either Acquisition or User.


    Here’s a short list of different Acquisition/User dimensions and what they do:

    Acquisition > Default channel grouping: This will split new and returning visitors between 9 or so different types of referring sites.

    Acquisition > Source: This splits your new and returning visitors between more specific referral types.

    User > Gender: This allows you to see the gender divide of your new and returning visitors. If you’re reaching a much larger percentage of one sex or the other and you’re not a gender-specific site, you might want to consider how you’re marketing your content.

    User > Metro: This will divide new and returning visitors into metro areas. I find metro to often be a more useful metric than User > City because it groups users in less granular ways that are more understandable. But you should experiment with both and see which works better for you.

    How your audience engages with your content

    You can further analyze how your audience is engaging with your site content by adding Behavior dimensions.

    Directly under the horizontal line chart, you should see a button labeled “Secondary dimension.” Click that, then click Behavior.


    Here’s a short list of different Behavior dimensions and what they do:

    Behavior > Landing page: Shows you which pages visitors entered your site by. If you sort this page by Session Duration, you’ll start to see which pages are engaging users more.

    If you’re noticing that the pages that have a larger session duration are also the pages that have a low session count, don’t worry, you’re not alone. You can either use your eyeballs to pick out the pages with high session count and high session duration, or you can download this data as a csv and use a program like excel to perform some data analysis on it.

    Behavior > Exit page: Shows you which pages visitors exited your site by.

    Behavior > Page depth: Shows you how many pages visitors used while on your site. This metrics is extremely interesting when you sort by Session count, then look at Avg. Session Duration. In the example below, we can see that a large number of new visitors who visited only 1 page spent less than 1 second on our site. However, new visitors who visited 2 pages on the site spend more than 45 seconds. That’s exponential growth and an important trend to analyze.



    Alexandra Kanik (@act_rational) is the Metrics Editor/Curator for MediaShift. In addition to her work with MediaShift, Alexandra is a freelance developer for news organizations around the country.

    Tagged: analytics audience engagement google analytics reading time returning visitors tools

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