Pundits and prognosticators got a lot wrong in 2016.
So how did we do?
Last December, I made 10 predictions for what media metrics would look like in 2016. Here’s a look back at what I got right, what I got wrong and what I missed entirely.
1) Rankings Will Return As A Competitive Metric
Original Prediction: When I was growing up, Milwaukee had two daily newspapers. The Milwaukee Journal and the Milwaukee Sentinel fought to scoop each other and become the No. 1 paper in the city. But the merger of the papers in 1995 eliminated their biggest competition, which was a pattern that played out with regional media consolidation. Today, the Journal Sentinel has new competition to be No. 1 — but the metric looks very different. Rather than circulation, the Journal Sentinel is competing for downloads of its new investigative journalism podcast to be No. 1 on the iTunes chart. Right now, they’re No. 3 behind only This American Life and Serial. The new digital landscape has allowed local media like the Journal Sentinel to measure itself not just against regional competitors, but in national rankings that show where you stack up on a much broader scale.
You could say media was hung up on rankings in 2016, but it was mostly about covering the horse race of the presidential race. The differences in numbers between the New York Times’ Upshot, the FiveThirtyEight model and Huffington Post produced constant refreshing and occasional fighting. This was also good for website rankings. “538 also in top 100 websites, somewhere between Pornhub and the WSJ,” tweeted Nate Silver in response to Reddit CEO Alexis Ohanian’s tweet about being the No. 7 ranked website. “Now we just need to convince America to hold elections every month.” (FiveThirtyEight is now at 138 on the list.)
538 also in top 100 websites, somewhere between Pornhub and the WSJ.
Now we just need to convince America to hold elections every month. https://t.co/pV4ayGRaOS
— Nate Silver (@NateSilver538) November 30, 2016
2) Metrics Will Be Tied To Real-World Impact
Original Prediction: The media exists to make an impact in the world, whether it’s to bring new information to light or provide the catalyst to correct an injustice. This takes measurement out of the realm of the virtual and into the real world. A good example is Serial. It became the most popular podcast in history with millions of downloads, which is certainly an important metric. But even more than that, it helped get a new hearing for Adnan Syed. Since then we’ve seen other media try to replicate this success with engrossing journalism that can help solve mysteries or problems, like Frontline’s “My Brother’s Bomber” or Medium’s Ghost Boat. Metrics are meaningless unless they can be tied to something that matters. The “caring metric” is hard to define but has potential to be the most meaningful, if media companies can figure out how to measure it.
“Impact” was the buzzword we focused on all year. From our special series measuring impact to measuring the worth of investigative journalism to letter-writing campaigns to what nonprofits can teach newsrooms about impact to creating stakeholder reports. Translating journalism into measuring effects in the real world is still a tricky and inexact science, but it’s something publishers are taking seriously and making progress on.
— Harmony Institute (@HInstitute) June 10, 2016
3) Big Data Will Be Seen As A Big Bust
Original Prediction: In 2014, the concept of “big data” was somewhere between “peak of inflated expectations” and “trough of disillusionment” on the Gartner Hype Cycle. By 2015, the phrase had dropped off the cycle entirely. Analytics at Gartner explained that big data had become mainstream, so it no longer had to be tracked on their life cycle of emerging technology. What does this mean for the media industry? In practice, data for the sake of data is no longer enough. Numbers need to be tied to a relevant metric to be meaningful. So in 2016, expect to hear “We need more data!” less and “What does this data mean?” more.
Publishers recognize it’s not enough to just collect data. It’s about what you do with that data that matters. “As with everything, it’s all about context,” wrote Ian Gibbs, former head of commercial insight at Guardian News & Media. Gibbs wrote a piece for MediaShift in July called Big Data, Smart Data, Fast Data… Creative Data? “If you’re making important strategic decisions about the long-term future of your business or brand, take your time with the analysis and stay robust,” Gibbs wrote. “But if you’re simply trying to inspire creative thinking, go fast. And that’s the crucial point here: Data don’t just have to point to one single truth; they can simply perform a function in inspiring creative thinking and ideas. In other words, data can be used as one of many means to a creative end, rather than the end point itself.”
4) Public Follower Counts Will Be Downplayed
Original Prediction: Quick, how many Snapchat followers do you have? How many Facebook friends do you have? Now how many Twitter followers do you have? Chances are you probably don’t know the answer to the first two, but you can estimate your Twitter followers you have off the top of your head. Today, your number of friends, followers or likes has been derided as a “vanity metric” even while it still continues to be a prominent scoreboard on your Twitter profile. But that number can be an intimidating or demoralizing barrier to entry to new users. Expect Twitter to quietly downplay followers in future redesigns as pressure mounts for the company to expand its users.
Not only did Twitter not downplay follower counts, you had the president-elect bragging about how many followers he had across social media as a way to show his popularity.
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) July 29, 2016
5) The Upside To Downsizing Website Traffic
Original Prediction: When it comes to website traffic, bigger isn’t always better. For publishers and advertisers the benefits of having a smaller but enthusiastic niche can outweigh a much larger but undefined audience. “Focusing myopically on scale and continuing to optimize for the largest possible audience compels us to the lowest common denominator of editorial quality,” Katie Zhu writes in Nieman Lab, calling 2016 the year of the “splinter site.” Zhu cites several spin-off websites like the New York Times’ cooking site and Vice’s spin-off Broadly that focus specifically on women.
Prediction Grade: B-
Publishers are still addicted to the firehose of more traffic, but recognize that this addition isn’t always healthy or beneficial. “The ambivalence toward going viral is something that newsrooms are still grappling with in 2016,” I wrote in The Unbearable Lightness of Going Viral. “It’s undeniably impressive — and usually a cause for celebration — to attract a dazzling number of clicks and page views. But it also forces reporters and editors to ask what increased traffic does for them, and if it has a lasting impact.”
The year is 2030 and my son asks "Daddy where were you when @BuzzFeed exploded a watermelon with rubber bands as 700,000 people watched on?"
— Bobby Blanchard (@bobbycblanchard) April 8, 2016
6) Do We Have Your Attention? Attention-Based Metrics Gain Traction
Original Prediction: In the last few years we’ve increasingly seen that getting a website hit and page views from slideshows isn’t enough anymore. Publishers want to show that content is engaging, that it’s keeping people on the page, and that people are scrolling through and actually want more. Medium helped popularize this with “Reads” in their analytics, which they call Total Time Reading. Recently, NPR announced they are building a “Carebot” tool that will provide a proxy metric for how much visitors care about a story. We’ve only scratched the surface in attention metrics, which will start to be more multi-dimensional.
Prediction grade: B
While page views still matter for advertising, publishers are increasingly looking at metrics that go beyond the click. A Parse.ly report found that readers spend twice as much time on longform content as shorter articles, j-schools are training aspiring engagement editors, and we did #DigitalEd training on optimizing analytics beyond page views.
7) Clickbait-Inflated Metrics: You WILL Believe What Happens Next
Original Prediction: Spoiler alert: Clickbait will be alive and well in 2016. Sure, certain obvious tactics from the likes of Upworthy will evolve. But the ability of publishers to take advantage of human psychology to drive page views will stay the same. As the presidential race heats up, pay attention to the use of “extreme” words in headlines that stir emotion, and in turn, clicks. A research paper called “Breaking the News: First Impressions Matter On Online News” analyzed nearly 70,000 media headlines and found that “an extreme sentiment score obtained the largest mean popularity.” In other words, there’s nothing subtle about what will continue to drive web traffic.
Prediction grade: A
Yeah, you could say this is alive and well.
8) Redefining Reach
Original Prediction: Reach used to be such a straightforward metric. In traditional media, your reach was your subscriptions or your Nielsen ratings or your newsstand sales. Today, reach can be a multiple of your various platforms and be dependent on different algorithms. Media reach can rise and fall on the whims of a tweak to Google’s search formula or a newsfeed. It might be your downloads on iTunes plus Stitcher plus Overcast plus SoundCloud. It could mean views on a Facebook Instant article in addition to clicks to your website. In 2016, media will have to redefine what a new cumulative reach metric on all their platforms means to them.
Prediction grade: C
It seems that trying to unify the definition of reach isn’t any easier at the end of 2016 as it was at the beginning. Maybe that means publishers should shift their focus away from a total reach metric. “Can we track everything? Should we?” asked
9) Newsrooms Will Rely On Predictive Analytics
Original Prediction: It’s helpful to have metrics that tell you what content did well in the past – but not as helpful as analytics that forecast what will do well in the future. In 2016, expect editors and reporters to be informed by metrics that help them decide what to cover, like Mashable’s predictive analytics tool. The tool, called Velocity, monitors how stories are shared and interacted with across social networks, and by predicting which of these stories will be popular on social, it allows Mashable users to ride the wave of traffic. “We like to think of it as a digital crystal ball,” said Mashable’s global news editor Louise Roug in an article about Velocity in journalism.co.uk.
Prediction grade: D
Ironically, my prediction about predictive analytics was off. “Few news editors and directors report using the data they collect to actually help solve newsrooms problems — around audience engagement, page design or revenue development, for example,” Jason Alcorn reported on a newsroom survey in August. “For the most part, that’s a missed opportunity to draw useful lessons from analytics.”
10) Lists Will Still Drive Clicks
Original Prediction: Congratulations! You made it to the end of this list. Maybe you didn’t closely read every point, but you skimmed and scanned down the page until you hit on a point that caught your interest. That’s one thing that continues to make lists so effective in a world of more and more content – it lets you pick and choose and puts you in control. “Lists banish mental heavy lifting, complexity, and ambiguity. Click,” Bryan Gardiner writes in Wired. Is this prediction right? Find out when we share the metrics for this post.
Prediction grade: A
10 Predictions for Media Metrics in 2016 received almost 3,000 page views, one of our top 10 posts of the year. Other popular articles from this year included 5 Strategies for Reporting Metrics, 4 Common Google Analytics Issues and 3 Tips for Publishers in Wake of Facebook. Those are 4 reasons why lists aren’t going away anytime soon.
Tim Cigelske (@TeecycleTim) is the Associate Editor of MetricShift. He has reported and written for the Associated Press, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Budget Travel, Adventure Cyclist and more. Today, he is the Director of Social Media at Marquette University as well as an adjunct professor teaching media writing and social media analytics.