Rebekah Monson is the co-founder of WhereBy.Us, a media and technology company that helps “people connect and engage in their cities.” She received a fellowship from the Reynolds Journalism Institute for 2017-2018 to examine better business metrics for small, independent publishers. With her fellowship, she aims to develop a data toolkit that gives small, independent publishers the ability to gather information from multiple audience engagement initiatives and analyze the data for continued relationships.
I talked with Monson over email about what she has learned about metrics running her company, and how publishers, especially independent publishers, need to be better about marketing their stories to their audience to compete with platforms. Here’s a lightly edited version of our exchange. Many thanks to Monson for sharing her ideas.
You’re going to look at metrics with your RJI fellowship. Where’d the idea come from?
Rebekah Monson: Our team and all teams in the industry are looking at a whole lot of different metrics on-platform and off- to really understand our community’s interests, motivations and behaviors. We want to meet people where they are and give them the best possible experiences to get engaged with the people, places, and ideas in their changing cities. It’s not enough to do great storytelling alone, we have to continually iterate on our distribution and engagement strategies to help our work matter in the age of “peak content.”
The problem is that it’s not always easy for us to tell how these data fit together in context. We can make some decent conclusions on aggregate trends, and we’re mashing up the metrics we own in little experiments in all the time, but it’s hard to know how various engagements relate to specific actions. Among our cohort of small publishers, the resources and technical skill to do this work well are very limited, but not investing in it is a big barrier to growth and sustainability. We believe that in teaming up to do some focused research and in helping to build some tools to better understand user flows and behaviors, we can improve our own business as well as others that need help to grow reach, improve engagement, increase impact, and ultimately be financially strong.
I have to shout out the wonderful work that Voice of San Diego has done on the News Revenue Hub around membership. The project demonstrated to that we can make big leaps forward if we pool resources around how we build reach and revenue for more journalism orgs. We’re going to be working on these problems internally, so it makes sense to try to understand broader needs of other small publishers and try to work together for broader impact.
What lessons have you learned about social metrics from whereby.us sites? Where are your pain points?
Monson: We need to have clear goals for what we’re making, and then we should work on understanding how well we’re helping users meet those goals. What makes our work successful? What do we want? Time on site? Recirculation? Comments? Shares? A purchase? A subscription? Right now, we may want all of that, which means we’re probably not always optimizing well for any of it.
In journalism, we have to get way smarter at understanding how, when and why our users choose to take certain actions and targeting our calls to action in turn. I know many, many journalists balk at the idea that we should be more like sites that sell widgets, but we’re competing to win people’s time and attention for journalism in an infinite sea of content. I worry that we’re often not digging deep or following through enough to understand and then surpass our users’ needs and expectations in that initial engagement or, better yet, doing enough to win their next engagement.
What makes tracking metrics across platforms so difficult?
Monson: Off-platform engagement and reach is make-or-break for media companies at this point, but when you cede platform, you cede a lot of data that could help you be more effective at your work. What you get back is a lot of aggregated data, and the platforms hold the specifics about the users and who wants what from us. We know a lot about how many people do things, but only a little about who, how and when they do them or how those actions relate to each other. We’re not going to be able to solve for all of those insights, but I think if we can pinpoint a few key conversions, for lack of a better word, study them and learn to optimize for them, we can build much more effective engagement strategies for our storytelling as well as for our businesses on- and off-platform.
Getting people to cross platforms has been hard so far. Is this something we can change?
Monson: I don’t think getting people to cross platforms is hard. I think people naturally engage with the same brands and stories across platforms and we’re all not yet great at understanding why they do it or how to meet them where they are with what they want. Most people spend most of their time on a limited number of platforms and they switch in between them for different reasons. We don’t always understand what pushes users between platforms, but the metrics tell us they’re definitely crossing over.
Many of the smartest engagement teams in our field are working hard on building that understanding about why, when and how users and content are crossing platforms and using that knowledge to make more effective journalism. We see all these media companies iterating on off-platform content strategies at an incredible pace because that’s where the attention is and we’re figuring out how to do stories in different ways to suit different audiences in different places. The evolution of social video journalism is a great example here. Social video is moving further and further from the formats and structures of traditional video journalism as we use great metrics to figure out the user behavior around the storytelling. We know users aren’t using sound, so we are using text in new ways. We understand the pacing better, because we can see where people drop off. It’s our job to learn from our users and give them more of what they want, where and how they want it in this way. As we can get really good at that, we’re going to gain more intelligence about what makes them jump around, too.
Also, we need to keep working on offering users great experiences on our own sites and apps. We’re still bogging people down with boatloads of scripts and throwing up roadblocks and not delivering on what we promise on our own platforms. I think a lot of what we perceive as losing users to off-platform content stems from that original misstep of making our own platforms really unpleasant for users and not spending the resources it takes to build community on our own sites. We have sacrificed long-term brand value in a race for short-term, incremental digital revenue for years, and it’s caught up. A lot of companies are working to clean that up, but it’s always a lot harder to win users back than it is to keep them happy from the start.
What questions could news organizations be answering with these metrics?
Monson: I think the immediate value is that better metrics can help us get a lot smarter about where we allocate limited resources and how we can strengthen our business strategies. It bums me out that advertisers often use our users’ behavioral data more effectively than we do to improve their storytelling and business strategies. If we start digging in on those little conversion moments as one piece of a bigger puzzle around engagement, and building a real understanding of what our most common conversion funnels look like, we’ll get to deliver value to our users more effectively and gain that growth and engagement we need to be sustainable. We’ll be able to identify those stories and formats that are of the most value to specific audiences and serve them accordingly. We’ll also get better at understanding when and how to ask things of our users strategically, whether it’s contributing to reporting, sharing a story, signing up for apps or newsletters, donating, or purchasing subscriptions.
Conversion funnels sound like marketing. How does this apply to storytelling?
Monson: Conversion funnels are definitely about marketing, but what are we doing all this storytelling for? We want people to engage with it, to use it, to value it. The joke on the show Silicon Valley is that every tech company claims they’re changing the world. Tech doesn’t change the world. People do. We have incontrovertible proof that journalism truly does motivate and empower people to change the world, but it’s meaningless if we can’t get people to engage with it.
If we want journalism to win out over marketing, we have to be better at marketing journalism. Audience development editors, growth editors, community managers, all of these people are in some ways marketers for journalism. We’re squeamish about understanding our work that way, but I think we need journalism to compete and win against everything marketers are doing to dominate in the war for attention. We need to get as sophisticated about it as our competitors, who, like it or not, are marketers.
And, let’s not get too precious. The bulk of the revenue in journalism is built on advertising. We’ve been more than happy to divulge our users’ behavioral data to ad servers for them to leverage, and we’re selling ourselves as the the top of the funnel for many, many retailers and services. We have a social mission, one that we hold sacred, but it’s not exactly been directly how we make our money. If there is an opportunity to flip that on its head and help journalism earn money directly from its value to users, we need to optimize how to do that. That’s why we’re building partnerships with non-profit and community-driven news outlets that aren’t fully ad-supported right now to work on this idea.
What about demographics? Should we build different pathways for different audiences?
Monson: Yes. Absolutely, we should build different pathways for different audiences, but we need to first understand what those existing pathways are. Many journalism organizations, especially the little ones, don’t really have a handle on those basics yet.
What tools out there do this kind of tracking?
Monson: There’s amazing software out there for each of these issues, and this project is not about supplanting any of that. Chartbeat and Parse.ly are great at content and audience metrics. Then there options like KISSmetrics and Heap to build up user-level data. There’s great stuff for testing, like Optimizely or Adobe Target. Then we have social metrics, which platforms provide and tools like Sprout help you see in one place. Salesforce and HubSpot and the like are working to help you manage your user data and identify leads, etc. Keeping track of all of that on a solo or two-person team while doing journalism is nearly impossible and it’s far too expensive for small, independent teams to buy into all these products. Plus, it’s a deluge of data, so it can be hard to understand what to focus on if you’re not immersed in engagement strategy and tech.
We’re looking to understand a few really important engagement moments — perhaps purchasing a subscription, or donating, or signing up for a newsletter or liking a Facebook page — and then diving deep into helping publishers understand how, why, when and where users convert into those actions. The truth is that Google Analytics is awesome and can help you with the basics of a lot of this work, but you need a lot of education and time to unlock all of its potential. So, what we’re looking at with this project is trying to understand those baseline conversions that small teams need most and then building some open-source solutions to help us all monitor, test and improve how we present those moments to users.
Kim Bui is editor-at-large at NowThis. Follow at @kimbui.