It’s Time For Better Engagement Metrics

    by Jason Alcorn
    March 28, 2018
    Photo: Kelvin Murray/Getty Images

    Join MediaShift and experts from Content Insights, WhereBy.Us and the Dallas Morning News for “How to Get Better Engagement Metrics,” a free online panel on April 18. Reserve your seat now!

    At many publishers, community and engagement editors have long been pushing for a change in the newsroom culture away from superficial metrics toward a more authentic relationship with readers. Yet that culture shift was often impeded by the value and sheer size of the Facebook audience, whose reach, distributed audience and referral traffic publishers came to rely on to hit their analytics and advertising goals.

    Well that particular barrier has fallen. And now is a good time to talk about better engagement metrics.


    When engagement is no longer defined as the total number of likes, reactions and shares by a aggregate audience and is instead an interaction with a particular reader of your website or publication, increasingly one you can identify by name, what are the best ways to measure that? A handful of recent examples point the way to a better set of measurement practices that rethink traditional digital analytics and refocus attention on key performance indicators.

    Measuring New Engagement With Old Web Metrics

    The return to loyal users is a return to traditional web metrics. But instead of page views and total unique users, publishers are using time on site and frequency of visit to take the measure of their web audience. Loyal users are more likely to seek out the site on their own, leading to the return of the home page as a priority for publishers. They are more likely to spend time on the site and more likely to come back more often. The bounce rate for a loyal audience will typically be lower than the bounce rate for users arriving from social media.


    These are metrics that have always been available to publishers but that have often been overlooked.

    The product team at Vox has been using web analytics to measure and grow reader loyalty. As they rethink the on-site editorial experience for their readers post-Facebook, the team is looking at how to package content to show readers relevant articles and keep them on the site longer. “We definitely think about recirculation as a key metric across all our networks and as a way of understanding our users getting a lot of value out of this,” the head of Vox Media’s CMS, Mandy Brown, told Nieman Lab.

    What about time per user? In a new set of recommended KPIs, or key performance indicators, for public media, time per user (or sessions per user, if time can’t be measured accurately) is offered as a key measure of engagement. The goal of audience engagement is to “encourage affinity, loyalty membership and advocacy,” write Steve Mulder of NPR and Mark Fuerst of Public Media Futures Forums in a piece on Current. Across websites, podcasts, streaming video and mobile apps, time per user could be a consistent starting point to measure success.

    Yet there are important limits to web metrics when it comes to engagement. Most important, they only measure the activity of journalists indirectly, through content. They don’t directly measure what journalists do to engage with readers and communities. One KPI that missing from the public media recommendations, for example: How often organizations engage with their audiences, a suggestion made by The Coral Project on Twitter.

    Engagement Metrics for Real People

    Engagement metrics need to account for the increasingly “real people” aspect of engagement work. Community and engagement teams now find themselves managing and scaling relationships with individual users. Rather than an aggregate audience and reach on social media, publishers have print subscribers, members of Facebook group, sources and email newsletter readers. Editorial engagement can even be the cornerstone of an audience revenue program. Editorial engagement, “builds the practice of bringing readers’ concerns deeper within the [news] organization,” Emily Goligoski and Elizabeth Hanson wrote in a report for the Tow Center earlier this year.

    This kind of engagement work with real people needs metrics that measure the direct work of journalists, not just the indirect effect, and the quality of engagement, not just the volume.

    Take Facebook groups for example. With Facebook pages getting less attention from the News Feed algorithm, groups are a way for publishers to remain engaged with users. The Dallas Morning News invites its subscribers to join a private Facebook group, one of more than a handful overseen by engagement editor Hannah Wise. Its success is a measure of subscribers’ loyalty to the News. “A group seemed like a low-cost way to test if our subscribers even wanted to talk to us since they have habits built around joining Facebook groups, liking content and reacting in the comments,” Wise told Solution Set. Wise also edits the News’s Hearken-powered project, Curious Texas.


    Publishers from The Texas Tribune to The Atlantic are also measuring engagement with Facebook Groups. “We started looking at groups because it allows for more community and more semblances of privacy and sharing experiences,” The Atlantic’s Caitlin Frazier told Digiday. Newsrooms can use Facebook’s Group Insights dashboard to understand how members engage, see the most active group members, and examine post-by-post engagement.

    Operating in a similar community-centric model, local newsletter publisher WhereBy.Us also measures engagement by looking the work of its journalists. Alongside traditional newsletter metrics like list size and open rate, they look at the number of responses to callouts and attendance at events. “I care most about metrics that indicate people have found value in what we’ve created and want to participate in our community,” growth editor Alexandra Smith told MediaShift in a recent interview.

    Finally, one metric of editorial engagement is the impact on the journalism itself. People shared nearly 5,000 stories about maternal harm for ProPublica’s “Lost Mothers” investigation. And ProPublica tracked how they got to almost 5,000, including editorial engagement efforts that came with specific goals about increasing the representation of their story sample and led to stories like an advice piece with tips on improving maternal care from hundreds of women. At Reveal, after 2,000 listeners texted in questions about modern-day redlining, their reporters dug up the answers — and then they texted back.


    Join MediaShift and experts from Content Insights, WhereBy.Us and the Dallas Morning News for “How to Get Better Engagement Metrics,” a free online panel on April 18. Reserve your seat now!

    Jason Alcorn (@jasonalcorn) is the Metrics Editor for MediaShift. He will be moderating the free online panel “How to Get Better Engagement Metrics” with experts from Content Insights, WhereBy.Us and the Dallas Morning News on April 18. Reserve your seat here.

    Tagged: engagement metrics facebook groups KPI loyalty

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