Whether or not you believe content marketing will ever be considered journalism, there are certainly some lessons journalists can learn from the way content marketers think about analytics.
After all, traditional journalists have at times been deeply ambivalent about using metrics to inform their work, while marketers love talking about optimizing their content.
Conventional wisdom says this is the case because journalism and content marketing have different goals, i.e. ad-reliant news media simply want to maximize eyeballs, whereas content marketers want their audience to make a purchase.
That distinction might have been clear at some point, but it’s quickly becoming less so.
Many news organizations are moving away from advertising-supported business models and looking at other ways to raise revenue, such as subscriptions, premium memberships, donations, events and an expanding array of other creative ideas. The result is that publishers increasingly want readers and viewers to take specific actions to support their businesses, just as content marketers do.
That means there’s one metric crucially important to content marketing that journalists should learn to love: conversions.
What are conversions?
Conversion might be an alien term for journalists, but it’s elementary for marketers. A conversion broadly refers to any action that converts someone into what you want them to be — a customer, a subscriber, a member, a donor, etc.
Think of conversions as the ultimate objective you have for your audience. Indeed, Google Analytics simply calls them “Goals,” whereas Adobe Analytics refers to them as “Success Events.” Most users will recognize them in the form of call-to-action buttons and sign-up forms.
In ad-supported journalism, publishers have mostly just wanted to convert people into readers, viewers and listeners. The audience’s attention is the product, because that’s what advertisers are buying, and they still provide more than two-thirds of news organizations’ revenue. In that case, clicking the article link in the first place constitutes a conversion.
For content marketing to be successful, on the other hand, visitors have to do more than just show up. Traffic and engagement are great to measure, but the business will cease to exist if the audience never converts. That’s precisely why some content marketing experts say conversions are the only metric that matters.
Because conversions are concrete and inherently meaningful actions, they are both easily trackable and truly insightful. There’s no mistaking when they happen (if the analytics are deployed correctly) and they indicate that a genuine value exchange as occurred.
Currently, it’s a rare newsroom in which editors are aware of how much subscriptions, memberships, event attendance, etc., can be attributed to certain pieces of content. Even less common is using that insight to inform future editorial decisions, even though that’s best practice in content marketing.
Of course, it’s not that no one in news organizations is measuring conversions. It’s just that the people who do are usually in the marketing and sales departments, and they’re totally siloed from the editorial department. As business models change, publishers should be wondering whether that’s in anyone’s best interest.
Why should journalists care?
It’s abundantly clear that attention-based goals promote low-quality content. The entire history of modern mass media is a race to the bottom, beginning with salacious stories in penny papers, through talk shows and reality television, to today’s shameless clickbait and fake news.
Even analytics companies like Chartbeat understand this issue, knowing they will lose credibility if their software recommends stories about Katy Perry over the Pope. Unfortunately, the attractive pop star is often the correct answer when the question is how to get the most attention.
Wanting users to convert to paying subscribers creates a different incentive structure.
Tricking someone into clicking on a sensationalist headline won’t make sense, because disappointed readers are less likely to convert. Rather than displaying screens around the newsroom to highlight attention and engagement, editors will cheer reporters whose articles lead to the most subscriptions, which while far fewer in number than page views and shares, indicate much higher quality connections.
In fact, having conversions as a clear goal would eliminate so much of the confusion about how to use metrics in the first place. Aiming for an action with tangible business benefits provides context for all other metrics that indicate progress toward that ultimate goal. For instance, if a certain percentage of users tend to convert, it becomes clearer how many users must be attracted in order to reach a conversion goal.
For all that to happen, news organizations need to bring all their leadership together to realign their thinking around conversions. Editors should be encouraged to monitor conversions, to understand how content contributes to conversions and to make better decisions in the future based on those metrics.
In other words, they need to set up a system that’s pretty similar to content marketing.
How to refocus media metrics on conversions
Refocusing measurement from pure attention metrics to conversion actions isn’t complicated, and can follow a process similar to setting up an effective content marketing measurement program. Here are the general steps to get started:
- Define goals. Leaders from across the organization should answer this question: What do you want people to do, and what are the best ways to get them to do it? This will determine what constitutes conversions, which in turn will guide the crafting of the user interface, marketing promotions and editorial content.
- Clarify audience. Established news organizations will say they already have this internalized, but remember, the target audience is who should be expected to convert, not just who will read. There may be a difference.
- Deploy analytics. Tracking conversions is relatively easy from a software standpoint. Either by capturing people’s information through web forms, or putting code on certain pages that are only reachable once someone has converted, many programs have straightforward directions for doing this. You could also be even more direct, putting certain pieces of content behind a paywall or registration form, or implementing post-conversion surveys.
- Analyze metrics. Determining what kinds of content and features contributed to the most conversions can be done in a number of ways. For instance, by looking at the paths users took to conversion, you can assess whether certain pieces of content lead to more actions. If you don’t see significant differences, experiment until you do. You might not find something that works brilliantly at first, but you may at least determine what kinds of things should be avoided.
- Revise strategy. If you’re conducting measurement but not using it to inform future decisions, what’s really the point? By looking at what content leads to the best results, your strategy should be constantly improving, or at least keeping up with changing user preferences.
Is it possible that this simple addition of a new metric to newsrooms, rather than building complex tools and creating sophisticated new calculations, could truly shift the way journalists use analytics? There’s only one way to find out: measure it.
Lee Procida (@leeprocida) is lead content strategist at Braithwaite Communications in Philadelphia. Before becoming a content marketer, he was a senior staff writer at The Press of Atlantic City daily newspaper. He also has his own personal website where he writes about the intersection of journalism and marketing, Reassociated Press.