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Put a Ring on It

Using data to cultivate real intimacy, not just a one-click stand.

Last year NPR pulled off a stellar April Fool’s prank. The provocatively titled article, “Why Doesn’t America Read Anymore,” resulted in more than 35,000 Facebook likes and almost 2,000 comments, a good number of which expressed offense at NPR’s assumptions.

If these fired-up commenters had actually read the piece, however, they’d have quickly seen that it wasn’t an actual story. In fact, they were proving NPR’s theory that people often share and comment on stories without reading them. Ouch.

The most engaging stories weren’t necessarily shared via social media.

Tony Haile, CEO of Chartbeat, a data analytics company, addressed this same issue in March 2014. “A widespread assumption is that the more content is liked or shared”—or in this case, commented on—“the more engaging it must be, the more willing people are to devote their attention to it,” he wrote for Time. “However, the data doesn’t back that up.”

Chartbeat’s research found that the most-engaging articles (meaning, the ones readers stayed around to actually read) weren’t necessarily shared via social media, likely because people were taking the time to read first. Sharing became a secondary action.

It can be dizzying to keep up with the latest theories on data and how we should consider them in publishing. It used to be all about pageviews. Clicks mattered. But when Medium took off in 2012, it measured engagement by total reading time and then Upworthy came up with a metric called “attention minutes.” Google can tell you the age and gender of your readers, as well as how much time they spend with a story and if they click to others on your site or hop off elsewhere.

Not only is the web itself ever-advancing, but the content we release online also takes on new life once we click “publish.” “Through readers, it continues to evolve,” explain the thinkers behind Parse.ly, another data analytics company, which has created a handy digital-first publishing guide for editors. “If you are not active in that process, at best you’re not taking advantage of information you can use to inform your own work, and at worst, you’re ignoring the needs and desires of the people who consume your stories, leaving them to go read someone else’s work.”

Participating in the publishing process today means creating meaningful content that meets your readers’ needs, yes, but also considering the context in which they’ll find a story (or collection of stories), and looking at how they interact and engage with it once they’ve landed there. It means not only making plans for creating stories but also strategizing how to promote and circulate them once they’ve launched.

In early May, The New York Times published a story on the working conditions for employees in New York City nail salons. It went viral globally and even motivated New York’s governor to put in place emergency measures to protect nail workers. It was, from a variety of angles, extremely successful.

The Times editing team had an intentional plan for the story’s release. The plan was rooted in an understanding of what was unique and powerful about the story in the first place. “Getting your nails done has become a required part of many women's grooming rituals,” explains Times deputy metro editor Michael Luo in an interview with AdWeek, “so on that level, we knew that it was going to hit a lot of people personally.”

The story was released online on a Thursday and published in Sunday’s print edition. “The idea is that the digital audience is much larger during the week than it is on the weekends,” Luo says. “What we have found is that print readers don’t necessarily mind that a story was out early, or they don’t even know.”

The Times had a general idea of the reading habits of its audiences, so they leveraged that knowledge to create the most impact.

At the Times, journalists and editors now share the newsroom with an audience-engagement team.

In fact, new teams are being created to steward these strategies. Last August, Alexandra MacCallum became head of the Timesfirst audience-engagement team. This team pushed for the two-pronged publishing approach that the nail piece eventually followed. Journalists and editors now share the newsroom with this group that comes alongside them to help expand the reach of various stories, and to think through social promotion and analytics, SEO, and community-building.

The sharing of the newsroom is not as unique as it may sound. At least not these days. It represents an intentional industry shift of late to combine a set of skill sets: storytelling plus story maximizing. “Our main purpose is to serve readers,” MacCallum has said, “so our aims are really aligned.”

Reneé Kaplan, the Financial Timesfirst head of audience engagement, agrees. “What before was called a community strategy is now called an engagement strategy and is situated in and reports to the newsroom. That’s very new, and very strategic,” she explained to Harvard’s Nieman Lab.

While journalists are working hard to be, well, good journalists, audience-engagement teams are working hard to understand different audiences and behaviors. “[We’re] understanding who the audience is for our weekend content,” Kaplan continues, “versus who the audience is for companies, or markets, or global economy, or comment. Those aren’t necessarily all the same people, in the same places, at the same time, on the same platforms.”

Popping up along with audience engagement teams are data analytic companies. These groups have designed tools and interfaces that make the information easier to digest. If we can glean anything from this, it’s that there’s a symbiotic relationship between data and humans. Each needs the other.

In her role as The Nation’s first engagement editor, Annie Shields works to understand and monitor reader behavior, promote content throughout social media, and generate headline and story ideas. A variety of tools—Chartbeat, SocialFlow and HootSuite to name a few—help her do this. But as great as these data-processing tools are, they still require a human touch. Programs and robots can’t connect the dots to cultural events that may impact how readers respond to, or find, a story.

“I’m interested in and have sort of taken on a more holistic role,” she says, “looking at how the whole system works together to make a strong journalistic presence online.”

Ultimately, that’s what it comes down to: how the system works together—data points and people.

Yet not every brand or organization can afford entire teams to focus on their audience or the available metrics. So what can smaller groups do to make sure they’re listening in the right way?

Part of knowing how to prioritize metrics is understanding what you have to offer that’s unique, and then making sure you are clear in communicating that. Knowing who cares most about what you have to offer, and how they generally behave, is the first step. The New York Times knew that its Sunday print readers were different from its Thursday online readers, so while that didn’t change the message, it did factor into its shape and timing.

Embrace that not every story will—or should—reach the masses.

Pay attention to reader patterns—such as where readers come from and when they come—from issue to issue or story to story, and you’ll be able to pick up on deviations and anomalies that can push you toward new nuggets of insight.

Further, embrace that not every story will—or should—reach the masses. In fact, the whole idea of “viral” can be completely out of an editor’s, writer’s or organization’s control. What’s considered viral, writes Rick Paulas in an article for Pacific Standard, is terribly fluid; it looks different for The New York Times than it does for your personal blog. What matters is the jump in audience size from what’s normal and the speed at which it happens. “It’s a moving target,” he says, “that shifts from person-to-person, organization-to-organization, on a monthly, even daily, basis. Pageviews matter, but relativity matters more.”

What goes viral can spawn without loud, clamoring attention. Paulas cites an anecdote from Deadspin about the time a story of theirs went viral, pushing the humorous sports site into mainstream media. Interestingly, it wasn’t that story that ended up having the most traffic that month (though it gave a nice bump); instead, it was a smaller story about a golf tournament.

What goes viral can be completely random—and disheartening. “For the ones that you didn’t do on purpose, it’s frustrating,” said former Deadspin editor A.J. Daulerio. “It’s kind of demoralizing. You realize, OK, great, I basically somehow hit the slot machine and won against the robot that is the Internet.”

The bigger lesson: “Viral” isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Mastering a steady, trusted reader relationship yields far better results in the long run.

More and more, analyzing reader behavior will become the norm as organizations struggle to discern who is paying attention to them and who is not. Being known—via explicit and implicit signals—is the key to any good relationship. And it requires a certain kind of patience and attention to look at all the information you can glean from the patterns that readers leave in their wake. In fact, it requires from us exactly what we’re asking of our readers: engagement.

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