Podcast: Web analytics for magazines

July 2022: I recently ran across this recording again and wanted to make sure it was saved in my archive. Some of this advice still holds, although, listening today, it definitely shows its age.

Recently I spoke about web analytics with Tina Pittaway, host of the Magazines Canada podcast, AudioMag. We talked about some of the ways magazines can measure their success online, distinguishing signal from noise, and making sure you’re using metrics to answer the right questions.



I’ve lightly edited this transcript for better readability.

Tina Pittaway 0:04
Today on audio mag:

Graham Scott 0:06
We're discovering that some of the things that we think audiences should be interested in, they're just not. And that can be really hard to hear for publishers. But the truth is better than not knowing. Because if you if you don't know, you can't fix it.

Tina Pittaway 0:21
Canadian Business’s Graham Scott on what you need to know about web analytics.

Graham Scott 0:25
There’s nowhere to hide.

Tina Pittaway 0:26
That’s next.

Welcome to AudioMag from Magazines Canada, I'm Tina Pittaway.

Understanding the analytics behind your digital offerings is crucial in trying to better understand how your readers are connecting with you. Analytics lets you find clear answers on what people are reading, how far down they're scrolling and who the frequent sharers are.

But how often should you dive into the data? And just because something doesn't perform well online, what can the data reveal that might point you towards doing it better next time? Sometimes it's as simple as creating a different kind of headline in the one offered on the printed page.

Graham Scott understands a lot about analytics. He's the Managing Editor, Digital at Canadian Business, and teaches The Online Publishing Toolkit at Ryerson University’s Chang School for Continuing Education. I spoke with him following a two-part webinar he presented on this very subject. I began by asking him why it's important for publishers to have a good understanding of analytics.

Graham Scott 1:32
Analytics gives you a way to answer questions. I think when you're doing it, right, you know, so much of the analytics we have now we, you know, we can measure all kinds of things. And in a way, we can measure too many things. Like, when I sit there, and I open up our analytics suite for CanadianBusiness.com, we literally have three or four different analytics platforms that measure everything that happens on the site.

So one of them measures in real time. So I can see what are people reading on the site right now; we have one that is kind of demographics, comScore, which measures things so we can sell the site to advertisers. We have Omniture, which is meant to be kind of the big official one — it's what we base decision-making on and all of that stuff.

And, like, honestly, you can measure pageviews, you can measure the the amount of time that people spend on the page, you can measure how many visitors and how many pages each one goes to. And there are more of these numbers being added all the time. Like, if you if you want it, it is there.

But that's not necessarily helpful if it's just a blizzard of numbers. And what I think the the usefulness of analytics is, is when you have a hypothesis as a publisher, and analytics is a way to help you test that hypothesis and make business decisions.

Tina Pittaway 2:54
What is the really sweet spot for what you're trying to engage the reader with? Or does it depend on the platform that they're accessing? What guides that?

Graham Scott 3:05
I mean, the platform definitely matters. And I think app measurement is a whole other kettle of fish. And one, frankly, that I don't have a lot of experience with. So my experience is related to measuring people's engagement on websites. And on the open web, I would say.

And I mean, the platform matters there because people behave differently if they're at a desktop computer, at their desk, or their laptop. And that's different from how they behave on a tablet or a smartphone. So it is important to keep track of all of that information so that you have it.

The thing that's happening right now is that we're actually kind of in a period of change for what publishers are looking to prove to advertisers in terms of who is on their site. And this is largely driven by advertisers and publishers wanting to show not only that people land and look at a page on your website, but that they are repeat visitors, that they are people who will share your content with their friends on Facebook or Twitter, that they are a desirable demographic group that is reading your site and that they're they're sticking around for a long time.

And the way that the web started, or the way that the monetization of the web started, was with the banner ad, and that was a pretty crude measure, because all we had was: “Did someone look at the site, or did they not look at the site?” And what a lot of publishers are finding now is that they're having to prove engagement at a deeper level. And so they're looking for things like “how far down the page did someone scroll?” and “How long did they spend on the site, and how often do they come back?” And “What is their social relationship to the site, in terms of social media?”

All of those things together are proving not just awareness of a site, but trying to prove that the people, you know that your audience is really an audience, and not just a bunch of random people clicking on on random links. And I think that's particularly important for magazine publishers.

Tina Pittaway 5:22
Why are advertisers interested in those heavier users? Why aren't they just interested in reaching that eyeball for three seconds?

Graham Scott 5:33
Well, I mean, for advertisers, especially brand advertisers, they want to be in a high-quality environment. And that's something the basis of which we've sold print magazines for years: that a subscriber who has paid up for your magazine is considered by many advertisers to be more valuable than someone who is just getting it for free. And magazines that have that kind of premium audience are able to charge a premium.

And the same is true on the web: that people want, you know, they want access to the right audience. And, you know, the promise of the web always was we know exactly who was on the site, like you can go much deeper; you can get much more granular as well and have a clearer idea of what is happening on a website than you necessarily can in the pages of a magazine that has gone to your subscriber.

Tina Pittaway 6:31
I know one of the statistics that you put up in one of your presentations was that something like 40% of the articles at the Globe and Mail are read by only 1,000 people.

Graham Scott 6:42
There's nowhere to hide here. And that's, one of the things that is scary about it — is that for a long time, you know, we were able to talk about these things in fairly abstract ways, like who the audience was, how valuable they were, what their interests were. And now we are getting kind of a warts-and-all picture of the readership in a way that, you know, was not quite possible before. And there are publishers who are certainly finding that, you know, the things that they thought were successful for them, are not necessarily successful on the web.

Part of this has to do with the fact that the kinds of things that work well in a print magazine don't always work well on the web, and it takes a different strategy. And if you just take something from a magazine and put it online, it is unlikely to perform really well.

The other part of this is that we're discovering that some of the things that we think audiences should be interested in, they're just not. And that can be really hard to hear for publishers. But the truth is better than not knowing. Because if you if you don't know you can't fix it. Once you kind of steel yourself to look with a fairly clear view at what is actually working on your site and what is not working on your site, you can have a very clear picture of that. You know what people find engaging, what they love clicking on, what they love sharing with their friends, and that can teach you a lot about your your audience.

I think there's a huge amount of opportunity there. It can be really painful as well. The sensation of opening something up and seeing that it just has not connected with the audience, that they are not interested — that can shatter some some illusions that we clung to, and still do cling to, for totally understandable reasons.

Tina Pittaway 8:34
What are some of the challenges of just too much data?

Graham Scott 8:39
That is a huge challenge. So one of the experts that I've quoted several times on this issue is a guy named Stijn Debrouwere, who is a developer who has worked on the Guardian and several other high profile projects. And the saying of his, that I really love and that I quote as often as I can is: “Analytics are for doing, not for staring.”

And this is something that I've absolutely done: open up the the analytics site, check out the numbers, and if the graph has ticked up that day, I feel great. And if the graph has ticked down, I feel bad. And that is, like a totally natural thing to do, but it's not much use.

What I think people need to focus on is to find a couple of metrics that make sense for their business goals, monitor those, unclench a bit, and calm down about the day-to-day noise in that data. You want to stay on top of it, but it's really hard to think about this stuff in a sensible way when you're captive to every twitch and jerk in the numbers. You need to kind of smooth it out. Look at it, you know, not day-to-day, but look at it week-to-week, month-to-month, quarter-to-quarter. And in that way, you can start to get a better picture, and a more actionable picture, where you can look at what the big trends are, what the big opportunities are for you as a publisher, and then make a decision that's going to actually have a material effect on your business.

That could be all kinds of things. It could be to do with the functionality of the site. It could be to do with the editorial content. There are lots of different knobs you can turn and dials you can adjust in terms of what you are doing day-to-day. And if you've got a question that you want answered, those analytics can give you those answers.

To give you a concrete example: say you have a "Subscribe Now" button on the site, and you've got one at the top of the page, and you've got one at the bottom of the page. And at the moment, it's red, and you want to try it in green, and you have a suspicion that green is going to be a more clickable color. And you'll sell more subscriptions as a result. And that is a hypothesis that you can test. And you can see the results in analytics by, you know, making some changes to the site, observing how people react to that, and seeing whether it produces an uptick in subscriptions.

That is not something that you're going to stumble across by just opening up analytics and staring at the line. What you need is a question, and it can help you find an answer.

Tina Pittaway 11:36
There's also you when you brought up that notion of publishers realizing that readers just aren't interested in certain areas. Could it also help inform publishers that they're just telling a story the wrong way? Or on certain platforms? Like they're not using images or visualization well enough? Is it one of those things where you abandon those kinds of stories? Or whatever it is that that isn't working? Or you try to figure out if you're just telling those stories wrong?

Graham Scott 12:11
I mean, I think that is kind of the kind of question that you need to put to your analytics. Say Story X is not performing to your expectations; you have an editorial hunch that there is an interest out there in it, and you put it up and it kind of dies. It doesn't get a lot of readers spending time on it, it doesn't get socially shared, any of that kind of stuff.

There are so many ways that you could experiment with changing that story itself, or changing the type of story that you do. Maybe it’s as simple as you need to change the style of your headline writing. That is a huge thing that lots of publishers are still figuring out: that the kind of headline writing that does gangbusters in print just dies online. So how could you try selling the story? How is that headline promoting that story? And is it doing the work that you need it to do?

It could also be: are you getting it to your readers in the way that they want it? Is it that it's just not catching on on Twitter, but it's going great on Facebook? If you need to put a slightly different spin on it in on one platform versus another when you're doing that key promotion?

A lot of people struggle with their homepage. If I go to CanadianBbusiness.com and see all the stories that are there, do people land on that page, and then click on something and find something that interests them? Or do they land on the page, and then throw up their hands? Are they finding content that that speaks to them when they get there?

Could you experiment with better images on the homepage? Is there a tweak that you can make to the design of the homepage that will help that reader who gets there get that second click, who will go and read the article, and share the article, and love the article, and sign up for your newsletter, and subscribe and give me money, and do all that great stuff that follows on from it.

And those are the kind of questions that that analytics can help you with in terms of saying like, you know, if you make the images bigger, and maybe illustration works for you better on your homepage, that's a question that you can ask and that I think analytics can can help you get some clarity on.

Tina Pittaway 14:40
For those smaller publishers who don't have a huge staff. What are some of the tools that they can tap into? You mentioned plugins, what are they and how can they help?

Graham Scott 14:51
So something that I've done a little bit of writing on recently is plugins that are designed to serve related content on your site.

You see these all over the place, like at the end of articles, often you'll scroll down and there'll be a couple of tiles, and they will say, you know, “Recommended for You” or, you know, “Other Stories You May Like”. In many cases, these are third-party plugins that are quite inexpensive to implement, sometimes free, and, usually, technically, not terrifically difficult to implement on a site.

In many cases, they can help you in a way that is low effort on your part, increase the time that people spend on a site. So say someone gets the end of your article, you know, it's a, it's a great piece of writing, and they really enjoy what it what it has to say, and they might be open to reading more on your site, if you can get a couple of links down at the bottom to stuff that is relevant to them. So they've read, they've just read something really great, and they want more, it will help you kind of automatically find related articles on your site, and it will suggest them to them.

And second thing it will do is it will find the things that are already popular on your site. So the things that attract the most pageviews. And it's likely that those are quite appealing. And it'll suggest those as well.

And so a couple of services, you know, one is Outbrain; if you're a larger publisher, Taboola is one, that, that I believe that a paid product, Contextly is another one. And there's even something as simple as the Facebook recommended box, which takes copying and pasting one little piece of code. And it will start recommending things that your friends have recommended on Facebook to every visitor who shows up.

That kind of thing can have a really measurable effect on the amount of time people spend on your site, how often they come back, and making sure that they find something they like when they get there.

Tina Pittaway 17:12
It's both exciting and terrifying all at once.

Graham Scott 17:15
It certainly is. But you know, the nice thing about it is that if you have a question, you can implement a change fairly quickly, and see results fairly quickly.

And, you know, the best publishers who are doing this are doing it all the time — just a constant series of optimizations that they're doing. And sometimes, you know, it produces, you know, half a percent more pageviews or more unique visitors or things like that. If you do 10 of those things in a row, 10 Little fixes that make a measurable increase, that starts to add up to something real. And not all of them are going to work. But that's okay.

One of the nice things about the web, that was not necessarily true in print, is that, with a monthly or bimonthly magazine that comes out six to 12 times a year, you've got to get it right, and you've got to get it right every single time. Whereas on the web, you know, you've got another chance the next day — there's always another train coming. The stakes, in many ways, are higher, but they can be lower, in terms of the individual actions that you can take. If something you try doesn't stick, stop doing it.

Tina Pittaway 18:38
Absolutely. That's there's so much there to chew on. Thanks so much, Graham. All right. Thank you. Graham Scott, Managing Editor, Digital at Canadian Business.