By their clicks you will know them: What your audience says about itself with its actions online

Thursday, November 1, 2007
(Originally posted to the web in 2007 as an adjunct to the textbook Advancing the Story, by Debora Halpern Wenger and Deborah Potter.)

Once upon a time, a journalist who wanted to know how well a story fared—how many people read past the headline, how many changed the channel at the tease for a newscast—had to guess, based on occasional readership studies or ratings periods.

As more journalism migrates to the Web, audience measurements or metrics have become more accessible, and journalists can learn such things with great accuracy—daily, hourly or even minute-by-minute.

Nowhere is this clearer than in the commonly available “clickthrough” numbers gathered for readership of news updates sent by e-mail. The content of these updates is typically a general collection of often-unrelated items. In contrast to the metrics for a Web site front page—where changing headlines, story selection and placement can make patterns tough to discern—the common e-mail news briefing is easy to analyze: Story order is fixed, the subscriber base is consistent.

Clickthrough reports provide a vivid and intimate understanding of what moves an audience and why.

TWO PATTERNS. The most revealing of these lessons takes two main forms: The low-response item nestled among high-response items, and the high-response item nestled among low-response items. In other words, you can learn something when a story drives more or less traffic than the stories surrounding it.

Take a look at two examples excerpted from audience reports for separate issues of the Chicago Tribune’s daily news briefing, Daywatch. In these reports, red signifies a most-clicked item; yellow, not so much. (For this discussion, absolute numbers are irrelevant; it’s the pattern that counts, and it typically remains stable from the first few recipients to open an issue until the last.)

Example A: Low-response item among high-response items.
Note that the Shrek story falls between two most-clicked items. Recipients could get to the “paper or plastic” item only by first seeing the Shrek item, yet more than twice as many readers clicked on the lower item. In this example, the audience suggests either that it finds the subject matter (Shrek, children’s advocacy, public health) inherently less engaging than adjacent items, or that it finds the wording—the “hook,” the headline—less than compelling.

Example B: High-response item among low-response items.
Note that numbers for “HD television” and “shipwreck discovery” are far greater than for the items that precede them. When an item further down a list outdraws an item further up, it’s a strong expression of audience preference. In this example, readers demonstrate that either they have an innately strong interest in HDTV and shipwrecks, or they found the words with which those items were presented unusually compelling.

Journalists who study enough data will perceive clear signals of what moves an audience and what doesn’t, including:
  • “Red-stuff” subjects, words and phrases: Triggers that can help persuade an audience to open an e-mail or click on a story.
  • “Yellow-stuff” subjects, words and phrases: Things that tend not to connect, that need special help to draw an audience.
No surprise that one of the clearest messages the audience conveys with its clicks comes straight from Strunk and White’s rules in “The Elements of Style”: “Use definite, specific, concrete language.”

So, for instance, you won’t be surprised to learn that vivid words like “HD television” and “shipwreck” seem capable of boosting audience attention; abstract concepts like “children’s advocacy” and “public health” seem not to help and may even diminish attention paid.

That doesn’t mean such stories shouldn’t be covered. It just means that headlines for those stories may draw more readers if they use other words.

TAKE YOUR TIME. Few conclusions can be drawn from looking at just one or two groups of headlines. Even those who study these numbers for years should view the data through a cautionary lens:
  • Just as the front page of a newspaper or the lead story of a newscast can turn off an audience, the lead story of a Web site or the subject line of an e-mail can have a similar impact. So take subject line and lead items into account in assessing response to items not featured so prominently.
  • A drop-off in readership is inevitable as one moves down a list of story links. It’s human nature: More readers will see the first item than will see the last item because some will close the e-mail before reaching the bottom. So resist comparing the response to an item at the top of an issue with the response to an item at the bottom of an issue.
  • A new development in the news or a long-range societal trend can grow interest in a subject that previously couldn’t have drawn clicks to save its digital life; “HD television” is a good example. So remember that an audience’s interests evolve.
  • An obsessive effort to serve one’s present audience can lead to “super serving” a relative few, hindering ultimate audience growth. So do not set conclusions in stone. And keep experimenting, always.

A TOOL, NOT A STRAITJACKET. None of this should be cause for despair among journalists who fear becoming slaves to public opinion, reporting only what an audience wants instead of what they think it needs.

This information is a powerful tool for ensuring responsible journalism reaches the widest possible audience. It forearms reporters:

If you’re working on a “yellow-stuff” subject, don’t pass up the chance to engage your audience with “red-stuff” hooks—words, headlines and angles to which they have previously responded.

Journalists who want to sail an audience in a specific direction need not be slaves to the winds of audience preferences.

But, like a good sailor, they can navigate more successfully if they perceive which way those winds are blowing.

© 2007 Charles Meyerson

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