Still afraid of data? Let’s start with the fundamentals

What does it take for websites to adopt a data-driven mindset and strategy?

Is your website data-driven or data-informed? If “data-less” is a more accurate description, let’s take a step back and look at what it takes for sites to adopt a data-driven mindset and strategy.

Quay Quinn-Settel, director of marketing at CollegeHumor.com, believes that when an organization struggles to find value in data or fails to use it, it’s either because it hasn’t established clear goals and KPIs or its KPIs are disconnected from its business objectives. She says, “It could be a combination of both. To make data and resulting insights meaningful to a department or organization, team members need to know what numbers they need to hit, why they need to hit them, and what levers within their immediate control can affect the projected change.”

Another hurdle organizations tend to face when it comes to data is that data can be downright scary to those who are unfamiliar with it. Kimberly Castro, executive editor of consumer advice for U.S. World News & Report, says, “Some publishers are skittish about using data because they think data alone will drive their content strategy, like some artificial-intelligence nightmare. Data is a necessity, but it’s a part of a more nuanced strategy that includes signals like social media reactions to your stories, the amount of PR/media attention a story receives, the number and quality of comments to gauge engagement, and, above all else, editorial expertise.”

So, where to start? Here, with the help of Quinn-Settel, Castro, and Editor Josh Smith at GottaBeMobile, we explore the first steps you can take to help you kick off your data-embracing journey.  

1. Ask the right questions and identify your goals.

Quinn-Settel advises, “Depending on your business model, the type of content you publish or the way it’s distributed, certain data may be more valuable to collect than others. Too many stats can drown out valuable insights.”  

Spend some time carefully crafting the questions you’re looking to answer in order to meet your business’ goals. A few to start with include:

  • Where are your visitors coming from?

  • How are they behaving once they reach your site or view a piece of content?

  • How well are you leveraging your social footprint?

  • How well are you leveraging organic search trends?

  • Is your content formatted correctly? Or, how is your content’s format affecting its performance?  

Create a big list of questions, whittle it down to the most important ones, then pair those questions with their own unique set of metrics so you know what to track.

2. Create a tracking system.

There are tons of tools out there designed specifically to help publications track site, social, and content analytics. Many are free but the ones with the most bells and whistles (and often track records of success) tend to charge subscription fees.

Quinn-Settel says, “Depending on your CMS, many of those tools can be easily integrated by way of plugin. Do your research to narrow your options, then get in touch with vendors and insist where possible on free trials. Get set up, then wait a couple weeks to collect enough data to produce sound insights.”

3. Use the data to draw insights and share.

Once you’ve collected your data, it’s time to draw insights. These insights should answer the questions you originally proposed. Additionally, make sure to provide context when you’re reporting these findings so cross-functional teammates can help to connect the dots between your efforts and theirs.

Josh Smith, editor at GottaBeMobile, mentions that “Convincing authors that the data is correct can be a challenge. If you need buy-in, you should assign a stand-out data-driven article idea to each author and then compare it with their regular content after one or two weeks. Let the results show the benefit of using data, and then expand this to other ideas. Keep in mind that sometimes the best researched articles can fail, so it’s best to do this with multiple writers, not just one at a time.”

Castro adds, “Publishers need to think about developing a business intelligence team that can help editors and journalists interpret the data and continually test hypotheses.” If you don’t have the means for that, consider wearing an “extra hat” in your current role by being your team’s go-to data person.

Says Quinn-Settel: “Reporting should contain actionable data, grouped by purpose and/or stakeholder. You may choose to circulate a general KPI report from which every department can source its relevant data, or you may create separate reporting tailored to each department’s unique KPIs.” Creating a data-driven strategy is all about transparency, so spread the information internally and proudly own the results of your work.

Final thoughts

Creating a culture that embraces data-informed decision making isn’t always easy, but once it’s done, there’s no going back. You’ll look at the way you used to do business and think, shaking your head, “Hm. Imagine that.”

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