#jcarn: What is the best way to measure meaningful content?

David Cohn, our Carnival of Journalism ringmaster, has graciously allowed me to serve as host for this month’s #jcarn blogfest.

For this month’s prompt, I offer two related questions:

  • How do you define meaningful content that has long-lasting value?
  • What is the best way to evaluate content that fosters deep engagement with the audience?

Take the prompts in whatever direction you wish. I’ll start gathering the results the week of June 25 and post a compilation post the first week of July.

I’ve jotted down a few thoughts below.

Today’s media environment is a flood of immediacy.

With the focus on virality, content creators frantically update to ride the waves of Google, Bing, and Yahoo. They hope their content will light up the social-media landscape on Twitter, Facebook, and Google+. They crave the buzz that may last an hour or two or perhaps even a day, if they’re lucky.

To that end, they often gauge success in terms of page views or unique visitors, largely because today’s advertising metrics are still focused on exposure. It concentrates on the actions of the audience, instead of the inherent quality of the content itself.

We default to these measurements because they make sense. They are something that we can move. And they are something we can tangibly connect to revenue.

News Corp.’s Raju Narisetti makes a persuasive case for the pragmatic reality of metrics that — as he puts it — “drive conversions”:

 …“guests” (your one-and-done type visitors) to “readers” (often registered but not paying) to “subscribers” (paying readers) to “members” (those who avail themselves of other non-content led benefits of subscribing.)

These metrics remain a work-in-progress in various News Corp newsrooms globally but, eventually, will be the primary focus of how we need to manage our newsrooms and news publishing companies when it comes to audience data.

But exposure is limited in what it tells us. Most engagement models (such as the definitive one from Philip Napoli’s book Audience Evolution that I’ve included below) place the concept at the beginning stages of audience connection and participation, as measurements such as page views let us know only whether visitors saw the content. They don’t reveal deeper reactions.

Screen Shot 2014-05-28 at 8.40.49 AM

What is engagement?

Screen Shot 2014-05-30 at 6.55.41 AMMy research partner Dr. Carrie Brown-Smith and I have spent years working with traditional newsrooms moving to the digital realm, and we’ve chronicled a clash of ideals related to the energy spent on generating large numbers of page views.

Since we first connected with the Christian Science Monitor in 2009, we have heard reporters and editors struggle with exactly how to define engagement. Is it loyalty in the form of return visits? Is it regular visitors to the home page? Is it someone who shares content elsewhere as a word-of-mouth advocate?

As one editor told us during one visit:

What’s interesting is that the SEO side is a lever you can pull. You know how to work it, or we’ve figured out how to work it. We know if we do X, then we’re going to get Y, just like a machine, spit it out. We have no idea how to do the other one, so we’re just blind and fumbling around in the dark. And I think sometimes there’s a frustration that comes with that, so when in doubt, go back to what you know. But, yeah, if we could pull that lever, that would be great. I’m not sure we know how to do it.

We are not the only industry watchers who have sensed a critical point in the conversation on metrics. Poynter’s Rick Edmonds noted in March that several corners — including the metrics firm Chartbeat — have begun exploring concepts that better capture what it means to have an engaged user.

Nicholas White, editor-in-chief of the Daily Dot, told an audience at this year’s International Symposium on Online Journalism that the site doesn’t look at traditional metrics such as pages per visitor anymore. “We’ve gotten past (that),” he said.

Authors Henry Jenkins, Sam Ford, and Joshua Green dug into this idea with their notion of “spreadable media,” from their book of the same name. They took issue with the label “viral,” which removes the human component from the action of sharing.

Their definition:

“Spreadability” refers to the technical resources that make it easier to circulate some kinds of content than others, the economic structures that support or restrict circulation, the attributes of a media text that might appeal to a community’s motivation for sharing material, and the social networks that link people through the exchange of meaningful bytes.

Our use of “spreadability” is perhaps most effective as a corrective to the ways in which the concept of “stickiness” has developed over time to measure success in online commerce.

Another important distinction the authors made: Sharing doesn’t necessarily mean engaging. Perhaps users shared content to reveal something of themselves. Maybe it’s the headline that led them to post the article on their Facebook pages or in their Twitter feeds, and they did not truly engage with the content.

Thinking about longevity

For a while now, I’ve been mulling these related ideas and thinking about a concept that I recently started calling “longevity” — a piece of content that people return to repeatedly, whether for reference, connection, or enjoyment. It consistently draws users over weeks, months, or even years. It touches them on all levels: emotional, cognitive, and perhaps even spiritual.

I first began thinking about this notion watching viral tweets, trying to determine what made certain tweets survive for more than a couple of hours through retweets and sharing.

I also noticed it with certain useful blog posts I had written over the years. A post I wrote explaining the Twitter abbreviation “MT” in 2011 continues to drive hundreds of page views to Drury’s Social Media Certificate site every month.  I believe part of the reason for its success is it explores the culture of Twitter, beyond the practical explanation of “MT.”

The label longevity hit me earlier this year, as I was looking for a simple primer on project management for my students. My searches took me to the Microsoft Developer Network, where I found a superb treatise from Scott Berkun — written in 2005. Even nine years later, Berkun’s advice remains relevant and meaningful in today’s age. And it remains on the first page of search-engine results in response to the query “how to manage a project.”

I began to wonder: Is it possible to create such long-lasting, meaningful content in a news context? Does everything have to be about immediacy? 

How do you think about meaningful content? Does it mesh with these definitions? And how might we define and measure it?

#jcarn: Finding the communication ‘jobs to be done’

Note: This post is another installment for the Carnival of Journalism project, where people passionate about journalism are sharing ideas in the blogosphere about ways to preserve and improve the craft. This month’s prompt  from Donica Mensing: 

How do you get your own creative juices flowing? What sparks innovation in your own thinking, your newsroom or classroom?

As an editor and newsroom manager, I had been drawn to Michael Porter’s ideas of strategy, especially his 2001 essay “Strategy and the Internet.” Too often, I had watched my organization and others slash and trim to improve their bottom lines for short-term gains. Porter’s call for strategic positioning over operational effectiveness made more sense: Don’t sacrifice long-term advantage for ephemeral successes meant to appease the stock market.

It was a compelling idea that lingered with me as I pursued my doctorate and moved into research. As I worked my way through the program, I sifted through a number of ideas, hoping to find some frameworks and guides to help the news industry transition successfully to the world of the Web without sacrificing its long-term viability.

Then, Clayton Christensen disrupted my thinking.

Porter focused on the competitive environment at the industry level. Christensen’s research on innovation — most clearly articulated in his book “The Innovator’s Solution” with Michael Raynor — built on Porter’s work and put the focus in a news context squarely on the audience.

Christensen offered tangible advice for thinking meaningfully at the audience level. Don’t ask the audience directly what it wants; they often don’t know consciously. Instead, think in terms of jobs to be done. Through observation and contemplation, consider what audience members are “hiring” your content to do.

Emergent strategy

Too often, businesses overshoot consumer needs. Companies and their structures typically reward sustaining strategy, safer development supported by market research and proven products. They stick with what they’ve always done and applaud improving their best products.

The problem: They often end up overshooting consumer needs.

Christensen

Adapted from “The Innovator’s Solution” by Clayton Christensen and Michael Raynor

Into this environment comes disruption from new or lower-end products that fulfill jobs more in line with audience expectations. And by the time incumbents realize their flawed perspective, it is too late to recover.

Instead, they should rely on emergent strategy, bringing testable concepts to market more quickly with a willingness to fail. In “Seeing What’s Next,” Christensen and co-authors Erik Roth and Scott Anthony note:

When the functionality and reliability of products overshoot customer needs, then convenience, customization, and low prices become what are not good enough.

Well before their legacy counterparts, new sites embraced and experimented with aggregation and online story forms. Craigslist and Monster.com understood more quickly how to deliver cheaper, customized classifieds. And social media developed more convenient mechanisms for content discovery and sharing.

To survive in this environment, news organizations must become as experimental and nimble as the upstarts. They no longer have the luxury of lengthy content testing; they must push nascent products into the marketplace and iterate while learning from the audience.

With this framework, they can identify and fulfill the communication jobs to be done.

Uses and gratifications

Historically, mass-communication researchers have concentrated on the impact mass media have on the audience. In the Internet age, however, the power has shifted to the audience, as Jay Rosen, Clay Shirky, and other media scholars have noted.

As the traditional mass media weaken, the uses-and-gratifications thread of media research offers a more useful framework for uncovering the audience’s jobs to be done. Tapping into the long line of uses-and-gratifications research (as media scholars Esther Thorson and Margaret Duffy did with their Media Choice Model), we can focus on the primary communication needs — the “jobs” in Christensen’s parlance — that users want to satisfy: information, entertainment, connectivity, and consumption (shopping).

In the searchable, clickable world of the Web, it is so much easier for the audience to satisfy those needs quickly. In my content-creation classes today, I repeat usability expert Jakob Nielsen’s mantra:

In addition to the detailed insights offered by individual models, it’s healthy to remember that users are selfish, lazy, and ruthless in applying their cost-benefit analyses.

As we develop the next generation of news content, we must embrace the audience and its needs. Such a focus doesn’t mean we should shamelessly cater to all audience wants and desires. It just means we must consider the audience and the contexts of media consumption more completely as we develop our content, whatever form it may take.

Otherwise, our audience will selfishly, ruthlessly go elsewhere.

Embrace your statistical self: Tips from fivethirtyeight’s Nate Silver

Nate Silver scares the bejeebers out of traditional journalists.

In the 2012 election, he aggregated polling information and other data, and used statistics and forecasting methods, making FiveThirtyEight the must-read column of the election cycle. While pundits became an echo chamber positing a close election, Silver used data to show that for most of the election, it really wasn’t that close. And his forecast was not far off from the actual result.

Slate‘s Matthew Yglesias argues adopting an analytical mind-set is not that hard:

…when you look at it, with all due respect to Silver, his ability to beat the armchair analysis of the TV pundits is much more a story about the TV pundits being morons than it is a story about Silver having an amazingly innovative analytic method.

I’m not sure it’s as easy as Yglesias paints, but his sentiment is accurate. We can — and must — all embrace an analytical ethic when it comes to media creation and consumption.

To that end, I share Silver’s eight cool things journalists should know about statistics (compiled by the Poynter Institute) from his keynote at this year’s Online News Association conference.

I want to highlight the seventh point, which reinforces the importance of challenging your own assumptions and expanding your circle of sources:

Insiderism is the enemy of objectivity. Insider information may not be reliable. A journalist whose circle is too tight may forget there is more outside of it. Silver cited forecasts made on the McLaughlin Group that he called as accurate as “monkeys throwing poop at a dartboard.”

#jcarn: Habits emerge from integration

Note: This post is another installment for the Carnival of Journalism project, where people passionate about journalism are sharing ideas in the blogosphere about ways to preserve and improve the craft.

This month’s query:

How do you decide to dedicate time to a new tool/platform/gadget? What is the process you go through mentally? And then later – how do you convince others to go through that process? And, last: How do you ensure that the tools you do adopt are used once the “newness” factor fades?

———

My job requires me to try everything (Quora). And try I do (Yahoo! Pipes).

But the technologies that stick (Google) are ones that integrate (Diigo) with my existing workflow (Twitter). I typically don’t stick with a shiny, new toy (Squidoo) unless it’s easy to use (Tumblr), works on multiple platforms (Dropbox), or expands the function (Instapaper) of my existing network of technology.

Of course, some platforms are so innovative (Storify) and useful (Iterasi) that I have to use them to satisfy particular tasks (Wordle). Others are so ubiquitous (Facebook) that they demand I participate on occasion, even if I detest the medium. Fortunately, some never seem to rise to that level (Gowalla), perhaps because I’ve already found some other technology that’s similar and fits my web of hardware and software more effectively (Foursquare).

My budget is limited, so I often wait an iteration before adopting new hardware (iPad), which can work to my advantage (iPhone) because the technological kinks get worked out.

Once bitten, though, I often become a disciple through demonstration (StumbleUpon) and help others use the technology to their advantage (WordPress).

If they don’t embrace it as I do, I don’t push it. Ultimately, the things that work for me (AcidPlanet) may not work for others, and vice versa (myspace). What’s important is that we choose what best fits us, not everyone else.

Remember 2006? How the Internet has changed in the past five years

Glimpse the Internet of 2006:

Most users accessed the Web via Internet Explorer. Facebook had just opened its doors to those outside college campuses. MySpace, dubbed the “27.4-billion-pound gorilla” by TechCrunch, had more than 75 million users.

Oh, how the Internet has changed in the past five years.

As we become inundated by the latest, shiniest Internet tools, it’s important to take a look back and breathe deeply. The prognosticators often skew reality and miss their predictive marks by miles. The most important lesson to me? Technologies and innovations change faster than most of us can predict.

I began this exercise while preparing for this fall’s Web Communication class. I was flipping through the third edition of the dated but still excellent Web Design in a Nutshell, and reviewed the chapters on usage. Internet Explorer dominated the browser landscape. “Web 2.0″ was a mystical phrase. Mobile was something to consider, but most usage was expected to come through desktop monitors at 800 x 600 pixels.

It sparked a quick dive back into history.

Browser statistics

I dug into browsers statistics from W3schools.com:

 

The statistics reinforce an adage from Harvard innovation theorist Clayton Christensen and his co-authors, Scott D. Anthony and Erik A. Roth (emphasis mine):

When the functionality and reliability of products overshoot customer needs, then convenience, customization, and low prices become what are not good enough.

In this case, by 2006, most users were satisfied with how their browsers functioned. Most could display Web pages and graphics adequately, and HTML/CSS standards were helping to mitigate the frustration of the browser wars. What people wanted was convenience through faster rendering engines and customizability through plug-ins and skins.

By 2011, Google Chrome and Mozilla Firefox had become major players by fulfilling these needs.

The lesson here? Speed, ease of use, and customization are critical for widespread acceptance of any new technology.

Web 2.0 and social media

Social media was coming to the fore in 2006, with MySpace garnering much attention and fanfare. People were still trying to figure out exactly what “Web 2.0″ meant, and media “gurus” were more focused on e-mail tips than Facebook marketing strategies.

Today, Facebook and Twitter garner most of the attention, but location-based technologies such as Foursquare and Groupon have started capturing users as well. Some have been buzzing about Google Plus, Tumblr, and Quora.

For me, the takeaway is don’t become too enamored of any one technology. The landscape changes quickly; you should understand how the systems operate. That way, you can adapt as the technology changes — because it always will.

Remember BASIC?

The advent of mobile

In Web Design in a Nutshell, mobile was just emerging as a data platform. The iPhone hadn’t been introduced, and the BlackBerry (dubbed “Crackberry” by regular users) was the smartphone of choice. But such phones were typically too expensive for most users.

In 2006, most still used their cell phones as phones, and the big concern was the thought that some people might actually replace their landlines with the technology.

Today, 83% of adults have a cell phone, up from 73% in 2006. And of today’s cell phone users, 42% have a smartphone. With the introduction of the Apple iPad and Android tablet computers, mobile has become the primary medium of interest.

Mobile is a natural evolution of the self-referential nature of media usage: We want information when we want it, where we need it. We don’t want to wait.

Browser statistics point to the need for customization and speed. The rise of mobile shows us how important time-shifting and immediacy have become.

The big takeaway

My goal isn’t to inspire nostalgia for a simpler, less saturated era. What strikes me about the evolution of the Internet is the consumers and individual users are the ones dictating how technology will evolve.

Our goal should be figuring what jobs we need done (to lift more of Christensen’s language) for those users, and finding the best tools to accomplish those tasks.