Metrics are problem solvers.
Take a look at your website’s page load times and compare with how many pages a user will browse through before calling it quits. People browse more if the site is snappier for them? Then your site is too slow. Metrics help you find problems.
So, if we happen to have a slow site and we’re doing something about it, when can we stop worrying? We can stop worrying when making things any faster doesn’t change how many pages people visit anymore. Metrics let you know when you’ve reached your goal.
Have you noticed how readers who come in through social media don’t often stick around? If we’re smart about it, they could become loyal visitors. Metrics help you see opportunities.
Did you see how many people were looking for information on that big court case? Might want to keep on top of that. Metrics help you prioritize.
Should we have 25 or 50 stories on the front page? That’s easy: try 50 and see how often people scroll down and especially how many click through on the stories at the bottom. Still plenty popular? Lots of stories it is. Metrics help you make decisions.
But the thing is, too many people in the news industry when they open their Google Analytics dashboard aren’t looking for opportunities, they wouldn’t see problems if they were right in front of them and they sure won’t let a bunch of stupid numbers decide what to prioritize.
Either we obsess about pageviews or we pick another metric we like more – time on site, say – and we decide that, from now on, that’s what it’s all about. Or we get all fancy and gather a whole basket of numbers to gape at. Metrics don’t work like that.
Instead of thinking about metrics, think about projects and goals. What do you want to achieve? Maybe you need more visitors to kick your ad revenue up a notch. Maybe you have a redesign project going and you want to know whether your new navigation encourages people to explore or whether it’s off-putting. Maybe you’re frustrated by how few people subscribe to your newsletter, and so you’d like to improve that conversion rate.
Or maybe you have no clue what to work on and what you really should do is line up ten different hypotheses for how you can do better for your readers, and figure out the metrics or experiments that will tell you whether or not any of your hunches made sense. Why did you decide to do that redesign in the first place?
We need to grow up and use data to help us decide on our goals and use goals to decide what data we need. Never measure just because you can. Measure to learn. Measure to fix.
Silicon Valley startups have gotten incredibly savvy about making data-driven decisions. The news industry has not. This post is part of an attempt at translating the Valley’s wisdom into something that makes sense for journalism.
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Stijn Debrouwere writes about statistics, computer code and the future of journalism. Used to work at the Guardian, Fusion and the Tow Center for Digital Journalism, now a data scientist for hire. Stijn is @stdbrouw on Twitter.