A new metric to count in News: The follow – #jcarn

This month’s Carnival of Journalism is hosted by Prof. Jonathan Groves. You can read the full blog post from Jonathan here: What is the best way of measuring meaningful content? 

For this month’s prompt, I [Jonathan] 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?

I am cheating a bit by re-blogging (with some a bit of an intro) a post that I wrote for Circa’s blog about this very subject.

The key thing to keep in mind about Circa is that we don’t write “articles” we tell stories. And some of those stories last a long time. A court case could go on for a year or more. The recovery after a natural disaster, a missing airplane, an influenza outbreak, a legislative process, an election. All of these are stories that can go on for weeks, months or longer. And at Circa we create one object at one URL that persists over time for us to track the story as it evolves. Because we atomize news, we are able to present the story differently to somebody who is returning to the story (and wants the latest information) versus somebody who is brand new to the story (and needs to start at the beginning). It’s all about presenting the atoms (the facts, quotes, stats, images, etc) in a different order depending on the reader’s relationship to the story.

And that’s the “follow.” This is the most important thing at Circa. It’s the foundation of our relationship with readers. It’s how we get readers to return (often to the same URL/Story with new info for them) and it’s how we build trust with readers. It’s also something we measure. It’s our metric of how valuable a story is over time and how engaging a story is.

(From the Circa blog post)

“If you hopped into a time machine that spat you out sometime between 1996 and now, you could almost pinpoint the year by the words used to describe an organization’s Web traffic. Hits? That would be 1998 or so. Page views? 2003-2005. Unique visitors? 2006-2007. Odds are that 2008-2009 is going to be the year of ‘time spent,’ as in, ‘an average user spends four minutes and thirty-five seconds on our site.’”

Much has changed since I wrote that for Columbia Journalism Review in April 2008. I applaud efforts that are trying to push the boundaries in what we count and how we count it. The social web has made “sharing” often called “engagement” a new and important metric.

In any case – metrics matter because what you count determines what you sell to advertisers and how you make money.

Engagement, even if we have trouble defining how to measure it, has value either because it bolsters a bottom-line metric (that can be monetized) or because “engagement” helps advance the relationship between the publication and readers. Some in the media space say relationships formed through “engagement” are more valuable than other metrics like “clicks” (eyeballs). If you ask journalism professor and media pundit Jeff Jarvis; journalists are in the relationship business.

So what does it mean to have a relationship with a reader? Can this even be measured?

At Circa we’ve created a unique relationship with readers through the “follow” feature. The feature creates a unique measurement of a story’s performance and it is at the very heart of how we try to serve readers.

The “follow” is a metric of what our readers know

Our “leaderboard” has classic stats based more or less on “eyeballs” but it also includes a “follow” count. We can see how many people have “followed” a story in the last hour, the last 24 hours and how many have unfollowed (happily always our lowest number). The follow count doesn’t represent “eyeballs” to monetize with banner ads but rather relationships. Each follow is a decision by a reader to keep in touch, for us to keep track of what they know and alert them when something new happens they aren’t aware of. From an editorial perspective – that’s valuable information which allows us to serve a reader better. It also lets us know exactly how many devices will be alerted when we update a story. It’s not a theory about what we need to do to make something “engaging” – it’s a number and each number is a unique person that will get the update.

It leads to counterintuitive examples of success. With each push during the week of the Boston Marathon bombing we found a rush of readers come back to the app. But we also found that the time they spent on the app decreased after their first visit. This makes perfect sense, however, since we highlighted the new information and the readers understood that if it wasn’t highlighted – it was information they already knew and didn’t need to spend time on. If we were a publisher that had to monetize time spent, we’d be in trouble and might come up with listicles, “analysis” or other tricks to increase eyeballs and return visits. But if we are an organization that puts value in the ongoing relationship – we are in luck, because we found with every push the reader came back trusting that we would provide just the latest information and wouldn’t waste their time.

To the extent that Circa is an experiment in changing how we deliver news, it has also required us to rethink and experiment with what metrics are of value and why.