Social has become a significant traffic driver for most news outlets, with much of their audience discovering content on social media, both on mobile devices while on-the-go, and via desktop, highlighting the growing importance of this area of analytics.
At Metro, for example, social media and community manager Richard Moynihan said the commuter title is experiencing "big, big steep growth from social as a referrer".
"As a percentage of traffic it's going up," he said. "As we create stories that people want to read and want to share more, that also means the right stories are going into search", meaning that "the search traffic's still coming in" as well.
"But generally we're seeing that social as a referrer is on the up," he said.
While some may find dealing with analytics daunting at first, Michael Roston, who is part of the social media team at the New York Times, encourages others to embrace the opportunity.
"Having a better understanding of data really helps you be a better storyteller as a journalist more than anything else," he said. "It used to be that reporters were focused on satisfying editors, but I think a lot of reporters these days should be thinking more about how they're going to connect with an audience, and if you have a better idea of what does and doesn't work with that audience, ultimately you're going to do a better job of telling them stories."Having a better understanding of data really helps you be a better storyteller as a journalist more than anything elseMichael Roston, New York Times
With that in mind, this feature aims to highlight some of the opportunities available for newsrooms to get a better understanding of how their content is performing on social, and how the results can be used to steer, to a degree, editorial strategy.
Ways to gather social analytics
So where can newsrooms access relevant data? There are a number of tools available via the social media platforms themselves, as well as third-party services.
Just last week The Next Web reported that Twitter had "opened up its various analytics tools to the public", meaning any user can go in and take a look at the engagement data for each tweet they send, such as how many clicks, retweets and favourites it received.
At Metro, Moynihan said as well as Twitter Analytics, the team also looks at Facebook Insights, to gather data from the social media platforms themselves.
Other tools used by Metro include Omniture and Google Real-Time. The news outlet has also constructed its own analytics "dashboard". Moynihan explained that this "takes all the APIs from Twitter and Facebook and so on, and re-presents it in a way we can actually dive right into the data".
Other third-party platforms include SocialFlow, which is used by the New York Times to manage some of the company's Twitter accounts, as staff editor on the social media team Michael Roston told Journalism.co.uk.
"SocialFlow is very good in helping to measure the number of people who have clicked on or retweeted a story and shared it with the people who follow them on Twitter," he said.
URL shortener bitly is also used by the New York Times to track how many people "have clicked on a story".
Another third-party tool, highlighted by senior engagement editor at ProPublica Amanda Zamora, is Sprout Social. Zamora said ProPublica uses the platform to "get a sense of the general demographics of our social audiences, both on Twitter and Facebook".
ProPublica monitors live analytics using Chartbeat, and collects data from specific members of the audience who are "engaging around investigations" using Google document questionnaires.
Speaking at the International Journalism Festival in Perugia earlier this year, Anthony De Rosa, who at the time was social media editor at Reuters, but is now editor-in-chief for Circa, also shared a list of analytics tools which may prove useful, as part of a presentation on 'the ROI of your reporting'.
What data is out there?
Image by Beatrice Murch (blmurch) on Flickr. Some rights reserved.
- News consumption
At Metro, the social media team also look at how users interact with the content itself, such as "whether they scroll all the way to the bottom, whether they watch the videos in it or just read the text", Moynihan explained, and whether they engage below the article in the comments section.
The team can then continue to follow the social media circle by seeing what those users then share on social themselves. The idea is to then look deeper into that data and try to uncover any patterns, which then helps the team assess a good strategy, such as optimum times of the day to push out certain content.
- Audience data
Facebook offers "overall demographic information", he said, such as locations at a city level, gender and age. On Twitter, users give less details about themselves, although it can be possible to "determine things like sex from common names and so on", he added.
He added that currently Metro is "more focused on consumption of content rather than the individuals behind it, but I would love to know more about people."Right now we're more focused on consumption of content rather than the individuals behind it, but I would love to know more about peopleRichard Moynihan, Metro
With more audience data, newsrooms can look to offer more personalisation to the user experience, Moynihan said.
"If we could know that someone's an Arsenal fan, for example, there's a logic that would say they might want to see more Arsenal stories, they probably, definitely, wouldn't want to see any Tottenham Hotspur stories.
"So then we could personalise content around them. There's also other ways we can do that where we ask people to tell us that. But where we can take as much of the workload out from the users, so they don't always have to opt in and check stuff and we can do it automatically, that's a big opportunity for us."
At the New York Times, Roston said the area of audience data falls more into the remit of the digital marketing team, although he did refer to some examples where the marketing team has been able to share certain "insights", which can help editorial teams target certain communities. For example, by knowing the audience on Facebook is younger in comparison to its newspaper website readership, the newsroom could consider targeting the social network with content which would more likely appeal to younger audiences.
But he advised against a broad-brush approach. "Just as often, it's useful for us to test those theories and try to see if there are other people out there who are also interested in certain kinds of stories," he said.
As well as age groups, audience data can help editorial with "geographical targeting" strategies, which the New York Times has also tried in the past. Roston gave an example of how this could be used in relation to coverage of the New York City Mayoral race.
"If we test that by targeting it with the New York area audience, then we end up getting a better response than if we just send that to everybody who follows us on Facebook, because a lot of people who follow us on Facebook, they're not interested in the New York City Mayoral race because they live in Turkey or something."
What to do when a story or subject seems to be 'taking off' on social
Image by jeff_golden on Flickr. Some rights reserved.
Many newsrooms today are tracking analytics live, giving them an instant idea of how a story is performing on social. So if a story causes an instant buzz on social media, how should journalists and social media teams respond?
- Consider cross-platform opportunities
"If something does do well on Facebook, it will generally do well on Twitter at the same time as well."
- Work on the user experience
"Are the images big and high resolution, are there videos we can drop into that to make it a better user experience?" - these are the sort of questions to ask, said Moynihan.
"And also, are we taking advantage of the influx of traffic as much as possible and in-line linking to other relevant stories? If you've landed on that story, it's exactly what you want and you're not landing and going 'oh, I've now got to go to another site to get what I actually wanted from this story'."
At ProPublica, social analytics have been used in a similar way in relation to older, long-tail content. When social interest picks up "that to us is a clue to go back into that story," Zamora said.
From here the team at ProPublica might ask if any changes need to be made perhaps, or whether there are any "additional paths that we might want to create for that new visitor, for that person, to find other, more recent or pertinent work".
- Uncover new areas of interest
"We will see what we can do to fill the gap or address that audience," she said. Citing an example of the gun debate in Congress, she said they noticed "a lot of interest in that from our social audience".
"We didn't necessarily have as much investigative content in that space, but we said 'why don't we put together a gallery of all of the best infographics and visual journalism on that subject?'. We did that on Facebook, it was really successful and we wound up putting that on our site and it was also very successful."
What to do when there is a lack of social buzz
In other cases, real-time reactions to stories may be slower, or in some cases a story just might not particularly 'take off' on social at all. So what should newsrooms do in those cases?
- Be patient, and sometimes accept not all stories are made for social
First, pause for a moment and give the story time to circulate. "If we put something out and it doesn't immediately take off in real-time traffic, that doesn't necessarily worry us too much," Moynihan said, "because with social the traffic can bubble up quite nicely".If we put something out and it doesn't immediately take off in real-time traffic, that doesn't necessarily worry us too much because with social the traffic can bubble up quite nicelyRichard Moynihan, Metro
"So you put something out and then about 20 minutes later that's when the traffic will start coming in, if it's being shared a lot."
And if it doesn't, then maybe the story is just not made for social. That doesn't mean the newsroom should not be covering the story though.
"Sometimes you have to give up and say this is a story that needs to be presented in a fuller context," Roston added. "And so maybe it's not an ideal story to be told or at least initially conveyed via social media effectively.
"It is good sometimes just to admit failure and say 'okay, we know this story's going to be more popular on the website than it will be to the social media audience'."
- Consider the timing
At Metro, for example, the team looks at how the content being accessed in the evening might differ to that consumed earlier in the day.
Stories related to evening television programming tend to get a lot of traction with social audiences later in the day, Moynihan said, "whereas at 11 o'clock in the morning they won't necessarily read those stories as much as more traditional news."
Therefore, by understanding not just the data but the patterns that they produce, newsrooms can "target content" and ensure staff are able to be more productive with their time.
"We've got a fairly small editorial team here," Moynihan said, "so if we can direct-resource more effectively, and make sure they're writing stories that are more likely to take off than others at the right time, our audience are going to get what they want and we're going to see better metrics."
Roston added that as well as general subjects of interest, patterns can also show what types of media most appeal to people at different times of the day. When it comes to "longer, video" style pieces, for example, these tend to experience "a better, stronger response from people if you share that story in the evening", he said, compared to during the morning when audience's time may be more limited.
But, he added, it is important to remember that "the social media audience differs from moment to moment".
"So the people who are reading news at 10 or 11 o'clock in the morning, or two or three o'clock in the afternoon or at eight or nine o'clock at night, they may not be the same people. So you can't just assume that they've been following the story all day long, you have to assume they are going to be interested in the news story with fresh eyes, that haven't seen it before."
- Think about social headlines
As Roston warned, "sometimes the search engine optimised headline doesn't work very well at all on Twitter".Sometimes the search engine optimised headline doesn't work very well at all on TwitterMichael Roston, New York Times
"It can be too obvious, or it can be too ungainly and doesn't have a very nice appearance. So that's why there are certain instances where we find that taking a more oblique approach to certain kinds of headline writing, where we don't just come right out and say what the story is but leave a little mystery to it, we find that that can attract readers on Twitter more strongly than if we were to use the search engine-optimised headline or the print headline for that matter."
But newsrooms also need to be careful "not to be too obscure", he said. "Sometimes the obscurity can clearly be off-putting, so it's really a balancing act.
He added that this highlights the need for human input in this area, and the application of an "editorial mindset".
This area of 'social optimised headlines' is a space where the social media team at Metro have also focused efforts recently. The team has found that rather than the keyword-filled headline aimed at search, social headlines need a bit more personality injected into them.
They might be delivered with "a more natural tone", Moynihan said, and are often "shorter, funnier where appropriate". In some cases they may also feature questions, "just anything that engages some kind of response, rather than just broadcasts a generic headline to them".
Moynihan said that by using this approach, Metro has recorded "quite big uptake in shares and therefore traffic coming from social as well".
- Consider site design with social in mind
These are other areas to consider when thinking about ways to boost social analytics. Metro, for example, carried out a site redesign last year, and has since seen significant increases in social engagement.
"Now when people land on their mobile device, the site is very mobile-friendly and looks how it should do," Moynihan said, "so people are far more likely to share".
Metro has recorded a 37 per cent rise in Facebook shares since the launch of the new site and accompanying changes, such as the drive to offer social optimised headlines.
Changes also included a move to a Facebook share button, instead of a Like button, on online articles. This "feels more appropriate to news anyway", Moynihan said, as "people don't always want to Like a news story".
The analytics showed "that shares had a far higher impact in terms of impressions on Facebook than a Like", he said.
- Consider wider context
One area to consider is "the news appetite" that day, Roston said.
Moynihan also outlined other factors which "skews the metrics a little bit", such as the impact of a story being tweeted by a celebrity, or if the subject "happens to be trending on Twitter".
And sometimes, the story itself might just be better suited to the social media environment.
"If something's got a very enticing thumbnail or it's a really compelling story, that's going to get far more [social media attention] than the more traditional news story in some cases, but that doesn't mean that we should do more of one and less of the other.
"So we take that into account as well. A celebrity story may actually get far more people in real-time than a news story, but both are really valid for us as a brand, to get out."
The key is to be "guided" by these analytics, "but not necessarily letting it dictate", he said.
Roston added that "it's important, more than anything else, to think of things in relative terms".
"Very often it seems like a lot of people will really just obsess over the raw number of people clicking on a story, or retweeting a story or sharing a story or whatever, and I think that it's more important to think about the changes that occur from one effort to post and share a story, than it is to look at the way that people are sharing stories overall."
Sharing the social data with others
- With the rest of the newsroom
Moynihan stressed the importance of making the data as "relevant to them" as possible.
"To be honest we're kind of nerds, and data nerds, so we're quite happy to get all these massive stats," he said, "but what we do find is that journalists are quite busy, they've got their stories to write and they're not as into graphs as we might be.
"So what we try and do is distil it down to something that's most relevant to them."
At Metro the team uses a daily editorial meeting to share the data in meaningful ways.
"So what got traffic, why it got traffic and what opportunities there are then to get more traffic today. What I've tended to find is that quite understandably, it's more relevant to tell them why a story did well, rather than just a number."
- With the public
Asked about the impact of displaying social analytics to readers, such as how many Facebook shares a story has had, for example, Moynihan said he has seen that "once shares have started coming in, that does seem to have a snowball effect".
"Once you start having shares come in it's almost like it's a seal of approval or something... and that does seem to kickstart other shares."
And finally, focus on what metrics matter most to you
With the wealth of data on offer, some newsrooms may decide to focus on several key metrics, focusing on what areas matter most to their overall objectives.
Zamora advises journalists to ask the question: "What, really, is it that you want people to do besides just share your story on a social network?"Experiment and figure out what works for you and your audience, and frankly, your journalismAmanda Zamora, ProPublica
For ProPublica, it is about participation. "That's a really big thing for us. We want people to feel like we're a go-to place for these big investigative areas, we want them to share their tips and stories, we want them to contribute when we have discussions, we want them to be contributing throughout these big challenges, through crowdsourcing and what-not.
"There's no magic, uniform set of metrics for tracking all of those different things and I would encourage people to not let that be a deterrent to figuring out what it is that you're trying to accomplish and what are the metrics specific to those goals and how can you track them."
And be open to trying out different approaches, she added.
"Experiment and figure out what works for you and your audience, and frankly, your journalism."
- You can also hear from Amanda Zamora, Richard Moynihan and Michael Roston in our recent podcast on social media analytics, which you can access via the Journalism.co.uk blog and you can also subscribe to our iTunes feed to hear future podcasts.