Some advice for media: Just because you can measure something doesn’t make it important

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One of the best things about the web is that it provides almost an infinite number of ways to measure things, from what browser people use or how big their screen is to the amount of time they spend on a page. But this ability to measure can also be one of the worst things about the web, at least from a publishing point of view, as Knight-Mozilla OpenNews fellow Stijn Debrouwere pointed out in a recent post — because it encourages media companies and publishers of all kinds to focus on incremental increases in largely meaningless numbers, instead of paying attention to the things that actually matter.

In his post, which is taken from a presentation he made to a Hacks and Hackers meetup in Berlin earlier this month, Debrouwere — a member of the Guardian’s data team — compares the media obsession with analytics to a “cargo cult.” That’s the bizarre sociological phenomenon that took place in remote parts of the world after the World War II, in which islanders tried to bring back the gods (i.e., the U.S. military) by replicating their behavior:

“They’d put on uniforms and wave around makeshift signal cones, the ones you use to tell a plane where and how to land. Cultists would construct and man communications shacks and talk into radios with nobody at the end of the line. They had gotten a taste of modern technology, medicine and entertainment and they wanted more.”

Analytics don’t have magical properties

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For many media companies, Debrouwere argues, data analytics have taken on this kind of role: since publishers know that technology companies use analytics and “big data” all the time to generate value, they assume that using the same kinds of tools — even if they don’t really understand what they are measuring or why — will produce the same kind of magical results, and thereby transform their businesses from money-losing dinosaurs into sleek and modern internet players. But in many cases, as Debrouwere puts it, they are talking into radios with nobody at the end of the line.

I like Debrouwere’s analogy, in part because I think the whole phenomenon of cargo cults is fascinating, but for me it misses the mark a little. Media companies aren’t trying to bring back something they already had by using analytics — it’s more like they were remote villagers hidden in the rain forest who had never seen a ruler or a scale for measuring weight before, and suddenly when the web came along they were handed these tools and didn’t really know what to do with them. So naturally, they ran around measuring the length and height and weight of everything in sight, without really knowing why.

To compound the problem, the whole advertising model for publishing online was (and still largely is) built on the idea of traffic — and more recently, metrics like unique visitors — and so those became the most important things to measure. And of course, since whatever you measure is also what you tend to produce, pageviews became the goal, which led inexorably to the kind of online media skewered by the Onion during the recent Miley Cyrus “twerking” scandal, not to mention slideshows and other tools. As DeBrouwere puts it:

“Pageviews is a vanity metric: something that looks really important but that we can’t act on and that tell us nothing about how well we’re actually doing, financially or otherwise.”

Real-time data compounds the problem

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More recently, we’ve seen the rise of real-time analytics measurement thanks to tools like Chartbeat from Betaworks, which provides a dashboard of things you can measure — and even a “heads-up display” that shows you how many people are reading an article right now, how many have made it past a certain point, and other incredibly depressing metrics. But Debrouwere is right when he says that most publishers are not equipped to turn on a dime and change their output based on real-time analytics, and so they are often more of a frustration or a distraction.

To be fair to Chartbeat, it also provides a lot of useful things to track, such as the amount of time readers spend on a page and whether they have commented or not, as well as tracking who has been talking about or sharing your piece on social media — which is fascinating to watch. Unfortunately, many publishers and writers (and I am as guilty of this as anyone) just watch the big headline number that shows how many people are reading a specific page or post, because that’s what feels the most important. Says Debrouwere:

“There’s nothing like a dashboard full of data and graphs and trend lines to make us feel like grown ups. Like people who know what they’re doing. So even though we’re not getting any real use out of it, it’s addictive and we can’t stop doing it.”

So what is the solution? There isn’t an easy one. Debrouwere notes that the best way to use analytics is to (surprise!) actually have some idea of what you are trying to achieve and why it matters, and then use specific tools to see if that is actually happening — trying to promote more undiscovered content, for example, or encourage readers at a specific time of day. In other words, measure the length and weight of things for some larger purpose, not just because you can. Be sure to read Debrouwere’s whole post.

Post and thumbnail images courtesy of Shutterstock / Sarin Kunthong and Shutterstock / Nomad Soul

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