July 17, 2020
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Tracking the Analytics That Actually Matter for Your Publication

Depending on where you sit in the media organization, analytics are either one of the best or worst areas you have to deal with. I’ve had conversations with many people that are annoyed by it, feeling that it removes the creative process. And then there are people that live by it, believing there is a magical formula buried deep within the data that can inform any decision.

I tend to lean toward the latter, believing that there are insights that can be gleaned from data. It is far too easy to look at data and use it to form a predetermined hypothesis rather than using the data to actually find useful insights. Sometimes the success or failure of something really does boil down to true creative prowess.

Nevertheless, for anyone that spends a lot of time in their analytics platform of choice—mine is Google Analytics—it can often times get a bit overwhelming. There are dozens of different variables being tracked. With the ability to build segments and filters based on all these variables, it can become a major exercise to determine what actually matters to the business—and what’s vanity.

What do I mean by vanity?

When I spent a lot of my time doing SEO, the same question would come up from senior management: “Will we rank #1 for this one word keyword?” Obviously, ranking #1 is important because it receives a third of all clicks on a result page. However, ranking #1 for that keyword was a vanity metric. Management should have been asking, “Will we rank for keywords that result in growth to our primary KPIs?”

It’s a subtle shift, but it’s a necessary one to really take analytics seriously. Too often, in conversations with people at media companies, they spend their energy thinking about metrics that sound big and important, but are actually not all that important. Instead, we need to focus on metrics that matter. By doing that, we can figure out what is and isn’t working with our business. Additionally, it allows us to identify where we should be investing and what additional products should be launched.

So, let’s jump in…

It starts with owned

I take an aggressive stance on this, but by now, it’s pretty clear that I am against building businesses on platforms. What might be working for you today can quickly change when the platform changes its priorities.

Therefore, I very rarely take into consideration metrics on platforms. The only thing that matters to me is what is occurring on products that I own. What does this look like?

I’ve seen some people in media look at their unique users and social media platform followers and aggregate them together into a larger number. “We reach 50 million people a month,” they’d say, even if unique users was only 10% of that.

This makes it look like the business is doing a lot better than it actually is. When you realize that 90% of the audience is on a platform that they don’t control, it’s easy to understand why this is a house of cards.

So, what are things that I believe are owned and 100% mine?

  • Audience that is on my site
  • Audience that is in my newsletter
  • Audience that pays for my product

Short list, right? The reality is, though, those are the only things I really control. Anything else is, ultimately, dependent on a platform’s whims.

Right off the bat, I imagine many of the podcasters that subscribe will take offense to me excluding them from the above three bullets. If you have an owned audience of podcast listeners through your own website, that’s your audience. By while many of the podcasting platforms have been benign for years now, allowing publishers to grow their podcasts there, it’s still building on someone else’s land.

Presently, Apple doesn’t pay all that much attention to its podcast app. It allows creators to do what they want for the most part and build their audiences. There is some algorithm where shows with high engagement will get more prominent promotion. However, by and large, as one audio operator said to me, “it’s still very much the Wild West.”

But what if Apple changed that strategy? It could very easily turn its app into a pay to play model and, suddenly, the podcast business would be in an upheaval. You can bet Spotify likely has something like this in mind as it starts amalgamating additional podcasts into its network. The owned vs. unowned podcast divide will be interesting to watch over the coming years.

Audience Explorer analytics dashboard

One of the reasons I love Google Analytics is because it gives you so much bang for your buck while still being free. Google Analytics powers the analytics for A Media Operator and it’s also one of the two tools I use in my day job. Honestly, it might be one of the single greatest pieces of software out there.

But there is a ton of data in there. And if your team is small like many of the operators on this list, it’s likely that it can feel entirely overwhelming. How do you decide what to track versus what to ignore?

A year and a half ago, the Center for Cooperative Media at Montclair State University released a Google Data Studio dashboard built for small and medium-size news publishers. The goal of the dashboard was to help publishers look at what actually mattered on their sites across 10 separate reports. The logic for the report boils down to this:

The Audience Explorer breaks down key Google Analytics data by three categories of users — known as segments — defined by their relationship to your website. These segments — Casual Visitors, Prospective Loyalists and Brand Lovers — comprise a basic funnel.

Here’s how that funnel works. Casual Visitors are aware of your publication, visiting no more than once per month. As their interest in your coverage increases (perhaps because you do great coverage, or do a better job distributing it — or both), they move down the funnel to become Prospective Loyalists. These visitors are much more engaged with your site, visiting two to five times each month. On average, they consume more pages per session as well. And as they find more that they love, your publication becomes an indispensable part of their routine and they visit six or more times a month. At that point they are considered Brand Lovers — in many cases, this is less than 10 percent of your audience yet drives up to 60 percent of pageviews each month.

This is a very healthy way of thinking about your business and removes one of the biggest vanity metrics on the platform: unique users.

Would you rather have a site that has 10 million users coming to your site once a month or a site that has 1 million users coming to your site 10 times a month. In aggregate, it’s the same number of pageviews. But one is more powerful than the other.

If you said the 1 million users/10 times a month site, you’d be right. Why? The audience is more loyal. In the example above, these are your brand lovers.

Your goal is to move people from Casual Visitor to Brand Lover. Brand Lovers are what make digital media businesses successful. They read your stories, send you news tips, evangelize your work, leave comments and attend your events. They drive the most reliable pageviews that underpin your advertising, and open up their wallets for membership and subscription programs.

I’d rather a smaller site of highly engaged people that really love what I have to say than a large site with low engaged individuals.

I should make a caveat about the Audience Explorer dashboard and how the data works because as your site starts to grow, you will no longer find it as useful. Presently, Google Analytics only gives you clean data when you’re generating under 250,000-500,000 daily sessions (I’ve run into the problem at 250,000 sessions, but some have said it’s 500,000). Once you pass that point, you start to get what’s known as sample data. It uses the 250,000 session limit to give you a guess on how much audience there is.

For most sites, this isn’t a problem because 250,000 sessions is still 7.5 million in a 30-day month. However, the above Casual Visitor, Prospective Loyalist and Brand Lover segments require additional processing from Google. This means it further eats into your 250,000 daily session limit. I don’t know the exact number where it cuts off, but you’ll start to see situations where your data is only 50% accurate.

This isn’t the end of the world because you will still have a directional understanding of how your business is doing, but it can start to get murky when we start looking at some additional metrics I believe should be tracked (we’ll get to that in a minute).

You’re left with two options here…

First, you deal with the sample data and analyze the direction its pointing. If you can see that your brand lovers are more often coming from Facebook and you can see that they read a specific topic, do you need to know exactly how many of them there are?

Second, you spend $150,000 and get Google Analytics 360. You can’t actually buy this from Google, though. Instead, you have to get it through one of their trusted partners. However, going this route gives you a ridiculous amount of upside to your analytics, letting you see billions of monthly hits to your site.

Either way, it’s important to understand this limitation to any analytics that we do when using a free tool that Google Analytics. It is both an incredible tool, but also has its limits (obviously).

Let’s take it farther, though…

While I believe the Audience Explorer coupled with Google Analytics data is a solid setup, I believe that it doesn’t give you enough insight into what’s actually working for your business. There are additional analytics that I believe must be tracked to really understand how the business is growing.


The Audience Explorer looks at how much traffic is being sent to your site from your newsletter, but it doesn’t provide any insight into the growth of your newsletters. This is easy enough to track in your ESP, but I want to also understand where the growth is coming from.

To do this, you’re going to want to get more granular conversion tracking set up against the individual calls to action on your site. Once you do this, you’ll be able to easily add another page to the Audience Explorer that looks at the following three metrics:

  • What page the conversion took place?
  • How many conversions took place?
  • What was the source of that user?

You’ll want to look at this as a table. What you’re trying to understand is what type of content gets people to sign up for something. This is similar to understanding the type of content that Brand Lovers like, but it attempts to find the point where a Casual reader might become a Brand Lover over time.

Remember, a newsletter is one of the few tactics we have to push content to someone. Therefore, knowing where we are getting the traffic, what page they are landing on and how many conversions are taking place is critical.

When you have this, you can then start to use some of your best content for targeted paid campaigns. If you know that a specific piece of content has a higher-than-average conversion rate, you can feel comfortable spending to get people to view that content with the hope that they will convert.

This is particularly helpful if you can identify how much a newsletter subscriber is worth to you. I know the newsletter operators on the list know the second they break even on a new sign up, but it would be smart for every media company to truly understand the value of a newsletter subscriber. It can go a long way to maximizing your revenue opportunities in the future.

Paid Subscriber Engagement

Another report you’re going to want to set up is how your paid subscribers are engaging with your content specifically. These are the people that are literally paying the bills, so it is important to understand the types of content they specifically consume so you can potentially invest in creating more of it.

Additionally, you want to understand the last time a paying subscriber actually consumed some of your content. The best way to know whether someone is going to churn is if they simply stop looking at your content. People aren’t likely to pay for something they don’t use (except me and my relationship with gym memberships).

Once you see people starting to pop up on the list of unengaged paid subscribers, you can use that data to start specific engagement campaigns. Perhaps you send these people specific email drip campaigns that say “here’s what you may have missed.” The New York Times does paid Facebook ads to get their paying subscribers reengaged.

As the saying goes, it’s cheaper to keep a paying customer than get a new one.

Revenue per page

The final report I would be curious about is which of my pages are generating me the most money. You might be surprised to find that older, evergreen stories are actually generating more money for your business than newer, timely news pieces. You might find the opposite.

Here is where you can get very creative with this reporting and gain a ton of potential insight.

The short report would include the following:

  • How much ad revenue do I earn on a page?
  • How many new subscribers do I earn on a page?
  • How much commerce do I sell from a page?

This gives you the revenue per page, which you can then break down to an individual user to calculate how much each new person might be worth on that single page.

However, I would actually try to make the report more advanced because there are plenty of additional metrics that contribute to the overall revenue of the page. On top of the three I mentioned above, here’s what I’d be curious about:

  • How many newsletter subscribers did I get? If you know the value of a single newsletter subscriber, you can treat that as a soft line item in gained value.
  • How many retained subscribers did I support from this page? If specific pages help reduce churn, that’s important to understand.
  • How many pages did a user visit that originated from this page? Some pages can act as conduits to the rest of the site, helping you keep the user around longer, thus giving you more revenue.

By having this data, you can suddenly identify critical pages on your site and then use that to help inform promotion and paid acquisition strategies.

This is obviously not the easiest thing to build. It really requires a deep understanding of how you monetize your site, your fill rates, your conversion rates and how long a user typically sticks around before churning. However, if you can do this, you can avoid all the vanity metrics that mean nothing and really focus in on metrics that can have material impacts on the business.

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