Most journalists now understand they need to engage with audiences, whether online or in person. But it’s still not clear how news organizations can measure whether their attempts at engagement are paying off.

“Engagement isn't just Twitter, Facebook or social media. It's really getting to know your audience,” said Kim Bui, associate editor of social media and outreach for KPCC in Los Angeles and cofounder of #wjchat.

Some organizations use live events as a tool to get to know their audience. “Things like tweetups and other opportunities where you get to meet audience members keep this full circle going and give them this feeling of having a much more personal connection with the station,” Bui said.

But for audience relationships that primarily play out online those personal connections can be tough to gauge.

“Social journalists are accustomed to thinking about engagement as likes, retweets, shares,” said Aron Pilhofer, editor of interactive news at The New York Times.  “Those are all important, but we need to go beyond Facebook and Twitter to look at ways people can participate in a story.”

Another problem, Pilhofer said by phone, is that there isn’t much of a standard by which one can judge metrics like shares. “It’s like having a numerator in search of a denominator. You don't know what it actually means,” he said.

Among the questions journalists need to ask but may not have the data to ask are whether stories are being tweeted or retweeted at higher than expected rates, he said. “That's a more interesting number,” he said.

At Guardian US, social news editor Katie Rogers said she sees successful engagement as “when a reader takes the time to share something that furthers the story or kickstarts something completely new.”

She said via email that she measures online engagement by looking at metrics including social shares, on-site comments and page views.

“The metric that seems most valuable to me on Facebook is a share, simply because shares open a post up to new reader networks,” she said. She uses Facebook analytics to inform decisions on how to structure posts and Social Flow to better understand what content readers are most responsive to on social networks, particularly Twitter.

Rogers said she uses Facebook analytics to inform decisions on what post structures successfully generate shares and comments. She also keeps an eye on real-time traffic numbers and shares information with reporters and columnists. “People behind the journalism need to be aware of how their work plays in the outside world,” Rogers said.

Bui said she’s particularly interested in how people share content that isn’t first shared by the station. “People share our stuff without us knowing a lot more than we think,” she said on the phone. “We make assumptions on what our audience wants to see and sometimes our assumptions are wrong.”

To help track organic shares, Bui likes to create shortened links for projects but said it’s an approach that does come with limitations. “It's really difficult to find a way to follow a link across the Internet,” she said.

Still, engagement isn’t just about quantity, it’s also about quality, something that can be even more difficult to gauge, particularly for metrics focused newsrooms.

“Engagement to us is very much about how people are participating in what we're doing,” Pilholfer said. “Engagement is one big step toward to what we ultimately want to know, which is what kind of impact our journalism is having.”

Amanda Zamora, ProPublica’s senior engagement editor, suggests news organizations pay close attention to the tone of the interactions they have with people online.

“Engagement to us is very much about how people are participating in what we're doing,” she said. “Those are all important, but it’s also important to go beyond Facebook and Twitter to look at ways people can participate in a story.”

One thing ProPublica pays close attention to is responses to callouts for readers to share their own experiences.  “When we get responses, we're tallying these forms,” Zamora said. Often, she said the data is captured in spreadsheet form.  “At the end of the day a successful result for us is when people somehow added to the journalism we’re doing.”