How journalists can measure engagement

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.”

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  • Richard Horgan

    Bui’s observation that “It’s really difficult to find a way to follow a link across the Internet” sounds to me like a huge business opp for someone. If a co. is not already developing the product that allows in future people like her to do this, someone should get on it.

  • WS Blog

    Agree with Steve. AND – throw out ALL that metric-measuring BS regarding social media. (It’s bad enough we can get minute-by-minute updates on pageviews, etc. on the wider Web; if someone is considering themselves a failure for not getting X number of retweets or likes, you don’t understand what “engagement” really is.) At large organizations, reporters should be responsible for interaction with commenters on their own stories (on the website as well as Twitter and FB – too often we see the websites ignored, and that is a MASSIVE mistake). If you’re a micro-shop like us, be everywhere. And don’t throw out something unrelated to your primary product -say, a cute cat video – and call it “engagement” because it got 100 or 1,000 “likes.” Don’t do cheesy, lame contests that require people to “like” or comment on your page and say, hey look, we got X new likes. Be real. Do what needs doing. Be part of whatever community you’re serving, whether it’s geographic or topic-driven.

  • Steve Fagan/nuzedit

    OK, call me a dinosaur since I am retiring at the end of the month after nearly 43 years in the newspaper business, but I still think that the best way to “engage” our audiences is with a really strong news story that is very well written on a topic of vital importance to those we expect to read it. And before we publish we need to ask ourselves honestly if we really would read if we had not written it or were not being paid to read it. To me the formula is simple: Touch and “engage” the readers with content that touches their lives.