Teaching and Researching Audience Analytics

I’ve thought about audience analytics a lot over the last few years. I helped created a course at Towson University called Media Audiences & Analytics in which students learn basic concepts and principles of audience measurement in advertising, public relations, and journalism. The course reviews major analytics tools and platforms for website, search, and social media. It also explores basic tools for visual communication of analytics data.

I’ve also researched what audience metrics journalists pay most attention to and consider indicators of impact. Simply put, they pay a lot of attention to….attention metrics like time on page and scroll depth, but don’t consider those useful proxies for impact.

My interest in audience metrics dates back several years, to when I wrote about the rise of engagement editors at news outlets across the country. These hybrid positions (part editorial, part business) typically include social media and SEO strategy, examining analytics and strategizing with top editors about other ways to engage audiences.

I spoke with engagement editors from The Washington Post, Fortune, The Hill, The Center for Public Integrity and Engadget — and one former editor  who looks broadly at the media landscape — for my MediaShift story.

And I spoke about the article on MediaShift’s weekly podcast/Google Hangout session.


I learned, not surprisingly, that when you write about engagement editors — people who are very good at generating buzz — your posts get plenty of attention. But this was more than just a conversation happening in an echo chamber. Readers, including people with no discernible experience in newsrooms, seemed very engaged in the topic. I began to wonder what role universities can play in helping to train future engagement editors.

That’s the primary question I address in a recent MediaShift piece, “J-Schools Try Different Approaches to Training Aspiring Engagement Editors.” I focused on journalism schools that adhere to the teaching hospital model in which learning happens in the classroom and newsroom. Many university-operated, student-powered newsrooms are teaching students about analytics dashboards and social media management tools. The University of Maryland is creating a new bureau for its Capital News Service focusing exclusively on social journalism and audience engagement. City University of New York has launched a master’s program in social journalism. Students at the University of Florida and Arizona State University track audience data for affiliates of NPR, PBS, etc. that are based on their campuses.

When university newsrooms teach metrics and engagement, what is the real goal? That’s the main question I answer in part two of my MediaShift series on university news services and teaching engagement, “Practicing What They Preach: J-School News Services Track Engagement and Impact.”

From the article:

Using analytics can help students evaluate and improve their journalism. But it can also throw up roadblocks through low readership numbers, chasing metrics before grasping the basics of reporting or making broad assumptions from limited data. The result is that college newsrooms — training centers, outlets of record and content distributors — are still debating what audience engagement metrics and other measures of impact to use.

Professors who run these newsrooms argue that page views are not the most important audience metric. They often prefer advanced measures of engagement such as share of returning visitors, time spent on site and social media traction — and they want students to think critically about what metrics matter most to them. Some stress that quantitative metrics are not the only way for student journalists to measure audience engagement. “If we declare victory, it’s going to be where our stories brought action,” said a CUNY journalism professor.

There are limitations when measuring offsite metrics. When stories are republished, how do audiences engage with that content and what kind of impact does it have? It’s an important question for university-operated news services that regularly feed student work to news outlets with a much broader reach, but also a question no one can answer.

However, professors say they try to focus on the metrics they have, not the ones they don’t have.

As an Arizona State professor noted:

“I want [students] to get a really clear picture of how content works on one site. Adding someone else’s site introduces so many other variables into the equation. Would it be great to have that data for every single story? Absolutely. But I just chalk it up to, well, if they can’t get the entire picture then at least they can get a really clear picture of the story’s performance on our site.”