Commentary

Time For News Organizations To Ban Analytics

Last week, on a Facebook Page I manage, I posted a link about a woman talking down a gunman to save a schoolful of elementary kids. It got two likes.. A colleague posted a link about the kiwibird being a direct descendant of the T-Rex. It got 24 likes.

I posted the above observation on my personal profile. Nobody was surprised, although some did try to justify it. “It’s because pictures get more engagement than video,” said one. “It’s because the gunman story was in the States and the kiwibird story was about New Zealand" (where I live),  said another. But I think we all know the truth, don’t we?

The truth is that we are more likely to react to easy fluff than to material of substance. Cotton candy for the mind is less cognitively expensive; it takes less time to ingest, less time to process, and less time to respond to.

Fluffy content is the digital equivalent of fast food: a quick fix that tastes okay at the time and doesn’t require much thought. And -- just as with fast food -- we find it easier to respond to, clicking 24 times instead of two.

But when you only judge by the numbers, you can end up making decisions based on our short-term, lizard-brain behavior -- decisions that are not necessarily good for customers or for the organization. You can, for example, end up launching New Coke because the taste test told you it would succeed. You can end up dropping healthy lunch programs because kids prefer sugar.

News agencies have a similar problem when they measure how many times we go back for the fix. Quantitative analytics may confirm that we are hard-wired to push the lever and get the pellet, but it doesn’t measure whether we feel good or are more informed or can make more thoughtful decisions as a result.

Unfortunately, now that we have analytics, everything is based on them. The traffic sold to advertisers can be measured precisely, and revenues are now driven by our auto-response behavior. News companies are not only incentivized to encourage this aspect of our humanity, they are required to if they want to survive.

And the more we click mindlessly on Miley Cyrus or whatever the latest shocking bit of titillation is, the more this cycle gets reinforced. It’s not the news agencies’ fault; they’re just responding to our behavior and their financial imperatives. It’s not the advertisers’ fault; they’re spending money on the content that has the highest visibility. It’s not even our fault; at heart, we’re reasonably base creatures, and a picture of an attractive young woman doing surprising things in a skimpy outfit is highly likely to get our attention.

It’s not necessarily anybody’s fault. But it’s not ideal. Fast food is fine on rare occasion. But slow food is better: it tastes better (if you are acclimated to it) and it’s better for us. It just takes a little more conscious attention.

And Miley’s fine on rare occasion. But serious news is better. It tastes better (if you’re acclimated to it) and it’s better for us. It just takes a little more conscious attention -- and a little less of the analytics that prove we’re only interested in fluff.

7 comments about "Time For News Organizations To Ban Analytics".
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  1. Ricardo Samitier from Brand Bingo Internacional S.A., August 30, 2013 at 11:12 a.m.

    I just wish to read other people comment

  2. Mark Wagner from BlitzMetrics, August 30, 2013 at 3:48 p.m.

    It's not that analytics is bad-- it's that you're choosing the wrong metrics. Instead of fans or general engagement, look at revenue lift, user retention, and metrics that a business owner would care about.

  3. Pete Austin from Fresh Relevance, September 1, 2013 at 5:20 a.m.

    Totally wrong: (1) gossip is important to boost happiness and maintain social contacts. Some serious news is important, e.g. the NSA vs the 4th amendment. But while good food does you good, a regular media diet of crimes, disasters, and political spin does not. (2) Re analytics: I read several types of news and news aggregators already split them out (e.g. techmeme for tech news), but this is currently a manual process - we need more use of analytics, not less, so people don't miss the stories that are important to them.

  4. tuhina bhattacharya from wipro limited, September 2, 2013 at 12:46 a.m.

    Analytics be damned...there is no accounting for taste.

  5. William Hoelzel from JWB Associates, September 2, 2013 at 8:49 p.m.

    I don't think you want to ban analytics; you want to ban the misuse of analytics.

    I'm a market researcher, and the last thing I want editors to do is follow survey research or focus group research as if the findings are a recipe that tells them exactly where to go and what to do. I want them to use research as one factor in their decision-making.

    In the same way, I want editors to know what people are reading on their website, but I sure don't want them to use analytics to justify doing more trivial stories and fewer substantial ones -- even if the data say that's what people read. I just want editors to recognize that substantial stories may need different treatment in order to find their total audience. I want editors to learn what works online and what doesn't.

    One key point: People can tell you what they like and don't like only from what they're currently seeing. For example, studies show that people prefer people stories to policy stories.

    But people can't judge what they don't know. According to Steve Jobs' bio, Henry Ford was once asked what people would have said if they were asked what they wanted from their transportation before he invented the Model T. According to Ford, people would have said they wanted faster horses! That's all they knew.

    So I agree, Kaila, that analytics alone can't tell you what content to publish on your website, and they can't tell you what's missing -- what people are going elsewhere to get that you could provide.

    But analytics can tell you that people aren't finding that terrific feature you posted three days ago (it needs promotion!). Analytics can tell you that people stayed longer on the page when a story started with an anecdotal lead, not a hard news lead. And analytics may tell you which headline drew more readers, or which one produced higher search engine rankings, or other such things.

    It's true that analytics can't answer every question about what readers are doing, but these data can answer some of them. And yes, analytics can be misused -- perhaps more often than not. But that doesn't justify abandoning the help that data can provide in helping writers reach their full audience.

    We're going to see an important test of the value of analytics as Jeff Bezos uses data to remake the Washington Post website. I really hope The Post finds new ways to use data to inform editors' decisions, but not to constrict their options. I hope The Post finds new ways to help readers "stumble upon" things they might have missed -- but things perhaps not even distantly related to what they consider their key "interests."

    I'm hoping Bezos will help somehow use analytics to help readers and editors get beyond "faster horses."

  6. Steve Climons from Crossover Creative, September 3, 2013 at 1:33 a.m.

    For better or for worse, analytics is now par for the course in evaluating ROI.

  7. David Hawthorne from HCI LearningWorks, September 30, 2013 at 2:54 p.m.

    The fact is, it IS somebody's fault. It is management's fault. They reward the "scatter on the radar" and ignore the looming issues. They abdicate their responsibilities to their professions, their audience, their society in order to kiss up to the advertisers. The advertisers couldn't possibly care less, as long as the demos vaguely reflect the audience segment they are pandering to.

    Advertisers set themselves outside the range of what matters in the lives of the people whose attention they crave. Next, we'll have twerking in the newsroom.

    We in the media may not like to admit it in front of the boss, but we do have an obligation to create 'meaningful' content. It's not just television journalism though maybe it, is in the deepest fog. If I hear one more on-air "personality" (I can't bare to call them journalists, or even news anchor, or reporter, any longer) begging me to Tweet them, I'll puke. (I suppose I should get larger bucket.)

    The media in general, and the news media in specific, need to to be self critical, demanding of themselves to make sense. How "big" is it? What direction is it moving in? How fast? Is it a threat or a something good? Should I run towards it or away from it?

    No, you can't know how every audience member will or should respond. But you have the obligation and the resources to report on it in a meaningful way.
    Stop comparing who's got the most inane Twits (oops, I meant 'Twits').
    -dlh

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