Who Are The People Behind The Numbers?

by , Mar 27, 2008, 2:15 PM
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In writing four articles on audience online engagement, I have jumped into the debate about the validity of the panel approach, how to define engagement, and what the significance of a new engagement index could be for the advertising industry. An index, though, is most useful to a publisher as a marker: Here is where we are today on our way to a better index tomorrow. Good publishers examine their site metrics carefully; great publishers seek to understand what the audience experience is and how to improve it.

Avinash Kaushik's great advice still stands: One of the best ways to understand your audience experience is to put aside the metrics and Web analytics and survey your audience with two or three questions:

  1. Why are you here today?
  2. Were you able to accomplish what you wanted to do?
  3. If not, why not?

The first question will reveal how your audience understands the value of your site -- in their terms, not necessarily in the way that you describe it within your company or to advertisers. The second and third questions will tell you much about why people stay or bounce from the site, and point to usability issues. Here is an actual user experience from a Web site selling health products, and how a user answered the questions:


I came to the site to buy products, many of which I have bought before from your site. I was not able to make the transaction. Things went south when I tried to use a feature I had never noticed before that allows you to fill your cart with products that I have bought before. When I selected products from historical purchases and added them to my cart, it emptied my existing cart, and 20 minutes of my work went down the drain.

This information turned out to be the first time that this Web site explosive device was revealed. But there are obstacles and opportunities everywhere that this kind of survey can uncover. I recall an editor who was shocked to find that 42% of the users who came to his company's site were not able to figure out how to send an email to one of the site journalists. Turns out that an "editorial masthead," meant nothing to most people who have never been employed by a publisher.

Tapping into your audience's collective experience and wisdom is essential in order to strengthen your visitor experience and therefore your reach, traffic and engagement. In fact, there is every reason to field surveys on a regular (monthly, for example) basis. You can then rotate variations of Kaushik's questions to tackle engagement, marketing, editorial and ad sales issues. Some examples:

Editorial and marketing:

  1. Why are you here today?
  2. Did you go to other sites for the same information?
  3. Which site did the best job of satisfying you and why?

Ad sales:

  1. What were you seeking to accomplish by downloading the video (or whitepaper or PDF file, etc)?
  2. What was most and least useful about the video?
  3. Related to your activity today, what other information would be useful to you and in what format?

In some cases, the survey results can point to some specific, urgently needed fixes, such as the shopping cart scenario above. In others, usability testing may well be in order. And in others, you can lean into what is working really well. No matter what the results, though, connecting regularly with your site visitors shows you how to continually improve the user experience. Your metrics will always improve when that happens, which leads of course to better financial performance. And when you really pay attention, new ideas for content and ad programs that connect with your deeper understanding follow suit.

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