We live in uncertain times in the publishing world—and of course, in the world at large. In fact, perhaps uncertainty is so prevalent that it can be added to death and taxes in that classic adage for the foreseeable future.
With an economy on the decline, we face the same dilemma that surfaces in every downturn, be it the result of a pandemic or any other recession: ever-shrinking advertising budgets. In the current state of affairs in the publishing world, when CPMs are down and budgets get universally leaner, it’s actually more important than ever to devote funds to data analysis in order to extract revenue from every possible channel you can.
The online publishing marketplace has always been a world serving multiple interests. In that context, smaller publishers face the challenge of serving competing interests and have to find a balance between serving two masters whose interests may not always align: their readers and their advertisers.
Skew too far to the revenue side with engaging soft content and you risk losing relevance as a news outlet. Lean too far into hard news in a saturated marketplace and you risk losing the views of readers who have clearly demonstrated an interest in other content. We’ve even seen data effects that certain ad networks have been avoiding content mentioning COVID-19 which clearly the readers are craving now.
Understanding Data Across the Business
My first takeaway for publishers is to set up regular meetings for your social, data, editorial and ad ops teams to meet to discuss data and insights that each area sees to help find the right balance for your business.
The data is out there; all you have to do is look for it and know how to read it. Consumers tell us what kinds of things they’re interested in every single day. So, to serve our advertisers, we must use actionable takeaways derived from a thoughtful analysis of robust data in order to publish content that draws a high degree of readership. Typically, unless you happen to be trained in the science of data analysis, that’s going to require an investment. But the trite-and-true adage that you have to spend money to make money certainly applies here.
Serving your readership has a cost in that the reader is fickle and not unlike an investor in the stock market.
Finding a Balance
My second piece of advice to use all of the data available to you to find the right balance of revenue, social engagement and lifetime value of your audience to support your business model.
Benjamin Graham introduced the idea of Mr. Market in his 1949 book, The Intelligent Investor. Mr. Market is his example of a hypothetical investor who makes his decisions based on panic, euphoria, and a bit of neurosis. He approaches his investing as a reaction to his mood, rather than through fundamental (or technical) analysis. And this is the market that one needs to avoid in running a successful publication. The reader right now is swinging towards Coronavirus, this summer it might swing to celebrity gossip as a distraction and then by the end of the summer might be baseball coverage in empty stadiums. Publishers need to avoid the tantrums of the reading market.
In fact, your editorial scope, in general, maybe mostly determined in spite of what data tells you. There are always going to be stories you must cover on an editorial basis to maintain credibility and serve the public good. Often enough, your instincts will tell you that anything you publish about these events will be proverbial drops in a bucket and the SERPs will be saturated.
Why, then, do you pursue these stories; why are they worth telling? It doesn’t take an ivory tower Editor-in-Chief to tell you that the answer is simply: they’re worth telling because they’re worth telling. You must cover newsworthy events in order to provide your audience with relevant information that affects their lives, whether it’s driving traffic or not, and be a benefit to more than just your bottom line. There are times the stories I brag about the most to partners aren’t our biggest traffic stories but those of which we are proud to tell.
Data-driven Editorial Decision Making
My third recommendation is to use data to help identify the characteristics of stories that perform well, to help you find similar stories that are a fit for your audience. You don’t need to write the same stories over and over again, but identify what makes a story perform well for your audience.
So if big-picture editorial decisions are primarily made on the human side of the equation, what’s data got to do with it?
This is where you can have some fun and potentially enact some standards that can really benefit you in the long run. Ever wondered what the optimal length is for a headline? Data can tell you that. Number of terms in a permalink? Yeah, you can get an idea for that too. You can really get your hands dirty if you dip into readability indices and cross-reference the results of your highest-viewed posts with audience demographics.
There’s an entire world of data that can inform editorial aspects of your published content. They may not determine what you write or produce, but it can certainly provide valuable insight into how it’s written or produced.
My last actionable takeaway is to share writer specific data with your editorial team. It will help inform them on what stories they should be covering and what the impact their decisions and writing has on the business.
Following these steps will help you clear up the different voices and opinions bouncing around in your head.
So now you have data telling you:
- What the reader wants: More COVID, More COVID!
- Search engine wants: Facebook wants 14 words, Google wants 15 words!
- Advertisers want: Less COVID!
- SEO wants: More words, more repetition!
- Google wants: More Authority!
Clearly, the job of the publisher is to find the rational decision with each of these data points.
In seeking to keep both advertisers and audience satisfied, small publishers best serve themselves by seeking out newsworthy stories that lie at the intersection of those respective paths. Considering where those two worlds overlap will help maximize profitability while continuing to serve an established audience and help to grow and entice additional stakeholders to the table.
In the course of doing so, have the confidence to experiment with ideas and see how they play out. The combination of creativity and curiosity with the ability to analyze data can help you figure out which questions to ask, how to ask them and what the answers really mean. Equipping yourself with actionable data is the easiest way to conduct business in a smarter way and help you best navigate the troubled waters the publishing world finds itself in.