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Internet writers, particularly those who were reared in the heyday of alt-weekly and magazine journalism, often cringe at the words “metrics” and “data,” and for good reason. Leaderboards based on “uniques,” bonuses and job security contingent on clicks… truly, those VC-backed newsrooms sound like stresspools and creativity killers. (They are the reason I did not choose to make my living as a professional blogger or web editor.)
Although writers generally have an aversion to numbers (math is hard), performance metrics aren’t the creator’s enemy.* Most creators’ anxiety stems from overly complex interfaces of content data reporting paired with business leaders’ immensely oversimplified interpretation of data stories. And the fact that subpar publishers have tied those super-basic “popularity” metrics to job security.
“These five types of stories get the most clicks! Let’s do as many of them as we can!” has been the content model for myriad ad-supported websites. (Even websites that don’t overproduce clickbait content make a share of revenue from clickbait networks, but that is another story to be told another time.)
As any scriptwriter can tell you, the “let’s do more of what people clearly like” model doesn’t keep an audience captive for long. That’s like summarizing Star Wars as “Luke Skywalker is good. Darth Vader is bad.” There is no point in making the effort to set up and collect content data if your conclusion is “Luke Skywalker is good.” You wouldn’t watch Star Wars if it were just “Luke Skywalker is good.” Luke Skywalker is whiny. Luke Skywalker is entitled. Luke Skywalker is the necessary annoyance that drives the rest of the story. And if you’re over the age of 12, the best scenes are the ones with Leia and Han.
*“Metrics” isn’t the right word to use if you’re talking numbers; the term describes a unit of measurement. Bounce rate, impressions and time on page are metrics. If you want to be a real jerk, when some frazzled publisher or sales rep asks, “What are the metrics?” you can say “bounce rate and impressions!" and hope you won’t be decked or sacked.
Data stories should be less Luke, more Leia
As peak tv has taught us over the past two decades, everyone loves an antihero. That doesn’t mean that we all need to start spewing plotless content marketing like we’re Hunter S. Thompson or something (please, anything but that).
But content data — literally, looking at what audiences like, search and share and figuring out why — helps us create better stories. With a good grasp of the content landscape its surrounding forests of data, we can create a more intriguing B-plot than “I have to write an article with this one keyword in the title and six more keywords in the body, exactly as I was directed.”
Looking at content data gets creators out of their own head and into their audiences. Start by incorporating three or more data points — quantitative and qualitative — when building an editorial calendar.
- What does the audience want to see? That can come from search data or social listening or some combination of the two. How do people talk about your product or your competitor’s product? They are literally using the internet to tell you what they like; you should probably listen.
- What flavor of story does your audience like? You can do a survey. You can look at the most popular content on your site. And really, the most basic audience intelligence tool will give you a few mass media brands, shows, or platforms they also like. Even if the content your audience likes isn’t to your taste, it’s up to you to understand why your audience likes it. People aren’t stupid because they like insipid things sometimes. We have all laughed at C-3PO’s jokes.
- What do you have that they don’t have? Look other popular content about your selected topic and figure out what it’s missing. It’s astonishing how many creators stop after the first or second step. But the third step is where you hook users.
Then… well, you’re the creative.
Now… Luke Skywalker’s ancient but reliable tech deflects all the silly blaster gunshots. And Han Solo’s super-fast beater can outrun all of the Star Destroyers. Similarly, more targeted tools allow more flexibility and speed than the Microsofts and Salesforces of the world.
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