Publishers Need to Look Beyond the Numbers in Data Analysis

The New York Times took some criticism last year for issuing a white paper outlining ways to adapt to the digital media landscape. But according to Director of Analytics James Robinson, who spoke about data analysis for digital publishers at Digital Book World 2015 in New York City this morning, the newspaper is learning more about its audience all the time–and in the process it’s learning how to collect insights that matter.

Related: What Publishers Can Learn from the New York Times‘s Digital Transition

“Engagement is a state of mind,” Robinson says, “It’s like love. And how do you measure love?”

For publishers pursuing a more quantitative understanding of how their audiences respond to their content, it helps to recognize that “engagement” describes the “alignment between what we want our users to do and what they want to do to.”

That means other barometers, like social media activity, are critical but limited tools for understanding that complex relationship. And to do that well, publishers must pursue qualitative measures alongside quantitative ones.

Many of the most common analytical systems and approaches, Robinson continued, are built to handle large, aggregated data sets, which makes them fundamentally inappropriate to the needs of most publishers–a reality All Brain’s Marcello Vena explained in-depth in a Digital Book World blog post late last year.

Instead, publishers must invest in methods better suited to identifying behaviors in the often much smaller, segmented audiences that are actually out there.

Speaking earlier today on the successes F+W, which owns and operates Digital Book World, has seen in its direct-to-consumer initiatives, CEO David Nussbaum observes that niche audiences are “much harder to find” but can prove remarkably enthusiastic and loyal to publishers than can deliver content to them others can’t.

Robinson says finding those readers still requires effective qualitative research. The good, old-fashioned focus group–which, he adds, “costs the same price as a couple of pizzas”–still has its unique merits in a ‘big data’-driven world.

At the Times, Robinson says, “we understand our print audience really well.” That’s likely the case among many book publishers, too. But sometimes that very depth of knowledge about print readers can frustrate efforts at gaining an equivalent understanding of digital audiences.

It will take time and patient testing and discarding of plenty of false assumptions before publishers get there, Robinson adds, not just heaps of number-crunching–though there’s sure to be some of that, too.


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