Data Science Wrap Up

2015 was a big year for top-quality journalism. Just looking at the 20 most read stories across the Chartbeat network, it’s clear that a heartening mix of longform reports and critical resources for breaking news captured and held the world’s attention this year. Quality content shone, even as the relationship between media and technology continued to shift – especially in the realms of mobile traffic, distribution platforms, and ad blocking.

In 2015, more than 70% of sites we measured saw traffic from mobile devices increase, and Facebook, as in prior years, generated the largest share of mobile traffic. In contrast to prior years, though, Facebook’s share of traffic itself was constant for most sites. That said, there’s no denying that the new channels for content distribution, like Instant Articles, Snapchat Discover, and Google AMP, will only grow in importance over 2016, presenting an opportunity for publishers to build their audiences. And this is the key. Even as some publishers, especially in Germany, are reporting high rates of ad blocking, by prioritizing audience, embracing new channels, and doubling down on speedy browsing we can build an even brighter media landscape for years to come.

We’re also pleased to share some news of our own growth. Over the past year, Chartbeat announced a new round of financing, released two new products, brought on a new board member, and added 43 new team members.

In Past/Forward, we've proposed eight New Year’s resolutions for digital publishers seeking an outstanding 2016. We walk you through cutting down page load times, growing your loyal audience, writing winning headlines — pretty much everything future-focused publishers should strive for.

All the best in the New Year.

Josh Schwartz
Chief Data Scientist

Kick Bad Habits

“You can't break down the prevailing business model overnight, but [with attention metrics] great content and great content makers will have a chance to thrive and survive. — Annie Fox, Product Owner at Chartbeat

Forgetting sunscreen. Holding grudges. Being late. Yup, every January, we promise ourselves that this will be the year we break all those bad habits. But let’s be honest — not all of us are going to suddenly take up yoga in 2016.

There is, however, one bad habit worth kicking in 2016: aligning your success with the wrong metrics. And kicking it for good is easier than you think.

55% of clicks get less than 15 seconds of attention

Often, what seem like the simplest, most direct metrics for determining success in the digital publishing space — clicks and pageviews — only tell part of the story. Pageviews tell you whether a headline was catchy, not whether the content was any good. They tell you if you’ve got a big spike in traffic, but not whether those visitors are coming back. But you already know this. Your goal is not to chase clicks, it’s to grow a loyal, returning audience. That’s where attention comes in.

Reading and clicking are fundamentally different things. The former indicates that site visitors are connecting with your content, intellectually and emotionally. The latter very well could mean that a visitor’s cat has accidentally stepped on his trackpad. The point is simple: When you measure attention, you measure quality. Not only that, but you can take it a step further by boosting loyalty and viewability.

Boost Loyalty

When you measure users’ engagement, you can explore what browsing behaviors indicate a propensity to spend more time on your site in the future. And the results are staggering: About ⅔ of visitors to an average site don’t return again in the next 30 days. The good news? There’s a direct correlation between users’ Engaged Time and their loyalty to your site. According to a 2015 Chartbeat study, visitors who engaged with an article – reading, scrolling, clicking – for three minutes returned twice as often as those who engaged for only one minute.

Boost Viewability

If publishers want to get serious about increasing viewability, then they’ve got to measure the time people spend interacting with their content. If a visitor spends fewer than 15 seconds engaging with the page, average viewability is around 28%. If a visitor spends more than 15 seconds engaging with that page, then average viewability increases to 60%. Bottom line: publish clickbait and languish at 28% of your capacity, or publish content that actually captures attention, promote it with the right headline, and viewability more than doubles.

So kick those bad habits before they really hurt, because 2016 is the year of attention.

Get Organized

If there’s anything to be learned from the SAT, it’s that without the right preparation, numbers can be scary. That’s especially true in the world of digital analytics. To stay afloat amid all the data to analyze, you’ve got to get organized by tracking your historical data in a clean, consistent format and regularly checking your real-time stats.

Historical data is the evidence you need to validate or disprove the assumptions we so often make about our sites.

Why historical data? It’s the evidence you need to validate or disprove the assumptions we so often make about our sites. If you think users navigate your site in a particular way, do they actually? Do your readers really care about the topics you think they do? Did they actually read what they clicked on? Look back over a week, a month, even a year, and put those assumptions to the test.

Of course, if you’ve got looseleaf spreadsheets scattered around your desk, the insights might not come so easy. So you need a sane, organized approach to data learnings.

First, never approach your data without end-goals. For example:

  • Do you want to expand your mobile reach?
  • Do you want to zoom in on engagement on a particular page?
  • Do you want to better understand scroll patterns?

Once you’ve established what you want to learn about your readers, scope out how you’ll use your data to develop ongoing strategies:

  • How often do you want to see this data?
  • What editorial decisions will you make based on your results?
  • Who will be responsible for follow-through?

Keeping these questions in mind when examining historical data will ensure you stay efficient and on track.

Oh, and not to brag, but in 2015 we redesigned Chartbeat Report Builder, and now it’s easier than ever to keep your historical data more organized than the Container Store. Report Builder gives you complete freedom to create custom historical reports with the metrics and filters you need to evaluate long-term performance. And you can name, share, and schedule reports directly within the Report Builder homepage.

Learn Something New

Whether it’s a new coding language or a new party trick (like unicycling), at Chartbeat, we love to keep our noggins chugging. Every six weeks, we host a Hackweek when our engineering and design teams pursue their wackiest, nuttiest, most technically challenging dreams. It’s a chance to work with new teams. To look at data in new ways. To build bold things. Here are just a few of the Hackweek projects we undertook in 2015:

And of course, everyone’s perennial favorite: Big Board. Crazy as it may seem, Big Board developed out of a Hackweek project — reason enough to always keep learning. This leaderboard-style visualization of your top stories displays only the essential information: article title, number of concurrents, Engaged Time, Recirculation, and referral sources. And now, you can find Big Board located at the heart of newsrooms around the world.

Lose Those Last Few Pounds

40% of people abandon a website that takes more than 3 seconds to load.

These resolutions are just getting more and more lofty, aren’t they? Luckily, in the realm of network ad tags, losing weight really comes down to cutting down page load times. For your site health, of course.

Here’s the situation: 47% of consumers expect a web page to load in 2 seconds or less and 40% of people abandon a website that takes more than 3 seconds to load. With those stats in mind, some publishers have devoted energy and resources to making their load times quicker than ever. In July, GQ cut its site page load by 80%, and the Washington Post cut its load time by 85%. In August, Vox Media cut its time by half. Not too shabby.

If you’re looking to do the same, here are some quick tips to get started:

  • Streamline any font redundancies and design code.
  • Implement image formatters, like Google’s WebP, to cut image size down.
  • Experiment with ways to cut down on third-party plug-ins.
  • Migrate to a single CMS, if possible.
  • Dedicate a small team of site engineers to reducing unnecessary junk.

Bulk Up

Bulk up — as in grow your site’s audience, not as in spend your whole day at the gym. Truthfully, growing your site’s loyal audience is a whole lot easier than pumping iron. I mean, which would you pick: squats or weekly referral source data deep-dives?

To get you started on your new fitness regimen, we’ve compiled five best practices for building your audience from some of the top publishers in the game:

  1. Write quality content — When around 55% of visitors leave having spent fewer than 15 seconds engaged on the page, the most basic step in turning incidental visitors into a loyal audience is writing the best content for your audience.
  2. Get to know your referrers — Here’s the breakdown: If a visitor came in from social sources, they’re likely to be interested in the buzz of the moment, so your links should lead to other breaking news items. On the other hand, if they are coming in from search engines, it’s likely that they are interested in a specific topic, so leverage your archive and provide links to more articles on the same, or a similar, topic.
  3. Make the most of frequency — Segment your audience by loyalty to determine who’s coming and how often. Got an abundance of new visitors but looking to acquire a core loyal audience? In that case, you need a retention strategy: try using hyperlinks to drive new visitors from shorter to longer-form content that’s likely to be more engaging. Have a strong base of loyal readers and looking to acquire new visitors? Work on your social promotion to broaden your base of loyal fans.
  4. Learn from the past — Are people actually reading what I wrote? Where are my visitors coming from? What authors are most popular on my site? These are the kinds of questions that keep audience development folks up all night long. Of course, many of the answers to those burning questions lie in your historical data. Mapping your over-time trends is critical to stimulate learning, adapting, and making your content more effective.
  5. Spread the mobile love — According to the Pew Research Center, in 2015, 24% of Americans spent their media-consuming time on mobile - which means that these days, there’s an expectation that copy and design be mobile-focused. What does this mean for your content? Concise, punchy headlines and shorter, broken-up paragraphs are much more attractive and easy to read for a mobile viewer. In addition, mobile readers find scrolling through an entire article on one page much more natural than pagination. For more on mobile strategy, check out this guide to life in the Post-AMP world. Or, for more on AMP, keep reading.

Give Back to the Community

Want to know something crazy? 39 of the top 50 digital news sites get more traffic to their sites from mobile devices than from desktop. And yet, many media pessimists argue that the mobile web is dead. Since apps and the content within those apps (like Facebook’s Instant Articles) load blisteringly fast for a seamless user experience, the open mobile web seems lethargic at best, weighed down with redundant code, crappy ads, and a billion trackers.

In 2016 we’re going to do better. We’re going to help the mobile web succeed.

In 2016 we’re going to do better. We’re going to help the mobile web succeed, because it helps us succeed.

The open web has offered equality of access and information to the world. It’s meant that a generation’s unfiltered voice could make itself heard. It’s led to one of the greatest explosions of innovation the planet has ever seen. That wasn’t an app. That was all of us. And that’s important.

We’re proud to constantly advocate for the open web. Most recently, we’ve partnered with Google to support and build the Accelerated Mobile Pages Project (AMP) in an attempt to fix the mobile experience and ensure the future of the open mobile web.

The AMP project is an open source initiative to deliver a significantly lighter-weight version of a web page so that the content on that page loads instantly – no matter the device. So it doesn’t matter if you discover an article on Twitter, Globo, or the Guardian, whether you open it with Chrome or Firefox, or whether you’re reading it on your iPhone or Android – if the content was created as an Accelerated Mobile Page, you’ll have the same lightning-fast performance and crisp user experience, no matter what.

What do we hope will come of this?

We hope that different media companies and the tech services that support them can come together around this open source standard and build a web we can be proud of. Just like the open web, anyone can create a page using AMP, whether you are a blogger in New Zealand or a mogul in New York. The industry coming together around common standards means that improving the page load of Vox also improves the page load of the New York Times. It becomes less about any one site becoming better, and more about the entire web experience getting better.

At its core, it’s a simple mission: letting the web once again become a source of wonder rather than a source of frustration.

Travel the World

Before you jet off in 2016, take a look at how visitors across the Chartbeat globe spend their time and give their attention online.

Take Risks

“With Engaged Headline Testing, our approach to headline writing has become so much more adventurous, so much more creative. — Travis Hunter, Front Page Manager, Bleacher Report

Get creative, try new things, test your crazy theories, and better understand your audience in the process.

If there’s one way that journalists can truly embody the spirit of risk-taking in 2016 more than they already do, it’s in their headlines. Yeah, we said it.

Anybody can whip up a flashy headline. You know the type — The 5 Secrets to Losing Weight, How to Build a Small Empire in Seven Seconds or Less, etc. But the headlines that drive business results and leave a lasting impression (“Headless Body, Topless Bar” anybody?) aren’t just flashy. They don’t just grab reader attention, they hold it.

What does that mean in practice? Imagination. Good old creativity. Last November, we analyzed ten commonly-cited headline practices and measured for their efficacy across over 100 publishers. The results?

Headlines that contain interrogatives, numbers, adjectives, positive or negative superlatives — you know, those “bulletproof” headline writing tricks you’re always reading about — did not perform any noticeably better than other variants. That’s a huge deal. The data shows that, in the end, there’s no secret formula for a winning headline, no substitute for human creativity and instinct.

In fact, in November’s data study, we found that the last headline written is often the one that wins. That is to say, if you write three headline variants, the last one you write is 37% more likely to be the winner than either of the first two – proving that when you stretch your creativity, it pays off. Here’s a table that charts how the number of headline variants used stack up:

So to ensure success, you’ve got to turn to headline testing. We asked some of our partners, including Rodale and Bleacher Report, how our multivariate headline testing tool, Engaged Headline Testing (EHT), has changed their editorial operations. And you know what they said? EHT has given them freedom: the freedom to test lots of different headline options at once and the freedom to really get funky with it.

So take risks. Get creative. Try new things.

For more headline testing tips from the pros, check out our Insider Guide to Headline Testing.

Tony's Forecast

At Chartbeat, we have the great privilege of working with thousands of the world’s online publishers, giving us access to one of the richest datasets in media. So, with 2015 wrapped up and 2016 now in full swing, we’ve taken a look at last year’s numbers, crunched ‘em, and asked our CEO Tony Haile to read the digital media tea leaves. Here’s what he had to say:

Solving the problem of the mobile web experience

On mobile, publishers will feel increasingly torn between wanting a clean fast-loading experience and relying on data-heavy video or obtrusive mobile ads that can deliver the CPMs they need on mobile pages. There will be a clear tension between the short-term needs of the quarter and the longer-term relationship with their audience that each publisher will have to navigate.

Consequently, some publishers will face irresistible pressure to fully embrace Facebook’s Instant Articles. Facebook will prove very responsive to publisher requests to facilitate this, continuing to tweak the format to ensure that publishers feel comfortable about the money they can make. In turn, some publishers will find that having Facebook handle Instant Article monetization will actually work out better for them than their own efforts.

In addition, the Google-led Accelerated Mobile Pages (AMP) project will launch and make the mobile open web experience demonstrably better. The challenge will come over time as those responsible for revenue at publisher sites will want to find more ways to optimise revenue from AMP pages and be tempted into shortcuts that might begin to mar AMP’s positive impact on performance.

The rise of ad blocking

Ad blocking penetration within the US will begin to catch up with Europe as users deploying ad blockers extend from a more technically literate to a broader audience. This will potentially be accelerated by hardware makers, browsers or carriers choosing to differentiate themselves by turning on ad blockers by default. We should expect at least one major browser to make it far more trivial for its users to block ads, possibly even turning on ad blocking by default. Whether the increase in ad blocking has a large impact on revenue or not, the fear of its impact will dominate discussions throughout 2016.

As a result we will also likely see greater and greater temptations to deal with ad blocking through legal action and blocking the content from those using Ad Blockers. Here, publishers will need to heed well the lessons of the music and film industry and ensure that they do not end up going to war with their own users.

Doubling down on subscription and in-house native advertising

Publishers are likely to become even more bearish about an ad-dominant future and initially respond by re-engaging with various subscription strategies (where success will be unevenly distributed), and doubling down on native advertising. The difference in performance between custom native advertising created in-house and more broadly-targeted externally-created native advertising will only become more distinct and publishers are likely to increase their investment in custom content studios or engage in partnerships where publishers will band together to take advantage of these capabilities.

Audience development comes into its own

Finally, audience development will become increasingly sophisticated as we move from an era of introducing these practices to one in which we optimise them. The skills gap between traditional publishers and the new breed will continue to narrow. Deeper analysis of what actually drives long-term audience growth will start to cure some publishers of a dependence on metrics that do not reflect quality, and there will start to be an even more public debate on the difference between the metrics that publishers are publicly being held accountable to and those that actually matter.


Tony Haile