BuzzFeed’s Managing Editorial Director Summer Anne Burton has said that, though quizzes posted on the news outlet didn’t yield the metrics it wanted at first, over time the editorial team experimented to find ways to make the quizzes more successful:

“I think our most successful quizzes are mostly built so that the results feel personal and that you can relate to them. The answers genuinely correspond to the results. We’ve tried a lot of other experiments, which is just the nature of the way we function at BuzzFeed.”

Newsrooms set themselves up for success when they find ways to uncover—and take action on—specific metrics that can help them increase site engagement and, in turn, drive revenue. But what are some ways to do that?

Parse.ly Co-founder and CEO Sachin Kamdar led a recent Optimizely webinar on content experiences that drive revenue. You can watch the full presentation here. In this post, we’ll discuss how to integrate experimentation into your web experiences to improve the success of any content you produce. We’ll also share five actionable ideas for digital news sites to increase engagement.

Track new reader engagement

What content resonates best with potential readers? Engaged time on site—specifically for new visitors—is one of the most important metrics you can collect in your quest to drive revenue.

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The Atlantic found that new readers were most engaged by a higher frequency of editorial content.

Just look at The Atlantic. It is focused on editorial quality and audience development; however, the newsroom still aims to get as many new readers on-site as possible. Adam Felder, Associate Director of Analytics for Atlantic Media, said that to do this the publication needed to adjust its editorial strategy—increasing the amount (and type) of content it produced. The Atlantic learned that their new traffic stays more engaged when editors and journalists focus on current events and other news topics to ensure content relevancy.

There might be a piece of content that is engaging a new audience that will surprise your editorial team, providing insights into what might otherwise be a transient audience. Tracking new reader engagement can give your team a glimpse into this audience and help you to adjust your editorial strategy in ways that can captivate them.

Tip: Did you test a different social media promotion strategies at different times? Pay attention to how website traffic changes with your social media strategy for insight into the efficacy of the strategy.

Personalize your site’s recommendation engine


Personalizing recommended content is an opportunity to dramatically increase reader engagement.

One way to keep visitors engaged on your site is to show them content that you think they may be interested in based on what they are already reading. There are many ways to do this.

According to Parse.ly CTO Andrew Montalenti in a recent post on Parse.ly’s own recommendation engine, “To build higher engagement on site and more loyalty, [digital publishers] need to offer your visitors experiences around content that are relevant, tailored, and data-driven.”

Experimenting with different types of recommendation engines is one way that newsrooms can better connect readers to the content they are most interested in and build loyalty. Some recommendation engines suggest sponsored or promoted content only, while others recommend stories by metric (most shared posts, etc.). Still others recommend articles by relevance — taking into account personalized data, contextual information, and author/section preferences, among other information.

Something interesting that The New York Times has done is to provide readers with access to their own consumption analytics, along with a list of recommended articles based on the subscriber’s history. The New York Times subscriber (and Parse.ly VP of Marketing) Clare Carr elaborates:

“Just as I find my own Fitbit data or sleep information interesting, I’m intrigued by my own reading habits, and am driven to continue reading The New York Times so that I can learn more about myself. Though it’s a sample of one, this use of analytics has connected me closer to The New York Times brand: a goal that many media brands aim to reach.”

Explore whether your recommendations are working by looking at the percentage of readers who stay on the site and view other posts.

Tip: To increase site engagement, look at top posts sorted by engaged time and note the commonalities. Chances are, the topics you’ll uncover are those that resonate with your readers and would do well in future content.

Build a community through your writers, not only your brand

Engaging directly with your audience is one of your most valuable assets. Think about Reddit—a source of flashpan traffic that can be a real black-box for publishers. Many newsrooms don’t have the bandwidth to monitor Reddit all day, never mind to massage their way into a nuanced conversation without being blocked.

Parse.ly recently posted a data piece on our blog related to the U.S. Presidential election. An interested reader shared to Hacker News and the number of visitors to our post skyrocketed! However, we did encourage the data analyst involved in creating the post to engage directly with commenters. He wasn’t there to promote the story—that had already been done. Instead, he was positioning himself as a point of contact for our brand, and taking ownership over the story and our collective work.

Tip: Start a conversation with your audience on social media to see what aspects of a particular story resonate most with them. Use feedback from various social sites to help your team develop content specific to each platform.

5 actionable ideas to increase site engagement

The three ideas above are a good start for content creators looking to increase engagement and drive revenue. For more insight into developing the content that will resonate most with your customers or your audience, you can also think about some of the following:

How long are your most engaging posts? Lehigh University tracked average reader engagement time across all posts in its student newspaper. Editors hypothesized that longer posts wouldn’t get as much engagement, but they were wrong. It turns out that readers are looking for interesting content—and don’t particularly care about the length. Said Danielle DiStefano, editor-in-chief of Lehigh’s student newspaper: “This is greatly helpful in determining how reporters structure articles, what kind of content we produce (e.g. infographics, illustrations, etc.), and what that content is about.”

Do the most engaging posts include pictures or videos? Summer Anne Burton encourages real-time testing for the best headlines and pictures, but she warned that anyone using these results should remain cautious about over-optimizing. She said editorial and human judgment still tops A-B testing: “It may be true that the headline ‘A Shark is About to Attack you right now!’ will have a higher click-through rate, but if the story on the other side doesn’t match, your readers aren’t going to come back.”

Are there certain topics that seem to have the highest engaged time per user? Ricky Van Veen, co-founder of CollegeHumor, has said that just because there’s a trending story in the news, that doesn’t mean it’s going to work for CollegeHumor’s audience. Its editorial team is using data and analytics, among other things, to understand who its readers are and make sure the posts they create stay relevant to the brand and humor.

What type of content is most highly shared? BuzzFeed found that readers weren’t just sharing stories on social networks, they were sharing individual pictures from those stories. This spurred the media outlet to start adding headlines, captions and context within its images, not just in the article text.

What type of content gets your social audience returning to your site? Tracking site metrics can provide digital publishers with a new perspective on how, and why, they are driving visitors to particular pieces of content on their site. And depending on their unique site goals, publishers must then find ways to make these insights actionable. Are you simply looking to generate traffic? Maybe Google News pickups are a good thing for your news organization since engaged time isn’t one of your top priorities. On the other hand, if audience development is one of your main goals, connecting with your loyal readers through long-form content that is prominently placed on your homepage may work better for you. Many publishers now realize that where they distribute their content is as important as the content, itself.

No matter what questions you ask of your content, make sure you pay attention to the answers. Think about the information you’ve gathered and ask yourself: Is this information surprising to me? If so, why? What’s the opportunity here?