The IT PRO contributor/traffic analysis project

Posted by Chris Green on Thursday July 10 @ 11:57 am

Web stats

After one small comment on Twitter about my day spent sweating over spreadsheets, it seems that many people within the IT publishing and PR world are very interested in what I was doing.

Every few months I perform what I call a contributor/traffic analysis. This involves generating a report from the main IT PRO site stats tool that shows the page impressions (PIs) and unique user visits (UUs) generated by author, rather than by article type or section.

I then merge this data with the main contributor expenditure spreadsheet, where we record and track all our freelance spending.

The end result is that we have the traffic generated by an author alongside how much we’ve spent with them over the given period. You divide the amount spent by either the PIs or the UUs and you end up with a cost per PI and a cost per UU, based on a specific author.

It’s not a perfect system, as the PIs and UUs also include legacy content written by that author that was accessed during the given period, not just the new stuff you’ve commissioned and allocated budget for. However, it still provides a valuable metric on the effectiveness of that author’s work to bring in traffic to the site, as well as the cost of acquiring that traffic.

There’s a lot we can do with this data. For example, we can compare the cost of traffic acquisition via a given freelancer’s work against alternative sources, such as newswire copy, pay-per-click (PPC) marketing, traditional marketing, sponsorships, list rental, staging competitions, copy sharing, content licensing deals with overseas or non-competing titles, referral deals with other sites and so on.

Doing this, we can see whether we are achieving a suitable return on investment from our freelance spending, we can benchmark in-house writers against freelance writers and visa versa, we can see which freelancers are popular and unpopular with our readers, highlight popular niche content strands and more.

Why do we do this? As a relatively new publication we re not shackled with the legacy of long-term contracts or historic arrangements with writers. We are also an online pure play, which means all our commercial and editorial focus is directed at the online ecosystem, where readers (or users) wield ultimate power, capable of making or breaking a site with a single shift in web surfing habits.

I honestly believe that in the not too distant future, online publications in all sectors, not just technology, will have to adopt a results-driven approach to freelance commissions in order to maximise revenue and to achieve maximum return from their freelance budgets.

The most likely outcome will be that publications begin paying writers purely on how much traffic an article pulls in. Also likely is that commissioning editors will need to take a more frequent and brutal approach to deciding which freelancers to commission regularly and which to drop from their rotation, based on the kind of metrics I am currently looking at.

What does this mean for freelance writers? For a start it means that freelancers will need to think about their working processes and the relationships they have with the publications that commission them. Right now it is far too common that a freelancer will get a commission, write a piece to a given word count and word rate, file it, invoice and get paid. The freelance writer is almost entirely detached from the process that takes place after the piece is filed and published. This will need to change going forward.

Freelance writers need to maintain responsibility for content and for ensuring it can reach the widest possible online audience even after the copy has been filed.

Things that freelance writers will need to consider and change their working practices to incorporate:

Search Engine Optimisation – This is key to the future of online publishing. All writers, whether they are in-house or freelance need to understand the importance of making copy search engine-friendly. That means understanding how search engines interpret content, how they look for keywords and what relevant keywords are popular at the time of writing and publishing. Writers also need to track the online zeitgeist to understand what search terms, themes and trends are popular, in order to incorporate them, where relevant, into an article.

Content Seeding – With publications looking at the audience traffic an article receives as a measure of success (as well as looking at traditional elements such as whether it is well written, accuracy, relevancy and how current the information is), the writer needs to take on some of the responsibility for promoting that article and extending its reach. That means seeding links to content to relevant locations where the links will bring in additional traffic. Also, think about whether the piece you are writing will appeal to the audience of the popular social bookmarking sites such as Digg, Slashdot, StumbleUpon and Reddit. We want readers to submit your content to these services, and it is in the interests of the writer as well for readers to do this.

Stickiness – This is one of the biggest issues affecting any online publication. A reader has arrived at the site to read a specific article, now how do you keep them there to read more than just the single piece that brought them there? The most effective way of doing this is for the writer to cross link to other relevant content on the site. If you are writing about, for example, the Microsoft Yahoo takeover saga, reference and link back to previous relevant articles that publication has published on the same subject, especially if you wrote them as well.

Comment Generation – Your piece needs to spark debate among readers. It needs to encourage them to post comments, engage and debate other readers on that site. The conversation should not end with your final paragraph, but should stimulate the reader to participate in the conversation, add knowledge and share alternative viewpoints.

Multi-skilling – Online journalism is about more than just writing, it is about providing complete coverage in the most appropriate media form, and doing it in as timely fashion as possible. You are covering an event for a publication; you need to consider visual elements as well as written. Think about how you can incorporate video, audio and images into the piece to maximise the effectiveness of the piece. Waiting for images to be sent over from a company or PR agency may be counterproductive to publishing a timely and informative piece, so be prepared to take your own photos, shoot your own video and record audio content for inclusion in a podcast. You don’t need thousands of pounds of equipment to create audio or visual material that is suitable for publication.

16 Responses to “The IT PRO contributor/traffic analysis project”

  1. Great post. Raises some very important questions – both for journalism and PR. All of the things you mention with regard to SEO, content seeding, multi-sklling, etc also apply to PR too.

    Some immediate thoughts:

    1. Does this assume that all traffic is equal? eg are IT Directors more “valuable” in traffic terms than a junior developer? Ie is it possible to reward a writer who attracts a smaller but high value audience (in terms of value to potential advertisers and/or marketing partners)?

    2. Multi-skilling – you are right that the tools to produce multi-media content are now cheap and an easy to use – but the tools are only 10pc of the issue = its the 90pc of skill/training to produce quality content – who is going to fund the training in these new areas? Simply taking a good print journalist and asking them to suddenly acquire top notch audio and video content skills is a big ask. And is everyone capable of being a great all-rounder?

    3. Will you apply your traffic performance measures to staffers as well as freelancers?

    I don’t have the answers – but it is good that you are raising the right questions.

  2. [...] “Online journalism is about more than just writing”: Chris Green, Editor, IT Pro IT Pro Editor Chris Green has written a very good post regarding the changing nature of online journ… [...]

  3. Gareth says:

    Really interesting post in that it lays bare the commercial nature of content generation online (ie strong articles=traffic=ad revenue). I wonder how many writers are comfortable with that – a lot of journos I know are not very commercailly minded and say they got into journalism to ‘seek the truth’ etc…rather than generate eyeballs for advertising.

    Of course, news organisations have always been about capturing an audience/traffic for advertising. It’s just that in the traditional world there’s usually a big, clear divide between the editorial and advertising people. That seems to be merging online in some ways and I guess freelancers need to evolve.

    I also think a possible danger is that it encourages journalists to write the most sensationalist headline to get the traffic. Again – something that has always happended to an extent (check out today’s ill-informed – but doubtless very popular – Daily Mail front page headline “Google spies at your door” about StreetView.) Reminds me of the Beeb’s current struggle to balance so-called dumbed down reality TV with more educational content.

    In summary, I agree this is the way the world is going but strong editorial control is needed to ensure that the right balance is kept between what is popular and what people should be aware of. No doubt IT Pro will continue to have that ;-)

  4. [...] models of journalism By tim Chris Green, editor of IT Pro, has written about analysing professional writers in terms of “costs per unique user visit”. He says: I [...]

  5. Kewal says:

    Very interesting post….how much will it cost me to find out who were the best performing freelancers:)

  6. James says:

    Let’s cut the b*******. The metric you really want is the amount of money the advertiser will be willing to pay for their adverts to appear alongside articles by a given author.

  7. Carole says:

    At what point will the freelancer be paid? At the moment the freelancer is commissioned by an Editor and the contract for payment rate (as well as date of completion and terms of payment) is agreed then.

    If this is switched, and the contract is dependent upon the future amount of “hits” – say the first month that the article appears online – by the time the statistics are collated – the baliffs will be camped outside the freelancer’s repossessed home to intercept the payment cheque.

    A freelance writer writes to a brief – it is their trade. An Editor commissions. At the point of commissioning the contract is entered upon.

    Retrospectives should be directed at the Editor, not the person who fulfilled their part of the contract.

  8. Chris Green says:

    Hi Carole

    This is one of the biggest issues to consider, were a publication to start paying freelancers based on traffic.

    I should remind everyone at this point that the purpose of this exercise was to look at our traffic by author, and is just one of several metrics that a publication should, in my view, use to understand where traffic comes from, which writers are the most successful in attracting and holding traffic, the cost of that traffic as a cash figure in reation to the cost of commissioning the author and other cost-based traffic acquisition sources, popular topics and themes, as well as taking into account whether the aim was to service a niche audience or a broad one.

    Payments based purely on hits is one possible option for all publishing houses to consider for the future, as is a split between a basic fee and a top-up based on traffic over a given period. At the very least, and as I have already explained in my original post, this type of analysis, combined with other study is useful in determining where to focus future commissioning in terms of authors and topics.

    Also – why should a writer’s responsibility as the custodian of an article end when it is published? Just because this is the way it has worked in the past for print, doesn’t mean it is the most appropriate business model for online heading in to the future.

    By analysing traffic in this and other ways, we can determine whether a change is needed, and if so, the best model for online freelance commissioning for the future.

    Thanks
    Chris

  9. Bryan says:

    Traffic analysis might work for columnists and bloggers, but it’s hard to see it being of wider use. For a start, in news and features it’s not always the writer who chooses the topic – and it’s not the author’s name that pulls in the readers, it’s the headline and abstract, which are (or should be) the editor’s responsibility.

    As for working practices, the skills involved in writing and SEO or content seeding are rather different – sure, one person could do both, but at best one is going to be a distraction to the other.

    These tasks are also the same as (or analogous to) what’s historically been done by full-time subs and editorial assistants. And there’s good reasons why these tasks were done by staff – they’re continuing roles. So alongside the change in freelance working practices, a change will also be required in payment practices. You’re not going to be able to pay on a project-by-project basis any more – it’s going to mean retainers, regular payments and perhaps even – oh horrors! – hiring more full-timers.

    But perhaps my sceptical spectacles have made me miss something important… (-:

  10. Guy Kewney says:

    Chris,
    At one level, it’s good to know that quantitative data, rather than gut-level emotive responses, are being used to assess the quality of editorial.

    However, to follow the metaphor which Carole pointed out, you can’t punish the supplier of porcelain for the unpopularity of a restaurant. The toilets are an essential part of the architecture! but it’s the Chef who decides what to serve up.

    If you told your plumbing contractors that you were disappointed with their revenue contributions and were halving the price paid, you’d lose all your customers. The main course is what brings them in; but a smelly cellar will drive them out a lot faster.

    In publishing terms, perhaps a web site isn’t quite the same “unit” as a magazine title. People really do read just the one story that interests them. But regular visitors will only come if they know that it’s worth browsing your other pages. And some of the less “popular, exciting” sections (maybe, developer stories?) may provide some of your most loyal visitors. How will you judge the value of a low-traffic page – purely on the local hits? or on its contribution to brand image?

    Surely, both are essential?

    Interesting piece! I’m not agin your ideas, but I am cautious about where you’re going with this. In particular, the “must spark debate” argument fills me with dread. Much of the debate that appears under most web items is completely empty waffle. To me, it’s clearly some kind of page-scoring scam for advertisers! – it certainly can’t be called anything except wank in 99% of cases.

    Cheers,

    Guy

  11. [...] too that this comes within a month of IT Pro’s editor, Chris Green, disclosing that every few months he runs a contributor/traffic analysis to measure the site’s [...]

  12. [...] a story now it is all about getting your story googled.  This is backed up by a recent blog from Chris Green who discussed the way that IT Pro evaluates traffic [...]

  13. Great article and resource Chris. I am an Online Community Manager for Guidespot.com, and I will only hire freelance writers if they are experienced with online media. They must understand the basics of SEO, be active on at least three social sites, and produce content that they would want to send to their friends… aka, what we call “linkbait.” My next challenge is figuring out a reward system for the freelancers where they are are encouraged to write less and seek out more involvement from readers (aka more comments).

    In my experience however, a good “linkbait” writer is not always a good online maven so to speak… Please be aware that in an effort to do the job and complete the requirements of the contract, some writers end up spamming the links… Whic, as we know is actually negative PR for the website… To avoid this, I not only hire socially active writers with good linkbait skills and popular blogs where they can put the website widget, but I beyond the writers and rely on community contacts and mavens to help spread the link-love… These mavens simply won’t abuse the system or they will lose their community fan-base.

    Would love any feedback regarding a specific reward system based on traffic, comment generation, and/or new user sign-ups… What is a fair and encouraging reward?

  14. [...] Green posted a while ago about how he’d spent ages sweating over the precise statistics of who clicked through to read [...]

  15. [...] – bookmarked by 5 members originally found by reywillALWAYSwin on 2008-10-31 The IT PRO contributor/traffic analysis project http://www.chrisgreen.co.uk/402/the-it-pro-contributortraffic-analysis-project/ – bookmarked by 6 [...]

  16. Alex says:

    Great post, some well reasoned points. As time goes on this sort of thing is going to become more and more important to an increasing number of businesses.

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