Q&A with Parse.ly CEO Sachin Kamdar: Choosing the right metrics
Sachin Kamdar is the co-founder and chief executive officer of the analytics company Parse.ly, which combines real-time and historical data to give a holistic picture of activity related to individual stories, authors, sections, or entire websites. In this edited transcript of our interview for the RJI Futures Lab update, Kamdar offers a vision of the future while urging publishers to focus on metrics that align with specific organizational goals.
How do you think news organizations could use data better?
The best way they can use their data more smartly is to be on the same page. I think we went through this really interesting shift in the industry. Maybe 10 years ago, when we were on one side of the pendulum, there was no data and all you really had was kind of stat counters saying how many people were visiting your sites. Slowly the pendulum started shifting, and more technology companies started entering the space. Now all of a sudden we’re on the other side of the equation, where you almost can get too much data.
There are so many different ways to think about how to evaluate what success means — for an individual author, piece of content, or for the site overall — that it’s really hard to actually think about What does it actually mean for us? I think where the market is going right now is shifting back to the middle, where there needs to be a single source of truth, where you’re really focused on this across your entire team, whether that be a single metric or a platform or whatever it is so you can get everybody on the same page. The best thing that you can do is try to get back to that point where if you ask anybody at your organization from an analytics perspective what does success mean, they all have the same answer.
What should that answer be? How do you determine as a news organization what number everyone should all strive for?
It really depends on what you’re trying to achieve, and I stress this with almost every single customer I talk to because everybody’s looking for the silver bullet: What is the one thing that we should care about? What’s the one thing we should be focused on? And I fire back and say, “Well what do you really care about? What is important to you?”
I’ll give you a couple of examples of how it might look for different organizations. If you’re a publisher like the New Yorker, for example, the most important thing for you is probably going to be driving loyal visitors on your site. You want them to become either digital subscribers or print subscribers, and what you really care about maybe more than page views or shares or unique visitors is loyalty. And so you want to architect your whole strategy around that. You might have another site that’s just starting up and really all they care about is their ability to grow. For them the page view actually is a really good metric to track growth because it’s giving you a sense of the velocity of your site, the velocity of individual pieces of content, and it allows you to architect strategy around that. There might be another site like BuzzFeed where — they’ve said this publicly — the only thing they care about is a share, and they’re going to architect their whole strategy around the share because that ties back to the business model, ties back to their unique value proposition.
I think for all three of these it really depends on what you’re trying to achieve. The data is a means to help you to achieve that or to help you understand how to achieve that, but it’s not a success factor in and of itself.
How do we accurately measure what’s happening with news content with so much of it distributed now away from individual websites?
It depends on the platform. Some platforms are more open than others. On Twitter, all the content for the most part is public except for direct messages. It’s really easy to see what’s happening there, and they have an API where you can see things like who are your influencers, how much traffic are they driving, etc. Facebook is a little bit harder because they’re a closed platform, so a lot of the data by nature is just locked and private and you’re not able to get transparency with what’s happening there.
I think what you’re going to see over the next year or so is that more and more of the closed platforms are going to be more comfortable sharing data with publishers because there’s a big fight for the publisher’s attention right now. And I think one of the big ways that they can build a relationship is by being more transparent and be more open with what is and is not working on their platform.
This power dynamic between the publishers and the social platforms, where is that headed?
Let’s look at Facebook in particular, and it will sort of spider out into some of the other platforms, too. Call it five years ago, maybe even less than that, really what you used Facebook for was a means to connect with other people. And you saw updates from individuals specifically about what they were eating, what they were doing, whether they were in a relationship. That allowed Facebook to get to the user base that they have right now.
As they started to think more heavily about monetization and advertisers and brands — brands and advertisers don’t necessarily like to advertise against those types of things. What they really like to advertise against is content. So Facebook in particular started to prioritize content more in their news feed, and that did wonders for them in terms of being able to track brands and advertisers. It also did wonders for publishers in terms of driving traffic, so there’s a relationship between Facebook and publishers in that sense.
Twitter is very similar, where a lot of content is being distributed through their platform and that goes back to the publishers. Content, though, is important for each one of these platforms because without it it’s just kind of noise. Content inherently has more value than the noisy stuff that happens on the platforms anyways. So there’s a power dynamic right now between Google, Facebook, Snapchat, Twitter where they’re all trying to convince publishers to push content on their platforms. If they can do that, it means that they have a competitive advantage, and that means they’re able to control the experience and the monetization aspect of it more. So you’re going to find more and more interesting things happen between these technology platforms and the publishers themselves as it starts to play out.
But publishers often feel like they are powerless against Facebook.
That is absolutely not true. Without publisher’s content Facebook is not going to be valued at what it is right now. The technology that they have on the ad targeting side is definitely valuable; but if there’s no contextual relevancy to place that advertising against, it doesn’t mean as much. So content inherently is valuable to Facebook. It’s meaningful for them to partner with publishers in a way that makes publishers feel more comfortable with pushing stuff on Facebook.
What about measuring activity on mobile devices?
A couple different ways to think about mobile: One is through the mobile Web, and the mobile Web is pretty easy because it just tends to be a different form factor of what would exist on your news site anyways. Through Parse.ly you can see your mobile traffic versus your desktop traffic versus your tablet traffic.
I think where it’s a little bit harder is when you think about native apps. If you have the native app as a publisher, which is a cost-capital heavy investment, you have to think about what you’re trying to do different. I think a lot of publishers just say they’re going to port their mobile news site over to a native app, and that’s not a smart use of time. You have to think about, “How am I trying to influence or impact the user and the way that they behave with their mobile device? How am I going to inform users using notifications? Are going to be ways to save stories or read them offline? Are there going to be other avenues where I can influence their behavior with a mobile device that doesn’t exist elsewhere?” That is where the analytics gets a little bit trickier because you’re not using your tried-and-true metrics, you’re going to use other things like showing notifications or saves or follows or things like that.
How does a publisher put all of those pieces together?
We have a mobile Software Development Kit where you can integrate some things through the SDK that will track inside of our platform itself, but again I think it goes back to what you’re trying to accomplish. I think that’s often forgotten when you think about analytics and data. As a publisher you need to think “OK, well, if I’m having a mobile app how is that tying back into what I want to accomplish?” If it’s loyalty, then you’re going to track things differently than if it’s just viral growth or shares or time spent or things like that. So you really need to tie it back into the main thing that’s important to you, and I’ll just harp on that one more time: If you have analytics being used by your entire organization in a way that they’re all on the same page, what you actually have as an executive at a publisher is a way to change the whole approach or strategy that the rest of your organization is going after with a click of a button.
Let me explain that a little bit more. We really believe that you build what you measure. For example, if you start to recognize that “Hey, we’re about to launch a pay wall, we’ve been focusing on unique visitors as a way to grow our site, but now it’s time to squeeze the fruit and get some of the juice out,” then if you change the way they’re looking at their metrics from being a unique visitor to now a loyalty metric, all of a sudden the whole way that they approach the site has changed. And that’s just changing the metric right? So I think that can be such a powerful notion for how publishers can stay relevant and flexible as not just the market changes but as they evolve and they change over weeks, months, years.
What do you see as the next frontier?
I think the industry has really focused a lot on what has either happened in the past or what’s happening right now, and the next version of that is what’s going to happen. So I think where the industry is going to go is more toward the predictive ways that you can think about “OK I have all this data, why don’t you tell me what’s going to happen in the next day or the next week based upon what we see right there?”
One way we’re thinking about that right now is by aggregating together all of our network-wide data to provide insights about what’s happening across the entire Parse.ly network to individual publishers and customers. The way that we do that is through reports we create called the authority reports. We release that quarterly, but you could envision a product where you could look at that data and explore that on your own, and that could get to a sort of predictive sense of what’s happening generally throughout media.
What might be predicted related to news content?
When using external sources to indicate what you should be doing, it’s all done on the demand side. So you look at Facebook, you look at Twitter and you get this notion of what people are interested in generally through those platforms. What you really don’t know is the flip side of that, the supply side: How well are these things actually being covered, not just being talked about? And so you as a publisher predictively might be able to say, “OK, well this is something, it has a high demand but a low supply, and we know through all the data that we have that we’re really good at covering this,” and so I could envision a recommendation coming up saying something like “Here’s an area where there is a lot of interest but there’s not a lot of coverage, and you are good at covering this specific topic, so this might be something you want to look at.”
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