Hyperlocal Start-Ups Say They Can’t Measure Their Engagement. Huh?

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Independent hyperlocal news sites are busy trying to get their users fully engaged, but they say they can’t measure how well their strategies are working. A new study from J-Lab at American University finds that nearly eight in 10 news sites “could not measure whether their engagement strategies were also converting readers into advertisers, donors, content contributors or volunteers.”

“Such an effort is beyond our capacity,” said one survey respondent. “We need help,” said another.

The predicament reminds me of that nursery rhyme:

“For want of a nail the shoe was lost.
For want of a shoe the horse was lost…”

These sites say they are unable to get the depth of information they want from various engagement tracking services, relying instead on old standbys — unique visitors and page views — the report says. UVs and PVs are important, but, of course, they don’t begin to measure depth of engagement, which advertisers are increasingly demanding (especially of smaller sites — the very ones in the survey).

I checked with Kissmetrics, which says it can “Track every single interaction a person has with your business.” When I put the predicament of the survey sites to Kissmetrics co-founder Neil Patel, he assured me, after checking over the survey findings, that his service could provide what sites wanted, specifically the numbers regarding the conversion of casual visitors to engaged ones and what kind of engagement.

Kissmetrics’ clients include such biggies as Amazon, Microsoft, AOL, eBay and Groupon. But Patel pointed out that Kissmetrics pricing for start-ups begins at $29 a month. Even for sites with 50,000 unique visitors — the level covering most respondents in the J-Lab survey — the monthly cost is just $79.

Another company, MixPanel, advertises services similar to Kissmetrics, with a $150 monthly fee for start-ups.

I find it strange that start-ups don’t seem to know about these two companies that claim to do exactly what the sites say is “beyond our capacity.” The survey identifies 18 engagement tracking services that start-ups say they use, but those services don’t include Kissmetrics and MixPanel.

This information gap suggests hyperlocals have to do a better job of executing on their engagement strategies. It’s not enough to plead for help when there’s help within reach.

Tom Grubisich authors The New News column for Street Fight. He is editorial director of LocalAmerica, which is developing a Web site to rank communities on their livability across 20-plus categories. The rankings will be dynamic, going up and down daily as they are updated through a combination of open data, journalism and feedback from local experts and users of the site.