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

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.

  1. June 7, 2012

    50,000 unique visitors”

    What kind of HyperLocal start-up gets that level of traffic before converting to engagement?

    1. June 7, 2012

      Lots of sites have higher numbers and don’t track engagement well enough to know if specific strategies bear fruit.

  2. ThomasatGL
    June 7, 2012

    Seems to me that advertisers have never demanded these types of engagement statistics from print, and that’s because for the most part they don’t exist there. Page views and unique visitors alone provide more raw data on engagement than newspapers publishers have the ability to collect. This suggests, in turn, that the old familiar pro-print bias is in operation; advertisers believe it works because they and others can hold it in their hands. This really sounds like little more than a sales pitch.

  3. June 7, 2012

    Worth checking out Kissmetrics for sure. I will say that there are two problems here:

    One is the meaning of “engagement.” Often the most valuable engagement for hyperlocal independents is face-to-face. This can be involvement in events, meet-ups at coffee shops, workshops or just plain being around town. I remember I met Tracy Record in Seattle (not even West Seattle) at a coffee shop to chat and about 50% of the people who walked in the door knew her. She is a highly engaged individual and highly trusted. During our chat, her phone was also ringing off the hook. People wanted her advice when they saw a fight outside their house or wanted to bring her story tips. This is the stuff that is laborious to track and has the highest “engagement” quotient. It is what separates the great local news sites from the pack.

    The other problem is measuring meaningful interactions on your site or with social media platforms. In that case, the technical problem of tracking clicks and actions is not a huge one. The real problem is that each of us independents are different in our goals and operations. Therefore the actions we need to track are different and while useful internally, are hard to cross-compare. For example, at The Sacramento Press we track literally hundreds of metrics every month. We track first time commenters, first time writers, repeat writers, flags, ratings, share button clicks and on and on. We do this because it helps us identify opportunities for improvement and pinpoint strategies that will capture those opportunities. Something like Kissmetrics could be a valuable tool for this kind of work. But our goals are about engaging our community to participate as commenters, writers and newsletter subs. Other indies don’t even allow amateurs to write let alone count it as one of the most important levels of engagement. So while extremely valuable, it is difficult to cross-compare.

    Finally, a word about impact. All this engagement is not an end in-itself. It is a means to an end. Those of us who obsess over the concept do so because we believe that in order to have impact in our communities we must create communities aligned with our organizations. Those communities exists online and offline. Engaging members of the public is simply recruiting them to align with our communities so that, as a group, we can have a positive impact in our neighborhood/town/city. If we want to succeed in the long run, we need to remember that engagement (for all its importance) is a strategy to create impact. Impact keeps us relevant and sustainable. Impact drives our growth. And for those of us who are for-profit—impact is what our sponsors demand of us.

    1. Jessdrkn
      June 7, 2012

      The real problem is that each of us independents are different in our goals and operations. Therefore the actions we need to track are different and while useful internally, are hard to cross-compare.” 

      Ben’s comment speaks to the difference between independent hyperlocal/community news start-ups and the corporate model of local news, which is oriented toward scale and uniform measurement. 

      While independent hyperlocal publishers are working together to explore best practices, one thing that sets them apart from, say, corporate media efforts is their nuanced approach to operations. In the business world, where the pressures of sustainability are felt daily, there is little patience for systems that cannot be easily measured and replicated. This is the bias that shows up in coverage of the hyperlocal space. 

      Independent hyperlocal publishers are certainly focused on tracking their audience, but as Ben said, “engagement” can have a different meaning publisher-to-publisher, and it’s a means to an end, not an end in itself. 

      Jessica Durkin
      New America Foundation associate media policy fellow

  4. June 7, 2012

    I can’t remember the last time a local small business owner asked me, “how are you measuring engagement?”

    Oh, wait, I remember: NEVER.

    Hell, any more no advertisers even asks about  page views or visitors.

    Why?  Because everybody in town knows everybody reads The Batavian.

    That’s real engagement, the kind of engagement that doesn’t need measured.

    Today, while covering an event involving a group 3rd, 4th and 5th graders, one of them asked, “Are we going to be in the paper?” Another piped up, “no, on The Batavian.”  I said, “yes, on The Batavian,” and the whole class cheered.

    On a daily basis, adults stop me at events and tell me how much they love The Batavian.

    A couple of months ago, an advertiser was in the local Verizon store and the doors opened on the fire hall across the street and the fire trucks rolled out.  Every customer in the crowded store immediately pulled out their mobile devices and checked the site.  One person said, “Howard hasn’t updated the site yet.”  My advertiser said, “give him a minute, guys.”

    Last summer, some guy drove past my house while I was outside watering the lawn and slowed, stuck his head out the window and yelled, “Keep up the great work, Howard. I love The Batavian.”

    How is Kissmetrics or Mixpanel going to measure that kind of engagement — the engagement that really mattes?  And why I should I spend money on a service that will do NOTHING to help me make money?

  5. Thank you for your great article – which i read with high interest!!!

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