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Putting data to work

At a time when data is plentiful, Vox Media’s VP, Analytics, shares his thoughts on strategic and effective analytics practices

In this day and age, everyone has data. Almost everything is measurable, tracked, and easily countable. It’s no different for Vox Media. We have data from Google Analytics, YouTube, Apple News, our revenue and finance teams, Crowdtangle, surveys, Chartbeat, advertising, Instagram, search consoles, Twitter, podcasts, newsletters – the list goes on and on. The downside of having all this data is that without clear focus and context of priorities, data can be overwhelming, a distraction, or – worse – used to manipulate instead of inform.

It’s not how much data you have but what you do with the data that matters.

This is where analytics comes in. Analytics is the practice of turning data into information, and at Vox Media we use analytics for everything, from establishing best practices for headline writing to sizing the opportunity for launching The Highlight on Apple News+. Critically, when using data to improve the performance of our work we make sure to protect data and user privacy while respecting that data represents our audiences.

Analytics done right

For my kids’ spring break we went on a Disney cruise to the Carribean. It was an amazing experience. They were entertained, we ate well, and there was always something new and fun to do together. While I was able to disconnect from work for a few days, I kept thinking about an article I had read years ago, about the amount of analytics, learning, and optimization performed at Disney World in order to create this kind of immersive experience. Much like Disney, I view analytics as both foundational and a differentiating factor to what makes Vox Media a modern media company. We use analytics to connect the dots and inform stakeholders across the company on how to program content, optimize ads, reach and understand our audiences, identify areas of opportunity, and make our company more efficient.

It’s imperative we do it well. We believe in creating in-depth high-quality journalism and entertainment as well as impactful, premium advertising for our business partners. We also know we need to respect our audiences, or they won’t come back to us. Ultimately, like Disney, we ask ourselves constantly, how do we optimize our work to create the best experience for our audiences?

When I think about how to be impactful with analytics, it comes down to three things: turning data into information through effective communication, democratizing data and tools, and enabling the company through education.

Communicate effectively and set context

As analysts, our jobs are to be influential with data to empower people across the company to make better decisions. A key part of being influential is communicating information or a good idea clearly, and with the right context.

In a similar way to when our editorial networks choose between an article, video, podcast or TV show as the best format to tell a story, analysts think critically about the most effective way to deliver information. No, we will never make a TV show version of a monthly report; but instead, we think, is this message best communicated through a meeting, a memo, a slide deck, a chart or even an automated Slack bot?

Along with the right medium, an insight must also be put in the right context. A frame of reference is important in order to anticipate questions or mitigate doubt about an insight. A stakeholder shouldn’t have to ask: Is this big or small? Did we do better or worse? Or, simply, is this good or bad?

There are many ways to set context for a piece of data: compare it to a relevant timeframe, benchmark, or goal; combine performance with cost or revenue; or correlate it against a third-party source. This step of the analytics process is human-powered and dependent on the analyst’s ability to choose the right way to provide context. At a company where striving for improvement is the norm, context is what tells us what is working and what isn’t.

Democratize data

Vox Media analytics is a small (but growing!) team and in order to scale insights and information, we have to make data accessible across the entire company. We do this by maintaining clean sets of data and building custom tools.

People who want to use data to inform a decision should have access to that data. One way that we democratize data is by maintaining a single source of truth of the performance for our O&O sites, Apple News, YouTube, social followers, podcasts, and newsletter data. This “data warehouse” allows everyone at Vox Media to access and analyze data from one, always-updated source. Today, this single set of data now powers over 50 custom dashboards and tools tailored by a specific network or publishing platform.

We also build tools to make the data accessible. Neither an editor nor an account executive should be spending hours in Google Analytics to research something. Our most recent tool – called Audience Intelligence – turned a multi-week, labor-intensive project for a skilled analyst into a one-minute query for anyone. It allows anyone to create a custom audience segment and explore its characteristics and behavior against the context of a specified baseline. It also spits out a summary of the most interesting data points in a human-readable format so that you don’t need to be an analyst to make sense of the data. Because it makes information approachable and accessible, Audience Intelligence is being used by many groups at Vox Media to develop a deep understanding of our audience and how they engage with our editorial work and advertising.

Enable the company through education

And finally, we focus on an often overlooked function to keep everyone up to speed: education. The analytics team conducts regular SEO classes to teach best practices. We run Google Analytics training classes specific to Vox Media’s implementation (powered by our very own Chorus technology!) to teach our colleagues about the data sources they can use to understand the performance of their content, products, and behavior of our audiences. We also recently launched a new line of training that doesn’t focus on any particular data source, but rather to teach a cohort of colleagues how to be more efficient on a tool that almost everyone uses: the spreadsheet.

By not only democratizing data, but also building tools and skill sets within our workforce, anyone at Vox Media can get to a takeaway, an insight, a recommendation, a nugget, or whatever you want to call information, faster.

Collaborate (a bonus!)

What all three of these tactics have in common is collaboration — one of our Vox Media values. Our analysts and strategists don’t work in a vacuum, we gain context from our stakeholders and colleagues across the company, which helps us build trust with those colleagues to put our information into action. Collaborating across the company to make sense of any data source enables us to identify opportunities, solve issues, and ultimately connect dots.

We’re not launching a line of cruises anytime soon, but we are thinking about our audiences’ needs, how to help inform and better reach them, and how to create a great experience to earn their attention every single time they visit us.

Jeff Chin is Vox Media’s VP, Analytics and when he’s not poring over data he’s chasing his two energetic boys (ages 2 and 4) with his wife in Arlington, Virginia. He’s dedicated to democratizing data and building a strong team to get it done right. Sound like work you’re interested in and a team you’d like to be on? Join us! We’re hiring.