Why metrics are 'foundational' for news site Mic

by Martiniano Nemirovsci
Jul 19, 2014 in Miscellaneous

Updated July 21, 2014 at 2:51 p.m. Eastern.

In its first three years, U.S. news site Mic has forged its place in the digital media ecosystem. The site has used engaging content and innovative audience analysis to reach 20 million monthly readers.

As the director of the site's “editorial brand content,” Michael McCutcheon manages relationships with companies that advertise on the site in an unusual way—offering news about important topics in a manner that interests a younger audience, “Generation Y” (or “Millennials”), between 20 and 30 years old.

Generating an audience of 20 million people in such a short time “is the fruit of religiously prioritizing tasks, of really focusing on growth, trying to complete things in a pre-fixed timeframe,” McCutcheon said during a stop in Buenos Aires, where he was serving as a mentor for Media Factory, a startup accelerator focused on the business of online news and journalism. (The project is run by ICFJ Knight International Journalism Fellow Mariano Blejman.)

“We set clear objectives based on things that we have to achieve, week to week, day to day, to arrive where we want,” he explained, stressing that a roadmap is an essential tool in the study of analytics (or metrics).

Analytics “are critical to what we do, something foundational. We look at how the audience responds to each of the articles we publish. We’re always thinking about how to connect with our audience and the analytics tell us a lot about that. They’re a parameter to measure how we’re doing,” he said.

But that doesn’t mean simply looking at how many times an article was shared or how many comments it has, because “numbers only don’t say everything. You have to look at them, compare them and find patterns. The raw numbers help, but they’re much more useful with a complementary analysis. For example, it’s good if you know that 100,000 people read your stories yesterday. But if you don’t know why they did, it doesn’t really help you to improve the stories in the future.”

Mic, originally named PolicyMic, has a team dedicated to metrics, responsible for monitoring the performance of real-time news “to see what is going on” with the content it publishes, among other things. But everyone in the company gets involved with analytics.

“Each editor receives a daily email with a panorama of the performance of the articles and sections, which helps to understand what happened the day before with published stories. It’s 'feedback' that goes hand in hand with editorial criteria,” McCutcheon said.

The site also analyzes trends on social networks and the web in general. The site’s new team is aware of the themes being discussed, in real time, and writes many of its articles to "influence the conversation, in a good way.”

For that, “we used a tool that we made ourselves, which allows us to monitor the web and know the trends on different platforms,” he explained, highlighting it as a good resource “to measure social temperature.”

Another “critical” aspect of Mic is technological development, so much so that the company considers itself a "media and technology” company.

“We work to make the site faster, to improve the mobile version and things like that. When a reader enters the site, we want it to be fast, and we want them to find what they want. For that reason the technological component is critical,” McCutcheon said.

This importance manifests itself in the 10-person engineering team—almost half of the total 25 to 30 employees.

The rest of the fixed structure is made up of writers and between 10 to 12 news editors, each who works with 20 to 25 freelance writers—many more than the six that worked with the site just two years ago, he said.

Among the most untraditional aspects of the site is that it does not contain advertising.

“We used to show ads, but after a little more than a year, we stopped. We believed it wasn’t best for our community, and that they didn’t really like it and that it wasn’t effective. So we stopped and made a transition to what we call sponsored content.”

The “new advertising,” as it’s called, consists of a series of articles sponsored by companies interested in reaching a wide audience. Those articles are distinguished from others by phrases such as "presented by.”

In this way, he explained, “we ensure that the content developed in conjunction with our sponsors is valuable to our audience and our community.”

This post originally appeared on MediaFactory’s blog in Spanish. It was translated into English by Jessica Weiss.