We journalists are rather proud of our role in a democratic society. Here in America, the press is the only type of business whose freedoms are directly laid out in the Constitution.
But we’ve always had trouble figuring out just how much impact our stories have. If a story doesn’t win an award or cause government to take action, then how do we know that what we’re doing matters?
Web analytics have helped somewhat. They give us a sense of how many readers are actually reading to our stories, how many are sharing them, and how many are spending time on them.
These analytics really can be a huge help. For example, with Stry.us, I’m proud to say that we’ve had more than 34,500 people visit our website this summer. Those readers have combined for more than 52,000 pageviews.
About 6.5 percent of our total traffic has come directly from Springfield, Mo. Best yet: Our Springfield audience is staying on the site and really digging into the stories. The average Springfield reader spends 3 minutes and 19 seconds on Stry.us.
We also had some success on social media. Facebook and Twitter helped drive more than 3,500 readers to the site this summer.
These are all very good signs.
But they’re not the only way to measure impact. A few other untraditional benchmarks have helped us this summer:
• What are people saying about our stories? — We’re always curious to see what feedback we get from sources and the community about our stories. When we get kind emails or tweets, that’s always a good sign.
Last week, I got this email from a Springfield resident:
“Springfield is my hometown. I haven’t lived there for years, but my 92 year old mother does, as do several cousins. For most of my life It was hard to get past the conservatism, but your stories helped me learn that there really is more to Springfield than politics and religion … You were good for Springfield.”
It’s wonderful to get emails like these. It tells me that our efforts to tell Springfield’s story are working.
• Are people responding to our campaigns? — We held a live event this summer, the Letters to Springfield panel. Response from the community was good. We got about 30 letters from the community. The campaign led to three stories in the news — two on TV, and one on local radio. We also had about a dozen people show up for the actual panel. That’s not a ton, but we did reach a small group of engaged citizens. It’s an excellent starting point.
• How many big questions did we get answered? — With the Letters to Springfield campaign, we wanted to get big questions about this city answered. For nine citizens in Springfield, we were able to get answers from newsmakers. We put all of those answers on YouTube.
That night, one of the questions was about the Heers Building, an abandoned building downtown. The building’s fake Twitter account joined in the conversation that night:
— TheHeersBuilding (@HeersBuilding) July 18, 2012
So that seems like a pretty good indicator of impact to me.
All in all, I think the “Letters” campaign is one of our biggest successes of the summer.
• How many business cards did we hand out? — This is a good sign of how well you’re getting out into the community. I’ve handed out of a few hundred business cards this summer, and for every two that I hand out, I typically get one email/tweet/Facebook message later about the site. That’s a fantastic response rate. It’s also the reason why we spent a little extra time/money on our business cards. We wanted to make sure that when we met with people in person, the cards helped sell people on the project and get them to our stories.
• Do people know our name? — I’ve spoken at a few local Rotary Club meetings this summer. At each one, I’ve asked people if they knew of Stry.us. At some, we had lots of hands in the air. Last week, out of a room of 50, only two hands went up. That meant that I had to do more digging into who these people were and why we hadn’t gotten our stories in front of them.
When I mention our site, though, and I get a smile or a head nod, that’s a very good sign.
I know these aren’t the metrics most news companies are thinking about. Most newsrooms are looking to Google Analytics to figure out how much impact a story has. Clicks come first. And clicks are important.
But we also need to find better ways to measure how much impact we’re having in the real world. By getting out into the community and engaging readers beyond their computer/smartphone screens, I think Stry.us has been able to get a truer sense of how we’re creating impact in the Ozarks.