Journalism Tips: Breaking Up With Analytics

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I spent the first five years of my writing career doing everything in my power to build the most read music blog in existence, and my way of gauging success almost always boiled down to the data gathered by Google Analytics. The number of unique visitors, page views, countries of origin, landing pages, bounce rates, and everything in between became the various scales by which I measured my wins and losses. Good days were only considered as such if we rose above a target traffic point, and bad days were anything that fell short. Feature content was only created if it played into what was trending in recent weeks, and if any attempts at originality-be it a potential recurring column or a random exclusive with a rising talent-failed to bring in a modest boost to traffic such ideas were never attempted again. After all, time is a previous commodity, and the efforts spent on creating that one piece of content could have drafted a dozen or more news posts that catered to a far larger and more diverse audience. Those posts wouldn’t necessarily have performed better, but at least they would be casting a greater net with which to hopefully reach out target market.

If we’re being completely honest, even at my peak I was about a hundred miles from reaching my original goal of building the greatest music site. My team and I never really deserved it, or at least not entirely, and it wasn’t until I was a few years out of college that I began to understand why. We weren’t creating content we were passionate about because we felt the things being said were not being expressed by anyone else, we were writing with the sole purpose of boosting our average monthly readership, and in doing so whoring ourselves out to whatever label, publicist, or artist needed promotion in the moment. We had very few original thoughts to share, yet we were churning out thirty to fifty posts any given day of the week. No one ever copy and pasted press releases in their entirety, but if you called the majority of our posting efforts a collection of press release summaries you would not be too far off base. 

To be fair, the place my team and I found ourselves in is not unlike the position many music blogs around the web are in at this very moment. The age of social media and the immediacy of sharing has lead to a huge upswing in the amount of content being created, but try as science might no one has been able to find a way to increase the length of any given day. Young writers and sites feel pressure to compete with the large amount of content being created by their peers because they believe not doing so will cause them to go unnoticed. They get into a mindset that believes more content means more opportunities to market, which in turn means a higher likelihood of clicks from new visitors and maybe, just maybe, those random clicks will become regular visitors as time goes on. Heck, they may even like your Facebook page, as if the number of Likes a site has in any ways coincides with the quality of their content.

Really though, who said anything about quality up to this point? People trapped in the analytics mindset are not concerned with quality as much as they are quantity, and that goes for content as much as it does the people who read it. They want more readers and more clicks, but they are not willing to build those numbers over time. Who has time? We live in the age of immediacy, and any digital effort worth its weight in coding knows you need to grow or you will shrivel and die on the third and fourth pages of Google search results. In order to keep digital irrelevance at bay, sites churn out post after post of regurgitated promotional phrasing in hopes some small fraction of a band’s fan base misses every other headline boasting similar media and clicks the link to their article instead. It’s a long shot, but that is why sites create so many different posts each day. They believe thirty attempts to reach thirty different groups of music fans are better and, for some reason, more rewarding than creating a genuine dialogue with one, three, or even five of these groups through original, thought-provoking writing.

What no one really says about Google Analytics, or any platform that measures site traffic for that matter, is that none of the technology associated with tracking web performance can gauge the happiness of the content creators. These tools can only give you data, and unless you are a robot that is not enough information to gauge the successfulness of any endeavor. You have to be happy with yourself first, as well as the work you are creating. If anyone tells you they got into music to be the best ever and they don’t need any sense of personal satisfaction to be content as long as the goal of being most popular is achieved they’re lying to both you and themselves. Success without personal satisfaction is a soul-draining experience that will leave you depressed and alone. No one wants to work with someone who is afraid to be themselves, especially if that person has never been confident enough in their beliefs to share them with the world. That’s the entire reason people start music blogs – to share their views and opinions with the world. To begin such a project for any other reason would just be foolish.

Before I decided to stop concerning myself with the numbers being reported through analytics tools and focus on the content I was creating I was fairly certain I would have to walk away from music forever before I turned 30. Years of generating hundreds of posts every month and seeing minimal growth, if any, had drained every bit of desire I had to continue pursuing writing. In truth, I had lost sight of the reason I got started in the first place. I had replaced my desire to be unique with my desire to be popular, and in doing so lost the fire for writing that initially lead me to launch my own site. I had become more concerned with how others viewed me, as well as how many of them gave me their time, than whether or not I was comfortable in my own skin. I didn’t care about being me or saying what I wanted to say, just that people wanted to read the words I wrote. 

Looking back now I know that running a site the way I did was a disservice to myself and my team, not to mention the people reading our work, and in the big scheme of things those efforts wasted a lot of time that could have been spent asking tough questions and taking worthwhile chances. I’m trying to make up for it now, but no amount of future writing can make up for the time and digital space wasted with articles that never really needed to exist in the first place, and knowing I’m responsible for such a large amount of largely useless content really bums me out. I made a promise to myself to create less disposable writing in 2015, and so far I like to think I’m staying true to my word. The number of posts we run on my site has dropped, as has our traffic, but the sense of pride felt by our entire team for the work being done is better than it has been in years. We wake each day excited for the work ahead, and we communicate regularly with one another to help develop and refine original ideas. When the day ends, no one clicks over to Analytics. We check in once a week to see how things performed, but otherwise we focus on supporting one another and believing in the content we are pushing out. We don’t run anything that feels like it wouldn’t be worth clicking tomorrow, and as a result we’ve seen a nice boom in engagement from readers. Turns out, if you give people something worth discussing, they often hang around and have a discussion. Who would have thought?

Everyone is going to have their ideas on what makes a music site thrive, but take it from me when I say obsessing over analytics will only lead you to ruin. The only way you are ever going to succeed in this business, let alone be able to live with yourself as a professional in entertainment, is if you learn to be comfortable being you. I hate to sound like your parents or a guidance counselor who cares a bit too much, but you and your opinions are what makes you that unique butterfly we all tell ourselves we are, even though we know most people are fairly similar. Expressing the thoughts and opinions that make you unique is the only way to gain a true following, and until you are able to recognize that you’ll be swinging in the dark hoping to stumble on click-worthy headlines. I’ve been there, and I wouldn’t wish that position on anyone with a serious passion for writing.

Be you, and be comfortable with expressing who you are. Everything else will follow in time.

James Shotwell

James Shotwell is the Director of Customer Engagement at Haulix and host of the company's podcast, Inside Music. He is also a public speaker known for promoting careers in the entertainment industry, as well as an entertainment journalist with over a decade of experience. His bylines include Rolling Stone, Alternative Press, Substream Magazine, Nu Sound, and Under The Gun Review, among other popular outlets.