Our daily observations are often riddled with emotion. Even the most scientifically-rooted of us are subject to bias. So it’s important to be aware of the temptation to fit data into existing beliefs that don’t necessarily reflect reality.
I’ve recently begun diving into data from our agency’s website and social media traffic. This exercise has produced unexpected findings. For instance, the most popular pages on our website are, anti-climactically, the Jobs and About pages. The many other sections filled with rich information about our programs, services, and developments – which we’ve spent hours developing – have minimal views in comparison. Does this mean we should produce less compelling material on these pages? No. But it does indicate that we might serve a greater number of people by investing just a little more time in pages we might normally skimp over.
Another example. Back in September, I compiled research findings for a blog post about Lower Manhattan’s growth. It took about a month to prepare, yet didn’t come close to cracking the top 10 on our blog. Instead our most-viewed post was about ferry service changes.
After diving deeper, I saw that people had searched and accessed ferry service-related information more than double that of any other blog post topic. While I personally don’t find ferry service a fascinating subject, this outlier forced me to reevaluate how we’re deciding what to write about each week. Lower Manhattan, while an interesting topic, doesn’t serve a need. Ferry service, meanwhile, is a crucial service people are depending on to get between boroughs.
Looking at anomalies and asking certain questions informs better decision-making. What is driving traffic? Is there a larger site linking to us? What do people really want to know? As a reporter, I’m accustomed to editors assigning stories based on their almighty evaluation of what the audience wants. I’m also used to pitching stories that are interesting to me, myself, and I. In both scenarios, public information decisions are made from the top-down based on personal whims and a tepid grasp of reality. Even surveys aren’t that effective since personal biases and framing of questions influence how people respond. Data can be a clear, democratic, and objective way to ensure that public needs are being addressed. While not the answer to everything, web behavior shines light on trends. If the public is clicking on or searching for something, data reveals a demonstrated need or interest.
NYC Chief Digital Officer Rachel Haot wrote an informative piece on what she and her team learned during the redesign of the NYC Government site. She says, “Any digital experience can become an emotional debate, especially when you have lots of smart stakeholders…Data can be a great tonic for subjective conversations.” (I also love the reference to Mayor Bloomberg’s data-driven philosophy: “In God We Trust, Everyone Else Bring Data”.)
Traffic metrics and search analytics informed the City’s new design. Alternate side parking, schools and garbage collection status were the top drivers of traffic, so they placed that information front and center. They also embraced data post-launch to measure success and constantly analyze user response.
People can decry the end of privacy, but open data can create a seamless user experience with more intuitive navigation, better content placement, and targeted information. It’s either that, or continued speculation based on personal biases.
I’m all about listening to intuition. It’s part of being human. This conversation isn’t about eliminating that. It’s about doing enough of a gut check through application of data to decide whether or not we should defend our instincts. Because let’s be real, our instincts are sometimes wrong.
For starters, this post is not about crepes. And it’s actually a pretty obnoxious and superficial post. But I can promise that I’ll get you outta here in less than 3 minutes (4 minutes if you’re multi-tasking) , so we can all get on with our merry royal baby-stalking lives.
This post is really about the 5 things I learned from my 2-month journalism internship. In reality, I learned a lot more than 5 things- not just about writing, but about technology, multimedia, and the way we consume information . Most likely, you wouldn’t have the bandwidth to read it all (nor I to write it). About 40% of you have already clicked away. Half of you will dart off after this paragraph. And I understand: there are more exciting GIFs waiting to be explored.
For those of you remaining (thank you), here are some lessons I learned from Business Insider that are invaluable not just for writers, but for anyone looking to leverage some influence in our modern, distractible, cyborg world.
I. Inflict emotion.
Why should anyone care? Ultimately, it boils down to framing: picking a nugget of information that will resonate.
The age of objective journalism is gone. A headline like this will get clicks, Dunkin Donuts Hired Psychotic Credit Card Thief Carolyn Kravetz As Director Of Communications ,
These headlines sound like bullish statements made at the bar, which is exactly the point. Read them, and you’ll see that they’re actually marvelous stories: the first being a serious piece of investigative journalism, the second a creative integration of new media.
We act on our instincts which are guided far more by emotion than logic. So, appeal to the audience with colorful adjectives , and the way YOU feel about something. It’s not completely PC, but I guarantee it will leave an impression and get people to bite into an important issue worth reading.
II. Simplify simplify simplify.
Humans like to digest information in compact bits, so any sort of list you can compile will be dopamine for the brain.
III. Pictures are (sometimes) more important than anything you’ll write.
I hate to use this story, but it’s a telling example of how superficial we are.
I manned a daily business advice column which averaged about 200-300 views per post. Each post had a picture of the person offering the advice. One particular post came from a businesswoman who shared an uncanny resemblance to Kim Kardashian. (Before you ask for the link, it wasn’t her.) Within a day, her post received over 1000 views, more than most of these posts receive in a lifetime.
Several commenters admitted the only reason they clicked was because of the “hot picture”. Admittedly, this post was not written better than any other post, but having a fair face certainly got people to care.
IV. Brother, be brief.
V. And clear.
I love a good story that weaves its way to an unforeseen ending in novel form. But theres a time and place for that, and the web is not that place. Albeit a few exceptions, a modern reader (or friend, colleague, whatever) wants to learn something new (with some context) fast.
Thanks to Henry Blodget, CEO of Business Insider, along with my editors Vivian and Gus, who helped elucidate these insights along the way.
I’m not saying page views are all that matter. I’m going to work for a government agency which isn’t exactly known for provocative, click-baiting headlines. Impact will be measured by relatively dry economic initiatives. But, for every silly story out there, there are a myriad of other stories that matter. If you can figure out how to get people to care about really important issues, you can maximize your impact and maybe, just maybe, increase your chance of doing something truly world-changing.
What makes a good story? Writers are often judged by what appears below their byline, but there is so much more to a good story than that. The public rarely gets to see the exciting grunt work behind the scenes. An initial story idea, like any entrepreneurial venture, goes through several pivots and iterations, before the golden story materializes.
Pitching to my editors is my favorite part of the job, but it’s also the hardest. Balancing what the public wants to know with your moral compass of what you think they should know is tricky.
There are a million backstories behind the final product. The vetting process – determining what is worth writing about, what people will like, what they should know – involves asking the right questions. What are readers curious about? What is their perception on a topic? What do they know that I don’t?
I’m creating a newsletter to involve my friends and family in story development. Each week, I’ll share stories I’ve posted, stories in the pipeline, and stories that need some fleshing out. I want to hear your thoughts on the stories in queue. Think of it as a sounding board, and your chance to add input to a story before it is published.
My strategy thus far has been to post a question on Facebook and Twitter. “Hey, what internship advice do you have for new interns?” “Do you know anything about Atlanta? Let me know!” It can get annoying. So, one other purpose of this newsletter is to reduce my clutter and create a targeted community of people who do actually want to participate in the development of stories without bombarding everyone else’s social feeds.
If you’re interested in participating, here’s the link to sign-up and feel free to forward to anyone else who is interested:
ps. the inspiration for a newsletter came from Ann Friedman, who wrote this helpful post on How Writers Can Use Email To Share Their Work. Her weekly newsletter is a mix of her original work, suggested reads, pie charts, and funny gifs.