Not just numbers, but the RIGHT numbers

Upworthy logo with a graph superimposedIn digital communications, measurement can seem easy. We have this many Twitter followers, this many Facebook likes, this number of unique visitors. Our influence is clearly growing because our Klout score went from that to this.

But chasing numbers can be a fool’s errand if you aren’t chasing the right numbers, and asking the right questions about them.

Ultimately, what you measure shouldn’t just tell you how many, but how come… and how to change your tactics and strategy as a result. Analytics expert Avinash Kaushik refers to the need for actionable insights: the “so what?” that we should ask every time someone tosses us a number.

Few services are as interested in that “so what?” as Upworthy, the progressive content-promoting site cofounded by MoveOn and The Onion alumni. You may know Upworthy for its current status as the Internet’s punching bag, because of its relentless use of emotionally manipulative (and easily parodied) headlines to drive traffic.

But Upworthy is far more than its last “The first four sentences will make you howl with laughter. The fifth will break your heart”-style tweet. The people behind it don’t just want to drive clicks; they want the content they share to have an impact on people.

So they’ve started to measure not just clicks and pageviews, but “attention minutes,” “a fine-grained and unforgiving metric” which they say they’ll track two ways:

  • Total Attention on Site (per hour, day, week, month, whatever) — that tells us (like total uniques or total pageviews) how good of a job Upworthy is doing overall at drawing attention to important topics.
  • And Total Attention per Piece, which is a combination of how many people watch something on Upworthy and how much of it they actually watch. Pieces with higher Total Attention should be promoted more.

What’s more, they’re going to make it easier for the rest of us to do the same thing, by publishing their source code in a few months.

It’ll be worth looking at when they do. But you don’t have to wait for all that code to land to start measuring what matters, instead of just what’s easy.

Every communication activity should be part of your overall strategy, and digital communications is no exception. That means you should have a clear idea of what you expect a given tactic to achieve – a theory of change with measurable outcomes. Figure out what those measurements are, and keep refining them. (Beth Kanter and Katie Delahaye Paine‘s book Measuring the Networked Nonprofit can walk you through just how to do that.) You may never get to an exact measure of “engagement” (or “influence” — sorry, Klout), but you can devise some pretty useful stand-ins.

That’s what this development at Upworthy is about. Their theory of change is based on promoting progressive narratives on important issues; for them, measuring the intensity and duration of engagement is a lot closer to their mission than counting eyeballs.

Think about your theory of change… and never stop thinking about how you can better measure your progress toward your goals.

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