Ask a Freelancer: Should Writers Be Able to Track Traffic and Other Metrics?By Nicole Dieker July 7th, 2015
I just read your great article about all the work you complete in a week. In it, you note “I track the metrics on everything I write.” How do you do that, and what metrics are the most useful to writers?
—Metric Ton of Information
I love looking at metrics. Sometimes I open up my Contently profile and just stare at it. I’ve published 877 stories for 29 publications! My work has received over 84,000 Facebook likes! That must mean I’m successful, right?
Tracking metrics motivates me to work harder the same way that publishing an ongoing tally of my freelance earnings motivates me to work harder. If I’m organized and making decisions about my career based on data, I don’t have to second-guess if I’m wasting time or relying too much on ambition. If I know that Story A only got three retweets but Story B got 300 retweets, what does that tell me about how I should structure Story C? And what does that data mean when I’m looking at topics for Story D?
Social shares are the easiest metrics for me to track since every publication publicizes that information on article pages, and I can also track aggregate social shares and engagement on my profile. It’s pretty simple to look up a piece and figure out whether anyone retweeted or liked it. If they did, great! If they didn’t, I get to ask myself what didn’t work. Was it a dud of a topic? Did I fail to say anything new? Was my call to action strong enough? Did my story get eclipsed by some bigger piece of news?
I know from tracking social shares that straightforward news pieces, such as my posts about the $15 minimum wage, usually don’t get a lot of social love. These pieces are important, but they aren’t the kinds of stories that prompt reader response, at least in my experience. All freelancers and publications are a little different; you may find that your news pieces perform better than mine. But relative to lifestyle topics, news stories are going to have a harder time generating buzz. If I want people to interact with my articles, I have to give them a reason to interact.
When I wrote “call to action” earlier, I don’t mean the “Did you like this? Share it!” line that you see at the bottom of a lot of articles. I mean something organic, within the article itself, that inspires readers to comment on and share the piece. Sometimes it’s as simple as asking “What do you think?” at the end of a post on a controversial topic. Sometimes I do “Would you rather?” or “Have you ever?” to invite readers to share and discuss personal experiences.
I find that in addition to the typical heartwarming viral content you see in your Facebook News Feed, people are often motivated to share work that falls in one of two categories: if the article deals with something they relate to, or if the article deals with something they disagree with. So I try to keep those insights in my head when evaluating metrics as I brainstorm new ideas.
I also like to keep track of how my work compares to the publication’s other articles. Many of my clients share lists with their writers that let me see which stories performed best that week.
If I go more than a few weeks without getting a “most popular” story, I start thinking about how I can improve what I’m doing. Although, sometimes it’s hard to tell what will be popular with readers. I do, however, have a few “beats” that tend to perform well. For example, if I write a story that invites people to share their opinion on a controversial topic—say, whether child-free weddings put an undue burden on parents—I know I’m probably going to get a lot of Facebook likes, reposts, and comments.
I also know that, in my case, personal stories about relatable issues like online dating, planning vacations, and making money as a freelance writer typically perform very well. This might not be the case for every writer, but I know my personal stories turn out well because I have tracked their performance and popularity. How-tos, like the pieces I write for The Penny Hoarder, also consistently perform well.
Beyond social stats, the interesting question is whether or not freelancers should be able to access traffic for their own work. Knowing traffic stats like pageviews and average time spent on an article page would be very useful to writers, but most of us can’t see that data. I’ve heard that some publications share pageview information with writers, but I have yet to work for one that does.
I have, however, requested pageview information from my clients on a case-by-case basis. Last year, I was exploring a new writing opportunity, and the person recruiting me wanted to know some of my pageview data, so I emailed my editors and they sent that information over. You try to ask your editors for traffic numbers, but I don’t suggest bothering them for it unless you have a good reason.
If you want to begin tracking your own engagement data, start with the metrics that are most visible: social shares and any rankings provided by your publications. An aggregator service—like the one that’s built into my Contently portfolio—offers an easy way to see how your stories compare with each other so you can quickly figure out which of your topics tend to get the most engagement.
If you are really into data, you could input all of your social share information into a spreadsheet and track engagement growth over time—are the articles you’re writing this year getting more social shares than the ones you wrote last year? I haven’t done that yet, but it might be a fun next step for me to try. Just as soon as I finish staring at my 84,000 Facebook likes. They’re so beautiful.
Nicole Dieker hopes that you retweet, repost, and like this piece—and she’ll know if you do! She also hopes that you send her your questions and concerns about the freelance life. Email your Ask a Freelancer questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Image by Igorsky