Using Analytics to Plan Great Content

by · August 28, 201229 comments

If you’re a digital marketer and don’t log into analytics at least weekly, shame on you. You’re missing information that can help you make better decisions, even in tasks and roles that seem pretty far removed from reporting.

Most marketers associate Google Analytics with periodic reporting of traffic. Those who are responsible for tracking revenue or media buys may look at conversions or traffic source performance. But the data in Google Analytics can help content strategists, community managers and others in a more editorial role, too.

Aside from looking at how many pageviews your last post got, content strategists can use Google Analytics’ data to guide content planning. However, since content strategists are usually grammar geeks instead of numbers nerds, we’re often too intimidated to give it a serious look. It’s actually not that hard to use Google Analytics to find great opportunities and ideas for your content strategy and editorial calendar.

Let’s look at how you can use the data from your back catalog of posts to plan a kickass editorial calendar for the future.

Join me in the Wayback Machine, Sherman.

Here’s our use case: You’re a new hire responsible for content strategy on a popular blog that has been churning out daily weekday content for five years. The blog is a lead generation tool for a business, so the categories align with your service set. Over the years, the content has had some hits and some misses. Now, you’re working on a content strategy for the next quarter.

You’ve decided to create an “onboarding” page to orient new visitors, giving them a feel for the site’s voice, perspective and “editorial beat.” You hope the links will also help bump up the SEO value of those posts for important keywords. The onboarding page will have links to the “Top Ten Can’t Miss Posts” for your website.

Since the blog has been around for a while, its purpose (and content) has evolved over the years. The original blogger didn’t start with a cohesive plan to build “cornerstone content”– or else the business model changed and the original cornerstone content may not be as relevant as it should be.

So how do you go through a backlog of five years of at least five posts a week to find the ten you need to set the tone for new visitors? (And for the rest of you grammar geeks, the math for that works out to 1,300 posts. Even if the use case was three posts a week for three years, that’s 468 posts. Way too many to read all of them individually.)

Sorting the Haystack into Smaller Haystacks

So as our intrepid hero(ine), you’ll log into analytics. If you don’t have analytics access — get it. Now. You need it. If you’ve looked at analytics at all, you’re used to just looking at the most recent month of data. For this exercise you’ll need to go to the Standard Reporting dashboard and change the date range. Set the beginning date as far back as you’ve got data, up to the current date.

Now, you’re going to move to the Content tab. Click the subsection called “Content Drilldown.” If your mission is to find the needles that are the top ten posts in a haystack of 1,300 you’re going to need to start sorting and filtering.  The Content Drilldown assumes your folders are categories. If you click the link for the Category folder, voila! You’ve gone from looking at the highest traffic posts to the highest traffic posts for that category.

Adjust the number of rows to something manageable, but probably larger than the default of 10 rows. You might make the break point the top 25 or 50 posts in terms of pageviews. You might decide the break the list at a particular number of pageviews, for example, anything that generated more than 100 or 500 or 1000, depending on the typical traffic to your site.

Download this report into a CSV file. Now you have an editable “short list” for the category.

And Then There Were Ten

Congratulations. You’ve gone from 1,300 potential choices to maybe a dozen or so for each category. Now, start culling the short list. Eliminate anything that’s not “evergreen” right off the bat. You can probably quickly get rid of several posts this way. Posts that focus on a hot news item of the day often get big short term boosts, but they aren’t likely the best representatives of your editorial focus. In fact, anything time-sensitive can go. Or anything that got an “unnatural” boost in traffic.

At this point, you’re scanning the headlines and getting a sense of what the topics of the posts are. Aside from pageviews, look at the Average Time on Page to see which posts kept the readers’ interest longest. Think like a book editor. If you were trying to turn the blog into a book, which posts headlines would be the most obvious chapters to include?

If any headline or URL piques your curiosity because you’re not sure what it’s about, pull it up and spot check it. Read through it quickly to see if it’s a hidden gem that might have gotten better traffic with a clearer or more compelling headline or stronger keywords in the URL. You might be able to refresh and optimize that post to get a second life out of it.

At this point, you’re now using your best analytical tool: your own brain. It may take a while of reading through the top contenders, but you’ll quickly get to a short list of 2-5 posts that represent the best evergreen content in that category. Then lather, rinse and repeat with the other categories.

You may want to weight certain categories by importance: for example, if you have one primary focus for the site, that category may have 5 of the top 10 posts, and the other categories will divvy up the remaining five.

Also, question the writers. What posts of theirs are they most proud of? Which ones got memorable feedback? Using analytics data doesn’t mean ignoring anecdotal information. It just gives you a manageable starting place for human analysis.

Back to the Future

At the end of this exercise, you’ll notice something interesting. You not only have a good overview of the most resonant posts from the past, you’ll have a much clearer and more specific sense of the site’s editorial focus, point-of-view and past coverage.You’ll have digested way more than you think about what kinds of posts work at driving readership, and which ones don’t.

Now you’re much better prepared to start planning content for the future. Our use case was a new hire, but often people who’ve been working with the same site for years get burned out. This exercise can help you get a little much-needed distance and perspective.

Aside from the winners, you’ll also have noticed the gaps.  The gaps are the key to your editorial calendar for the next period.

Certain categories or topics will have either been missed, or at least not had that “must-read, bookmark and revisit” contribution. Anytime you find yourself thinking “Wow, I would have expected to find a post on X,” write down those missing pieces. Look at the posts you rejected from your short list. What was wrong? Why was it a near miss instead of a hit?  Could you use the original idea as the basis for a stronger piece? Did you rule out a good, high traffic older post whose content is outdated? Could it be fixed with an update, refresh, or “2012 edition”?

You can use what you learned in this exercise to reinforce the foundation of the site’s content. That stronger foundation will give even more peripheral or experimental content a better chance of being seen.

Many marketers find Google Analytics intimidating, but it’s well worth digging into. Writers often resist the idea of letting numbers guide their words. I got into SEO originally because it was “copywriting with a scoreboard.” My competitive nature pushed me to learn analytics so I could see how well my writing performed against similar content. Once you start digging into the information, you’ll see the numbers start to tell a story. Understanding that story can help you create better content, seen by more people.

Who doesn’t like that?

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About Kat French

Kat French

Kat French is the Digital Operations Manager at CafePress. An exceptional writer both on the web and in other genres, Kat combines creativity with an agile, get-it-done attitude across a broad range of experience in community management, SEO/PPC, social media strategy and program management. She has worked with national brands like Maker's Mark, Daytona Beach Tourism, Optima Batteries and more.

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