“Housty, we’re a small publisher – what’s the point in Big Data?”

Each month we pose a question to the amazing Peter Houston, co-host of the Media Voices podcast, and magazine consultant extraordinaire, who will answer in his fabulously inimitable way. 

Housty, we have a problem

“Housty, we’re a small publisher – what’s the point in Big Data?”

What’s the point indeed?

You might remember, maybe eight or nine years ago, Big Data was all the rage, the ultimate cure for all that ails this connected world. But it didn’t take long for the hype to be called out.

My favourite quote from around that time:

“Big data is bullshit. The ‘Big’ there is purely marketing… This is about you buying big expensive servers,” Harper Reed, CTO, Barrack Obama’s 2012 re-election campaign.

Big Data has a place, no doubt, but that’s more to do with Big Pharma running complex clinical trials or Big Brother trying to figure out how to keep an eye on you. Only the very biggest publishers get anywhere near having datasets large and complex enough to require anything beyond bog-standard data-processing.

That doesn’t mean data is not important, just that these days we’ve figured out how to focus on the ‘data’ part and pretty much ignore the ‘Big’ part.

As with so much in publishing, quality matters more than quantity. Think about your audience – would you rather have 5,000 of the right readers or 50,000 randoms? The same is true of your data where relevant is way more valuable than comprehensive and accurate equals useful.

The clever part of that equation is figuring out what data is actually useful, deciding on the metrics that matter most to you. It would be nice if there was a tick list, but what you should be measuring depends on what you are trying to achieve.

The secret is to be able to see the signals, the patterns, in the information that you collect.

Audience growth – Focus on referral data and the types of content attracting new visitors

Subscription sales – Have a look at the content that’s converting casual readers to subscribers

Reader retention – Check out the content that keeps subscribers coming back

Content planning – Match your commissioning efforts to the content that best meets your objectives

That is a tragically short and oversimplified list (Parse.ly has a really comprehensive overview of web analytics on their blog), what about page views vs time on page vs social shares for example? But you get the idea: find a measure for the audience behaviours you want to encourage; identify the causes of those positive behaviours; amplify the positives in your offering.

Of course none of that is possible if you don’t have the right data analytics software in place to track what you want to track. But remember, your phone is 100,000 times more powerful that the computer that landed Apollo 11 on the moon. Most of the metrics you want are already available through your CMS, your newsletter platform, Google analytics or for a reasonable price through dedicated analytics packages like Chartbeat or Parse.ly.

There is more data available to you as a small publisher these days than at any other time in publishing history. But it is only useful if you use it, and only then, if you filter it through your unique expertise. 


Peter Houston is one third of the Media Voices podcast, a magazine publishing consultant and trainer, and a freelance writer.

Follow him on Twitter or connect on LinkedIn.