Marketing analytics can be intimidating, and for many college marketing teams, the resources needed to embrace analytics as a practice have been lacking. On the bright side, there are several low-key ways to get acquainted with analytics through basic marketing tools that allow users to learn as they go.

One of the easiest points of entry is through content marketing. Content marketing includes blog articles, email campaigns, newsletter campaigns, longform content such as white papers, case studies, videos and infographics. Because many blog platforms, such as WordPress, mimic the word-processing tools found in Microsoft Word, many find the tools intuitive and easy to use.

And once you’ve opened the door to blogging you’ve opened the door to analytics. Even if your content seems more formal than typical blog content, the backend tools are more or less the same. So, for our purposes, we’ll use “blog” to denote any content in the form of an article. This could be made up of useful advice for prospective students, academic department news, or updates regarding campus athletics.

Built into most blogging platforms, on the back end, are charts and graphs that display site traffic. Users may adjust the settings to define short or long time periods. Once you begin noticing spikes or dips in traffic, the dashboards can become fascinating. You may notice a spike in traffic in correlation with an announcement or email campaign. Perhaps a particular blog article is attracting more viewers than others. The data is constantly speaking – pointing you toward areas of opportunity.

Following are some of the metrics that we find useful in our content marketing.

1. Site Visits

I like to compare site visits on a daily, monthly, quarterly, and yearly basis.

What this tells me:

On a daily basis, I can tell whether corresponding ad or social media campaigns are running. If there’s an unusual change, it could indicate either high interest in a topic — or dots that need connecting. For instance, if an upcoming campaign has gotten caught in a review or approval process and hasn’t made it to the final stage – by viewing the dashboard you may realize what’s happening. This allows you to gather your team and problem solve before you’ve lost momentum in your site traffic.

Daily metrics can therefore be a good safeguard against mistakes or glitches in a process.

2. Most-Visited Pages or Articles

I like to watch which articles are most visited by the week, quarter, and year-to-date.

What this tells me

Keeping note of articles that are trending on a weekly basis gives me an idea of whether we’re staying on top of audience interests. But, looking at the most-visited articles year-to-date tells me which articles resonated most. Expanding on the topics of these articles may be worthwhile.

3. Overall Traffic Trends by Source

We compare all of the different sources of our traffic with the help of a line graph. (An easy option within the Google Analytics tool.) With this view, we track sources such as paid search, organic search, direct sessions, referral sessions and email traffic. (No two organizations are alike – so don’t worry if the metrics you track are different. What matters most is that the metrics are meaningful to you.)

While most large organizations have a mechanism in place to capture website traffic in Google Analytics, if you’re not sure whether your organization has one, or if you’re not sure of how to access Google Analytics, we encourage you to schedule time with someone with expertise in this tool. Once a person has gained access and set up a few parameters to ensure that they are tracking the website in ways that are meaningful to their organization, most find the dashboards intuitive and user friendly.

What they tell me

Looking at how all these sources work together underscores how important it is to use multiple channels to drive site traffic. Each source, individually, may not seem like much. Combined, it’s clear that each makes a difference. Since the variables that fuel each source work like levers, as I review, I consider how our approach to each might be improved. If organic search seems low, perhaps I’ll schedule time to research keywords in Google AdWords (a Google marketing tool). Alternatively, you could request a research report from a search engine optimization (SEO) specialist. Of course, money is also a lever, and it’s not unusual for a site to receive a boost in traffic thanks to an increase in advertising spend.

The same Google-Analytics-generated line graphs that we mentioned above also reveal industry trends. Higher ed follows a seasonal calendar and this is often reflected in site traffic. Upon reviewing peaks and low points, I can usually see that low-traffic days correlate with holidays, for example. When I consider the calendar year overall, having a low-traffic day when my audience is engaged elsewhere seems reasonable.

If I see long stretches of low traffic during weeks or months when I’d expect my audience to be searching for the type of information our site offers, then I start troubleshooting. Perhaps I’ll increase the ad budget slightly. Another approach might be to evaluate the topics we’re covering. Again, you can build on the topics that are getting more traffic or consider whether earlier content didn’t get the benefit of promotions or advertising when it was originally published.

4. Average Time on Page

There are many ways to measure audience engagement, but I like to track the average time on page per blog article.

What this tells me

Average time on page helps me understand whether audiences are a little interested in a topic — or a lot. Below are a few different ways I consider this data point.

The benchmarks — What numbers show up in this column on a routine basis? For my content, average session time varies, but the range of time that viewers spend per article remains constant most of the time. Now that I have that baseline, the next thing I find interesting are the articles that seem to be outliers. Which articles stand out as having unusually low or high average times on page? This offers a clue into what content is resonating with readers, or where one article may have received less promotional support than others.

Average time on page could also be a good indicator of the quality of traffic that’s being driven to the site. If an article that was promoted has a low average time on page, then it’s possible that the article’s corresponding  ads, email marketing or social media posts may not be reaching the right audience.

The content type — Some articles are meant to be skimmed. Some are more research heavy. I find it interesting to see how lower average-page-times tend to line up with skimmable content, while longer times line up with long-form content. Why is this meaningful? It’s a way of affirming the validity of the data. It seems logical that a reader would spend less time on a shorter article — and having data that affirms that assumption brings clarity to decision making.

The patterns — I once heard objections to publishing a 5,000-word article. There was concern that the piece would be too long and that readers would lose interest. The average time on page for this article, however, is about eight minutes even after nearly five months! Now, as I consider whether to invest in more longform content, I can make a data-informed decision: longer lengths don’t seem to scare away our audience.

This is a great example of how data can help affirm assumptions or bust myths. Whereas common business wisdom is that shorter is usually better, content marketers throughout the industry have reported that long form content is attracting unexpectedly high readership. Most important, however, is that the data dashboards allow your college to customize content for its own niche audiences.

Least visited + lowest average times on page — This metric helps you understand the health of your blog. If I were to see a recently published article getting low numbers in these areas, I might avoid using a similar topic or format again. But when the articles with the lowest numbers are a year or two old, and I know they haven’t been promoted recently, that indicates to me that our content is going through a natural progression. The longer it’s been published, the less likely it is that it’s been recently promoted. It is also less likely to be included at the top of a Google Search response Page. That seems like a natural life cycle to me.

The More You Publish, the More You Learn!
Content marketing analytics allows you to have a two-way relationship with your audience. The more content you publish, the more you learn about your audience. The more you learn, the stronger your content becomes. Once you get a feel for the benchmarks and patterns in your dashboards, you’ll find that variations stand out. The next thing you know, you’ll be practicing data-driven decision making and content marketing.