How to make every story count

Over the past six years, we’ve developed an approach to managing newsroom data that’s conceived, built and utilised completely differently to anything else out there. The tool we’ve created owes its success to one very important thing: we HAD to develop it. There simply was no other option.

We’ve spent years working in newsrooms. We understand the workflows, culture and pitfalls intimately and in ways that you simply can’t if you come at these issues data-first. So how did a bunch of newsroom editors, heads of digital, and media folk end up developing an editorial analytics tool? Well, that’s a good story.

Are you sitting comfortably?

Chapter 1: Carpooling

(or: how breaking a leg can mean so much more)

Back in 2013, one of our founders, Rutger Verhoeven, broke his leg playing football. It happens to the best of us. So, he asked his long-time friend (and future co-founder) Erik van Heeswijk if he’d like to carpool with him.

“We basically had the same jobs. Erik at VPRO and me at BNNVARA (public broadcasters in the Netherlands). And we were talking regularly anyway, because we were working and living in the same city”

Getting into analytics

Those journeys gave them the time and space to chat about work. They soon found out that - as heads of digital at prominent Dutch public broadcasters - they were facing similar challenges. In an effort to embrace what were then ‘emerging’ channels (read: social media), many editors were simply clipping audio or visuals from TV and reposting it on Facebook or Twitter. Once published, they moved on without much thought, and they certainly weren’t really steering on all the information that was available to them. So Rutger and Erik - on their lengthy commute - started to explore exactly why that was the case. And that meant getting into data and analytics.

It didn’t take them long to get to the root of the problem: no one was following all these stories across all those channels, so there was no insight on what was working where - let alone why. Furthermore, when they heard people talk about ‘success’ it became apparent that very few had a specific understanding of what that meant to them in their department, and in their news organisation. Did it mean building engagement? Increasing exposure? Growing a loyal audience? Without being absolutely certain of those parameters it’s almost impossible to efficiently monitor how anything is working, and it makes a tricky job even harder.

Once Rutger and Erik started asking these pointed questions of their content performance they effectively blew the doors wide open. What once had been working clearly wasn’t, actually. Nostalgia, after all, is a crappy business model.

In hindsight, and with the 20-20 vision that developing a tool brings, it seems crazy that newsrooms weren’t asking more probing, forensic questions. We’ve seen this a lot. There’s often a lack of story ownership. That means that ultimately it doesn’t really matter whether or not a story has impact. In a newsroom where - let’s face it - everyone’s busy all the time, people are just doing their job. And often that job is simply ‘to publish’. This means that people simply put out orphans - stories that no one feels any responsibility for. Those stories are doomed to just float around because there’s no system in place to trigger people to act any further on them.

Rutger Verhoeven

Rutger Verhoeven cmo & co-founder

A cyclical approach

Erik and Rutger began to look deeper into the life of a story. They started thinking about how content is planned, written, published and optimised as part of a cyclical process - a story life cycle. They started tracking the links between behaviour and content consumption, because as everyone knows, when an important story breaks, you need to understand who’s going to be looking for it, how, on which channels, and when. Even with this self-evident truth, user needs analysis is not something that underpins the culture, workflow and organisation in newsrooms, but - as Erik and Rutger found out - when it is and when it does the wheels turn a lot more easily.

Then we started thinking about buying a tool that would give us all the information on all these data points, channels and timing. We went to SXSW and we tried to find something that could meet our expectations. When we found out that there was no such thing out there, we thought well, you know - let’s start our mid-life crisis and build it ourselves!

Erik van Heeswijk

Erik van Heeswijk CEO & co-founder

And so, as they say, it began. They “fired themselves” and set out to form SmartOcto.

Lessons learned:

  • ‘it’s what we’ve always done’ isn’t a good reason to keep doing the same thing
  • defining success metrics is key to steering your editors
  • putting out orphans doesn’t do anyone any good

Chapter 2: Serbian sharks

(or: how news travels fast)

Meanwhile a few borders away in Serbia, editor (and future co-founder) Dejan Nikolic was watching a story take on a bizarre life of its own., a satirical news website that Dejan had started, published a story about a Serbian tourist in Egypt who’d got drunk, jumped into the sea, and - through freakish coincidence - had landed on a shark, killing it upon impact. In a further twist, it turned out that this particular shark had been the one terrorising holidaymakers in Sharm-el-Sheik, casting a shadow on the tourist season. Hurray for this Serbian chap, eh?

It was intended to be a comment on how (especially in small countries) even the smallest, most ridiculous things done by your fellow countrymen abroad tend to get picked up by the national press back home. The thing was, it did get picked up. First by several local sites, but then the Macedonian News Agency changed the byline and ran it. From there it found its way across the Atlantic where it got picked up by The New York Post before flipping back across the sea to Russia.

Dejan and his colleagues watched with bemusement as this very fictional, very satirical story grew in impact - and apparent legitimacy, though it had long ceased to be attributed to the team. The story eventually unravelled when someone noticed that the picture that Dejan and the team had attached to the article was that of a basking shark - not exactly a fish with a murderous reputation. It had taken almost two weeks before anyone realised.

stay in your publishing lane

Viral is not a strategy

This amusing anecdote is perfect for drinks parties (if that’s your thing - heck, we tell it all the time), but it’s also a lively reminder of how important it is to stay in your publishing lane. It was on-brand and a great choice for, but for everyone else that picked it up? Well, not so much. In the rush and gratification of ‘peak click’ it might be tempting to equate virality with success and deviate from your original purpose, but, as another of our founders, Ilija Susa, says: “viral is not a strategy”. And, we’d add, luck isn’t much of one either.

‘Viral’ is the antithesis of control, and control is surely something fairly central to any strategy, so building a plan around the notion is both nonsensical and ineffective. Those stories collect impressive numbers of page views to be sure, but that number gives little indication about the audience loyalty: those readers will be off chasing the next published sensation faster than you can say “basking sharks eat plankton, not people”. So, there’s that.

As it happened, around that time Dejan had been working out a way to pay his writers fairly, in line with their contributions and with the quality of their writing. The shark tale had demonstrated that virality, though entertaining, was not a reliable indicator of success for their purposes at, and certainly not one for quality. Surely there had to be a better way of scoring articles based on quality measures of engagement beyond clicks, likes and hits? A way to measure success that also acted as waymarkers for how those writers might replicate their success and improve their performance along the way?

Value beyond page views

It led Dejan to seek out some analytics software that would reveal the true value of an article, beyond page views, because oversimplification teaches us nothing. The creation of an article score, he reasoned, was the transparent, fair and constructive solution: a way to see at a glance if articles perform well against others in their category.

As you might have guessed, he couldn’t find a solution either, so he set about building one: Content Insights. It calculated value on multiple stories, all depending on the business model and the strategy specific to each newsroom or publisher. Which proved to complement what Rutger and Erik were doing at SmartOcto...

Lesson learned:

  • page views and massive exposure alone don’t do the trick
  • don’t let a viral hit knock you off course, stick to your game plan
  • off the shelf tools are limited in functionality

Chapter 3: Identifying bugs

(or: what building an app teaches us about listening)

Back at the Dutch broadcaster, Rutger laid down the gauntlet - ever willing to experiment - and introduced the needs-driven format idea to his newsroom.

“We had a big show about everything related to nature. We wanted to maximise the impact of the program, so we organised focus groups and conducted interviews with people who were following the program on TV, radio and online.

What we learned was that our viewers (and listeners) wanted to connect to nature in the broadest sense. Not just when they went into the wilderness, but also when they took the dog for a walk in the park. That was absolutely key: we wanted to anticipate where this spark of enthusiasm might take them - and we knew we needed to be there when it was ignited.”

"all we did was listen to the audience..."

The brand in daily life

What they did was sidestep. They built an app where users were able to take pictures of mushrooms, trees or birds (anything, really) and put a team of experts behind it who were able to instantly give the users information about the subject of the photo. It didn’t replicate what had already been broadcast, but rather it enabled those viewers to channel their enthusiasm for the show and the inspiration it generated into their own daily explorations. The app kept them connected to the brand even when they weren’t watching TV or listening to radio.

In fact, in the first week it launched there were 10,000 downloads of the app, more than 1,700 experts on the panel who answered 5,000 questions. By the end of the first year, that download figure had risen to 40,000 and the app had won awards for audience engagement, design and innovation.

This was online enrichment at its best. The Vroege Vogels app helped the audience connect the broadcast world with the outside world, and although it helped keep viewers and fans of the show engaged, the actual app drew people back in to the TV too - and these were people who’d never watched the original show before. All of this fed into the ability to send relevant and related TV and radio recaps and snippets to the app users. The newsroom developed a loyal, engaged audience, and those audiences were getting something of value back.

And all they’d done was actually listen to their audience...

“We were successful because we’d invested all that time in focus groups and listened to the feedback, so we were able to understand our users’ motivations and enthusiasms.”

Lessons learned:

  • time spent understanding your readers’ motivations and needs is never wasted
  • reclipping content isn’t the engagement engine you’re looking for - in fact, in most cases it’s a complete turn-off
  • side-stepping can give you a broader perspective on your audience

Chapter 4 (and counting): Oh! It’s an omnichannel adventure!

(or: the inspiration of a navigator)

It was a comment Erik made on one of those daily commutes which left them ruminating on the expectations of modern technology. “You know,” he said, “Waze has probably saved hundreds of marriages.”

Finding your way to somewhere new and unfamiliar creates stress. Period. No wonder that tensions - marital or otherwise - rise during car journeys. But Waze, the humble SatNav, has changed the way we get from A to B - almost without us noticing. The reason? It has worked with user expectations and behaviours so well that it seems to intuit what we require of a navigation system: clear instructions, relevant and timely alerts, and a user-friendly interface.

It’s the notifications, stupid!

So, mused Erik, what if it’s the notifications that make or break information systems? If they’re closely aligned to genuine user needs, surely it doesn’t take much before those notifications become an indispensable part of whatever purpose they’re designed to serve. Isn’t that what puts people in the newsroom off? Systems, data and processes that are presented in a language incomprehensible to most? And ‘solutions’ that don’t really solve any of the actual problems facing newsrooms right now?

In developing the analytics system we now call smartocto insights, Dejan found this to be the case as well.

Editors don’t want data: they want the insights from that data, served to them in a format they don’t have to labour to understand, and certainly not something they need to translate.

Dejan Nikolic

Dejan Nikolic cco & co-founder

A merger made in heaven

In the spring of 2020 SmartOcto and Content Insights merged to form smartocto. A significant moment, to be sure - and not just because we’re fully committed to our purpose. The fact that around the same time in two countries, two companies formed to tackle similar problems facing the digital media, speaks volumes about a gap in the market. So too does the fact that both solutions were designed specifically to be newsroom-first, not tech-first. We know we can’t be the only ones. We AREN’T the only ones. But we know that the solutions we’ve created could only have been developed by insiders.

“We wanted to build the tool we wished we’d have had when we were editors” says Erik. And that’s the sum of it, really. All those hours in newsrooms, on the commute, in conversation with the best and brightest, have led us here. This is really just the prologue. We’re hoping you’ll be part of the rest of the adventure.