Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Measuring the Effectiveness of Blogs

John Dorner asked several questions about how to measure the effectiveness of blogs. He asked about counting visits, number of people using feeds from the blog, etc. In an effort to find out how effective his blog is, he is trying out a rating widgets where readers who visit the site can rate his blog.

Web metrics
Some metrics, like Technorati and Google Analytics, are useful metrics. On the ACES website, we use WebTrends. It gives comprehensive web statistics, including length of stay on the web site.

Larry Lippke started an eXtension wiki entry that describes the problems with using web statistics in the same kind of way that we use the traditional Extension methods for counting face-to-face communications. Two snippets from the wiki are:

"...Web statistics can only reflect the information that is kept in the log files of the web server.

...It cannot, though, suggest that a 10,000 reduction in face to face contacts is explained by a 10,000 increase in some web statistics measure; those are apples and oranges."

Effectiveness and influence: Can these be measured in web metrics?
My goal in blogging is not to gain great popularity on the web community, but rather it is to help Extension professionals see the relevant benefit of technologies. So the number of visits and feeds hitting my site are not nearly as important to me as knowing if I am helpful.

An indication of the effectiveness of my blog is the type of feedback I get--whether the feedback is from a comment, a link on another blog, or a comment from a personal contact. As John Dorner points out, unfortunately, the comments on the blogs come from only a small portion of the readers. If we look at the comments only, we are greatly underestimating our effectiveness. You really don't know how effective you are in online (and offline) conversations. Traditionally, Extension evaluates the effectiveness of a whole program, not necessarily the effectiveness of individual influence and the effectiveness of news articles and newsletters.

There are several examples I could use that indicate our effectiveness where we have failed to capture--simply because we are unaware of our influence--our individual influence. The most recent example happened last week when we were discussing email phishing with office administrators who make up the Alabama Extension Support Personnel Association. In an effort to give a little more information and resources to the participants, I specifically mentioned the email scams post from John Dorner (North Carolina). John was not aware I would point to his material, nor did he realized that I had read his post and thought it was helpful.

Although this group of Extension staff did not know John, they liked the idea of referring to an Extension-written piece. Why? I can only guess, but I believe it is because they already trust fellow Extension professionals to give them relevant, non-biased information. John should know (his management should also know) that he is influential and relevant in his blogging. Is this a quantifiable measurement? No, nonetheless very important.

Also, other Extension bloggers (I have a partial list of them in this post) are becoming more recognized. I was speaking with a group of animal science program team members when I mentioned social networking tools and specifically pointed out Shepherd's Notebook. These experts easily recognized their colleague in Maryland and saw that they need to consider her Extension blogging efforts.

Blogs and newsletters: A simple comparison
For arguments sake, let's compare printed newsletters with that of a blog. Blogging within the Extension arena is only one component of an Extension program; newsletters are just one component of an Extension program. What kind of statistics do you have about the value of newsletters? Do you know if the recipients are reading them? Do you know if the readers are using the information in the newsletters? Some of the same questions of the effectiveness, reach, and impact of newsletters pertain to blogs.

Do we expect from a single newsletter article that Extension can change behavior of our audience? Though, we do expect that a whole Extension program to invoke change. The most effective way to change behavior (adopt new practices) is with personal influence. Albeit, one-to-one contacts are expensive in the traditional context. Individual conversations are where we have the greatest influence. My favorite IT influential conversation was over dinner when Kevin encouraged blogging among colleagues. Kevin's online influence is just as effective. Read the responses to Kevin's threat to quit blogging.

The value of blogging: engagement and participation
The value of blogging has more to do with expanding our teaching and engaging activities. With blogging, we communicate our expertise and engage our clientele. How do newsletters invoke conversations? Through web communications, anyone who prefers to watch, read, and listen in on these conversations can. How do newsletters expand the reach beyond the recipients of the newsletter?

Through blogging we can engage other experts--those beyond land-grant schools and the educational arena. My personal favorite is when I posted the IT multitasking article and Sinan Aral, a NYU Stern School of Business faculty member, who researched, along with MIT professors, the relationship between IT multitasking and productivity. Recognizing that I referred to his research, Sinan Aral thanked me for my interest in his research and pointed me to more interesting research in the relationship between productivity and diversification of information. Can we engage others in traditional newsletters?

The value of blogging: opportunities to enrich learning
Blogging offers a lot more opportunity to direct people to more resources. This was done appropriately by two North Carolina horticultural agents who directed their readers to the more detailed publication in their blog post on how to water your garden wisely. (Note: we can easily refer to references that are not Extension generated.) Try doing that in a newsletter--you would have to mail the publication along with the newsletter.

What if the North Carolina agents want to refer to something that is not printer-friendly, as in a video on how to build an efficient home irrigation system. Can they do that in a newsletter?

If blogging is done with all of its capability, blogging becomes conversations engaging other experts (some outside of the Extension land-grant institutions) and clientele. These conversations lead to deeper understanding and other possible considerations. And, if done in a way that invokes participation, then we have greater opportunities for individual influence.

We have traditionally counted number of contacts through face-to-face contacts, number of newsletters, etc. We can use web metrics to understand a relative measure of our web activities, but not equate them to counting heads. As conversations develop and relationships develop through blogging (and other social networking tools), we can ask specific individuals how we have impacted their decisions. This seems to me where we need to put our focus of evaluation.


Eli Sagor said...

Hi Anne.

As you point out, hit counts tell us little about impact. The same is true of attendance at a face-to-face event. We need to dig deeper for meaningful measures.

But, we can learn a lot from newsletters. At least electronic ones...

I just started using a commercial e-newsletter service to send monthly updates out for a new website. It provides a lot of detail about the number of newsletter opens and followed links. This may be old news to you and your readers, but as a newbie I found it quite useful.

Seeing what topics readers found interesting will help me target future issues.

Services like this also give aggregate data for comparison of your results with others'. Much more detail is available in the reports as well.

A screencapture from our first report is at (view largest size)

Still far from impacts, but pretty rich data on the newsletter.

Unknown said...

Thanks Eli for your comment. I was comparing printed newsletters to blogging. And, you are certainly correct in using electronic newsletters that embed tracking as a way to understand which topics your readers are interested in.

I wonder over time if the interest changes of if the interest can be correlated with other things. Are certain topics correlated? Demographics correlation with topics could be interesting but difficult to determine. Tracking in electronic newsletters will help you develop future educational material.

I really like the idea of helping folks find deeper understanding by either developing educational materials that hit more than surface areas or by leading the audience to information that is available is also important. You can probably do that in your electronic newsletters.

The WebTrends software lets us know where people come into our site and where they leave our site. Sometimes the navigation surprises us. Most of the time, users do not use navigation; they come deep within the site. They may follow one link. Usually though, users find one page and then leave the site.

What WebTrends does tell us is what information is the most popular. When you use the electronic newsletter tracking system, it is doing the same thing for you. Thus, identifying the most popular topics in a defined area could be very helpful in defining your Extension program.

Thanks again for bringing this up and thanks for sharing the screencapture.


James E. Robinson, III said...

I would encourage you to resist the temptation to mark-up content beyond tags that describe content. While the markup may look okay on the blog, it may render the content unreadable elsewhere.

pic: tempted by HTML editor

Take care, James

Unknown said...

Thanks James for the note. The effect of the code was not what I had expected, anyway. The preview looks very different than the actual post.