In my work unpacking the data capabilities of nonprofits, we frequently uncover the phenomenon of ‘hidden’ data—that is, data that can answer key business questions without requiring any additional investment in advanced systems or technical implementation. You might be surprised at the valuable data your organization already has at its disposal!

Yet it’s not enough to simply unearth hidden treasure. Your internal stakeholders need a plan to access it, understand it, and use it to improve their outreach decisions. 

In this article, we’ll focus on identifying data points you are likely already collecting (because they come by default with Google Analytics and other analytics packages). We’ll then explore the practical value they can provide to your organization.

A primer on key metrics that your organization already collects by default

Note that the metrics below are based on standard Google Analytics (GA) configuration and nomenclature.  If you use another analytics tool, it likely has some of this same data, but names of metrics may be changed.

Foundational metrics that you already know

Page View data (along with Unique Page Views) point to the volume of traffic that your content has received. Of the two, Unique Page Views often is more relevant since it looks at total visitors rather than visits (i.e. “How many people saw this post?” vs. “How often did people view this post?”).

Session data also can be valuable, since it describes unique visits to your site. We generally prefer Sessions over User data in our analyses because, depending on your configuration, Google Analytics may or may not “know” that a user is the same across devices. Still, these measures should be paired with other metrics to lead to actionable conclusions.

Contextual metrics that yield unique insights from your data

Much of the data that’s automatically collected by Google Analytics enables you to ask questions that start with ‘Who’.  For example:

  • Who found this content most valuable? (And was it the intended audience?)
  • Who left your site after consuming this content, rather than exploring the rest of what you have to offer?

Campaign data can help you with generating audience segments and measuring campaign performance. Assuming campaigns were targeted to particular audience segments, audience segments can be approximated with this data and tell you how these audiences interacted with your site overall.

Landing page is another valuable feature for segmentation and user flow analysis. If an audience segment typically begins their online experience at a specific page or subdomain within your suite of digital platforms (for instance, a members-only login page, or a landing page for journalists), you can add them to an assumed segment using this data.

Onsite Search Data (such as Search Completion) helps you assess whether users coming to your site through search actually found what they were looking for (rather than continuing to search to get better results, or simply existing your site). If onsite search indicates that a term is frequently searched for, but your organization has little content available on that topic, it should inform editorial prioritization. (It’s worth noting that making use of this data sometimes requires a bit of added work to your out-of-the-box GA setup).

Referral data allows you to track how audience segments engage with your site when coming from news sources and mentions from other outlets.

Finally, Exit and Average Time on Page data are useful proxies for how engaged visitors are with your content.  These can mean many things and are inexact, but knowing visitors spent more time on longer articles is usually a good sign. In contrast, seeing a large number of exits on content intended to create curiosity to explore more publications on your site would indicate an issue to explore.

Next steps for enhancing your data collection

There are many things to consider when prioritizing analytics work: staff availability, your current information architecture, and strategic initiatives already in the works (to name just a few). Yet I want to briefly touch on some of the customizations we recommend as next steps for any organization that’s decided to prioritize enhanced data capture as part of its data strategy

Measure engagement by tracking scroll depth

Scrolling event data is a powerful engagement metric, since it looks at how content was interacted with, rather than how long or how often it was viewed. Content that attracts a large number of page views, but minimal scrolling, suggests that the substance of this content may not the right fit for the audience (or perhaps is being seen by the wrong audience). Meanwhile, content with few page views but high scroll depth would likely benefit from social and email sharing.

Of note, Scrolling event data is preferable to Time on Page/Site – in essence, it’s the difference between someone who’s ‘just looking’ in a storefront vs. actively asking questions and reading ingredient labels.

Make use of Events, Goals, & Custom Dimensions

Some of your most powerful insights will come from data related to custom events (including scroll depth, as mentioned above). In the language of GA, “events” are specific actions that visitors take on your site that your team really cares about – for example, clicking a donate button or loading a video.

Goal data is limited in the current analytics setup, but can be useful in quickly identifying campaigns that achieved their strategic purpose, in terms of getting audience segments to consume a certain amount of content on a page or spend a minimum amount of time digesting this content.

In addition, Custom Dimensions (and their cousin, Content Groupings) are underutilized by many organizations.  Yet these add valuable context to your foundational metric data, and thus often have the greatest potential for yielding actionable insights. How well are individual topics performing on your site against each other? Do most of your members not bother to log in before viewing your site, thus missing out on exclusive member-only content? When your team categorizes content by topic, and/or set up custom dimensions based on membership, you can answer questions like these.

Putting these data to use

Now that you’re aware of these hidden treasures, it’s time to think about how to put them to skillful use!  If the above metrics are frequently reviewed by staff and the relevant insights raised in meetings where they can be turned into strategic objectives, you can expect many boons to your organization, including:

  • Leveraging a small team – or even an individual staff member – to create significant change across the organization by letting them focus on generating insights instead of reports
  • Identifying the best influencers and luminaries to broadcast your content, as data reveals whose audiences resonate with each of your content types and topics 
  • Uncovering older content that keeps generating traffic, year after year, and making sure new visitors have a chance to find it
  • Streamlining content planning by examining trends in search data, which can reveals gaps between content you provide and your audience’s needs

In future articles, we’ll take a look at how to discover those key dashboard reports that can be used to make data a tool of enablement for your entire staff. Stay tuned!