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By Thomas Baekdal - January 2022

How do we define the best content?

This is an archived version of a Baekdal Plus newsletter (it's free). It is sent out about once per week and features the latest articles as well as unique insights written specifically for the newsletter. If you want to get the next one, don't hesitate to add your email to the list.

Happy New Year, everyone. It's the start of a new, fresh year, and I'm currently working on this year's trend report (about the most important trends to focus on), coming in about a week or two. But before that, let's use this change of the year to do some analysis about your 'best performing content'.

Most publishers and platforms do a yearly summary where we look at what the best content was for the past year. Most just do a simple list looking up the articles with the most page views, but this isn't really that useful. Page views are a terrible metric for what is the best.

So, how else could we define that? Well, what I usually tell people is to identify the metrics that signify the highest level of value. What metrics illustrate the most loyalty, the highest level of interest, and the deepest level of engagement? That is the content you want to define as the best.

So, let me give you a few examples of this from Baekdal Plus, and also show some of my 'behind the scenes' metrics and struggles that I face.

First of all, the metrics defining the highest level of value are actually three things (+a fourth that checks them):

  1. What percentage of my subscribers looked at each article? (Value of the interest across my readers.)
  2. How many read all the way to the end? (Which articles were so good they decided to read the whole thing?)
  3. Did people come to the article directly(either direct to the website, or through my direct channels like this newsletter)?
  4. And then finally, I have a special metric I call UserValidated. This is a metric that checks the other metrics to make sure that they are real (like, did people really read the article?), and it identifies and discards 'bot' traffic.

Think about the power these three metrics have when you combine them. If we segment and rank all of these metrics at the same time, we get a really powerful signal.

The articles at the top of this list have a high share of subscribers, who are all reading the articles to the very end, and who came to the article through a direct channel rather than just seeing something by accident via social channels or search, and were validated. But, of course, it can also tell me the opposite. What was the worst content?

So let's explore some of the patterns I saw in 2021 on Baekdal Plus:

First of all, if we look at this list for all the years I have been publishing media reports, my yearly trend summaries are always at the very top. Almost every year I write a trend summary (usually published the first week of January) that looks at all the trends publishers should care about for the year ahead.

Articles like:

The problem however was that I didn't publish a yearly trend summary in 2021. Instead I used the month of January 2021 to focus on the very important topic of inequality and diversity in the media.

This was an article series that I was personally very proud of (you can read a summary of it here), but it did not perform as well. In fact, the articles about diversity from this month are very close to the bottom of the list (only 0.7% of my subscribers read them). And in terms of revenue vs. cost, that month was a loss. In fact, it was a double loss because it also caused me to lose out on not having time to write the yearly trend summary.

So, this is a bit of a disappointment. In fact, it's part of a pattern.

Every time I talk about current problems in the media, or how we in the media are causing problems for society, those articles are not very well liked.

For instance, I wrote about:

So, this is a pattern.

I'm not quite sure what to do about this. Maybe my focus is wrong and I need to be more solution-based when talking about these problems (which I already try to do). But, these topics are really important. From a trend perspective, it's vital that we focus on this and fix these problems because they are the source of other issues. Take news fatigue or lack of trust. It all ties back to these things.

But from a financial perspective, these focus areas are a hindrance for my growth, and I would be better off as a business if I just stopped writing about it. But I don't think I can do that because we can't just ignore these issues.

On the other hand, when we look at what worked really well, we can basically divide this into three categories of articles.

Pandemic-focused articles

The first category are articles that got more attention because of the pandemic. For instance, I wrote a few articles about COVID's impact on publishing, like:

I also wrote a number of articles about the future of events (one of them with Marcela Kunova).

These all performed well because of the situation and how rapidly things were changing because of lockdowns and other factors during the pandemic. I don't think these would have performed as well if I had published them in 2019.

Guides to strategies and markets

The second category of articles that performed very well are those linked to strategies, or that have helped publishers understand their markets and their focus areas better.

These articles are generally very popular. Just to name three:

Case studies

The third category is case studies. I very rarely do case studies, but when I do I tend to go very in-depth and write long feature articles about how a specific publisher is doing. These articles have always performed really well.

For instance, my article about the Norwegian news industry is the 4th most read article by subscribers over the past two years:

But I have seen this with other articles in the past as well. For instance, when I wrote Zetland, back in 2019, it too was one of the most read articles.

So clearly this is a focus that my readers find valuable, and I should do more of them. But look at the page count. These articles are huge and they take a lot of time to write.

The Zetland article took two months to analyze, interview, and write. And the article about Norway was quicker to write, but the information in it was gathered over several years. And, I believe that it's this level of attention that makes them perform so well.

Non subscribers

Of course, so far we have only talked about which articles and focus areas created the highest (or the lowest) level of value for my subscribers. But what about people who haven't subscribed yet?

Well, let's look at that.

Again, to measure this we need to identify what the highest form of value is. And to do this we need to look at what created interest or a propensity to subscribe. In other words, we need to look at conversions.

Here on this site, I have three types of conversions (I used to have four, but social conversion has become nearly irrelevant).

I have:

I then have to attribute these conversions to specific articles. For the free trials this is simple. I simply look at what article they are unlocking. So I know exactly which articles drive the most free trials. But for the other two conversions, it's much more complicated.

So let's look at that data. Here is a basic view of the conversion metrics for Baekdal Plus in 2021:

This is a fascinating graph with a lot of nuances.

First of all, you immediately see that there is a seasonal element to Baekdal Plus. During the summer months, starting in May and returning in September, there is a massive dip across all metrics (except churn). This happens every year. In fact, in the period between May-July, I had more churn than new subscribers. So, this is really not a fun time.

The second thing you notice is that January was exceptionally good in terms of newsletter sign-ups and free trial signups. Remember, this was the 'month of diversity'. So, diversity did actually create a lot of attention from new audiences wanting to see what that was about. But, it did not translate into subscribers (nor did my existing subscribers engage with it, as explained above).

Then we look at February, and that month is interesting. It had a very high level of newsletter sign-ups, free trials, and it was the 2nd best month in terms of new subscribers.

All of this can be attributed to this article, which was also one of the highest levels of value for existing subscribers ... and one of the most read articles in 2021.

This article was brilliant (well, I may be biased in saying that ;)) But, if you look at the graph above, you see that I also had the highest level of churn in February 2021. Why is that? This doesn't make any sense.

So, I had a deeper look, and the reason is... client projects.

As most of you know, my main business is Baekdal Plus, but every year, I also take on a number of client projects for publishers, where they hire me to analyze or guide their strategies. These are very fun projects to do, but they also take time.

And, in February 2021, I was hired to do a very big project (three weeks), where I analyzed and wrote a 73-page report for a publisher. This meant that I only had time to publish one Plus report that month, and that is what you see with the churn levels.

This is the dilemma I have all the time. Every time I do a client project, it increases churn for Baekdal Plus, and if it's a big project, like the one in February, it increases churn by a lot simply because it's taking too long between Plus articles.

What about some of the other months? Well, let's look at the graph again.

In April, I had another huge boost in free trials and an above average level of new subscribers.

Well, the free trials came mostly because of my focus on how cookies and ad tracking is changing. I wrote:

But, the increase in new subscribers came because of an increase in volume. You see, in late-March and April, I tried to catch up with the time I had lost in February, and so I published almost twice my usual rate of articles/reports during that time. Each article only performed at an average level, but the increased volume gave people more to come back to. It really shows how big an impact it has when I'm busy with other things.

Then we have August, which is weird because it was the best month in terms of new subscribers in 2021. And when I look closer at the data, I see that most of these subscribers came at the end of the month. Some of this is associated with this article (top 7 most valued article):

But, this article alone doesn't explain that bump in new subscribers. What is happening instead is what I call the 'post-vacation' bump. Remember, the past couple of months had been really slow, but now people are coming back from vacation and faced with the challenge of how to do things for the rest of the year.

This coincides with August also being the month where I get the most emails from editors, media executives or people on the business side responsible for innovation and growth. There is a very clear uptick in activity just after the summer vacations.

In the following month, things were going 'average', but then we hit November and December, where first I saw a massive increase in free trials, followed by a big increase in new subscribers.

This happened almost exclusively due to my new series called "Known to work".

In November, I wrote this article:

This looks to be something my readers really value, and in November, it created a huge uptick in free trials, and then once those trials expired, almost double the normal rate of people became full subscribers.

This is obviously something I need to focus more on, and the next article in this series is coming in January.

So, this was the year of 2021 on Baekdal Plus. But my point of showing you this wasn't just to highlight what worked and what didn't work, but also to illustrate the importance of not just looking at page views when defining your best articles.

And so, have a wonderful New Year!

This is an archived version of a Baekdal Plus newsletter (it's free). It is sent out about once per week and features the latest articles as well as unique insights written specifically for the newsletter. If you want to get the next one, don't hesitate to add your email to the list.


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Thomas Baekdal

Founder, media analyst, author, and publisher. Follow on Twitter

"Thomas Baekdal is one of Scandinavia's most sought-after experts in the digitization of media companies. He has made ​​himself known for his analysis of how digitization has changed the way we consume media."
Swedish business magazine, Resumé


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