Why Did the Environmentalist Cross the Road?

Measurement , NGen , Outcomes Add comments

Guest Post by Chip Giller, CEO of Grist

Chip Giller is the founder and CEO of Grist, and tries not to spend every day immersed in real-time analytics.

Why did the environmentalist cross the road?

Plenty of possible punchlines spring to mind. But at Grist, we take this question seriously.

A green-media site with a monthly audience of 1 million and growing, Grist is building a broad movement for sustainability. That means reaching new users, educating and entertaining them, and inspiring them to take action—and using data to learn about our impact on the ground.

That last part can be tricky. Measuring the results of a story or the ripple effect of a Twitter feed is not the same as tracking the outcomes seen by many other organizations, like trees planted or students served. But for the nonprofits and philanthropists who know communications are crucial to the success of the sustainability movement, this ever-evolving science is vital. At Grist, we monitor developments in the field, adopt and adapt tools to meet our needs, and share best practices. We are pioneers! Except without the scratchy hats and dysentery.

Our goal is to transform users from passive consumers of information into active better-world-builders—nudge them up a ladder of engagement. To monitor our progress, we’ve identified four key indicators and developed a suite of metrics for measuring them.

Some of these items are concrete. Our footprint, which includes unique users to the site, social-media followers, and so forth, can be tracked with tools like Google Analytics and ChartBeat, which provides addictive real-time analytics. Growth in this area offers a sure sign that we’re successfully reaching beyond the choir, the key to building a more diverse movement.

In other areas, we’ve had to be more creative. To measure engagement, for instance, we developed an internal index that looks at how readers are interacting with our site: Are they just reading, or are they signing up for emails, commenting, sharing, even donating? We want to make sure our growing audience is also an active one.

One of the most challenging areas to measure in hard numbers is influence – our role in shaping the national conversation about the issues we cover. We’ve experimented with tools that can measure our influence online. And we collect examples of Grist’s role in the larger conversation, including citations in other media; consultations by policymakers; speaking engagements; and policy changes related to our coverage.

Finally, we measure user impact: Does Grist change how people approach consumption, politics, community issues, and personal behavior? We’ve long conducted an annual reader survey; last year we introduced quarterly on-site surveys to lower the barrier to participation and garner results from a broader swath of people. These mini-surveys have shown us that 65 percent of site visitors are regularly taking action based on our content, from starting an organic farm to sealing ductwork to getting arrested protesting the proposed Keystone XL tar-sands pipeline. That’s the kind of impact we like.

So why did the environmentalist cross the road? Maybe to grow carrots, save energy, or read Grist. With smart, data-driven strategies, we can find out—then get more people across that road all the time. One of these days we might need to hire a crossing guard.

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