(NJ Pen’s logo. Source: http://www.njpen.com.)

Metrics Case Study: NJ Pen

An inside look at a one-man journalism band in South Jersey

PART I: Metrics Overview & Social Strategy

Last month, I spent a day with Matt Skoufalos. Skoufalos is the founder and editor-in-chief of NJ Pen. NJ Pen is a local, online news site that covers the issues, events, and people of suburban Camden County, NJ. This includes Haddonfield, Collingswood, Haddon Heights, Haddon Township, Oaklyn, Audubon, Cherry Hill, and Merchantville. The exact boundaries of NJ Pen’s coverage are hard to define. That’s the way Skoufalos likes it. He believes that a community shouldn’t be defined by zip codes, but by people. This doesn’t make measuring his metrics and outcomes any easier, but it does allow him to broadly define his audience and leaves plenty of room for growth and expansion.

Skoufalos is the sole employee at NJ Pen. Although he does solicit content from a handful of friends and peers throughout the community, NJ Pen is a one-man show. This means he has to play the role of publisher, editor, journalist, advertising and media salesperson, professional businessman, event coordinator, photographer, fundraiser, and social media manager — among several other roles that are too obscure to mention here — all at once.

When it comes to site and traffic metrics, Skoufalos uses NJ Pen’s Facebook page as his primary source of information and social media weathervane. As of this writing, the NJ Pen Facebook page has 2,987 likes, and there are 2,507 people “talking about this.” The page received 24 new likes this week, up 71% from last week.

The largest “reach” number for a single Facebook post by NJ Pen topped out at just over 96,000 people. While he isn’t exactly sure what Facebook means by “reach,” Skoufalos says he just assumes it means that a particular post has appeared in that many timelines and news feeds since he published it. He showed me his Facebook Insights dashboard and, from the look of it, the page gets anywhere from 12,000–30,000 engagements each month, and about 3,000–6,000 comments, likes, and shares.

He also checks the actual site metrics from time to time. He mostly looks at the site’s bounce rate and the ratio between new and returning users. As of this writing, NJ Pen has a bounce rate of about 86%, and a new/returning user ratio of about 6:4. Skoufalos thinks this is due to the fact that his content delivery strategy is so heavily based on distribution through the NJ Pen Facebook page and other various local Facebook groups.

Skoufalos says there are a number of surprisingly coherent and well-known Facebook neighborhood groups for residents of suburban Camden County. Skoufalos — along with every local business owner I spoke to that day — told me the local communities in the area rely heavily on a closed and well-moderated Facebook groups like In the Wood, Collingswood for most of their community information needs. In the Wood has 3,322 members as of this writing.

Skoufalos measures the success of his work by the quality and frequency of his interactions with his community and his advertisers. While that may sound vague, Skoufalos says he measures success as much in terms of analytics as he does in terms of the positive reactions and recognition he receives from people he runs into on the street. Access and trust are big indicators for how well he’s doing.

NJ Pen also uses Piano (formerly known as TinyPass) to manage subscribers. There are currently a little more than 40 paid subscribers to NJ Pen. One day he wants to see that number reach up into the thousands, but he’s not too worried about how to get there just yet. Right now, he’s mostly focused on throwing events and developing good relationships with his advertisers before he sets his sights on a paying readership of that scale.

PART II: Analysis

The most striking aspect of NJ Pen’s web metrics strategy is the glaring lack of one. This is actually pretty common with most of the smaller publications I’ve worked with in the past. Most of the mom-and-pop operations and one-man-bands just assume that they’re supposed to use their publication’s social media profiles in the same way they use their personal accounts.

What’s interesting about NJ Pen’s setup is Skoufalos’ deep roots, not only with the residents of the community, but with the local and small business owners as well. I went to visit Skoufalos in Collingswood for the day to get a feel for his operation. His familiarity with and general recognition by people throughout all eight of the towns NJ Pen serves was remarkable.

A nearly constant stream of people approached us on the street to say hello and ask how NJ Pen was doing. Granted, Skoufalos was born and raised in the area. So it’s not completely unbelievable that he would know people around town, but it’s clear that he’s made a concerted effort to remain engaged with the communities he serves.

At the same time, the demographic makeup of the communities he serves is overwhelmingly homogenous (mostly upper-middle class and white). This likely makes things somewhat easier for Skoufalos, and makes NJ Pen more attractive to both local and regional businesses looking to advertise in wealthier areas outside of the Camden-Philadelphia area. It also helps to explain the apparently organic level of organization and coherence of the community Facebook group I mentioned above. Still, it’s clear that he’s been putting in some serious work.

When it comes to selling ads, many small businesses like those Skoufalos works with and sells to don’t usually demand to see site metrics or Facebook Insights before agreeing to buy ad space with a local publication. As Skoufalos will surely tell you, most small businesses are far more interested in the quality and breadth of your relationship with the community than they are in site traffic metrics and organic Facebook reach.

Many small business owners, including those who own local publications, might not even understand what they’re looking at when someone shows them an analytics dashboard. Most of the time, all they really want to see is a growth chart and maybe a few key distribution metrics (e.g, weekly page-views or unique users). They want to hear your story, and how your publication fits within the story of the community where their customers shop.

If Skoufalos really wants to kick things into high gear, however, he’ll have to start thinking about social media with a little more nuance and ambition. It’s not just about posting at least two articles a day and hoping you’ll end up with more likes than you had last week. It’s also about understanding the way your readers interact with your content and your publication. NJ Pen has already begun to think about social video, for example, and how they might use it to grow their audience and bring in additional revenue.

Going forward, it’s important for Skoufalos to think about these things and how they might make NJ Pen even better and more sustainable. It’s hard to wear as many hats as people like Skoufalos have to, but eventually you realize that having no plan can sometimes be just as damaging as having a bad plan.

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