Throughout his career as a data and product specialist, most recently with Meta, Chris Miles has built and launched a number of different data tools, working with global media organisations specifically around audience development, tooling, and product education.
Speaking on the fourth of fifth modules of the INMA Product and Data Summit, which continues on Thursday, Miles, the former programme manager/news integrity and fact checking at Meta, discussed five things he’s learned about data that he thinks every media organisation should know.
Miles shared broad strokes of five “a-ha moments” he’s had — things that he encouraged all publishers and media organisations to consider as guideposts for potential red flags.
“My philosophy, broadly, is that data should be empowering. Everyone should have access to data. Data should be open and transparent. I believe in democratising data, but I also want to make sure that everybody, especially publishers and media organisations, have the tools and know-how to understand the data they’re reviewing.”
Although we live in a time when digital tools have “essentially become the core of everything that we do,” he continued, “we should be familiar with some of the tricky situations” that may arise when people struggle to understand or embrace data and data tools.
1. Data is hard
Organisations must be ready to invest in data and to acknowledge that investment, Miles said. Whether it’s individuals who are pulling data or tools doing the work, data is hard; teams are expensive and tools are complex. And even if you’re sourcing your data from elsewhere, he added, it’s important to understand that there’s “an entire infrastructure out there designed to maintain those tools from those different platforms.”
Miles thinks “a lot of journalists and media people tend to look at data and kind of throw up their hands — they need somebody to walk them through what they’re looking at or what they should focus on.”
This kind of education is something “no organisation should cut corners on,” he emphasised. “It’s important to give your team the latitude it needs to understand the data and tools they use.”
2. Keep it simple
Whether you’re a “data wiz or an executive who really wants to make sure your team is focusing on data, an analyst presenting data or an engineer building a data tool, the best advice I could offer is to keep it simple,” Miles said.
The best data points are always the ones that people can “look at and they just get how it relates to their goals,” he said. “They immediately understand how it tells a better story.”
Understanding trends is very important, Miles said, but communicating data about trends doesn’t have to be complicated. His experience is that the best way to understand trends is with really simple graphs.
“I’ve been on teams where we’ve built hives and hives of data” in an attempt to provide all the data to the people they’re working with, he said. But “at the end of the day, we’ve built something cool but we’re giving them a fire hose of information. They just look at it and don’t know what to do with it.”
By contrast, tools that can present critical information with simple graphs are the tools that get used the most: “Simplicity is a cornerstone in any data work you do.”
3. The product needs to be easy
As data presentation needs to be simple, so does the product used to process that data. If you plan to build something in-house or you want to source a product, Miles thinks the best tools are the ones with the simplest UI.
“If you’re giving someone reams and reams of data, that’s probably not going to be actionable,” he said. So, whether the product is an actual hard product your team is clicking through or the product is a story, “make sure it’s very easy for your team and your audiences to access” and use.
4. Draw from multiple sources
“For the longest time in digital media,” Miles said, “there’s been a yearning for a single ‘God metric,’ this one metric that tells everything that needs to be told about a company. It’s video, click-throughs, social metrics all rolled into one.”
That “God metric,” however, doesn’t exist. There isn’t a single metric that can tell a full story — and, as is the case in good journalism, he thinks it’s “important to realise that the best insights come from using multiple data sources.”
There are organisations in which one team is, for instance, pushing quantity over anything else. Their goal is a metric that really relies on quantity, so it’s just about hitting higher and higher numbers. Meanwhile, another team is pushing for quality, represented by “monetisable efforts,” which shape the longer-term direction of the company.
“Those teams are running alongside one another,” Miles said, “but going after very different goals.”
His “a-ha moment” was that since the goals in each team were unique, and that data each was pulling was unique, the teams should be “reviewed in different ways and seen as representing the ultimate output of the organisation.”
He continued: “Teams should be trying to triangulate the data points that are best not just for them but for the whole organisation. As much as possible, if your teams are chasing different metrics, make sure those metrics end up getting tied together at some point.”
He shared the example of how Elon Musk has been repeatedly pointing to Twitter’s daily usage numbers being at an all-time high, which seems to indicate that things are going perfectly at Twitter.
Miles surmised that there’s probably a different metric out there showing that advertising dollars are going “down and to the right,” as evidenced by a recent Wall Street Journal headline, “Twitter’s Advertising Exodus Accelerates, Despite Outreach from Elon Musk.”
“It’s the complete opposite of what Musk is saying,” he continued, and an “example of a leader really trying to hone in on one single metric, even though that single metric isn’t telling the whole story.
“If your organisation is thinking only about one metric, that’s a red flag,” he cautioned. “I’ve seen organisations chase that one, elusive, unicorn metric, and it led to their downfall. As much as you can incorporate different metrics, different data points, that will always mean your organisation is healthy and on the right track.”
5. Don’t let data turn you into a bot
“Having a human touch to any data that’s produced is very important,” Miles said, pointing to something he heard in Janis Kitzhofer’s presentation earlier in the summit.
“Janis said that he and his team try to be empathetic when it comes to data, and I can’t emphasise that enough. Data doesn’t tell the full story, so it shouldn’t be the be-all end-all.”
While an organisation has quantitative goals it’s trying to hit, he continued, it’s also “important to have qualitative goals, or ‘soft metrics.’ You don’t want to turn into a robot blindly chasing numbers.”
Miles believes data should be a cornerstone of any team, but also advised organisations to not “lose sight of having a very human aspect” to the data, which “helps you build more meaningful and usable products.”
Miles continued the conversation with a question and answer session with INMA Product Initiative Lead Jodie Hopperton, which can be viewed via the on-demand recording of the session.