With the emerging consensus that the “pivot to video” was largely a disaster, the news industry is in the midst of a dramatic shift in how we measure and retain audiences. Homepages are cool again, publishers focus on loyalty metrics and now media brands are trying to build, and own, ongoing conversations with their audience.
We’re moving away from a one-way communication system to a multifaceted system where audiences aren’t just receivers but crucial to formulating a sustainable editorial operation. Audience feedback is a vital part of any news operation.
The problem is most publishers ceded a lot of this ground to social platforms, hoping to reduce the overhead cost of maintaining their audiences. Left to rot, a bad comments section can be toxic. That’s why Popular Science removed its in 2013. Other publications followed suit.
Many publishers thought it best just to kick users to social platforms, and battle it out on their news feeds. Community dialogue is not an afterthought. The stickiness and community that comes with it are huge assets for any media operation looking to build a defensible business.
Listening to your audience leads to smart editorial decisions
The worst part about ceding audience conversations to other platforms is that it limits your ability to foster two-way conversations and build meaningful feedback loops with your most important readers. It leads to tone-deaf editorial decisions, content produced for an audience of no one, and, if you don’t promote diversity internally, editorial decisions that can result in a PR nightmare.
If cultivated, your audience can be a vital source of information in your newsroom. ProPublica has been a longtime advocate of using its site and Facebook to crowdsource data and power investigations; David Fahrenthold at the Washington Post leaned on his Twitter readers to investigate Donald Trump and won a Pulitzer.
Hearken, a platform that generates audience engagement to power content production for newsrooms, discovered its audience-powered stories for KQED resulted in 11 to 15x the traffic over traditional content produced by the newsroom.
Owning your audience insulates you from the algorithm gods
Keeping your audience on your own platform has tangible and noticeable benefits in a fast-moving digital environment constantly at the mercy of algorithms. Changes on how Facebook prioritizes content on its news feed, Google ranking changes, etc. can lead to consequences for media brands. Foster genuine dialogue with your audience and you encourage loyalty, mitigating the wrath of the algorithm gods.
If you’re one of the brands that has chosen to build communities on the social web, that too has benefits. When Facebook made dramatic changes to suppress news stories in the News Feed, forward-thinking publishers with robust and active Facebook Groups were able to mitigate the damage by encouraging users to share content directly on their timelines and lean into “meaningful interactions” Facebook uses to prioritize content in user feeds.
True audience loyalty unlocks revenue opportunities
Loyalty metrics are one of the few KPIs you can control and use to build a sustainable business. Lots of organizations have seen positive benefits from building a dialogue with readers: from an increase in subscriptions, members, or paid newsletters, like Texas Tribune’s The Blast.
Gene Park has done a fantastic job of not hawking subscriptions for The Washington Post directly on Reddit, and that authentic relationship has resulted in Reddit users subscribing.
Meaningful relationships with your audience can lead to promising revenue opportunities for media brands that are smart and disciplined enough to invest the time and energy. In an era where things change at the push of a keystroke, listening and interacting with your audience is one of the few variables media companies can control.