This article is part of the book, "Innovative Journalism in Latin America," published by the Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas, with the help of Open Society Foundations' Program on Independent Journalism.
By André Monteiro, data journalist from newspaper Folha de S. Paulo
The first and most important task of audience development in journalism is to produce good content. It may seem obvious, but it's not simple at all, starting with what defines good content.
Professional journalism, however, has reached some consensus on the subject, so I will address the next step, which is to ensure that the content will be consumed by the public in the digital environment.
There is a famous phrase from the business world that says you cannot manage what you do not measure. It is the same with the audience: you need to have accurate data to know where you are and what you need to do to grow.
For this, likes in your social network, praises from friends or numbers of clicks are not enough. You need to use specialized tools that count variables reliably and accurately, and that can cross data to clarify the reasons for success or failure of a story.
The following guidelines have been designed for media outlets, but all are applicable to individual journalists. Each one must think of himself as a brand, and take strides to develop it in the same way as publications.
KNOW YOUR AUDIENCE
The first step is to get to know your audience and set your goals. Certain sites may want to speak to a specific audience - young women, or airplane pilots over 50, for example. Outlets of general interest may want to reach as many people as possible. In both cases, data are critical.
Treat the audience data as if you were reporting on the government. Your information needs to be reliable so that you have an accurate diagnosis in any period of time – without this, monitoring your progress will be very difficult.
Reliable data is also important so that your credibility is not at risk with the public and with business partners (advertisers, donors, etc.) if your results are publicly disclosed.
Larger outlets should invest in creating and training a specialized team, even in situations where financing is facing difficulties– as has been common all over the world. It is important to have at least one dedicated full-time professional on the subject.
Smaller outlets should also have a professional staff specializing in audiences, even if it is not exclusive. In both cases, the professional should help the rest of the newsroom by disseminating best practices.
HOW TO KNOW YOUR AUDIENCE
There are a variety of audience measurement software and solutions, but among the best-known business tools are Adobe Analytics, Chartbeat and Google Analytics 360. They all work from codes that, with each view of a site, collect information that is then processed and transformed into metrics.
Adobe and Google programs are more robust and complex, with a number of resources more geared toward e-commerce sites and advertising metrics. Chartbeat was created for the editorial market, so it has more specific metrics.
ComScore is another company that measures digital audiences, but uses a slightly different methodology, based on surveys with user samples.
The alternative to paid programs is free Google Analytics, which, while being a basic version, has a lot of very valuable features for audience measurement.
In addition to the ready-made programs, it is also possible to create systems incorporated by the Content Management Systems (CMS) themselves, but this can end up becoming more expensive and the result will hardly be better than that offered by specialized companies.
With any of the tools, you'll already have the basics to get you started. Look at the work with journalistic scrutiny. Ask simple questions and "interview" the data to try to answer them. Where do my hits come from? Which times are most important? What are the origins of traffic?
Continuing to work on crafting questions and seeking answers in the data will generate insights that will help you take action, such as choosing the best time to post, for example.
In addition to the most basic information, some tools also display demographic data such as gender or age range, which is key to charting your visitor's profile. This data serves both for the niche outlet to know if it is reaching its target audience and for the large outlet to know who it is not reaching and on which groups it should focus more efforts.
If the tools do not provide enough data for this job, it is possible to draw a qualitative visitor profile with other information that is available, such as comments from articles, for example. Another alternative is to create surveys with the most important questions and invite readers to participate. For this, you can use free resources like SurveyMonkey, Google Forms or Typeform, among others.
No matter what solution you choose, the important thing is to adopt a new mantra: data, data, data. In any digital initiative, there must be concern about measuring performance so that you can repeat what works and correct errors.
From the data, you can know which distribution channels are most important to your content today and which ones to work on. There are outlets in which direct traffic is the majority, in others, social networks or even newsletters have greater weight.
When identifying the major channels, focus your efforts to maintain audience ratings where you are already doing well. At the same time, try to understand how you can grow in other ways.
Try to identify which channel has greatest potential for your content and which still represents a small slice in your traffic. Take specific actions, supported by more specific tools, to understand and develop your audience on that channel.
Below are specific tips on two of the top channels for getting audience for news media.
The platforms themselves have free features (such as Facebook Insights and Twitter Analytics) that allow you to analyze data from your publications to try to identify patterns that can help you grow, such as the most successful subjects or the optimal post range.
These resources, however, are limited. Other commercial tools, in addition to facilitating the work with your data, allow you to analyze the performance of other outlets and to help in monitoring several networks at the same time. This is the case, for example, with NewsWhip, Wayin, Hootsuite, Simply Measured, Sprinklr, among many others.
A good piece of news in this area is that one of the best social networking tools in the world, CrowdTangle, has become free for content producers after being bought by Facebook.
Tip: Use link shortcuts with built-in analytics, such as bit.ly, to monitor the performance and dissemination of your content across social networks. In the absence of familiarity or time to learn other tools, they also help measure and understand specific actions such as the audience of newsletters, for example. Here's a good tutorial on the combined use of bit.ly with Google Analytics.
In the case of search engines, the most important thing is for the structure of your site, from a technological point of view, as well as the organization of the content to be optimized to be well indexed by the platforms. Since Google is the largest, focus on them. Here you can find a video with general guidelines and here is a more detailed guide, in book form.
Another tip to perform better in search results is to watch out for features like Google Trends, which showcases the hottest real-time issues and lets you search to see the public's interest in a particular topic. The tool is useful, for example, when choosing between two options for a title: look for the keywords of each one of them and see people’s interest levels.
Retain your audience
Your distribution strategy worked and you managed to win over the visitor. Great, but the work is not over yet. You need to get him to see your content through to the end and awaken interest in accessing other material you produce.
The design and usability of your site needs to be optimized so that it loads easily and quickly on any device (desktop, mobile, tablet, etc.). You also need to have several other entries in order for the reader to stay on your site, such as related links.
Most of the consumption of journalism today is no longer through an organized channel, like a homepage, so you have to look at each piece of your content as independent, with all the resources available to the visitor.
Think of it as a house: if the visitor comes in and likes the place, it is much more likely that she will return the next day. That way, convincing a visitor to click on your content will be much easier in the future.
Why is it important to keep loyalty? At a recent conference, Rob Barrett, President of Digital at Hearst Group, said that 10 percent of loyal visitors account for 60 percent of the page views. "Loyal users - those who visit a site 10X or more a month – drive 15X more impressions than casual users,” he said.
How to know if it’s going well
In audience development, the practical steps defined by your strategy must be done while you keep an eye on the metrics. But in addition to real-time monitoring, it is necessary to monitor its evolution over time by considering longer periods.
It is important, therefore, to stop from time to time to take a deeper dive into your data to understand what is working and what is not, and why, so you can take new actions.
It is also interesting to follow competing or similar outlets, so that you have a palpable target to pursue (everyone loves a challenge) and an external reference point.
You will hardly have the same detailed data from other outlets, but use public information from companies such as ComScore (which, in addition to data provided to customers, usually publishes rankings with general data) or traffic-estimating services such as SimilarWeb, Alexa or Semrush (all with free data and more detailed paid versions).
Developing the audience is important whatever type of outlet we are talking about. For non-profits, it is important to gain visibility and relevance – which helps in the task of attracting sponsorships and partnerships that enable their mission.
For traditional media, the audience today is still directly linked to the generation of advertising revenue, since digital ads are in most cases marketed based on views ("impressions," as they are called in the industry).
Even considering the general downward trend in advertising as a source of revenue, audience growth is also important – like in the paid subscription model with a porous paywall, the most frequent commercial strategy for large outlets.
In these cases, the audience serves on one hand as bait for new subscribers and on the other, the distribution strategies make it easier to reach subscribers because it reaches the subscriber and reinforces the reasons that led him to pay for the content.
Learn from failure: Since it’s difficult to know what will be successful, focus on what was a failure. Make a list of what was least consumed and see if it's worth it to spend effort on something that is not being appreciated. If there is no journalistic justification for publication, leave it. If there is, try to find another way to make that topic more interesting.
Save the data: When working with audience programs, be sure to download the most important data periodically and store it in another location, such as a spreadsheet. This is important to keep the historical data always at hand and also serves as backup if the system becomes inoperative, if there is a program interruption or any other problem.
Follow the experts: A good way to stay current in the field of audience and digital metrics is to follow the publications of the companies that work with it, be on their social networks, subscribe to newsletters or check their blogs from time to time. As a form of disclosure, many companies periodically study their markets, spreading valuable insights that can help.
Mobile first: Everything these days needs to work perfectly on mobile. So even if you work on a computer, test everything on your phone to view how your audience will see it. A beautiful design doesn’t matter if a large and growing part of the public cannot see it. Even if your traffic is still mostly desktop, it is very likely that in the near future this will change. Additionally, everything from mobile can be seen on the desktop, but the opposite is not true.
Think about the impact: The focus here was on metrics for consumption, engagement, and so on. But, especially in non-profit media, the discussion about the impact of journalism is increasingly stronger. Often the relevance of a story cannot, and should not, be measured by number of views, but by changes it has made in real life, whether in a community or a whole country. Sites like ProPublica and Marshall Project have developed a robust methodology for measuring impact, and entities such as the Media Impact Project also study the subject.
Other guides in the series include:
Note from the editor: This story was originally published by the Knight Center’s blog Journalism in the Americas, the predecessor of LatAm Journalism Review.