I recently spoke to the Local Media Association, representing 3,000 media companies across the United States, on the value of audience engagement and how it can be the defining difference between success and failure in today’s media landscape. If you missed the live webinar, tune in to the replay of What is Engagement, and Why Does it Matter? here.
Here are the key takeaways from the webinar:
Media's Shared Problem
The history of digital publishing is one in which the focus fell heavily on ad volumes, using page-views and unique visitors as the main KPIs, thus creating unhealthy incentives that led to the click-bait era.
This strategy, that favoured driving eyeballs over driving audience loyalty, eventually helped erode reader trust in traditional news sources, while publishers found that their online ad revenue yields declined as large social platforms captured the majority of advertising revenues. This, of course, left digital news publishers with fewer resources to invest into the type of content that drives retention and loyalty.
At the same time, the need to drive sheer volume of page-views, paired with the rise of social networks as the main driver of inbound traffic, made it all too tempting for overstretched newsrooms to hand off their communities to networks such as Facebook. This trend effectively allowed these major social platforms to benefit from the content created by the digital publishers, while leaving the content creators vulnerable to algorithm changes and shifting audience trends, further compounding the erosion of a direct relationship between publishers and their readers.
Some Good News
But there is good news, great news in fact. As publishers have faced the reality that the ad model alone does not work in the digital space, they are shifting towards reader revenue models, which in turn requires them to think more about building deep, genuine, and direct relationships with their audiences.
In the post Cambridge Analytica era of public mistrust in social networks, and reports of foreign government activity seeking to undermine western elections, modern news consumer needs are shifting too; they are craving news from trusted sources, and are finally showing a willingness to pay for access to authentic, trusted sources of information.
By thinking about engagement not as just another metric, but rather as an expression of appreciation by your audience for the content and experiences that you are providing them, you can create a healthy system of incentives that can drive high quality content, rich and enjoyable user experiences, and ultimately, a stable and growing business. Community allows users to connect in meaningful ways around the topics they are interested in. The new engagement model offers a positive feedback loop that derives value for everyone.
But how do you define audience engagement?
There is no industry consensus on what engagement is, and there never will be because the relationship with your audience is unique to your content and your brand. That being said, there are metrics that many publishers find as good indicators on engagement and conversion.
For example, simply spending time on your site can be a powerful indicator of engagement, as long as time makes sense as an expression of appreciation for your content. Sharing or amplifying content on social media, taking polls, and submitting story ideas, are all indicators of committed actions that build habits and loyalty.
Users willingly exchange their time for good content and their personal information for a premium experience.
Optimizing an experience around content is what drives conversion. Offering personalization around topics or through newsletters may provide tremendous value to your community. Incorporating the ability for users to influence and participate creates connection. Commenting, Q&As, and chats, allow communities of users to discuss topics important to them and are all a powerful trigger of conversion.
Ultimately, publishers must define KPIs that measure the delivery of value to your audience, and investments must be made strategically toward these goals.
Trends in the industry = Changing Perceptions
This shift in the industry is starting to pay dividends with engagement and trust in local news publishers increasing. Change is good and the quality of content and reader trust will continue to rise. But there is a lot of muscle memory and old habits that still need to change when it comes to evaluating what content is succeeding and the value that can be provided. Using audience intelligence to drive KPIs allows media companies to define their own “North Star” of engagement and to refocus on what reader value is, and what users will be willing to pay for.