Digital Journalism Trends in 2016: Why audience engagement holds the key to a thriving future

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100k people read articles about how to cook a turkey on Trinity Mirror’s regional news sites. Listening to what readers want and then delivering it will define strong newsrooms in 2016

Audience engagement is one of those phrases which makes a lot of eyes roll. ‘Just let us get on with the journalism’ is one response I’ve heard a few times.

It’s an understandable response, but if there is one thing which is going to determine the winners from the losers in the brand race to be relevant online in 2016, it’s the ability to engage with audiences.

Journalism needs to take its cue from how audiences react and respond to what we do – and find ways to get the audience to engage with what we know they need to know.

It isn’t going to be enough to say ‘look, we’ve been here for 150 years, you know you can trust us.’ In many ways, digital pushed the reset button on the ability of publishers to call on their heritage as a reason for being, offering new publishers the chance to compete on an equal footing for the attention of readers.

But what does audience engagement mean?

And how will shape newsrooms that choose to pay attention to it?

A good starting point is a recent interview NewsWhip did with the BBC’s Ian Singleton, a former colleague of mine who now leads the BBC Sport social media output. 

New audiences, similar expectations

Match of the Day is a British institution which has successfully weathered the wall-to-wall live TV revolution of the 1990s and 2000s. It has a Facebook page which has seen referrals through the BBC digital platforms rise 6,000% in a year. How? By looking at how readers react to different styles of post, conducting audience research and then refining the style of posts even further.

To quote Singleton (and no matter how often I do it, referring to a friend when writing about them by their surname reads oddly):

The results backed our editorial intuition by showing the page’s fans, the majority of whom are aged 16-24, wanted the Match of the Day Facebook account to be knowledgeable, cheeky and irreverent, and mirror the tone of the TV presenting team during the lighter moments of our broadcasts. We began to change how we wrote posts but it was a work in progress. We looked deeply at our analytics to refine the style, execution and also guide when to post and how often.

This had a profound effect. In September 2014 we had 35,000 referrals a week from the page. In the equivalent week in September 2015, this figure was 3.7 million.

So I would argue here that Match of the Day, on our screens for more than 50 years, is now engaging with an audience more effectively than at any points in its history. Through social media, it has broken away from a once-a-week slot (although it now has four or five outings over a weekend through spin-off shows and repeats) to become a presence in the lives of football fans throughout the week.

That, to me, is a model for successful audience engagement. It involves putting interpretation of audience data – ie the thing which enables you to know how readers are responding to something – at the heart of what you do , and adapting ‘the journalism’ around it.

Asking what, and then delivering, what people want

A stat I shared with colleagues this morning was that during the run up to Christmas around 100k people found advice on how to cook a turkey from a regional website run by Trinity Mirror. Some would declare this to be proof that we’re chasing clickbait, but it doesn’t come at the expense of the bread-and-butter subjects we also cover. It’s a way of engaging with readers who know of our brands, but perhaps don’t feel it’s of use every day of the week. They certainly trusted us enough to click on our links for turkey recipes, however. 

So why is audience engagement so important in 2016? Because audience response is becoming ever more important to advertisers. It’s well documented that 2015 was the year when advertisers began putting more emphasis on viewability – the length of time an ad was visible for – rather than just number of times served. 2015 is also perhaps the year we will remember for the risk of the ad-blocker.

A cure for both – to some extent – is for publishers to produce engaging content which is memorable enough to keep people on websites for longer, and which is so good that they will whitelist that website in their adblocker to keep accessing it for free. If this sounds like wishful thinking, it’s a relief to note that’s the exact experience enjoyed by publisher Axel Springer in Germany which claims appealing to readers to whitelist ad blockers really works.

Finding the right metrics to judge success in the real world

A focus on audience engagement also has the ability to be the definitive cure for the clickbait argument too. Newsroom which focus solely on page view growth will inevitably find themselves pursuing stories they hope will go viral. Likewise, companies which set an at-all-costs daily unique user figure will also find themselves chasing content which runs the risk of damaging the integrity of that brand.

So metrics such as time spent per visit, pages viewed per visit, frequency of visit and, in the case of local publishers, focusing on content which is attracting local people, need to be as important to an editor when reviewing a day’s work as the basic unique user and page view metrics.

The newsroom which successfully manages audience engagement will also know how many streams videos received – but also the completion rate. It’s a little bit like a supermarket focusing only on the number of people coming through the front door, rather than the amount they spent once inside. Which metric is more likely to suggest the shopper will return?

Establishing the content which makes a material difference to the lives of readers is critical, and being able to note the real-world reaction of users takes us beyond a world of metrics recorded by Adobe and others. We used to judge response by the size of the letters to the editor post bag. Now surely the volume of sensible comments to an article should be a daily starting point.

American newsrooms are big fans of driving real-world engagement, be it through reporter meet ups with fans of the reporter’s subject (eg Indy cars) or leading serious debates on big local issues through Town Hall meetings. It’s possible to be huge online but invisible in the real world, and that’s why audience engagement matters so much.

A warm welcome every visit

This thought brings into play a whole manner of factors for newsrooms to contemplate in 2016. Perhaps the single biggest change driven by focusing on audience engagement is the time spent making a website look welcoming. This is something we try to put a lot of emphasis on in the newsrooms I work with, from constantly monitoring story order through to pushing for the same standards in digital article publishing as we’d expect from print news pages too.

But perhaps the biggest change in audience engagement in 2016 for newsrooms will be the prospect of wholesale engagement with the reader away from our platform entirely.

This should already be the norm for journalists, but in many cases sadly isn’t. Journalists who Tweet links aren’t making the most out of Twitter, those who share information and discuss with readers are. The same applies to Facebook, where even fewer journalists are successfully engaging with audiences.

Off-platform, on message

More widely for brands, third-party platforms have generally been a place to promote brands and drive traffic to websites. Facebook instant articles, for example, turns that on its head. As does Apple News, or the new Google News app. And the various others which may follow suit. Each will stand or fall on two things: The revenue opportunity for publishers and the audience response to each platform. The former will determine whether publishers want to jump on board, the latter will, in part, be down to how much effort publishers make on that platform, which in turn, will be determined by the former in the first place.

2016 will, without doubt, be the year newsrooms have to take audience engagement seriously, and place it right at the heart of newsroom decision making in a way never done before. Whether that audience engagement ends up taking place on or off the newsroom’s main website remains to be seen – but newsrooms everywhere need to be prepared to go where the audience is prepared to engage, and be prepared to engage on the readers’ terms, too.

Note: I was pleased to see the theme of April’s Online News Association conference in London will be audience engagement. It’s a huge area and one which deserves such attention.

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