I recently took an audience engagement course at the University of Florida, primarily because it sounded like an interesting elective but also because of two problems I have seen far too often in the newsrooms I have been in. Newsrooms have grown to resent their audience and many journalists don’t understand what happens to their content after they produce it. The fact of the matter is that both the audience and the output of content are extremely important factors in the success of a newsroom. After all, what are we without our audience?
There are a plethora of questions that newsrooms can be asking themselves when it comes to audience engagement. We can never be engaging enough with our audience. Depending on the audience and the content, the type and number of questions you ask can change. However, these are three overarching questions that any newsroom can ask itself in order to enhance their audience engagement.
How do we define engagement?
Before you can dive into enhancing audience engagement, you must define what engagement means to you. We tend to think of engagement as solely clicks and shares, but that’s not the case. It can mean anything, and there are no wrong answers. Usually, a newsroom’s definition of engagement will be influenced by its primary goals, whether that be to increase subscriptions or readership, to gain followers or to create conversation. If your primary goal is to increase readership or subscriptions, your engagement metrics might be site views or daily subscriptions. If the goal is to create conversation, you might track the number of comments on a post, the reach of the post, the number of shares, etc. Truth be told, different content can come with different goals, which means different engagement metrics (is your head spinning? Mine was). However, if a newsroom can set a few general goals for itself throughout a period of time—three months, six months, one year, etc.—it will become infinitely easier to set more specific goals and define engagement for any type of content.
What is content is our audience already engaging with and how can we make more of that?
It might seem obvious, but if your audience is organically engaging with a particular form of content, make more of it! In the news industry, it’s easy to focus our reporting on the latest breaking news. Words like timeliness and relevancy get tossed around daily. However, I think it’s safe to say that the most relevant content is the content that your audience wants to read/click/share. Let’s take a look back at primary goal setting. If your newsroom’s goal is to increase subscriptions, take a look at those metrics. For the months (or even days/weeks) where subscriptions spiked, look at the content produced. Was there anything different? Try to find a correlation between content and your desired goal. If you’ve dabbled in psychology, you’ve probably heard the saying “correlation doesn’t equal causation.” However, you’ll never know if the content caused the desired outcome until you try again. Strive to produce more of that content over a period of time (give it a few months to truly track) and see if it helps you meet your primary goal. If not, try something else!
How can our audience be involved with our stories before publication and how can our journalists be involved with their stories after publication?
Typically, journalists are deeply involved with their stories before publication, and then they release them into the world and move on to the next story. In the same vein, audiences are blind to the production of a story and only catch wind and become involved once the story is published. But what if every party was involved with content from beginning to end? It seems crazy, right? How can the audience be involved before the story is a thing? And why should journalists pay attention to their stories after they’re published?
Let’s start with the journalist side of the equation. Simply put: understanding how your story is packaged for social media and how audiences are engaging with your content will help you produce better content in the future. It goes back to giving the audience what the want but on a more individualized level. It also builds your audience’s trust and satisfaction by showing them you’re invested in what you produced. A few ways to do this:
- Respond to comments! Whether it’s a correction, a critique or an affirmation, respond to your audience. It shows you’re listening and you care.
- Ask your editors (or social media managers) how your content is performing with respect to the primary goals of the newsroom. Did it fit into a category that drove readership? Did it produce shares or create conversation? If not, why?
- Share your own content. Don’t be afraid to promote your work—and not just on your own social pages. Find other groups/pages/offline networks where people might be in the mood to engage with your content and post it there. Also, share the finished product with your sources. Nobody wants to share your work more than those who were involved in creating it!
Moving on to involving your audience in content production. Social media is a powerful tool not only for sharing content but also for finding it. The more your audience is involved with the creation of something, the more likely they are to engage with it when it’s published. Here are a few simply ways to do so:
- Call outs. Probably the most simple, obvious way to involve your audience in a story is to create call outs. Find a topic, and let your audience tell you what the story is. Your call out can be as simple as: “[insert publication] is looking into [insert topic] in the community. Have you experienced this? Tell us about it here.”
- Talk to your audience. Again, this may seem obvious, but it is often overlooked. Don’t just go to your audience when you need something. Sit in the local coffee shop and chat with residents, attend events without the goal of getting quotes, etc. The more you immerse yourself in the community, the more in tune you will be with what they want. They will also be more willing to help with it comes time for that quote!
Help! This is a lot.
Trust me, I know. Audience engagement is complex and extremely individualized based on the news outlet. Nothing is going to change over night, and nothing can happen without trial and error. Part of the fun (I think) is trying new ways of engaging with your audience and seeing what works! No harm can come from trying your best, and eventually you will find what works for your newsroom. Starting asking these questions with every story, and an audience-centered mindset will develop in no time.