Ryan Singel
Co-founder, Contextly @rsingel

What Buzzfeed, Medium and Adafruit Know About Engagement

Engagement is the new hot buzzword in publishing. There’s lots of talk from industry watchers and thinkers about concentrating on attention minutes or building a loyal audience.

Unfortunately, there’s very little engagement building actually happening in publishing. Many publishers are still chasing page views and cheap clicks. They continue to obsess over monthly uniques, even if they are crap visitors who show up from Facebook once due to a viral post and never visit the site again.

Publishers fret over Facebook’s algorithm changes and are watching, with trepidation, as Twitter slowly starts to slide towards a feed that looks more and more like Facebook’s.

Legacy general interest publications and newspapers with cost structures from the print era are being hit the hardest. They face the threat of extinction. You need only to read the financial news about Newsweek and Time and USA Today to see this.

Their troubles are myriad. They have no voice. They have no community or don’t know what it is. Their audience is general, in a world where general isn’t needed.

But not all publishers are doomed.

The very visible publishers that are winning in the engagement environment are doing two things correctly.

One, each knows who their community is, and they feed those communities’ needs.

And two, these publishers have invested heavily in tech, innovation and data analysis: Vox, The Verge, Buzzfeed, The New York Times, Medium, The Washington Post, Bleacher Report, Upworthy and Vice. (One thing you’ll notice about all of those winners: not one of them uses Outbrain, Taboola, and the other bottom feeder arbitragers like Ad.Content and nRelate, etc.)

These are the winners in the general interest category, which is increasingly going to be hard to win in as news becomes a commodity, sites with voices and a stance build a community, and aggregation sites siphon the juice from larger organizations that do real reporting without knowing their audience.

The other winners are less obvious, unless you are looking closely.

One of our favorite publishers is Adafruit. (Full disclosure: They are a Contextly client.)

Adafruit is a young manufacturing company based in New York City that sells DIY electronics components to a new generation of makers. They have 50+ employees, making and selling programmable electronics to customers who make LED jewelry or kitchen drawers that open with a secret knock.

Adafruit publishes about 100 blog posts a week. Every employee contributes to their blog. The founder Limor Fried hosts a weekly hangout called Ask an Engineer to talk about what their community is building and to help their customers build cool stuff. The company’s CEO Phillip Torrone describes Adafruit as a “publication that happens to sell electronics.”

They are constantly innovating, not just with products, but with their publishing.

They now have a different theme day — Fridays, for example, are Raspberry Pi day, and the content for the day centers on that theme and what people, including their readers, have built. They’ve got a vibrant Google+ community, and encourage readers to share what they are building — which has led some volunteer sharers to eventually get hired.

But, it’s not just niche publishers who are thinking about their community.

Buzzfeed — whether you love it, hate it or love-hate it — has done an extraordinary job thinking deeply about their audience and figuring out how to feed their audiences’ need while simultaneously furthering Buzzfeed’s growth. Buzzfeed’s listicles, quizzes, and gif stories are all built around trying to figure out new ways to entertain and inform their audience. They think digital first — and aren’t stuck on a model of replicating what worked in print.

Take for example, the annual running of the interns story. This tells a behind-the-scenes media story of how big media organizations deal with the Supreme Court’s archaic process of releasing opinions in paper form. It’s a hilarious and informative new story format.

And when something like that works, Buzzfeed tries to understand it and figure out how to systematize it by building those insights into their tech stack.

Here’s Buzzfeed founder Jonah Peretti explaining that process to Felix Salmon in a monster interview in Medium.

“When we have something that’s a hit, usually our response is not, let’s do more of those. Our response is, let’s figure why this is a hit and make variations of this. This was successful because it was tied to someone’s identity, it was successful because it had cats in it, or it was successful because it had humor, or it was successful because it tapped into nostalgia. If you’re making entertainment content, which is a big part of what we do, you look at that hit and you say, ‘Why was that successful? Can I do it again? Can I make something else that people really love and want to share?’ And you try to vary it, even though you know doing something derivative would work. Long term, you want to have a deeper understanding of how to make great things. That’s really the focus. That comes from people in a room talking and saying, ‘Oh, let’s try this, let’s try that.’ And valuing people doing new things, not just valuing people doing big things.”

Medium is another media company that’s thinking about engagement. Focused on essay-like content presented in a very clean reading environment, Medium puts the reader experience first. Writers on the platform see more than just pageviews — more importantly, they see read minutes.

Here’s a very simple thing that Medium thinks about that many sites don’t. When a reader gets to an end of a story, what do they see and what do you want them to see? Many sites show a long bio of the author. Others show a list of tags and categories. Is that what a reader is interested in?

Likely no. Maybe they want an easy way to dive into the comments and see a comment that editors promoted. That’s what Ars Technica does.

Other sites lead with their share buttons. Others go with content recommendations, assuming readers want to dive deeply or find other interesting stories. The BBC has links to other sites’ stories on the same topic. These are all valid ways to think about what a reader wants. But a long author bio isn’t one of those. That’s just a way of jamming in something the publisher thinks needs to be somewhere, without thought to the reader experience.

Find another place to put that bio.

There’s one lesson that many online sites have yet to fully grasp from the time when newspapers held a de facto monopoly on distribution and the means of information for a community.

These publications strove to act as the central hub of information for that community: with wedding announcements, crosswords, event listings, movie critics, local business news, and high school sports scores (even if, it turns out, that they weren’t able to do that in the digital world where communities are much narrower).

These days readers’ attention can go anywhere they like to get the news and entertainment that’s useful to them. There’s no monopoly on their attention in the morning, like there used to be when newspapers on the doorstep had no competition.

We live in a world where many sites try to get attention anyway they can: jumping on the trending hashtag of the hour; writing click-bait headlines and re-writing other sites’ work, often with the slimmest of attribution and no fact-checking.

But that race ignores the real question facing these sites, how do you convince people with choice to return to your publication?

Legacy media companies that don’t know how to innovate, that harbor institutional resentment against the loss of their monopoly and don’t understand their communities, these will pass away or fade into obscurity.

The ones that will thrive will be those who think about how to serve their audience; that understand what brings people to a site and what gets them to return; and perhaps most importantly, what gets them to be a loyalist.

Engagement isn’t a trick, and it’s no longer guaranteed. Instead, it must be earned with a publication-wide dedication to and mindset of serving readers.

Ryan Singel is co-founder of Contextly, a service that helps publishers increase readership through related content recommendations. Ryan started writing for Wired.com in 2002, after spending three years working for search startups in the DotCom boom. An online journalist from the start, he’s always been on the digital side of barricades in the media revolution. His beats for Wired.com have included privacy, security, search, social networking, tech policy and startups. He also co-founded the award winning Threat Level blog.

Next: Social Journalism: A Movement Whose Time Has Come by Mark Little, founder, Storyful

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