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Which Audience Engagement Methods Work?

Photo by William Iven on Unsplash

Effectively engaging with audiences is key in keeping news media and journalism initiatives afloat. However, trust in the media is in decline, and it impacts engagement as well.

Journalism is facing a deep crisis of public trust. Some say it is more serious than the financial crisis that has clobbered news media over the course of the past decade. But the two, in fact, are deeply connected: subscriptions or various forms of memberships seem to be the only business models that work in this new era of journalism, and there is a close link between people’s decision to pay for news and the level of trust they have in the news product they buy and the people who make it. Thus, effectively engaging with audiences is key in keeping news media and journalism initiatives afloat.

The Reasons of Losing Trust

Few decades ago trust was not an issue, it was neither scarce, not needed in a large quantity”,

Ros Taylor, Research Manager of the Media Policy Project at the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE) says. But now fewer people trust the news, including their own news sources. According to the Digital News Report 2019 by Reuters Institute, trust in news in general is down to 42%.

This loss of trust is often driven by the belief that “mainstream media is biased”. Although far from being the only reason behind the loss of trust in traditional media, social media also spreads distrust, misinformation is also spreading, fact-checking is often impossible. But Ros Taylor lists many other reasons:

  • the unprecedented change in the way people consume news;
  • the boom in comments;
  • the fact that there is a dedicated channel for criticizing media (Twitter);
  • armchair experts who seek out explanations that suit them;
  • populism and polarization of societies.

Reflecting on Emile Durkheim’s theory, she thinks that anomie in society also contributes to this loss of trust: behavioral standards are often eroded, either because people don’t know them or because some deliberately want to push the boundaries as it gets attention for them.

It is a question who should take responsibility to tackle misinformation, and according to Ros Taylor, the answer lies within another question:

who do you trust more than media?

It is also important that there are various types of trust and the level of trust is not necessarily consistent with consumption patterns, as in many countries huge TV channels dominate news consumption, says Marius Dragomir, the Director of the Center for Media, Data and Society (CMDS), referring to CMDS’ various research projects. Often there are distorted views of how media work, which is a challenge also for subscription models, for example when people think “somebody else is already paying for my news”.

The Challenges of Audience Engagement

Knowing the reasons behind the loss of trust can lead to implementing more successful audience engagement methods, nevertheless, there are many challenges associated with impact and engagement as well. The first one, according to Lindsay Green-Barber, Founder & CEO of Impact Architects, is the lack of standards in defining what engagement is. She comes up with some general definitions:

  • Impact: any change in the status quo resulting from a direct intervention.
  • Engagement: an inclusive practice that prioritizes the information needs and wants of community members; it creates a collaborative space for the audience and is dedicated to building mutual trust.

To be clear about that is, of course, only the first step. Within media outlets, it should be decided whose job it is to pursue engagement operations, and after deciding about it, a plan should be crafted with

  • setting goals,
  • defining outcomes clearly,
  • being creative and intentional and
  • selecting appropriate methods.

According to Lindsay Green-Barber, only after going through these steps should outlets think about the tools.

Marius Dragomir lists many ways of effectively engaging audiences that proved to be successful in practice:

  • crowdsourcing,
  • offering services,
  • callout (asking audience for feedback on stories),
  • community events,
  • community training,
  • call to action (but there is a thin line that separates this from activism),
  • question solicitation,
  • Facebook groups.

According to Lindsay Green-Barber, the impact of the tools can and should be measured, for example through quantitative analysis, case studies, network analysis, content analysis or surveys. She also emphasizes that to be successful, outlets have to be clear about why they want to engage their audience, and she encourages them not to be afraid of trying new things.

How to Increase the Income?

The reason why new models are needed is that traditional models of funding are not working for local, smaller, independent media outlets. Nevertheless, engaging audiences can increase the income, as they will be more willing to pay for content. But to be able to achieve this, outlets need to find and build their community, says Davor Marko, Fellow at the Center for Media, Data and Society, who worked with the International Research & Exchanges Board (IREX) in Serbia to assist local media in developing and piloting different online fundraising models.

There are four basic models of online fundraising based on direct engagement: donation, membership, crowdfunding and subscription.

According to Davor Marko, outlets need to ensure that the money they receive from their audience is recurring. Therefore, donations are not the most effective, but they can still be useful. One aspect is key to successfully encourage the audience to donate to the outlet: its mission or brand needs to be recognizable.

Membership is an upgraded form of donations; the biggest difference is the length of commitment. The community doesn’t need to be big, but loyal and engaged. Different layers of support can be offered, which also provides the audience with a feeling of belonging. To fully ensure this, they also need to receive something extra.

Crowdfunding can also be effective, Davor Marko says, but only to fund specific campaigns, so, it works best if it is limited to a certain amount of time, and the amount of money the outlet wants to raise is specified.

The subscription model is usually the most sustainable one. However, it is suitable mostly for big publishers who offer premium content. There are several options of introducing a paywall: some outlets choose the softwall, which means that they give free access to certain amount of articles per month, while others choose the hardwall, so, readers have to pay for everything they want to access.

Nevertheless, Davor Marko emphasizes that

community building is a two-way process, it has a supply and a demand side”:

the audience also needs recognition and attention.

This article is based on the takeaways of the 2019 summer school of the Center for Media, Data and Society.



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