Audience engagement: A key metric for publishers and new ways to improve it

Innovative ideas and prototypes on how to change the way newsrooms deal with the definition and improvement of their “audience engagement,” developed during the Mic Editors Lab.

How can we better understand and expand communities? The goal was set for the hackathon teams to prototype tools to better listen, understand and connect with specific audiences. Perhaps by seeking to engage with those left out of mainstream coverage; maybe by finding a way to break through the filter bubble and engaging audiences across ideological lines?

Let’s find out what the twelve New York teams (CUNY Journalism School/NYU, Fast Company, The Guardian, Montclair State University, National Geographic, NBC News, The New Yorker, ProPublica, Vocativ, The Washington Post, and two teams from our host Mic) worked on during this journalism hackathon, part of the Global Editors Network’s Editors Lab programme, which took place on the 5th and 6th May of 2017.

The Global Editors Network Editors Lab programme is a worldwide series of hackathons bringing together developers, journalists and designers from top newsrooms to build news prototypes during an intensive two-day competition:

Some perspective on audience engagement

Workshop with Andrew Haeg, Founder & CEO of GroundSource

“Engagement can be defined as a change of behaviour in the reader”, that’s how Andrew Haeg, CEO and Founder or GroundSource, opened his workshop on the theme of how to get an audience to engage better with the stories, how to interact more efficiently.

“You need to frame engagement so people understand your intentions: Blank canvases are very intimidating.”
“If you want meaningful participation, you need to intrigue your audience first before asking for more. You need to lower the barrier of engagement.”

Building and engaging passionate audiences, a workshop with Cory Haik, Publisher of Mic

Some of the new content brands launched in March 2017 by Mic

Mic’s publisher and GEN’s board member Cory Haik talked at the last GEN Summit about how had the ambition to become The New York Times for a young audience. An important step into this goal happened last March when Mic rolled out nine media brands or verticals, focused on different topics like personal finances, video games, pop culture or women’s issues.

Mic is also investing a lot of efforts into audience engagement through the use of platforms and especially social videos for Mic’s main channel, but also for the new vertical, targeting specific interest groups or communities.

Haik insisted on the fact that “each platform is nuanced, specific” and that editors should not port content from a platform to another: “You have to create authentic content for each platform.” She added: “It’s pretty luxurious to have an editor for each platform, and it performs better this way.”

“How to measure success on platforms? Growth, quality, impact, original reporting that get cited. And there’s of course a revenue aspect too.”

Haik insisted on Mic’s points of view being one of their main core differentiation feature. Opinions on Mic, while driving engagement up, also serves the journalists writing them: “How important is a billion views compared to the feeling of doing the kind of journalism that we’re proud of?” she added.

How metrics can tie into audience engagement, a workshop with Mike Sukmanowsky‏, VP of Product,

“Behavioural data can give amazing signals” explained Mike Sukmanowsky, VP of product at the social analytics firm, to the Editors Lab participants. “You can have many visitors with a low engagement, and you can have a few visitors with a high engagement, especially if your content matters to small communities or interest groups.”

Sukmanowsky mentioned how the traditional bounce rate can mean different things, depending on how you define the bounce itself. He explained: “If a reader stays 5 seconds on page you can call it a bounce. But what if this person stays 45 seconds? Even if the person does not read the whole article, it’s a visit that counts and needs to be acknowledge.” He added: “ A read completion rate, this can be far more interesting.”

Addressing a room full of innovative minds in the media industry, ready to work on a hackathon prototype, Sukmanowsky talked about the notion of the loyalty funnel, and asked some questions that surely inspired most of the participants:

“The highly engaged visitors send the newsroom a signal about what content makes the greatest impact. What can be developed that reward this behaviour? Which stories converted people? What is the stickiness of your page to someone who’s completely new to your brand?”

Audience engagement tips in a nutshell

  • Calls for interactions have to be guided: blank canvas get intimidating for users and readers
  • Put the audience first, listen to the communities
  • Don’t port content over: Create authentic content for each platform
  • Opinions and points of view should not be overlooked
  • Choose which signals to listen to: “stickiness” of content, impact, growth, can sometimes make more sense than bounce rates and views.
Team from Vocativ hard at work, enjoying the view from Mic’s headquarters

What ideas did the hackathon teams come up with?

After two days of brainstorms, collaboration, design decisions, coffee, and polishing touches, the teams had to pitch their prototypes (list below) to the a jury of experts composed of Masuma Ahuja from CNN, Mike Sukmanowsky from, Nasr ul Hadi from ICFJ Knight, Nikhil Kanekal, and Sarah Toporoff from GEN.

  1. National Geographic’s team built a widget for a “count-up” paywall that progressively rewards users with content based on their engagement patterns.—LINK
  2. Mic (team 1): thought of an on-site feature that lets users switch, grade, and write their own headlines. — LINK
  3. Mic (team 2): worked on an embeddable widget chat-bot tool that connects readers with journalists.—LINK
  4. NBC News - NUSA’s team built a responsive widget that brings audience engagement to the homepage of any website.—LINK
  5. Team Guardian US built an article-level widget where engaged readers can ask questions to the content creators.—LINK
  6. The team from the Washington Post worked on a tool that allows readers to customise the type of articles they see in their news feed.—LINK
  7. ProPublica team’s project: A tool visualising where readers are in the story, allowing them to comment inline with prompted questions.—LINK
  8. The team from CUNY J-School & NYU developed a tool to annotate a published story with insights from their reporting.—LINK
  9. Montclair State University worked on a website which seeks to aggregate news content based on location/trending topics.—LINK
  10. Vocativ team’s idea: A text-to-audio tool called Feed Me that can read articles out loud while people are busy doing other things.—LINK
  11. The New Yorker’s team worked on an embedded module on stories that presents links to related news from the reader’s area. — LINK
  12. Fast Company’s team worked on an tool that lets readers react to the Fast Company news stream with emojis.—LINK

Which team got the ticket to compete at the GEN Summit Editors Lab Final?

The jury chose the team from National Geographic as the winner of the Mic Editors Lab.

The paywall, reimagined for boosting readers’ engagement

Their prototype, Counting Up, aimed at reimagining the paywall for media organisations, progressively rewarding users with free-to-access content based on their engagement patterns. Quality article completions, video completions, and social/community engagement, are measured by a widget following the user throughout the site. The reader’s behaviour can then unlock a premium access for a certain period of time. For publishers, this innovative solution can increase the overall reach and engagement beyond what paywalls would normally produce.

The National Geographic team was composed of Michael Greshko (science reporter), C.Y. Park (creative developer), and Scott Burkhard (UX designer). They won a free trip to Vienna, Austria, to attend the Editors Lab season 2016/2017 Finals and, of course, the GEN Summit 2017.

Scott Burkhard (UX designer):

“Our overall idea was ‘how can we increase user engagement by flipping around the paywall?’ So far, the paywall has not really worked with us to increase the size of our audience, to get new users. So, our thought was: ‘what can we do to just get more engagement from users that we already have?’”

Michael Greshko (science reporter):

“How can we create and drive meaningful conversation and engagement the work that we do in a way that is financially sustainable? The kind of journalism that fosters conversation and community costs money. Traditional metered paywalls, by design, cut off conversation. We asked ourselves if instead there was a way to incentivise people to become more loyal and to join us in that conversation.
One of our key editorial focuses at National Geographic, and part of our mission, is exploration, and going deep on something, so if we can create a paywall strategy that mirrors that and directly informs it, that can only raises the stakes for our content and it makes our community more engaged and vibrant as a result.”

C.Y. Park (creative developer):

“There are a lot of people who can’t afford premium content and I love the idea of giving them an opportunity to access premium content, and get as much knowledge as people who can afford an annual subscription.”
Alejandro Alba & Tara Jacoby (Vocativ), Scott Burkhard & C.Y. Park (National Geographic), Michael Greshko (National Geographic), Kara Haupt & Susannah Kemple (The New Yorker)

To understand what made National Geographic’s prototype the overall best project developed during the two-day hackathon, we asked the jury members what made the difference.

Nasr ul Hadi, ICFJ-Knight:

“Out of all the projects, a few stood out because they picked just one problem to solve and they were razor-focused on it. Others wanted to do too many things at the same time. That was one part of it. Second part of it was how elegant the winner’s execution of the paywall. Also, it creates a byproduct: Through their process, even if you don’t have more people actually converting to paywall users, you will turn a lot more people from this ‘fly-by traffic’ to actually registered users. It is useful because you can measure a lot more about audience preferences, etc.
On sites like the Harvard Business Review, or the New York Times, I see the article counter all the time, so I’m always looking for the hack that will allow me to go across the paywall: These guys gave us that.”

Nikhil Kanekal:

“As a publisher, I think what stood with the National Geographic prototype out was the fact that they used a technique that has not been tried much in the news industry; their prototype is based on loyalty, and we often see this online: various websites, review platforms, credits cards…, places where you get boosted up when you get consistant. So we thought ‘this proof of concept works’ and I feel in this age of disruption that the media has been facing for the last 10 or 15 years, it’s important to try new stuff in the business model. I feel this way of engaging audiences was novel.
The jury was not unanimous, it was a very tough choice, but it is a simple idea, straight forward, Original in the sense that it is an idea that comes from another idea, and it can work. It’s versatile, anybody can use it, The New Yorker can use this model, Mic can use it: That really made a difference.”

Special mentions were awarded to the team from Vocativ (for Feed Me), and to the team from The New Yorker (for Regina). The prototype from National Geographic also received the most Public Choice votes.

The 2017 National Geographic Editors Lab team: C.Y. Park (creative developer), Scott Burkhard (UX designer), Michael Greshko (science reporter)

The Mic Editors Lab was presented in partnership with Mic and we thank them for their partnership.