What We Mean When We Talk About “Engagement”

When uttered outside of journalism circles, the word “engagement” means something fairly specific involving rings, love, wedding bells, commitment, and the like.

But inside of the journalism industry, despite “engagement” being the word du jour, and despite a rise in newsroom jobs with “engagement” in the title, the industry can’t quite put its finger on what “engagement” truly means.

In July, the analytics platform Parse.ly released findings from a survey that gathered 130 journalism professionals’ take on audience engagement. The title of the piece sums it up: “Digital Publishers Can’t Agree on a Definition for Audience Engagement.”

As a company that focuses on meaningful audience engagement, we at Hearken have witnessed this fuzziness firsthand in conversations with 300+ newsrooms around the world.

The fact is engagement is a concept that is still evolving, rapidly for some shops and a glimmer in the eye of others. So we thought it’d be helpful to plant our stake in the ground on what we mean when we talk about engagement here at Hearken.

How we define it

Let’s start with what engagement isn’t.

If there’s no pathway for input from your audience to shape the content decisions your newsroom is making, then it’s not audience engagement.

A couple examples to elucidate what I mean:

  • A newsroom asks readers to comment on the bottom of a story, but no one in the newsroom with decision-making power sees them or takes the comments into account when planning future stories. (Substitute “bottom of a story” for anywhere comments happen: Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, etc.) This is not engagement — this is a tree falling in a forest with no one ostensibly around to hear it.
  • A newsroom sees one of their Facebook posts got hundreds of likes and shares, but no one with decision-making power in the newsroom sees that or takes the feedback into account when planning future stories. This is not engagement — this is distribution and marketing.

Which brings us to what engagement is:

Engagement happens when members of the public are responsive to newsrooms, and newsrooms are in turn responsive to members of the public.
It’s a feedback loop.

A litmus test your newsroom can use to know if there’s actual engagement going on (by our definition at least) is this question: What role does your audience play in your journalism?*

If there’s no meaningful answer, it’s likely there’s no meaningful engagement.

Data companies, of course, call lots of things engagement (time on site, scroll-depth, etc.), but to us, engagement is an achievement unlocked beyond pure consumption.

Put a ring on it

Back to the normal person’s definition of engagement, the one that has to do with romantic relationships: a promise for the future, a kind of mutual respect and partnership that is long-term and supportive. Here at Hearken, we see audience engagement in journalism as having a lot in common with all of that.

Engagement is a feedback loop, a circle, a ring … if you will.

To us, it’s not engagement until the circle is complete. But engagement can be even deeper, and get even better: When something changes in a newsroom’s decision-making (whether in the stories assigned, how reporting happens, or how other work is done because of this feedback), that’s where the newsroom can see the value of engagement. To demonstrate that value outside the newsroom, journalists need to show their community members that their input matters. Think of that value as the flashy gem sitting on top of that ring. It’s a tangible, powerful manifestation of that promise to have and to hold your community in high regard.

Measuring meaningful engagement can be hard to do: it’s not always as clear cut as a number, data analytics or price point. The fruits of this committed labor are often reaped over time, when the public keeps coming back for a newsroom’s work, when they think of the newsroom brand and get a rush of positive feelings, when they keep responding to the calls for engagement and enriching coverage with their support.

So if you like your audience members then you should put a ring on ’em. If you don’t, then you should read this.


If you’re looking to further explore this relationship between newsroom, journalist and members of the public, consider signing up for this free webinar called “Audience Engagement: What We Know and What We Don’t.” It’s happening on Thursday, Sept. 8 with Hearken community manager Julia Haslanger, Parse.ly CEO Sachin Kamdar and MediaShift Metrics editor Jason Alcorn.

*Hat tip to Andrew Losowsky from The Coral Project for the pointed question: What role does your audience play in your journalism? We heard him utter that sentence once and think it’s THE question to ask!

ADDITIONAL READING:

Analytics and Metrics: Related But Not The Same

Journalism, Media and Technology Predictions 2016

CIR Impact Tracker

Humans are losing the battle against Kardashian-loving algorithms for the soul of new media

Engaging News Project’s Survey of News Editors and Directors