The days when news editors can rely solely on seat-of-the-pants instincts when choosing what topics and stories to publish is long gone. That worked in a take-it-or-leave-it, pre-digital media world, but the game has changed. More knowledge, more insight, and more regard for what the audience needs and wants is necessary.
Happily, digital also provides the tools, data, and other information needed to inform newsrooms and help incorporate audience desires into content strategies. Sometimes, this information shows our instincts are wrong.
But data alone isn’t the answer: Traditional journalistic values still must figure into decisions about content. In addition, it is essential to understand what readers and users want, their desires and ambitions, and, perhaps most importantly, what they are willing to pay for.
Where journalistic mission, audience knowledge and empathy, usage analytics, and financial impact meet, you have a “sweet spot” for any content strategy. Stories hit the sweet spot when they fulfill the organisation’s mission, score well with the analytics, satisfy a deep audience information need, and get people to pay for more.
But it takes some work to find them.
1. Market insight
When we talk about market insight, we are not talking about asking audiences what they want. Often, they don’t know. Or, they will tell you what they think you want to hear or what provides prestige and hide what actually attracts them.
Market insight means understanding how people think, what they feel, what fears they have, what drives them, and what motivates them. With these customer insights, you can deduce what kind of content responds to their needs much more accurately than asking them to rate your stories.
For example, if you discover that a significant part of your audience values information about personal health, or they are very career driven, then you can offer more stories about these topics.
But field research is often not the best way to determine what, specifically, they want in terms of health and career. You could find out through focus groups, but this is time-consuming, expensive and only considers the views of a small number of people. There is then the need to experiment and test, especially if you move into topics that are not a big part of your current offerings.
This is where digital kicks in.
Usage and user behaviour data and analytics have value. This “post-mortem” data, gathered after the story appears, tells you what people looked at, how much they consumed, and for how long. This knowledge can inform your decisions on other stories to publish. This not only tells you what content is popular, but also what you can leave out — the stories that have little or no traffic, have very short reading times, don’t convert, or are not read by many subscribers.
But you cannot rely on this alone: There is always the possibility that you’ve created a self-fulfilling prophecy. If you offer more of something and place it prominently on the site or in the app, people will consume more simply because it is there. One example is the so-called and often demonised listicles. Listicles are easy-to-read, offer added value, and, therefore, popular. But a dangerous reflex would be to overdo it.
3. Journalistic mission
The third dimension, never to be forgotten or diminished, is your mission and how you define your brand. You don’t only provide what you think your audience wants (or needs) but also what you are convinced is important. These are not only the things that are driven by data or audience research. Your audience may not necessarily seek them out, so it is important to put it right in front of them, even on page 1, when you are convinced this is very important.
An example: A very popular regional newspaper in Europe once published an eight-page special about a “high-brow” book author of that country. It was quite niche and not really appealing to a majority of the readers, but the editor-in-chief decided it was important for the brand to get it in front of their readers.
These types of stories can surprise people and widen their horizons … if they decide to engage. This is, of course, old school judgment of the newsroom team. This knowledge and experience is a core capability of any good editorial operation.
4. Paid content potential
The fourth area, and in the midst of digital transformation very important, is content that could have a financial impact. That is, stories generating new audiences or engaging existing audiences, who are willing to pay for the privilege of accessing them. Or, stories generating sufficient reach to pay into the digital advertising bucket as well as fill the audience acquisition funnel.
Ideally, these stories emerge from those that satisfy the other three criteria: Stories based on customer insight and journalistic value and that are confirmed as relevant by data and analytics. If that happens, the sweet spot is met.
To find this sweet spot is the goal, but it is not realistic to think every piece of content will fit into it. Both art and science are involved. You might have stories that are important for the journalistic mission and receive a lot of traffic, but your audience insight would not have predicted or supported it. Or, you might have popular stories that don’t support the journalistic mission.
These are the typical “click-bait” stories. You have to be careful with these, as stories that don’t fit the mission (and can be found elsewhere) can dilute your value proposition.
It isn’t easy to find the sweet spot. But overall, it is always important to seek stories that fulfill those four criteria, or at least two of them. The bigger the overlap, obviously the better. Thinking about content in this way is likely to produce content that is desired, generates traffic and subscriptions, and satisfies readers as well as fulfilling the traditional role of serving your community.