Digital Publishing Reader Revenue
8 mins read

10 things 2020 taught us about online publishing

It’s been a tough, eventful and transformational year, for many reasons. But it certainly wasn’t all bad: there was much to be learned from looking at readers’ behaviour and how newsrooms and their audience responded to this year’s events. Here are our key learnings for online journalism and publishing in 2020.

  1. People are interested in current events, but not all the time
    Readers expect a balance of stories – share important, breaking news, but don’t neglect other topics.
  2. News has more functions than just updating
    Different people need different things from news, and creating diverse content helps build a loyal audience.
  3. Loyalty is an increasingly important metric
    Loyal readers consume more content, visit often and are more likely to pay for your content.
  4. Trust is more valuable than pageviews
    If you still think clickbait is still a great strategy to get more traffic, be prepared to be distrusted.
  5. Crises affect people’s news consumption – in both good and bad ways
    The pandemic led to spikes in traffic and new subscriptions, but also caused unpredictable and unreliable behaviour.
  6. When search is high, loyalty is low
    In their hunger for the latest info, many people bypass their regular news outlet and go straight to search.
  7. Don’t create ‘orphans’ if you want your readers to be engaged
    Create follow-ups to the story to maintain your readers’ attention with additional facts and information.
  8. Know yourself before you know your audience
    Not knowing what type of content and readers fit your brand will make it hard to build a loyal audience.
  9. Your readers’ biorhythm matters
    Are you posting when your readers are online? Make sure you have something new for them when they’re looking for it
  10. You should have an omnichannel strategy, and it should be a good one
    The more channels you use, the more chances you have to connect with your audience. Just remember that not all content belongs everywhere.

1. People are interested in current events, but not all the time

Can you guess what topic dominated the charts for this past year? Corona pushed Sports off its pedestal as the number one most written and read about topic. What’s interesting though, is that similar to last year, Arts and Entertainment comes in at number two. This indicates that the respite from the hard and heavy news that entertainment offers, is valued highly by audiences. The importance of this can not be overstated. Coming in third is Economy and Business, which can also be explained by the uncertainty and hardships brought on by the pandemic. But, it’s followed closely by Sports, which, like entertainment, matters to readers’ mental health.

Don’t allow your newsroom and audience to drown in the topic at hand. There’s other news out there, and it’s just as important and interesting. Your readers expect a balance of stories.

2. News has more functions that just updating

As we immersed ourselves in the ‘user needs’ theory, we were pleased to find some of the insights from our own data studies confirmed here. In the rush to update, publishers may lose focus on their audience’s needs and habits. But it’s important to balance out bad and good news, heavy and lighter subjects. This correlates to the user needs theory: make sure you inform, but don’t forget to educate, divert, inspire and give perspective as well.

There’s more than one way to tell a story, so ask yourself what your brand can do that’s different, interesting or more informative than a simple news update. Give people what they want, as well as what they need. Like we saw above, ‘Divert me’ is really important in times of crisis, but all the user needs are valuable in their own right.

3. Loyalty is an increasingly important metric

Loyalty was pretty important this year, as many news outlets could no longer simply rely on pageviews but had to attract paying subscribers as well. We expect it will only grow in importance, as connecting to your audience becomes the main goal for newsrooms. With the saturation in the news market, instead of trying to reach new readers, it’s more useful to connect to and retain existing ones. They are valuable, so invest in them! Loyal readers make up your core audience; they read more, they visit often and they are more likely to subscribe.

Focus on loyalty: what does your loyal audience like, what do they do with your content and is your most popular content in line with your brand identity? How do loyal readers interact with your content and what can you do to stimulate their behaviour? Do more of that, and you’ll benefit from the effort. Don’t be discouraged – on average, loyal readers make up only 3.8% of a readership. But they are worth investing in, that’s a promise!

4. Trust is more valuable than pageviews

Over the years, trust in news has continued to drop and unfortunately, the pandemic hasn’t helped. Events as influential and significant as this will always create division, mistrust and even aversion against the sources bringing all the bad news. People will always be biased towards certain news outlets because of personal, political or cultural preferences. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t care about what people think of you. Not if you want to be sustainable. Because as we saw before, you need loyal readers who want to pay for your news, and trust is a prerequisite of loyalty.

Be honest and transparent: don’t create clickbait simply to get more pageviews, but stick to your values and brand identity. Listen to your reader and understand what pushes their trust buttons. And ask yourself: do you have enough insights to service those who are already loyal to you?

5. Crises affect people’s news consumption – in both good and bad ways

A crisis will inevitably make people hungry for information, as we saw at the beginning of this year. In March, when the virus first got hold of Europe, we saw enormous spikes in news consumption. To stay updated on the latest news, many people subscribed – but how many of those new subscribers will stay after the crisis has passed? Over the summer, we already noticed a drop in traffic and a change in reader behaviour. Uncertainty makes readers highly unpredictable, requiring the newsroom to continuously analyse and adjust. The pandemic made for a loyal readership in some cases, but honestly, most readers just consumed whatever news they could find.

In times of crisis, people don’t sit around waiting for their go-to news outlet to tell them everything they need to know. They’ll search for it themselves. Which brings us to the next point…

6. When search is high, loyalty is low

When something big happens, search is the most common content discovery method. People want to know everything and they want it now, taking information from any source they can get it from. And that may lead your readers away from you to other brands, who are quicker, more elaborate or original or thorough in providing information. On the other hand, there’s opportunity here to grow your readerbase through search engines as well. People don’t usually search for ‘hard’ news, unless it’s breaking news. Then they’re just looking for the latest information and aren’t loyal at all. But, you could transform this news, through the user needs model, into something that people could be searching for. This could turn an act of disloyalty (search) into a new connection (engagement with your stories).

What’s important to note here is that not all search behaviour is bad, and that, with the right stories, these visitors could become loyal. Ask yourself: what can you do to keep the visitors on your platform and engage them for longer? Can you maybe produce a special themed series that will keep people coming back for more? Be sure to invest in SEO to attract them to you.

7. Don’t create ‘orphans’ if you want your readers to be engaged

An ‘orphan’, in our definition, is a standalone, single story about a news fact. Its story begins and ends with the news update. We believe it’s much more valuable to create a bigger story around the story. That’s why follow-ups are important. A push notification or breaking news story will attract people to your website, yes, but they will leave right away unless there is more to read about the news. Respond to the needs of a diverse audience and see how you can engage your visitors longer.

The user needs are a valuable tool here, because it helps to create different perspectives to the same story. Can you provide some background for the event, what are people’s reactions to it, how will it influence them? Make the most of that push notification and extend your engagement time with loyalty-generating content.

8. Know yourself before you know your audience

Newsrooms need to understand how their brand identity and audience intersect. It helps you crystallise your brand identity, so you know what you can offer that the competition doesn’t. Stay true to yourself and determine who your target audience is. Don’t blindly follow high numbers of clicks and pageviews. Yes, there may be an audience for those stories, but do they belong with your brand? You may lose some readers as you hone your identity but that’s okay. The ones that stick around match with your mission, and are more likely to become loyal readers for years to come.

9. Your readers’ biorhythm matters

Are you active and present online when your audience is? Your audience’s rhythm is probably different from your publication planning, so there’s much to be won here. After all, if you’re not posting but another brand is, they will be more visible. The pandemic changed our reading habits at first, and then a couple months later it changed again, proving that a publication schedule is not a one-size-fits-all. Always keep an eye on what your audience is doing, when and how they are engaging with your content and adjust accordingly. Topics have their own patterns and that’s all to do with your audience’s biorhythm – when do they want to read about what? To get the most results from your content, try postponing a publication until the next morning, or, take one story, create 3 formats and serve them on different channels at different times. Smartocto’s Impact Radar can show you if you’re on the right track.

10. You need an omnichannel strategy, and it should be a good one

Not all content belongs everywhere. There are formats that perform well on each separate channel, be they social media or your own platforms. For example, we’ve seen that video is becoming more and more important and it can serve as a great distinguishing factor versus the competition, but the same video will not work equally well on all channels.

Build your audience where they are and where you want to reach them with content specifically catered to them. Create content specifically for each channel. You could post longer videos and livestreams on YouTube or your website, and snippets on Facebook or Twitter.

The more channels you are active on, the more chance you’ll have of connecting with new and existing audiences. Determine the purpose of the channel strategy: what do you want to achieve on each channel, are they equally important and should they guide readers to your own platform? Most (social) channels don’t like posts with urls that lead users away from their domain.

There’s a subtle game here that starts with defining your channel strategy and what you would consider to be success on these channels. Your content, timing, formats should be in line with that!

by Jacqueline Woudstra

Republished with kind permission of smartocto, the world’s most actionable editorial analytics system offering a bird’s-eye view on The Story Life Cycle©.