Engagement Publishing

The challenge of audience engagement: Publishers experiment with “6 user needs” and other strategies

Audience engagement is the holy grail of publishing, and leading publishers continue to experiment in the area. From The Financial Times’ experiment with gamification to The Economist’s community building efforts on Instagram, publishers want users to keep coming in, interact with their content and go on to become loyal, paying consumers.

According to Kate Lewis, Chief Content Officer at Hearst Magazines, everything boils down to audience engagement. It’s up to brands to figure out how best to keep the audience coming back as technology continually changes the way consumers interact with content creators. “Brands evolve based on generations and trends, and the measure of good, and as the caretakers of the brands we’ll push them to be relevant and worth engaging with,” she says.

“Audience-focused editorial strategy”

At its core, it’s about being aware of your audience’s expectations and needs, said BBC’s Digital Development Editor, Dmitry Shishkin, in his recent talk at the Google News Innovation Forum. He explained that the BBC’s study of its audience behavior around the world had identified six specific needs. They are: update me, give me perspective, educate me, keep me on trend, amuse me and inspire me.

Shishkin added, “The majority of newsrooms still think that ‘update me’ is the most important need, but through data, we have seen if you start addressing the other needs on a regular basis, you grow.”

He talked about an internal case study in which it was found that BBC Russia was producing 70% of ‘update me’ stories although they were only bringing 7% of page views.

Shishkin claimed that the six user needs had revolutionized the way the BBC projected itself around the world, carving out niches in different countries, from Indonesia to Latin America. He was referring to the company’s biggest expansion since the 1940s, which it undertook last year. The BBC launched 12 new language services in Africa and Asia in just nine months, taking its reach to over 137 million people around the world.

According to Hannah Sarney, Head of Audience Engagement, the Financial Times, “Audience engagement involves creating an audience-focused editorial strategy in both our daily and special projects output. A rolling schedule of experiments is running at all times.”

A person without data is just another person with an opinion.

Dmitry Shishkin, Digital Development Editor, BBC

Both the BBC and FT newsrooms rely heavily on data to direct their audience engagement projects. Shishkin writes in his editorial for LinkedIn, “Working with data within editorial environment gives you a great opportunity to drive change more engagingly and effectively, especially when facing pushback or when trying to enable change without direct authority.”

The BBC News uses an internal audience engagement tool called Telescope. It collects both historical and live data that content creators might need about a single site, section or article. The BBC staff uses Telescope to review how their published articles have performed in search or social. FT’s journalists and editors use a similar in-house analytics tool called Lantern that keeps them informed about audience behavior.

“Vital to work across boundaries”

The FT’s engagement team has experts in data, social media, SEO, community, and curation working together. It also collaborates closely with other departments.

We work very closely with other teams around editorial and the wider company. A concerted effort is made to bring stakeholders together from the newsroom, product, analytics, marketing, and events.

Hannah Sarney, Head of Audience Engagement, the Financial Times

This approach has led to direct product action. In an interview with WAN-INFRA, Sarney talked about a recent instance where this happened. The FT audience engagement team had been working on its daily email newsletter, Due Diligence (DD), for premium subscribers. They received feedback from the London DD team leader, that readers were struggling to find DD in the app. This feedback was passed on to the app team who added the component to the FT app. This update led to a whopping 353.63% increase in the amount of Due Diligence briefing views in the app, taking the overall newsletter views up by 55.56%.

The BBC has a unit called BBC Newslabs, that has people from different disciplines working together. According to Shishkin, “It’s vital to work across boundaries and it’s crucial that your senior editorial and product leaders allow your organization to invest on projects some of which might not survive, but some will. Your organization will definitely be wiser and better placed to succeed in the future – our hackathons in Africa not only resulted in the release of Africa-built audience-facing products but also gave BBC the confidence to integrate local tech companies into a regular product roadmap delivery, that is revolutionary.”

The key lies in finding the balance between what the audience expects from a publisher based on its legacy and pronounced expertise, and how well it can serve the evolving needs of its readers. For example, the strength of BBC’s unique position in most of its markets is that it makes sense of what’s happening, it connects the dots, explains things, and its audience responds positively to that approach. So when facing a choice of stories or angles to cover, the organization stays true to its core values.

Our approach is driven by our audience. What do they want from us, brand-by-brand, on every platform where we deliver content. We create and design content differently depending on the platform. And, of course, print is a huge platform for us. It’s where this all started! So, the thinking first will always be: ‘What does the audience want from us in this encounter?’ And yes, that is always evolving.

Kate Lewis, Chief Content Officer, Hearst Magazines

Audience engagement is an ongoing process of learning and implementation, of experimentation. Some of these experiments may end up in failure, while others may achieve varying degrees of success. But continuous experimentation is critical because audiences today are spoilt for choice, and publishers that are unable to figure out their audience’s needs risk getting lost, or worse.


Download WNIP’s new Media Moments 2018 report, which dives deeper into this year’s developments in publishing, and looks at what opportunities 2019 could usher in. The report is free and can be downloaded here.

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