Audience Engagement Digital Publishing Top Stories
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4 tips to supercharge audience growth, from Rolling Stone

Publisher insights from Rolling Stone UK’s Digital Director

As the fight for attention online intensifies, attracting and retaining audiences has become something that publishers are finding increasingly challenging. For Charlotte Cijffers, audience growth has become an area of expertise from her work with publications like Dazed, Attitude Magazine and more recently, the launch of Rolling Stone in the UK.

Although optimal growth strategies are brand-specific, Cijffers has noted a number of areas of focus that have produced results across the various publications she has worked for. She shared some of her top tips on an episode of the Media Voices podcast.

Making the most of archives

Archives are one of the most powerful, but also most neglected audience growth tools. Almost all publishers will have evergreen content – articles, videos and audio that don’t go out of date – that can be refreshed every now and again. This not only helps search rankings, but is also a useful way of bolstering content for a fraction of the cost of producing brand new pieces.

“Leveraging your archive correctly and effectively is definitely the key in terms of creating that steady, long-term groundswell of traffic to your sites,” emphasised Cijffers. “It also helps increase engagement with your audience and acquire new users when they visit your site for the first time.”

Content suitable for repurposing can be anything from ‘How to’ pieces to ‘Best of’ lists. But even more obviously ‘dated’ work can still benefit from a little TLC. Cijffers gave an example of fashion publications who often have archives of photography from models and celebrities, or even cover stories and interviews that still have value. 

“Young people are so highly referential, and they’re obsessed with the 90’s and 00’s,” she pointed out. “There’s a huge opportunity for [culture and fashion] publishers to continue to optimise and re-optimise that content to keep bringing in that groundswell of traffic.” 

Asking what your audience care about/research

Choosing the right topics for this is vital to ensuring evergreen success. “My number one growth tip is research,” Cijffers noted. “It sounds obvious, but how can you expect to attract and convert and retain an audience that you don’t know inside-out?”

In her time working at Dazed Media, Cijffers’ strategic work was focused on creating wells of easily discoverable content around certain topics they knew really mattered to their audience. They defined these by in-person surveys and research, as well as behavioural and heat mapping on the website.

“Once we identified these topics, these key evergreen themes then filtered down not just into our future commissioning structure, but also into our news cycle and the day-to-day as well,” she said. “It is really important to keep asking the question, what do people in your audience care about, and how can we create these rabbit holes of content that people can get lost down?”

Content suggestion algorithms

Good content that the audience cares about isn’t enough for consistent growth. Making the content as discoverable as possible once readers are on a website is also key. This is where content suggestion and recommendation comes into play.

Sites like YouTube are famed for their ‘rabbit hole’ strategy, with well-honed algorithms recommending videos that will keep viewers on the site for longer. Cijffers wanted to replicate this but for journalism, looking at how they can leverage not just the archives, but also news stories, images, galleries, listicles, video and audio.

“Any publisher should be looking at their content suggestion algorithms and tagging algorithms,” she emphasised. “Both of those things have always had a massive impact for me with every publisher I’ve ever worked at, both in terms of pages per session, and session duration as well.”

Content recommendation boxes are common on publisher sites. If supported by good tagging to ensure relevant pieces are surfaced, it can be a powerful tool for building loyalty. This is also where chumboxes – lower-quality, clickbait recommendations – may work well financially in the short term, but are actually more damaging not just reputationally, but in terms of longer-term audience building.

Backing this up with the tech

These strategies are all very well in theory. But the final tip is possibly the most important to ensure success: having it backed by the technology, both on the digital design and development side, and on the ad tech side. 

“It was quite an investment for certain publishers I’ve worked with to invest in looking at their content suggestion algorithms, for example,” Cijffers said. “But the results spoke for themselves.”

That’s not to say publishers should go adding on lots of extra bits of tech. Instead, it’s about having a thoughtful, considered approach to what is used and why. Most importantly, any changes need to take into consideration what’s best for the user, as well as what’s time-efficient for the staff.

This multi-pronged approach of leveraging archives, audience research and optimising content suggestions, backed by a good tech stack,  is sure to reap rewards for many publishers. But Cijffers had one last piece of advice to ensure success for audience growth.

“The curatorial power of journalists and editors should never be underestimated,” she said. “Journalism is fundamentally the engine of all these businesses, and sometimes we can lose sight of that in a sea of homogenous, branded content.”

In a world where everything is content, it’s really important that publishers actually strive not to lose the art form of storytelling, and that ultimately comes from our journalism staff.

Charlotte Cijffers spoke to the Media Voices Podcast about launching Rolling Stone in the UK, her work on Attitude Magazine’s digital transformation, and her advice for publishers looking to grow audiences online. Listen below, or search ‘Media Voices’ on your podcast app of choice. The interview starts at 15:00.