Audience Engagement Digital Publishing
5 mins read

Audience Development: The building blocks

How do you define Audience Development?

A lot of the discussion about what audience development is and where it fits within a modern publisher can be traced to a seminal article on Digiday from half a decade ago. It examined The New York Times’ (then) newly established audience development strategy. And while a lot has changed in the time that passed (5 years are the equivalent to 5 lifetimes in startup land), there are still a few kernels of truth that can be distilled and are still relevant. One quote by Alexandra MacCallum, then assistant managing editor for outreach at The Times, sums up audience development in eight words: “It isn’t chasing clicks; it’s making people loyal…” 

Initially I thought that audiences, visitors, and clicks are interchangeable terms. You too might be wondering what the difference is between the audience and clicks that she’s talking about. Clicks are “visitors,” they are passers-by. Marketing today requires you to build audiences, namely subscribers and loyal readers, not visitors; it’s the time spent on-page — not page views — that should be the focus.. Driving traffic to your content is the means, while building the audience is the end.

When you’re building an audience you usually want them to do something that contributes to your bottom line, such as purchase a subscription, buy a product through one of your affiliate links, or return frequently and consume a lot of content. That metric is what you’ll use as a guiding light to make sure you’re building the right audience. One of the big issues with audience development is that organizations are not always certain who should be in charge of it. Should it be under the editorial team? Marketing? Who’s KPIs should it serve? “The newsroom wants to maximize the reach and impact of its journalism, the sales side is rewarded for growing ad revenue… And then there is driving subscriptions and marketing other products…” 

It seems like most of these concerns can be answered by working towards a common KPI that is seen as a significant indicator for a valuable audience and can contribute to multiple business goals – the newsletter subscriber. In fact, a fifth of the marketers who attended our audience development webinar are using newsletter subscribers as their main goal.

Refinery29 says that newsletters drive 20% of site traffic. Vox Media reports that newsletter subscribers spend twice as much time on site. Wired says that newsletter subscribers are 7X more likely than other users to become paid subscribers. On top of that, The Times of London says paid subscribers who also receive newsletters are much less likely to let a subscription lapse.

How Audience Development Impacts the Bottom Line

Digital publishing’s focus is shifting towards core-audience optimization, as these audiences are responsible for the vast majority of a site’s revenue. Newspaper execs say that 2%-12% of users generate 50% of traffic, and 7% of monthly unique visitors drive 50% of the traffic on average, according to Piano. Developing these audiences is crucial. 

A well-planned and executed audience development program can help marketers meet various milestones, each contributing to their long-term plans. Here’s what you could expect from a successful campaign:

  • Get to know your audience. Do they tend to read more about certain topics? Habits provide actionable data about tastes and interests, which can be used to personalize the user’s journey and inform you on how to get them to convert at better rates. With Google planning to “kill the cookie” by 2022, this first-party data will be extremely valuable.
  • Get a bigger bang for your buck from the audience. Remember the 7% rule? A highly-engaged, owned, and loyal reader is more valuable than an unknown, rented visitor who passes through your site once. On top of turning casual audiences to loyalists, your campaign can be designed to convert your loyal audiences into evangelists.
  • Convert casual, loyal readers into paying users. Almost no one will pay for content if they aren’t familiar with it and trust who’s writing it. If you rely on reader revenue via subscriptions, affiliate links, events, or other initiatives, you must nurture the relationships first.
  • Diversify to other sustainable business models. With a consistent flow of readers, publishers don’t have to rely on the virality that once drove publisher revenue. Instead, they can continue to build and diversify their business on a more consistent foundation: an engaged audience. 

Audience Development Strategy – What Might It Look Like? 

There are infinite ways to run an audience development campaign. Since no one knows your site and audience better than you, it’s up to you to see what works and what doesn’t and plan accordingly. Our experience with hundreds of partners shows that successful campaigns share some traits:

  1. Collaboration – Talking with our partners, we realized that the ones who succeed over time are those who break down silos and foster internal communication between teams. Take a page from The Knot’s branded content studio, which brought together their sales development team and editorial team. Or from Complex’s audience development team, which takes a very broad view of audience development and participates in paid media, business intelligence, SEO, and creative efforts. They can learn which content supports the bottom line better (Do you see more purchases from product reviews? Are there more subscriptions from environmental content?) and share what audiences seem to be interested in at higher stages of the funnel. The editorial team would be able to create more similar pieces and make editorial decisions based on the email-signups, loyalty score, or any other metric that is used as the common goal, and the audience development team can incorporate more content that will likely lead to conversion into their tactics. 
  2. Put your money where your audience is – Make sure your habitual readers know new content is out and keep their habit going. Getting in front of your habitual audiences should be a fairly easy feat — you might even have their emails on file already — and maybe even segment them based on what they love to read and how you got their emails. But in order to get in front of new readers and start the journey to convert them to regular visitors, you might need to spend some money and serve them with targeted ads on Google, LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter, or any other place they might be. Our recommendation is to experiment with the content, ad format, and platform. 
  3. Call to action (CTA) – It won’t matter how good your content is or how it’s exactly what you newly reached audiences were looking for if they don’t know how to subscribe to your newsletter, share your article with their friends, or if there is any unnecessary friction in the process. Some publishers are working with us to build the newsletter subscribers using our content-to-capture tool, while others are only using their own CTA on site.
  4. Cultivate and delight – First things first: send a thank you email. Don’t take their signup for granted — just look at The Hustle’s smile-inducing welcome email as an example of how to get things right. After that, it’s a matter of continually developing the habit of reading your content with more great articles. 

Today, for the most part, people aren’t coming to websites to search for content — stories find their audiences in feeds and apps. The upshot? Distribution is now the key for effective storytelling, and it could be more easily controlled and predicted than purely organic traffic.

By Assaf Medicks-Wecksler, Keywee

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