Audience Engagement Digital Publishing
3 mins read

Build a loyal community, not a big audience

Focus on your users’ needs, their problems, their values, their tastes

Any news media entrepreneur who is trying to create a sustainable business model should keep these three things in mind:

  • Build a media community, not an audience
  • Focus on relationships, not scale
  • Measure engagement, not page views

This is a summary of my message during a panel discussion on Oct. 19 at the NewsRewired conference. The title of our session was “Find out what your audiences value and want to pay for”. The other panelists were Edmund Davison, head of growth at Tortoise Media in the UK; Esther Alonso, membership and development director at in Spain; and Irene McKisson, co-founder and principal executive of Arizona Luminaria in the US.

What it means to build a media community, not an audience

A media community is a group of loyal users who share an interest in a particular topic or geographic area. They may share a native language or ethnicity. They likely share certain values and ethics. They trust a publication because they feel like members of a club that values them as members. An audience is passive, but a community is active. A community can be mobilized to accomplish things for everyone’s benefit.

What it means to focus on relationships, not scale

For a publisher, it’s more important to have a small number people feel an intimate connection with a news publication than to count a huge number of people visiting the site or app. A publisher needs to create events and other opportunities for people to feel part of the news-gathering and publishing process.

What it means to measure engagement, not page views

The vast majority of page views and unique users of even the best known media brands are fly-bys, casual visitors. They arrive by chance or a misleading referral and leave. These visitors add to the thousands or millions of visits that publishers like to brag about. But these big numbers do not mean that multitudes of people value their content. The core, loyal users–the ones who truly value the work and are the most likely to pay–might be only 10% of that total.

Better measures of engagement are:

  • Frequency of visits. Look at the percentage of users who visit at least 10 times in a month. These people are finding value and coming back to your work. This percentage is easily tracked on Google Analytics and other tools.
  • Time on site. If users are spending at least 3 minutes per visit, that indicates a more-than-superficial engagement.
  • Pages per visit. Users who average at least three pages per visit are finding many things of value.
  • Scrolling activity. Some analytics tools allow a publisher to see how deeply a user went into a text article, what they paused on, what captured their attention.
  • Level of interactivity. Among the relevant indicators: do users comment on and share content, do they sign up for newsletters, do they answer questionnaires, do they suggest articles and provide news tips. And, more importantly, are your responding to them and thanking them.
  • And the best metric of engagement is whether they pay for a subscription, an event, or an e-commerce product.


News publishers whose activities follow these three guidelines–build a community, focus on relationships, and measure engagement–will come much closer to identifying what their target community values and what they are likely to pay for.

That’s the good news. The less-good news is that there is no simple formula that works for every publication. Each one will have to find its own solution that depends on the unique characteristics of its target market and the talents of its own staff.

The other challenging piece of news is that there is more competition than ever from publications that seek to have users pay for their product. During the pandemic, many publishers that had relied on advertising saw their revenues plummet. For the first time, they sought digital subscriptions, and these offers may compete directly with media entrepreneurs.

All of this emphasizes the importance of offering content that is unique, highly differentiated from anything else available in the media marketplace. Publications that maintain that difference and serve their community well should be able to remain viable over the long term.

James Breiner

This article was originally published on Entrepreneurial Journalism, and is republished with permission.
You can connect with James Breiner on LinkedIn here.