Audience Engagement Digital Publishing Top Stories
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“The internet has made television and newspapers better”: Audience engagement insights from Thomson Reuters Foundation

Are clicks the end game when it comes to audience engagement? “It’s not a click. It’s a person who has decided to invest valuable time,” Yasir Khan, Editor-in-chief at Thomson Reuters Foundation told WNIP at the Lisbon Web Summit this year. “That is an audience that is time-poor, an audience that is spoiled for choice.”

“They have at their fingertips, gigabytes, quintillion gigabytes of data, and content. And the fact that they have chosen to spend some of that time at least looking into whether or not your content is worthy of their attention is a big deal.” 

Yasir Khan, Editor-in-chief at Thomson Reuters Foundation

Khan was speaking at The Media Roundtable session, “Audience Engagement: Are clicks the endgame?” He shared audience engagement lessons learned across two decades of working with publishers ranging from Al Jazeera to CBC to Thomson Reuters Foundation.

“For the first time, we are listening to consumers”

Traditionally, media has been an A to B proposition, said Khan, where publishers decided what the audiences needed to know. The internet changed that. Media outlets can now get real-time feedback from people reading or watching them and fine-tune their products.

I always say that the internet has made television and newspapers better. Because for the first time in our history, we are listening to people who are consumers.

Yasir Khan, Editor-in-chief at Thomson Reuters Foundation

And that’s what makes things like volume and quality of clicks important. However, many journalists may not be benefiting from this opportunity as they take a “sanctimonious approach to their work,” and get upset when told that what they’re making is a product that needs to be sold.

“Why would you not want to know who’s reading you?” asked Khan. “Where are they from? And whether they’re men or women, so that you can fine-tune your product.

“And that is where the whole idea of clicks for audiences comes in. We’re making a product, we need to know whether there’s a market and demand for it. What does the market want from us? What does the market expect from us? And are we delivering? And if we’re not, then we need to rethink the product.”

If you put it like that, yeah, absolutely, they’re at the end game. Why else as journalists, are we making content? The whole idea of journalism was to go up there to find out what’s going on in the world and to come back and tell people.

Yasir Khan, Editor-in-chief at Thomson Reuters Foundation

“Have a small loyal audience than a large flat one”

Khan suggested publishers first decide what they want from their audience – volume of visits or loyalty? To do that effectively they will need to research to understand who their audiences are – if they are not doing it already. However, basing the content strategy on just one metric is dangerous because it’s going to run out of steam over time. 

“Personally, I would much rather have a small loyal audience than a large flat one,” he said. “But I do also put a bit of value in, you know, volumes, just people coming in through the door. Because if those people are not coming in, you don’t have the basis for building a loyal audience.

“But if all you care about is just people rushing through the door and then going out through the other end, then you’re never going to build that loyal audience.”

What works for one publisher may not necessarily work for another. The New York Times does it very differently than say, the Guardian versus CNN. Khan recommended an ongoing review of audience behavior and expectations and adapting the strategy accordingly. 

It will also depend on other factors like where a publication is in terms of traffic and engagement. So for example, an outlet that’s just starting out may prefer to focus on pageviews in the first year to achieve healthy levels of traffic. In the next phase, it should also start focusing on developing a better understanding of its audience—“what they want, what they gravitate towards”—to build engagement and loyalty.  

“What sort of metrics you need to evolve”

During his tenure at Al Jazeera, and currently at Thomson Reuters Foundation, Khan learned that the best way to gauge success is by building a matrix of different types of metrics. The weightage given to specific metrics changes according to the requirements of the strategy. And this will be an ongoing process, a publisher cannot afford to get stuck in whatever is working at the moment, it has to keep looking towards what will work in the future. 

This happened at AJ+ which achieved great success in the beginning. However, one of the biggest reasons for their success, apart from their great market research and production quality, was that they were the “only game in town” at that time. But that’s not the case anymore, Khan said he doesn’t remember the last time he saw an AJ+ video in his Facebook feed, whereas in 2014-15, he would see about five every time he scrolled. And that according to him was because they got off the grind after seeing significant success early on and “failed to adapt to a constantly evolving market.”

“Audience behavior is not static,” he noted. “It’s important to have people in your newsroom whose job it is to constantly be looking at your audience, evaluating what they’re doing, and recommending to the editorial what sort of metrics you need to evolve.”

You can’t just have one trick, or like five tricks, and feel that you are going to succeed forever with those tricks. The biggest trick for success is constant evaluation and adaptation. And if you don’t do that, then that’s when you’re toast.

Yasir Khan, Editor-in-chief at Thomson Reuters Foundation

Building a newsroom that reflects its audience

Every publisher needs to figure out their USP – it will be based on who their audiences are and what they expect. For example, the product will be different for a local newspaper vs a national newspaper vs an international newspaper. Many publishers also need to figure out whether the audience they have is the audience they want. 

Khan shared the example of Al Jazeera – 85% of the publisher’s audience was male when they started out in digital. They used to cover topics like war and famine which attracted mostly male audiences. However, men share less on social media compared to women. “Men share very few emotions, they share anger, or they share hilarity, or like,” said Khan. “There’s not a lot of complex emotional sharing.” 

Yasir Khan, Editor-in-chief at Thomson Reuters Foundation

This led to the realization that the publisher needed to have at least 50% female audience. They modified their content strategy and began sharing more complex human stories, as well as inspirational ones. There were stories like the one about a device that could detect breast cancer with a saliva test. The publisher also began including a lot more women in the coverage. 

They were not just focused on talking only about women’s issues, but covering human issues in general. Like the one about an African village where grandmothers and grandfathers became the de facto counselors of their village which helped bring down mental health problems. Another one covered a firefighter in Pakistan who started a school on the sidewalk which grew to include 3000 kids. 

Journalists were encouraged to bring stories they would share on their social media. “What I said to them was, don’t bring me women’s issues stories. Bring me stories that you would share on your social media and 10 of your friends if you didn’t work for this organization,” said Khan. 

He also built a team that would reflect the audience he wanted. “So because we were an international news organization, I made sure that we hired an international news team,” he explained. “And because I wanted at least half of my audience to be women, I made sure that my team and what they did was reflected in the content.” By the time Khan left AJ 45% of its digital video audience was comprised of women.

“If you don’t execute well then you’re toast”

The same thing applies to news organizations that are pursuing younger audiences. “A lot of the content being made for younger audiences is not being made by young people,” said Khan.  

“So there are the old guys who say, “My kids watch this,” or “my kids are doing TikTok, let’s do something on TikTok.” But they have no grasp of the reasons why their kids watch that, or how they consume content.” 

Yasir Khan, Editor-in-chief at Thomson Reuters Foundation

One of the other reasons for the success of AJ+ was that the people making the content were of the same age as the audience. So whether it’s making content for TikTok or something else that younger audiences are consuming, it’s best done by people who are in the same age group and familiar with the stuff. The more experienced people can guide them on things like fairness, accuracy, ethics and all that suggested Khan. He also recommended newsrooms to embrace diversity – “I don’t just mean skin color, I mean, socio-economic class, age, gender, perspective…” 

Rounding up the conversation, he underlined the importance of execution. “The thing with digital strategies is being constantly having to execute,” he said. “You can’t just execute it once. And then say you are done with it.”

You can have the best strategy in the world and if you don’t execute well then you’re toast.

Yasir Khan, Editor-in-chief at Thomson Reuters Foundation