Digital Innovation Digital Publishing
6 mins read

“User needs pieces almost always outperform regular news articles”: What publishers need to know

5 questions about the user needs, with Dmitry Shishkin

We started the Triple N project to make our editorial analytics solution even more actionable. By fusing predictive analysis with a content commissioning model based on user needs, we hope to create notifications that help editors choose the best editorial approach for their next story. Why? Because we believe that adopting these user needs could have a massive impact on the newsroom.

We have joined forces with user need evangelist Dmitry Shishkin, who oversaw the adoption of the model across the BBC World Service. He started his career at the BBC in the 90s as a radio journalist and grew into a management position over the years. He brought in news technologies and tools to analyse and optimise performance, and help the teams do digital journalism better. When the user needs approach was developed, he immediately became its biggest advocate. He started promoting the model not only at the BBC, but also in his presentations and lectures around the world.

We caught up with Dmitry to talk about the background and benefits of the model, and how it ties in with data.

1. Why were user needs developed?

“The user needs model was developed by the audience research team of the BBC World Service when we were looking for new ways to connect with our audiences. Being a secondary news source in most countries, it was challenging for the BBC digital team to connect with users by just doing ‘agenda’ news, or ‘hard’ news, as we say. Most readers would have seen the headlines of the day already, before seeing BBC content. There was little need to fill the website with those same headlines; a new approach was needed.

We already knew that people want more from news than just updates. So the BBC research team listened to how people were talking about news, eventually identifying six reasons for consuming news stories. These six needs can be divided into three groups: ‘what has happened’, ‘how does this event make me feel or what do I do about it’, and ‘what more do I need to know about this’.”

We used to say that journalists should stop writing to impress other journalists and start writing for the people, satisfying their user needs when it comes to news. When covering a complicated conflict, for example, journalists should go down to the basics to explain who the actors are and what different things mean, literally. The audience’s knowledge of a subject is often not as high as a journalist’s and the user needs function to bridge that gap.”

Your content needs to be aligned with your audience’s expectations

2. What are the user needs?

“The user needs are:

  • update me
  • keep me on trend
  • educate me
  • give me perspective
  • inspire me
  • divert me

They fulfil demands that come from a very basic human interaction model: it’s all about feeling involved and getting more social currency with your peers. Something that makes readers say: ‘oh, this is interesting, oh, I didn’t know that, I will tell my friends about this, or this is something I will share with my parents in the evening.

These user needs are six different perspectives or editorial treatments of a news fact – and a great way to differentiate yourself. It’s like this: you take a piece of news, then try to cover it in different ways that answer these six user needs. It’s a really interesting exercise, which I loved doing. It’s almost always possible to do so, even though the circumstances and the user needs might be a little bit different.”

3. How were you involved in the creation and adoption of the user needs?

“I had the privilege to help our research teams at the BBC. Being the most visible person talking about user needs to the editorial teams and at conferences and interviews around the world, I became somewhat of an enforcer of what is a really impactful idea. And that included all sorts of things: explaining why it’s important, why we thought we were right, showing data of our own content. I didn’t have the authority to say “Just go and do it because I say so”, that wouldn’t have worked. My team and I had to come up with really good examples to influence people.

I worked with the newsrooms of 41 BBC News websites in non-English languages around the world, analysing their output, resulting in a set of recommendations. A team of audience engagement specialists – growth editors, we called them – were appointed to demonstrate to the editorial teams that audiences respond extremely well to ”educate me” content, or to advise the teams to create more ”inspire me” content for growth, to prove that user needs pieces almost always outperform regular news articles. That is not to say that ‘update me’ need can be ignored, not at all – the mix just needs to be more representative.

I believe in making many small changes over making one huge change. Just start with one user need, do a trial for a month and then slowly expand into the other ones. I like ‘educate me’ a lot as a starter. This is a really important user need, especially if you’re trying to connect to younger audiences. Secondly, I like ‘inspire me’. The other four – ‘update me’, ‘keep me on trend’, ‘give me perspective’ and ‘divert me’ – newsrooms tend to do those already.”

4. What changed at the BBC after adopting the user needs?

“There were two things we needed to achieve: change the way we capitalised on our relative lack of resources, and establish a better connection with the audience. For the first we had to change the way we work and create content, because if you don’t have a lot of resources you have to prioritise correctly. The user needs approach was quite useful there. Second was the audience benefit. Our data showed that we were doing something new for our readers which they seemed to enjoy.

Most news stories answer the basic user need – ‘update me’: what has happened. But you’ll get to engage your audience in a much stronger way with stories answering other user needs. On one site, 70% of the content fell into the ‘update me’ category, but drove only 7% of the traffic. So we’d tell the editorial teams: if you start creating more inspiring or educating content, connected to the agenda of the day, you will grow. Instead of writing just a news article, why don’t we have a Q&A on what this means, or explore how it might develop in the future?

At the BBC, the adoption of user needs became a way to change the culture within the organisation and make people realise that it’s okay to lead the website with an interview or a Q&A or a video. It was okay to let go of the focus on ‘what happened’. Creating content that addressed specific user needs required a change on the commissioning instruction, as well as on the formats and execution side.”

5. What role can data play in this approach?

You might be engaging your audience with one set of engagement formats now, but the needs of your audience could change anytime. Data can give you these insights. If you’re suddenly losing half of your audience halfway through the article, what can you do to save that article, or get people to read more?

A really important part of my job was to influence other teams, drive digital change by always analysing and learning from the data, then passing those learnings on to others. The use of data in the newsroom was never a question for me. As the legendary engineer W. Edwards Deming would say, “Without data, you’re just another person with an opinion.” This relates directly to the newsroom; I want us to have data-informed opinions rather than just opinions. My hope is that this is not news to anyone who has been involved in digital publishing.

Getting the data is not a problem. But making sense of that data, and making an actionable plan of the data that you have, is not something that is easily done or that people are skilled in. Journalists are very busy and we need to work with their managers to give people space to apply data – better to write one less story, but have time to improve the existing ones. So I am intrigued about what we can do together with smartocto to make those insights even more actionable and readily available to newsrooms.”

by Jacqueline Woudstra

Republished with kind permission of smartocto, the world’s most actionable editorial analytics system offering a bird’s-eye view on The Story Life Cycle©. 

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