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Why connecting with audiences is vital for viability

Photo: Genaye Eshetu

Patricia Torres-Burd, Managing Director of MDIF’s Media Advisory Services, ran a workshop session on the “First steps towards viability” for independent media in challenging environments as part of PRIMED, a UK-funded initiative supporting media in Ethiopia, Bangladesh and Sierra Leone. The session focused on the importance of media understanding their audience and using that insight to build relationships and revenues. In a Q&A follow-up to the session, Torres-Burd provides further thoughts on how independent media can better connect with their audience.

Why is understanding your audience fundamental to running a news business?

A news business provides a product with its own specific make-up of news and information. That product is then presented to the audience, who is the news brand’s consumer. As in any business, not having a thorough understanding of your customer/consumer will lead to inefficiencies, missteps in audience engagement and difficulties in growth and impact. Tracking audience data will allow a newsroom to understand their consumer better and interact with them. In addition, this information can provide an excellent launchpad for growth that combines the ability to attract a new audience/consumers while ensuring retention of the loyal base.

What are the benefits of audience research? Can you give an example of it being done well?

It is vital to understand the traffic and habits of those that read/visit your content. If they are only staying for a couple of seconds, they have most likely not found anything that serves them. If they do remain longer, are they finishing certain types of pieces? Can you then guide them to other similar content within your site? The news world, for the most part, experienced a COVID bump in traffic, and those who retained these new consumers were media organisations that were active audience listeners – they provided crucial information for their community that lasted beyond the bump and created loyalty. It is about properly informing and delivering value to the community you serve.

Many MDIF clients carefully follow their audience habits and have introduced added content (by testing specific genres) to create this “added value proposition”. In several examples, beyond critical COVID information, many of these newsrooms began to offer services such as educational resources for parents, government programme links for small businesses and even reading and film recommendations. The pandemic drastically changed how people consume news and those media that adapted and adjusted their newsroom priorities have been able not only to retain their base audience but, in many cases, have also seen impressive growth.

How does a media organisation really listen to its audience?

There are many options, both free of charge and paid tools. The choice really depends on how the data will be interpreted and, most importantly, utilised. It is not enough to say we have X number of unique visitors; the news editorial leadership must set audience engagement as a priority part of their strategy. There is also the issue of capacity – who is responsible for measuring this data and providing useful metrics that the news teams can use? As we know, SEO plays a critical role in the titles of content and way beyond. I should clarify that SEO and specific metrics will always vary and that they are particular to each organisation. There are media entities with tremendous impact and reach who serve their communities extensively. There are also much smaller audiences that make up the core of media that is just as important in the region or community they cover, providing critical information that those readers (large or small) can use in their daily lives. I would add that ensuring there is a loyal base that is well served and can then grow is pivotal. Many media, unfortunately, are focused on metrics such as the top of the funnel in monthly unique visitors and do not understand the critical importance of the loyal user. It is this much smaller but so important sector that defines the real base of your consumer/customer/audience.

Can you give some examples of how media have worked well with their community?

One of the reasons I love working at MDIF is that we support media whose mission it is to serve. They work diligently to create value and trust to inform their readers. We saw so many of them rise to the occasion during the pandemic – I will name a few here, but all of them did.

RTV21 in Kosovo, a television and digital platform media organisation, went far beyond mobilising its community during COVID and especially in the first couple of months. The leadership provided space and time (paid) for their staff to help others in a manner of their choosing. RTV21’s staff not only volunteered to help but also found purpose. An especially important side effect of this was that the needs, questions and concerns of those they helped provided incredible value to the newsroom and company as they worked to inform people in Kosovo.

Other examples included:

The Daily Maverick in South Africa, which immediately pivoted their highly successful in-person events to online. They quickly realised that people were desperate for information and conversations and needed to be able to ask questions of those in power. Their first webinars or Zoom events included government and health officials talking about the pandemic measures for the country. They later began to include subjects for small businesses that were impacted. This and the other examples helped them to better serve their community by providing vital information that was changing minute by minute.

Red Acción in Argentina connected community callouts to those who needed help with those who could offer it. They matched people who could cook, deliver or help in some other way to those who were struggling. In turn, the team created a way for people to come together and positively impact their communities. They motivated and connected people as well as helped mobilise them to action.

In Ecuador GK, a digital news site, helped people to mourn those they lost. The country was amongst the hardest hit by the pandemic and relatives had trouble recovering their loved ones’ remains. GK provided a space for people to add images, pictures, memories and record a special tribute to them. It provided a way of respect, connection, support and remembrance of the tragedy of the pandemic and served as a form of closure when funerals and normal traditions were not possible.

How can auditing your audience strategy support viability?

Auditing your audience strategy can help viability, and how it does depends on the viability strategy of the organisation. Without an audience deep dive and audit, any organisation would be hard-pressed to effectively decide if a membership or subscription model or any other product introduction will work for them. Likewise, a media organisation cannot ask their audience to support them with payment if they don’t have a very cohesive understanding of the consumer base.

A keen understanding of many of the areas mentioned earlier and much more will provide growth opportunities. For example, if readers remain on your site – and on one specific content genre – does it make sense to think about and test a newsletter in that genre? The opportunity to have them engage is right there, with a properly placed newsletter subscription call to action. This is one example – we know from industry data that newsletters, when executed properly, can provide remarkably high percentages of engagement return. If the relationship is built properly and the product is evaluated, designed and delivered with the consumer in mind, it can and will lead to substantial conversion in audience, engagement and support (membership) or subscriptions.

Other examples will include a better definition of the value proposition your organisation offers, how and when to deliver it, and in doing so identify the best ways to further engage with the audience. These will lead to better planning in content verticals, newsletters, webinars, podcasts, etc., and will provide opportunities for reaching new audiences, increasing impact and scale that translates into revenue.

What types of small collaborations can be effective with other media and non-media?

The value of collaboration depends on the type or emphasis of the news and information any media organisation produces. There may be collaborations that focus on an urgent need and impact tailored to be more in the pacing of singular efforts/initiatives, or opportunities may present themselves that are better suited to long-term cooperation.

Partnering with other media increases efficiency through shared costs, it can also provide exposure to talent as well as expertise and news leads beyond the media outlet’s current reach. Some of the very well-known collaborations include the famous Panama Papers and more recent Paradise Papers, which would not have been possible without extensive cooperation. Smaller but just as important efforts may include two separate media organisations partnering to cover any range of issues by sharing efforts and knowledge. The communities they serve in their respective regions or countries will benefit from such a partnership. The formula for any collaboration will vary but should be centred on bringing expertise to inform readers and providing strength in reporting and reach, translating to impact.

There are also client-based partnerships where an entity will support certain informative efforts without any editorial input. We have seen examples where a bank has supported a series of financial education segments geared at women and young entrepreneurs. However, there needs to be great caution when working with a brand to ensure that they are not just selling a service, for example a bank could be a sponsor but not advertising their credit card or a product.

Please explain the 4-sector chart

This chart applies to a need for media, anywhere in the world, to have a thorough understanding of the market they serve, including market statistics for audience, demographics, access to print, radio, tv and digital, and also a definition of the competition and what economic, political and cultural barriers are present. Pricing of the market does not only apply to advertising (programmatic, platform specific, banner or direct) but also staffing and capacity of delivery. The latter includes staff retention which is a problem around the world.One of the most problematic statements is, “we have no competition”. That is insanity. In today’s media landscape, content is delivered in a multitude of manners, when and where people want to consume it and, in many cases, instantly. Everyone has competition!

Business Opportunities

Having a clear picture of the market you serve requires time, patience, research and asking many questions of your constituency, partners and even competitors. It is work that will result in creative manners in which to overcome obstacles and find new business opportunities.

Data & Audience Metrics

At the same level of importance is when a media organisation has taken the time to have a thorough understanding of their community or the audience they want to serve, they will be better able to provide them with daily information, as we have seen in the pandemic and the current crisis, in times of critical needs. In addition, the ability to accurately measure the data available from the audience/consumers will translate into better engagement AND business opportunities.

New Audiences

The same process of audience analytics will also allow for identifying a sector of the community that is not consuming your news or content. Is it possible to attract them? What do they consume? Where are they? What do they need? How can you increase your audience reach and at the same time stay true to your mission and your current loyal readers? If your site suddenly sees an increase in traffic, are you able to retain them? If not, why not? These points are all very strategic in nature and will help create a momentum for steady growth.

Long-term Relationships

Any relationship, business, engagement, or partnership is built on trust. Understanding the above points will help leadership plan for the future, while at the same time protecting their relationships with audience, clients, grantors or investors. In closing, a great focus is placed on the business of media and how to reach sustainability. If media is to continue its critical role in serving communities and providing access to information to empower – they must survive. There is no one recipe that fits all. Each media, organisation, region and country are vastly different, as are the audiences they reach. Yet we can and should learn from those who are innovating and introducing immensely powerful manners to add value to the lives of those they serve.

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