June 9, 2016

Editor’s note: Tracie Powell is the founder of AllDigitocracy.org, and was a 2015-16 John S. Knight Journalism Fellow at Stanford. This article first appeared on the JSK website.

Let’s get personal.

Whether it’s Facebook, Twitter or Snapchat, editors have been told for years to meet their audiences where they are. But it’s about more than that. Not only do journalists need to meet users on these platforms, they need to get to know these users better by developing personal relationships with them.

No newsroom comes closer to doing this than The Washington Post. In short, the Post is employing a concept called “laddering,” converting unique visitors into paying customers by getting them to increase social engagement with its website.

Here’s a list of best practices that I’ve gathered over the year as a JSK Fellow to help other news organizations get the same or similar results.

  • Don’t hate the platforms, play your own game instead.

    Editors, especially those inside legacy newsrooms, love to hate on social media platforms, especially Facebook. Publishers are often envious about all the data that these platforms collect about users, data these platforms won’t share with publishers.

    Instead of getting mad, news organizations should put the data they already have to better use. This means not just counting how many clicks a piece of content gets, but assigning unique identification numbers to users when they arrive via social media platforms.

    This way, every time the user visits, editors can track the kinds of content they access before they return back to their timelines or newsfeeds. This data can be used not only to learn about the user’s interests but also to figure out what kinds of content may make them want to come back.

  • Don’t be scared.

    Data intimidation is real. I’ve seen it with my own eyes. And here’s a big reveal: It’s not just the reporters who are afraid of data, news executives are too. One way to help journalists and publishers get more comfortable with data and empower them to grow their own audiences is for news organizations to stop using data to punish or pass judgment (as a tool to measure which reporter gets more clicks on his or her content).

    Instead, journalists and news executives should embrace data as simply a medium with which to understand users, explore their interests and discover new ways in which to engage them, Parse.ly CEO Sachin Kamdar told me a few months ago. Parse.ly is just one of several third party companies that delivers audience insights for news organizations. I like these folks because of their focus on audience growth and engagement based on a mix of both real time and historical data.

    The Washington Post chose to build its own proprietary software to track user behavior and to discover user interests. Some publishers may choose to do what the Post did, others may choose to partner with a third party. Any decent developer — in-house or out — can help news organizations with this.

  • Registrations, please.

    One of the most valuable, and inexpensive, ways to get to know users better is by asking them to register. A long time ago, publishers decided this was an onerous process for users, and they stopped asking for users to register for their sites.

    Well, it’s a new day and age and users almost always expect to need to give a little something to get a little something. This does not need to be, and should not be, a long, drawn-out process. Ask two or three quick questions, the user’s name being the first. If you’re collecting the right data, you will already have the state that they live in, and maybe even their zip code, so no need to inquire about those things. Make it quick, easy and maybe even fun.

    Offer incentives for registrations that may take a little more time to fill out. Partner with established brands to offer free tokens of appreciation — an umbrella, a cool T-shirt, a poster featuring some of your award-winning photography.

    Or here’s a thought: Offer a limited, free subscription to users in exchange for just a little bit more information about themselves. This is a trick print circulation managers like myself would use to get customers to sign up for free trial subscriptions. (Quick tip: Don’t offer this on the first visit, and maybe not even the second. Let the user feel you out a bit, and vice versa, before this incentive is offered.)

  • Data meets design.

    Editors should talk with users, as well as those who don’t regularly access your website. Don’t ask about your content though — ask about their interests instead, and then follow-up with “why questions.” The approach allows questioners to go deep and get to the “why” behind user behavior. Engaging with extreme users at each end of the spectrum also allows publishers to access insights about topics they cover, those they don’t and topics they cover but probably shouldn’t.

    Not only does this help publishers better understand existing users and identify potential users, but it also helps newsrooms perform more efficiently.

  • Check your privacy phobias at the door.

    I can’t tell you how many editors I spoke with who brought up how tracking user behavior violated privacy. Not necessarily. Besides, news organizations are already tracking users. We know this because users who access news sites so many times during a given month will inevitably hit a paywall.

    News organizations often ask users to subscribe without knowing a single thing about them, other than how many times that user had accessed the website. Nine times of 10, when users hit a paywall, they’ll clear out their browser caches in order to access the content. Since the secret is out, let’s just get over privacy concerns and focus on how to do it ethically and with transparency.

    This also becomes moot if, or when, publishers get users to register. That’s when you can add a disclaimer — in small or big print — explaining how user information will be used. Users granting us permission to track them is a privilege publishers shouldn’t abuse.

This isn’t an exhaustive list of best practices, but it’s a start to help editors and publishers develop real relationships instead of superficial flings with news consumers.

For too long we’ve lumped these users into vague categories. But knowing just the gender and age of a user isn’t enough. We need to invest time and resources in learning more about them — their interests, what information they have consumed in the past, and what kinds of content they are likely to click on next. News organizations need to understand this, in the same way marketers know that the products consumers click on yesterday are a good indicator of what they’ll buy tomorrow.

Getting to know our audiences better also increases the opportunity for newsrooms to serve content that is more reflective and representative of the people we want to become more loyal news consumers, either as subscribers or members.

That, after all, is the kind of relationship all news organizations want.

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