Jackie Hicken | News Product Manager, DeseretNews.com, DDM | @jjhicken | July 1, 2015
When it comes to finding news online, there’s no shortage of options. From The Wall Street Journal to The New York Times, Drudge Report, Buzzfeed, Vox and more, readers will always be able to find the information they’re seeking. The question is, then, how can a website build and keep an audience in a saturated market?
There are two critical things a news website must know: its identity and its audience.
Is your website a place where people can find sensational news? Hard news? Local news? Breaking news? Is the website directed toward those “in the know” — the people who may find their news elsewhere, but are looking for a deeper analysis? Is the website meant to entertain, inform or enlighten?
A website cannot serve its readers what they need if it doesn’t know what it’s giving them. Additionally, if a site doesn’t find a way to differentiate itself from its local and/or national competition, the website will unavoidably get lost in the shuffle.
Each website has a natural regional audience with predictable interests (state and local sports teams, police actions, schools, politics, traffic and weather). Each day, we can predict what stories will do well on our website based solely on the preferences of our regional audience, even before those stories are written.
Who is your natural regional audience? What types of boundaries shape this audience? What does this audience care about?
Once you’ve established a firm foothold on what your regional audience wants, your task turns to building. When your sought-after readers aren’t coming, how can you change that?
Each day, my team uses a variety of methods to try to expand our readership reach, both locally and nationally. These methods include headline testing, expanded coverage, social media and audience interaction.
1. Headline testing
Readers will react to some headlines better than others, and taking the time to test different headlines can have a huge impact on clicks into a story. Tools like Chartbeat allow us to test headlines in real-time — we pit one headline against the other, with clicks into the story determining the “winner.” These tests give us a feel for what drives readers to click.
Headline tools are handy, but they aren’t essential — simple logic also suffices in many cases. It’s a given, for example, that adding buzzwords to a headline will garner more clicks. For example, the headline, “Confederate flag sets off debate in GOP 2016 class” may pull in a few interested readers, but it can’t compete in our market with a headline stating, “Mitt Romney calls for removal of Confederate flag outside S.C. statehouse.”
Both are accurate — and accuracy should never be traded for clicks — but one is of more interest to our audience.
Playing with headlines also gives your stories a chance to speak for themselves. For example, I recently tested these two headlines:
The second headline — our A/B test winner — includes a quote from the story, and transforms what sounded like a calm, quiet meeting in the first headline into what it really was — a three-hour meeting filled with passionate scoldings and fist-shaking emotions.
These headline changes were also the result of a test:
The second headline accurately reflects an experience the subject of the story had, and won the test, 94.2 percent to 5.8 percent.
Don’t get trapped into thinking an interesting headline is a “clickbait” headline — in my opinion, making a headline “clickbaity” is a news sin, but if done correctly, savvy testing of truthful headlines can be an exercise in communicating reality.
2. Expanded coverage
Our regional audience — like yours — has specific, predictable tendencies. For example, sports stories about Brigham Young University pull in a larger audience for us than stories about the University of Utah. Because of this, our writers and editors often make the logical decision to focus on BYU. However, in order to expand our reader base beyond what we’ve already achieved, we look for ways to expand our coverage. This past year, our sports team has assigned new writers to the University of Utah beat, expanded the U-focused social media platforms, and given fans deeper coverage of that team. New readers have followed.
3. Social media
Social media is often about speed — the faster you get something posted on Twitter or Facebook, the more likely your story is to get noticed and shared. Don’t be afraid to retweet verified sources, like police departments or state road agencies, and retweet your reporters as they tweet from the field. If you have a reporter live-tweeting an event, use your main account to invite new readers to follow that reporter.
Notifying specific groups of people about your content via a Twitter tag like #UTpol (Utah politics) or #NerdCityFC (“nerd” culture) can also help your content reach new audiences.
When it comes to Facebook, you can often see patterns of readership emerge. For example, this year saw the 70th anniversary of the liberation of many World War II concentration camps. An initial Facebook post on one of these anniversaries resulted in a large number of readers commenting and sharing. From the response to that first Facebook post, we knew to watch for other similar stories.
4. Audience interaction
Readers can shape your coverage of events — don’t hesitate to ask for their input.
Recently, we’ve asked audiences to share their opinions on the latest blockbuster movies, to share their weather photos, and to tell us of their experiences during the eruption of Mount St. Helens. Each time, we heard from people who might otherwise not have spoken up.
Reader opinions can also help shape your coverage moving forward. For example, our readers complained that our 2014 “Star Wars Day” (May the 4th) quiz was too easy, so in 2015, we gave them a harder quiz. Rather than reviving old content for that day, they challenged us to give them new content, and then paid back our effort with clicks.
Ultimately, a news website must know its own identity before it can ever hope to build an audience. Readers are savvy — they’ll know when the identity of a website is confused, and will often reject that confusion for a more focused site. Once that news identity has been shaped, the task turns to capturing and building the sought-after audience.
Readers are waiting for you, and they’re always hungry for news — your task is to find ways to connect.