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InContext / An inside look at the business of digital content

A numbers game: Audience and measurement dominate publishers’ social distribution strategy

March 16, 2017 | By Ron Miller—Independent Technology Journalist @ron_miller

Today’s myriad content delivery channels and platforms pose formidable challenges in terms of content strategy. Building an audience and understanding the value of that audience tops the list of issues for many publishers. That’s where social strategy and audience development come into play.

Audience development and social strategy teams vary in size and composition. However, almost uniformly, they are charged with attracting an audience via social media. Sometimes that means simply building brand awareness. However, most of the time, the goal is to attract audiences to content on a website or in an app—regardless of where the consumer may have discovered the content in the first place.

But even trying to figure out exactly where and how to publicize content has become tricky with so many social media channels to choose from. Media outlets work hard to keep up with the latest ones, while leveraging their limited resources efficiently. It’s often a balancing act, and it’s not always easy to figure out where your audience is going next.

Team Building

When it comes to audience development teams, managers aren’t necessarily looking for someone who has a big presence on social media. Instead, they are looking for a broader set of skills that fits in with the overall objectives of the particular media outlet. That means understanding the content and what will get people to engage with it.

Raju Narisetti, CEO of Univision’s Gizmodo Media Group sees the audience builder’s job in fairly basic terms. It is essential that they “Have a keen sense of our brands’ sensibility that can then be translated and reflected in that site’s social presence, understanding of how to engage and grow audiences, and a willingness to try new approaches.”

Ryan Kellet, director of audience for the Washington Post social media team, says he generally doesn’t care how overtly active someone may be on social media. He’s not looking for the person with the most followers. “For the audience development team within the newsroom, I only hire journalists, not marketers. If you are a marketer, that’s not what I’m looking for,” he said.

Finding the Audience

The teams work differently across outlets, but (unsurprisingly) the job is generally focused on driving traffic to the content and building brand awareness. The real trick is deciding how to divide up the work across the team and where to publicize the content for the best results.

Helen Havlak, who is engagement editor at The Verge, where she oversees audience growth and distribution strategy, says her social media team uses an on-call system. The editor on call is responsible for reviewing every article before it goes out, checking the headline, the image and even the URL, making sure it’s all putting the article in the best social media light. When not on call, the other editors check analytics, plan social coverage for future events, create Snapchat or Instagram stories and run engagement experiments. Havlak says this keeps everyone involved. And, because the job always varies, it also keeps anyone from getting bored doing just one thing.

The other issue is trying to decide how to allocate people to new social media platforms as they emerge. Narisetti says that at Gizmodo Media they have to make sure a new platform is right for them before even trying it, and they don’t jump at every new shiny thing that comes along. “There isn’t an inherent, defensible first-mover advantage of jumping feet-first onto a new platform when existing ones are still ripe for mining.” He says it comes down mostly to how to best allocate a limited set of resources.

A Numbers Game

Of course, the advantage of using social media platforms to build audience is precisely that you can measure the impact of your work. But even that isn’t always as simple as it sounds.

The Washington Post’s Kellet believes that what you’re measuring is specific to each platform. “We try to be as smart as we can. If you start doing platform comparing at the same time, you can get an apples-to-oranges situation. What does a view mean in the context of a particular platform? You want to be careful when comparing across platforms,” he said.

The Verge team looks at metrics differently. “When comparing across channels, we boil everything down to a “content view” so we can easily look at Facebook Instant Article views, Flipboard flips, Instagram Story views, newsletter opens, etc. in one place. However, because that doesn’t account for the relative ‘value’ of different channels, we also look at engagement metrics like time on page and minutes watched,” Havlak explained.

Narisetti says for him, it’s pretty simple. It’s about “growing engaged social audiences [and] bringing audiences back to our own platform.”

These teams work with content creators, and ideally the individuals who make up the team have a deep sense of the content, allowing them to distribute it appropriately across platforms. Gone are the days, where you threw out some content and hoped for the best. Media outlets have very clear strategies for building audience and dedicated teams to help them achieve their goals.

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