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InContext / An inside look at the business of digital content

Engagement and the evolution of audience to advocates

July 11, 2017 | By Peggy Anne Salz, Founder and Lead Analyst – Mobile Groove @peggyanne

Digital media is waking up to the hard truth that more is not always better. As a result, the strong belief that a high volume of content attracts a high number of page views is being replaced by the stark realization that quality trumps everything – even traffic.

NBC News is just the latest in a string of publishers to shift their focus from pushing pageviews to encouraging audience engagement. The emphasis on quality over quantity is part of a larger strategy to avoid commoditization by ensuring differentiation.

Rather than produce more news content, NBC News produces more original content around the news in the form of analysis, narrative, and additional formats including podcast and video. The outcome is less volume – approximately 25% fewer stories a day. However the goal is to deliver more value as this is a take on the news the audience can only get from NBC News. In an interview with Digiday, Nick Ascheim, SVP of Digital at NBC News, recounts the massive “culture shift” that has taken place in the newsroom. In the past, he says, the company was focused on pageviews. “The approach now is, let’s worry a little less about how many clicks and more about telling a good story.”

But it’s not enough to adopt a new mindset; companies must also adjust internal KPIs to measure success and gauge failure. Undeterred by the lack of industry standards or metrics to quantity engagement, NBC News has developed its own, unique formula. It defines a loyal user as one who has visited the site five or more times in two consecutive months. Of course, the way a publisher chooses to define and measure engagement will depend on key variables such as content category, delivery format, audience demographics and, above all, company objectives.

Engagement from the Start

The efforts of publishers like NBC News to set new performance goals and take on the task of internalizing them is a huge step in the right direction. (NBC News has even gone so far as to print the new goals on cards it distributes to writers and employees.) But publishers would also do well to apply the same rigor to how they acquire and engage audiences in the first place.

An obvious place to start is mobile apps, where app companies are learning the hard way that strategies focused on attracting massive numbers of users are fatally flawed. In the early days, the App Economy was a numbers game where data-driven (in my view data-obsessed) approaches worked well. Companies pursued strategies that allowed them to buy app installs at low prices in the belief that it would pay off. It seemed to work, allowing some apps – particularly games and lifestyle apps – to rocket up the app store charts.

But the gold rush mood sobered when a flurry of reports and blogs made the headlines arguing  that app installs, like mayflies, were literally here today and gone tomorrow. Data released by app analytics and attribution companies, highlighted “insane” app unistall rates, adding gasoline to the fire.

The Mother of all Metrics

Today the companies across all app categories and geographies are coming to terms with the realization that engagement is what I like to call “the mother of all metrics.” Indeed, engagement isn’t just the end-game. It matters at every stage of the marketing funnel and every step of the user journey. Finding ways to grow (and measure) engagement is the toughest task that confronts every company with digital assets, not just apps.

Nonetheless, we can learn a lot from app managers as they rethink and retool to identify, acquire, engage, and retain high-quality users from the get-go. Their journey started a few years back with a singular focus on driving traffic. (Sound familiar?) They relied heavily on ASO (App Store Optimization). But their toolbox of capabilities has since expanded and evolved to include direct marketing, social media, influencer outreach, above the line advertising and marketing, and everything in between. All in an effort to forge deeper connections with fewer users.

By way of background, ASO is similar to SEO. Only instead of publishers optimizing elements of their content and websites in an effort to show up high in search engine results, publishers optimize key elements of their app store landing page and presence – such as keywords, icons and videos – to ensure people discover and download their app. That may deliver a high quantity of users, but the success is fleeting if efforts fail to drive lasting loyalty and frequent use of the apps.

Quality Rules

Indeed, ASO has a role to play at every step of the journey. This inclues production, presence, promotion and the pragmatism app developers and companies will need to build a business, not just release an app. For savvy app marketers, ASO has evolved into an approach that encompasses everything neccessary to deliver great content and great experiences via an app. That is what’s required to move the needle on audience engagement and take an app from being simply discoverable to truly engaging. This ensures that the app goes from being a one-time download to a longterm addiction.

For publishers, winning used to be about creating huge volumes of content. For app makers, winning was about buying huge volumes of users. In both businesses the rules have changed, making way for a renewed focus on quality.

In all areas of your business, quality trumps everything. And engagement is emerging the performance metric that matters across the every stage of the marketing funnel and every step of the user journey. Whether you want to attract an audience or grow revenues, quality matters. Strategies aimed at boosting page views or installs may deliver fast — but not sustainable — growth. To achieve that, companies must double-down on efforts to create content and experiences that are genuinely engaging, thus converting an audience of readers into a legion of advocates for the long-term.

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