The digital media industry is not exactly heading into 2019 with unbridled optimism. However, with great challenge comes a sense of clarity and focus. And we have to hope that it’s finally registered that building a media company on Facebook traffic alone won’t sustain another year. An actual connection with the audience will make or break media companies going forward. As Brian Morrissey from Digiday put it: “Among the biggest lies publishers have told in the past few years, “We don’t buy traffic” ranks rather high.” Without a doubt, consumer engagement needs to top publisher strategies for 2019.
Where to look for inspiration? A whole crop of brand publishers—admittedly free from the constraints of CPMs and programmatic ad-tech headaches (often with ex-journalists at the helm)—find ways to focus on building impressive audiences who contribute to revenue, without subscriptions. Imagine such a world! Maybe the traditional publishing world can learn something from these marketers (and one pretty radical publisher) when it comes to connecting with an audience.
Here are five big ideas to focus on in 2019:
1. Harvard: Get specific about your intended audiences—plural.
Resist the impulse to paint with a broad brush.
“When it comes to targeting, we start by asking that question upfront—Who’s the primary audience and the secondary audience?” said Mike Petroff, Director of Content Strategy at Harvard University. “The audience affects what we’re writing and how we’re evaluating and measuring. If the content is not hitting the right audience, it’s not successful.”
Petroff also distinguishes between audiences for specific channels. “With The Daily Gazette newsletter, we know the audience, we can understand the type of news a student needs vs. alumni or staff,” Petroff said. By understanding the nuances of the newsletter audience and their behavior, Petroff’s team can better serve all their readers. “We’re able to say, ‘Wow, this story really resonated with this audience but not at all with other audiences.’ We can give that info to certain editors about intent and what they can learn for future stories.”
2. Billy Penn: Ask your audience questions and listen to their feedback.
Okay, Spirited Media is clearly a publisher through and through. However, they’ve taken such a radical approach to local news, that their advice gets included in this list. Data and market research are important for understanding audience behavior, but so is getting feedback directly from real people.
Danya Henninger, Editor at Philadelphia local news site Billy Penn, wondered if she should change the structure of their daily newsletter. “Our sister websites, in Denver (Denverite) and in Pittsburgh (The Incline)—they both start their newsletters with a personal note and then get to the news,” Henninger said.
Should Billy Penn follow suit? She brought the question to her readers: “At one point I asked, in our morning newsletter. I said, ‘Hey, how about if we do this note up here.’ And got several replies, ‘Please don’t do that.’” Henninger learned that her readers valued the format of the newsletter as it was, a brief recap of their news for the day.
3. Delta Sky: Create and empower quality content.
It pains me that this advice still needs to be shared but even in 2018. But let’s face it, quality isn’t something we can take for granted when it comes to content.
We asked Sarah Elbert, editor-in-chief at Delta Sky magazine, what constitutes quality. She replied, “Stories that don’t underestimate their readers.” And it’s working for her team: Sky’s readership among 22- to 44-year-olds has grown 32% in the past year and they’ve found that people are spending more time with the magazine.
Specifically, “it’s about finding the most alluring places to visit and bringing new elements of these destinations to life—whether it’s an adventure angle in Iceland or an urban tour of Seoul. And finding people who are just doing really cool, innovative things.” More generally, quality content includes the “kinds of stories that make the reader want to find out more. It’s about stoking their curiosity and engagement with the world.”
Creating stories that don’t underestimate readers also means trusting your writers. As Elbert said, “We allow our writers to have their own voice and we don’t dumb-down the content.”
4. BarkBox: Create an environment that people want to be a part of.
“Our philosophy as a company has always been that we’re not the party promoters—we are the DJs at the party,” said Stacie Grissom, Head of Content at BarkBox. “We’re responsible for creating the atmosphere that makes customers want to participate in the peripheral conversations rooted around our product.”
“We try to create content that sticks to your bones a bit more than just social memes and social videos,” Grissom said. “Our goal for BarkBox is to create a really entertaining experience.”
To that end, not only does Grissom have writers and social media people on her team, she also has comedians. The Bark approach is a marriage of data-driven decision-making and sheer creativity. “We tend to pursue a lot of things by thinking, ‘Wouldn’t it be cool if?’”
5. eMarketer: Don’t make your content frustrating on mobile.
Mobile is driving growth in time spent with digital media, according to data from eMarketer. An audience-first content strategy should also connect users with content that meets their mindset across devices, including when they’re on their phones. Often, that mindset is killing time in small increments.
Nicole Perrin, Senior Analyst at eMarketer, noted that content creators need to be “respectful of the user’s attention when [they] only have five minutes to look at [their] phone.” Ensure that experiences aren’t interruptive on mobile devices.
“As a user, I often get very frustrated consuming content, whether it’s on desktop, laptop, or phone, by how interruptive the experience can be with advertising,” Perrin said. She also urged creators to be smart about recognizing subscribers across devices. Removing friction from the user experience whenever possible can help you deliver value to prospective users and current users alike.
Big ideas for 2019
To make it out of 2019, and beyond, business as usual will not be business as usual. Big bets will have to be placed, and bold moves will have to be made. Making sure you’re constantly exploring strategies and tactics that make an audience want to connect with you is the best way to go on the offense, instead of spending your time playing defense against a constantly shifting market.
Here’s to learning from unexpected sources and trying new things in the new year.