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Meet Journalism’s Greatest Research Team—Readers

By OpenWeb

Over the last decade, publishers have learned the hard way that occasional social virality can only take you so far.  Drive-by readers might provide you with a quick-hit spike in traffic, but it’s your daily audience, your core readers, the people who come back day after day, who will provide the reliable growth that any publisher needs to survive. Understanding those readers—their interests, preferences, behaviors—is key to decoupling from social media and building a sustainable future for publishing.

Use direct community feedback to get to know your readers

Editors and journalists are already skilled at understanding people: it’s an essential part of the job. What the modern publishing environment requires is an ability to channel that talent for understanding sources towards understanding your readers—treating your readers like another subject whose brain you’re trying to pick. 

Obviously, no outlet has the time to get to know its readers on a one-to-one basis. Understanding your audience, in this context, means taking a holistic view of your community. 

Whenever a user spends time on your site, they send important signals. Some of these signals are transmitted passively. For instance: is there an article that’s causing people to spend more time on-site? Are a significant chunk of those people choosing to browse the comments—or maybe even leaving comments of their own? In aggregate, datapoints like these can help you allocate your resources towards stickier content—content that keeps people around and brings them back more often.

Increasing your quantity of direct reader feedback

But just as important are active signals—signals your audience sends you directly about how they’re feeling. To that end, one goal of publishers should be to expand the number of ways in which readers can provide feedback. 

One way to do this: letting readers follow topics of particular interest. This ensures that the articles a given reader might actually care about don’t get lost in the daily churn of content. But, writ large, it’s also a useful research tool. Are 70% of your readers electing to follow national politics stories? Are only 10% choosing to follow product reviews? The people who care enough to follow a topic are among your most engaged readers—the core you want to cultivate. Their collective wisdom here can help you maximize engagement down the line.

You can also, of course, get even more direct feedback on individual pieces of content. Allowing readers to quickly leave feedback—by pressing a happy face, or a meh face, or a sad face—can grant you valuable real-time insight into your content.

And if you want to learn even more—well, all you have to do is ask. When the editorial staff participates in the discussion, your core readers—the ones who matter most—feel like you’re actually listening to them. Outlets like AOL UK take this one step further, highlighting top user comments every week. It’s an easy way to show your audience that you actually care about their input. It also incentivizes thoughtful discussion, as users vie for a chance to be featured. 

Whether it’s a TV show, a brand, or a publisher, the lesson is the same: the moment you lose touch with your audience, you’re lost. Cultivating your audience—treating them like real people whose interests you actually care about—is the surest strategy there is for sustainability down the line. It’s a symbiotic relationship, and one that rewards everyone involved.

Let’s have a conversation.

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