It is clear that small online news outlets, both for-profit and nonprofit, are growing audiences via social networks, their websites and in-person events. Nevertheless, a “broadcast” mentality still reigns when it comes to engagement: They are focusing on winning eyeballs – driving users to consume their content. That prompts them to think of audience size as synonymous with audience engagement.
As a result, many online news sites expend a lot of effort measuring the number of people who visit their pages and react to their stories via comments, shares and likes, but that information doesn’t tell them about the quality of their audience’s interactions or track the impact those interactions have on their communities or their journalistic enterprises.
Nearly all of the sites surveyed struggle with staffing, bandwidth and crafting measurable engagement strategies that can help set organizational goals. Moreover, they blame their inability to track or measure audience conversion on lack of resources and lack of tools that could support such work.
There is a clear need for support when it comes to audience-conversion strategies that facilitate revenue. There is also interest among the community of startup news sites to learn more about such strategies as asset mapping and anchoring coverage in evolving master narratives.
For organizations that support emerging journalistic endeavors, these gaps present clear opportunities for them to play a role that would advance engagement skills.
There was a wide variation in survey respondents’ level of expertise and overall understanding of the kinds of engagement strategies that might be available to them. Larger news organizations have more sophisticated ways to measure audience engagement and conversion, but those tend to be proprietary and closely guarded.
Smaller sites would like to get a better handle on different types of data. They want to know how a story moves through social circles, what the triggers of engagement are, and how they can elicit the kind of stakeholder support that will ensure their survival. Good metrics can help them develop internal engagement goals and increase support for their efforts.
For now, some organizations are trying to make informed deductions about audience engagement using a suite of tools to collect social-media and website metrics. Tools most frequently cited are in the sidebar on page 34. Other news sites said in the survey that they cobble together data on Excel spreadsheets or collect anecdotes.
Better tools can be built, online publishers need to be trained to use them, and site supporters – from funders to advertisers – should require better measures of engagement and impact.
This report serves as a roadmap for identifying opportunities to improve both actual audience engagement and measuring that engagement so that it can help online news sites achieve their goals. Some of the needs outlined in this report can be addressed via:
- The development of good, open-source tools that can help site editors easily analyze engagement levers and pinpoint audience conversion.
- In-person training on how to employ multiple tools for nurturing engagement and a sharing of innovative ideas that are emerging around the country.
- More research into effective strategies to encourage audience engagement that could become replicable models for others to use.
Recommendations for news sites
News organizations committed to fostering engagement should:
- Share best practices with their cohorts either via an online portal or participation in training events. Survey respondents seemed to feel very siloed in their efforts to measure engagement. Creating community and cross-organizational support is critical to supporting outlets that are sustainable in the long term.
- Articulate their specific needs for data and tools. It is vital for legacy and startup media organizations to keep asking themselves what kind of data is effective and what tools they need to chart their efforts.
Recommendations for funders
As the media ecosystem changes, funders can play a critical role in helping media grantees achieve higher levels of audience engagement and measure the effectiveness of their efforts. We would urge funders to:
- Support innovation in the development of engagement-tracking tools.
- Fund the development of an engagement portal and online learning modules to teach site publishers how to use available tools.
- Require grantees to implement some baseline tools to facilitate better tracking. This could take the form of a standardized reporting mechanism, or even the creation of an Engagement Ombudsman who could work with grantees to refine internal strategies and help with more in-depth measurements. Creating a common standard for affiliated groups of grantees will also make it possible for funders to chart the impact of their work in a significant way.
- Support grantees in hiring community or engagement editors to boost and measure engagement.
- Convene in-person summits to teach news outlets how to enhance audience-engagement efforts. Agendas could involve training on how to better use available tools, such as Google Analytics and Facebook Insights, as well as building connections between organizations that have debuted gamechanging engagement strategies.
Recommendations for journalism schools and organizations
Funders and news outlets are not the only organizations that should invest in engagement strategies, standards and methodology. Journalism organizations, journalism schools and affiliated groups also have roles to play. They should:
- Foster research on identifying and effectively measuring the different strata of engagement.
- Engage in open dialogues about engagement pressure points. Encourage collaboration across organizations to amplify audience engagement and share best practices and research.
- Offer services, such as statistical analysis or metrics auditing, to help news organizations better understand their data.
- Teach systems of measuring audience-engagement in the classroom.
Audience engagement has just started to unfurl as an issue for news organizations. A smart mixture of institutional support, community building and investment in metrics infrastructure could have a significant payoff. Such intervention would both increase the effectiveness of news organizations in the long haul and assist in identifying paths to financial sustainability.
News sites that can track their various strategies for engaging audiences are in the best position not only to tell the story of their community, but also to chart the role their own organization plays within that community.
Moreover, a news site that can deliver an authoritative narrative about its own activities is in the best position to make a compelling case to stakeholders for support.