Are You Keeping Up With Your Audience?
By Tim Wolff
Vice President of TV and Digital Publishing Innovation, Futuri
It was in a big envelope. The news director would pause, take a breath and pull the report out of the envelope. Immediately, we’d start poring over our ratings … from two months ago.
This is what it was like to work in a diary market. The only audience feedback we got was a general sense of whether people had watched us more (or less) over the course of a month. And it assumed the audience filled out diaries perfectly.
When I first moved to digital in 2004, I was thrilled to get next-day digital numbers. I’d write stories Tuesday and guess how many page views it would get. Wednesday, I would find out.
Metrics have advanced dramatically since then. Several tools can tell me this instant how many people are looking at any story on my website or apps. Facebook Insights can show me how people are interacting with a specific post. I can even figure out how people got to our stories.
That’s different from television. Even where we have overnight ratings, the numbers show only chunks of time, not individual stories. The data, as it were, is only helpful as a general guide to whether we’re doing a generally good job on TV.
In digital, the data is exploding. We can dive deep into individual users or track how much time the users spend on a story. We can see where users came from, how far they scrolled down before they left the page and where they went next. We can tell whether they liked or shared a story.
What the data still cannot tell us is whether the user is reading a story that could have been published on any site or reading a story that is building a connection with our brand.
Beyond pageviews, there are three keys to knowing whether you are successfully connecting with your audience: tracking, research and real-time content interest.
Tracking data over time is the key to knowing the difference between trends and outliers. Anyone who’s watched digital metrics knows there will be random stories that go viral in a way that seems to defy logic.
Typically, these happen to have been shared by large social accounts and end up being a one-off success. However, sometimes by tracking who shares it you can build another pathway to your content.
For example, if you notice a bowling story goes viral because a national bowling outlet shares it, you might reach out to them to let them know when you have future bowling stories they could share. Of course, that approach can get you national page views but probably not the connection you want with your local audience.
Over time, you’ll get a better sense of what really matters through tracking, which is done most easily by categorizing stories. New journalists are almost always shocked to see how well severe weather stories consistently perform, but it is easy to see through tracking.
A less obvious category might be high school football. At some point, most stations have initiatives around high school football. By tracking performance of the category, you’ll learn whether your audience is genuinely engaging with the content — or whether it’s time to move on.
Tracking like this allows your team to change the mix of stories they are spending time on. Seeing the stories that perform well every day is important, but so is seeing the stories that do not perform well. Over time, this is a major advantage for stations that adapt and change to audience behavior.
There is one consistent theme to research that almost every news executive has seen. Viewers want more “good news,” but when you have “good news” stories in the newscast, ratings drop. Why is that?
The first reason given is that people answering research questions tend to be aspirational in their response; they might tell you they want educational material but secretly spend all their TV time watching “Real Housewives.” The good news, as I’ve studied over the years, is that the idea of aspirational responses is overplayed; research participants are pretty honest with themselves and with questioners.
What really drives this is understanding the difference between general audience needs and compartmentalized categories. On television, we watch ratings and need to capture the entire general audience; in digital, we can grow traffic and brand connection through categories.
Back to high school football. Do research, and most of your audience will say they don’t care about it at all. Perhaps 30% will say they are interested, so, if you put high school football in the middle of your newscast, 70% of your viewers might change the channel. But in digital, the football stories might perform well, as that 30% of your audience really engages with it. If so, you can build your brand digitally through high school football and hopefully bring those folks to more of your content.
Universally, we see information that keeps people safe does well on both television and in digital. Severe weather and crime safety coverage regularly research at the top of the list and perform well in ratings. These are topics viewers feel they need to stay safe. “Good news” is not something viewers feel they need — it’s what they say they want.
“Good news” is also a special case. Digitally, entire brands (like Upworthy) have succeeded around uplifting news. But when algorithms change to send audiences content that inspires anger instead of smiles, then the “good news” may get lost. This is why relying solely on page views can make it hard to tell what truly interests your local audience.
Real-time audience interest
Beyond the algorithms spreading content far and wide, you really need to know what your audience finds engaging. Google Trends can show you searches; Crowdtangle can show you individual posts; TopicPulse uses artificial intelligence to show you stories your desired audience is interacting with live, in real time.
Tools like these help your digital team see if their mix of content is similar to what users are engaging with right now.
They also help us look beyond our own scope. In television newsrooms, we tend to think of the newscast as its own world, but to viewers, it’s just one part of the many shows they might be watching. In digital, we tend to think about our own website, app, or social pages. But to users, those are just a part of the whole digital ecosystem with which they are spending time.
Real-time data helps us understand what our audience is genuinely engaging with and helps us connect on content that will turn them into loyalists. We’ve come a long way from waiting months to find out whether people generally like our news.
Tim Wolff is Vice President of TV and Digital Publishing Innovation at Futuri. He has 20+ years of experience as a digital and broadcasting leader who’s led top-performing teams across the country at companies including Gannett, Belo, and Cox Media Group Ohio, which includes three daily newspapers, three radio stations, WHIO-TV, and more. Wolff, who holds a Master’s in Journalism from the University of Missouri, also makes a mean green chile stew.