What are the best strategies to engage your audience?

Engagement is one of the buzzwords of the moment. What are the best strategies to engage audiences with your media brand? That’s what this Ask me Anything session at the GEN Summit 2018 tried to figure out.

By José Moreno

To explain what strategies are being pursued to achieve that goal, GEN invited four experts and one experienced moderator: Esra Dogramaci, senior editor for digital at DW; Martin Jönsson, head of editorial development at Dagens Nyheter; Ritu Kapur, co-founder and CEO of The Quint, in India; and Sarah Marshall, head of audience growth for Vogue International, with Condé Nast media group. The moderator was Jim Roberts, editor-in-chief of Cheddar.

Does Facebook still matter for digital media?

Of course, when you talk about engagement nowadays, you have to talk Facebook. Roberts kicked off the ‘Ask me Anything’ debate wondering if Facebook still matters for digital newsrooms today.

Esra Dogramaci: ‘Still a small proportion of the media use analytics in the newsroom. And that’s a mistake.’

‘Of course it matters’, Esra Dogramaci replied. ‘It’s true the algorithm changes every six months, but that is exactly why you should focus on what you’re good at and go with that. Figure out what matters to you: Is it impressions? Is it engagement? Is it quality?’ That’s the most important thing, according to Dogramaci. She presented a three-fold scenario to explain what she meant, ‘What if Mark Zuckerberg decides to shut down Facebook? What if the EU or the US decide to regulate it? What if Alibaba buys it and closes it? If something like that happened, would you still be able to sustain a loyal relationship with your audience? That’s the important question you have to ask yourself.’

Jönsson continued along the same vein, ‘Of course Facebook still matters. That’s where people form their view of the world. Or course we have to be there. We have to relate to people. It’s a real platform to direct people to your content, but that effort has to be integrated in the newsroom.’

Ritu Kapur said her experience in India is no different, ‘Facebook is important for us. WhatsApp is also important, but Facebook is the base. It represents a huge audience for our video content. For us, engagement with our audiences on video content has been very good on Facebook.’

Engage… with analytics

Of course, to engage with your audiences it is important to know precisely who your audiences are. And that’s where analytics come along. Jim Roberts alluded to an article by GEN, where Dogramaci identified dwell time and retention rates, along with growing a female audience, as the most important metrics newsrooms should look at.

Sometimes, Roberts said, ‘people in the newsroom seem to be afraid of analytics.’

‘They shouldn’t be’, Esra responded. ‘They should see these things as an opportunity. It is nothing to be afraid of.’

What is the most important metric for a newsroom?

Sarah Marshall says that, for Vogue, it could be likes and comments, but overall it would have to be loyals. ‘Loyals represent more for our brand. It’s true that loyalty rates differently around the world, but Facebook is always a good driver for loyalty, because people come again and again to our websites. Messaging apps also do that very well. In general, social media is a good driver for loyalty.’

Martin Jönsson: ‘For us, the key is achieving digital loyalty through digital quality’

Jönsson has the same experience in Sweden, but says the best metric depends on the strategy. ‘For us, the key is achieving digital loyalty through digital quality. The trick is how to manage loyalty and quality, because there is no metric to show that directly. It has to do with frequency, completion rates and things like that. It’s not easy. But, yes, loyalty is important.’

‘We’ve tried to develop a total engagement score’, Martin continued. ‘Instead of searching for a metric, we did a conversion index, comprising active time spent, shares, search traffic, etc. For a newsroom it is easy to focus on the stories that are buzzing. The difficult part is to discover the ones that are not buzzing but are generating a lot of engagement.’

For Ritu Kapur, at The Quint, loyal visitors are also crucial. ‘We want visitors to spend more time on our video content, even on platforms like YouTube. We focus on video consumption, so for us, unique and loyal unique video viewers are important’

Manage engagement with younger audiences

Kapur’s experience with video also translates into how media brands should interact with younger audiences. ‘Let’s not forget we come from broadcasting,’ she said. ‘Since then, we’ve focused much on crafting videos for digital users and grabbing the attention of the audience. Every person in our newsroom goes to the field with the capacity to film, edit, produce, and publish their work directly on mobile phones. Users identify with that and this generates much higher audience engagement. We also ask users to send us videos to increase participation though video. Video for mobile is in fact a big opportunity, but it’s still pretty hard to monetise’

Ritu Kapur: ‘If you believe all you read on the internet, you’re an idiot!’

Another technical element that permitted The Quint to increase engagement with its users was its commenting system, called MeType. Ritu explains, ‘When we started, three and a half years ago, we felt the need to create our own content management systems. We felt the existing commenting plugins were all very static. We developed MeType so that we could see all the conversations on all the stories and the corresponding interactions. We noticed traffic went up 20 per cent after we launched MeType. Getting people to engage with your stories really works.’

Debunking is engaging

‘If you believe all you read on the internet, you’re an idiot!’ This is how Kapur responded to Roberts about the problem of fake news in India.

Misinformation is exploding in India and people have been killed in relation to rumours spread by fake news in social media. To fight that issue, The Quint developed a vertical to debunk misinformation online, which was named WebQoof (in internet slang a ‘webqoof; is a person who believes every word on the Internet and social media).

Kapur said they tried to use the same platforms on which misinformation lives in order to debunk it.

‘WhatsApp is usually where fake news in India goes viral. And that’s why we try do debunk it using that same platform. The debate on platforms around fake news becomes fascinating and the debunking stories themselves gain incredible engagement.’ Confirming this, Roberts reminded the audience that BuzzFeed has a team exclusively dedicated to debunking fake news and that those debunking stories tend to be very popular and engaging.

Audiences differ around the globe

Talking about audience development now is of course very different than it was a couple of years ago. Now you hear much more about quality and engagement. At Vogue, Sarah Marshall says the leadership was critical in changing the culture of the company: ‘The fact that we have a digital person as president showed us the way. Everybody in the company, from top down, focused on the metrics necessary to achieve our goals.’

Sarah Marshall: ‘ Loyalty rates differently around the world, but Facebook is always a good driver for loyalty’

‘Our audiences are very different depending on the country’, the head of audience growth at Vogue International continued. ‘In Japan, for instance, audience is max at 10 pm. And in China you have to have a presence on WeChat, same as VK and Yandex in Russia. In any of theses countries there is an opportunity in aggregators.’

‘Our London office now has a team of six people exclusively dedicated to Instagram. And we are also strongly present in Snapchat. We try to teach our journalists about he value of those platforms for our brand. For us this is very important’, she concluded.

What should be considered engagement and how it should be measured is something that varies by country, brand, and demographic. But what stands out from the experts in this debate is a common quest for whatever engagement is, by whatever metric one chooses to grasp it. In a way, it’s the new ‘Holy Grail’ of digital media.


Zetland’s members asked for an audio version — and now it’s more popular than their written stories

“We’re definitely not a short-form news outlet. When we launched, we thought it would be late evening media, something where you would crash on the sofa and read our stories.”

 — A feather boa, an inflatable cactus, and a pair of zebra masks appeared on a stage (no, really) as a drummer began tapping away at cymbals. A medley of viral videos played behind a man standing downstage, whose monologue on the “attention war” in technology had just been interrupted by this impromptu parade.

Granted, this all happened in Danish — but the language of technology overload is universal. But how often do you see journalists broach the topic of content overconsumption with their audiences? This was the 13th Zetland Live, the in-person performance showcase of Copenhagen-based, membership-driven news outlet Zetland, and the monologue-giver was Zetland’s cofounder and audio editor Hakon Mosbech. I couldn’t tell you what he said, but the audience seemed to respond enthusiastically.

It’s at events like these that Mosbech and other Zetland journalists have gotten to know their members face-to-face. And it’s where editor-in-chief Lea Korsgaard and other staffers started hearing suggestions from their audiences that they wanted to listen to their regular journalism instead of read it. Zetland publishes in-depth reporting daily on topics like culture, the climate, education, and economics, with the mission of “not to make news — it is to make sense.”

“Our members asked for it, literally,” Korsgaard told me in an interview a few weeks after the show. “When we met them at our live events and saw our emails and comments sections, they really asked for it when we asked how we can improve Zetland. A bunch of them asked us to either go into podcasting or reading the stories and letting them listen instead of reading them.”

They didn’t have much hard data to evaluate the idea, but they decided to test it out anyway. The response has been so overwhelming that since the fall, 60 percent of Zetland members have been listening to their journalism compared to 40 percent reading. Zetland has 10,000 members — up from 8,500 last year — with a price tag of 99 kroner (US $12.30) per month or 999 kroner (US $124.08) per year. They haven’t broken even yet, but they’re on track to do so next year and just brought on new investors, Korsgaard said.

“Instead of demanding that ‘we like written word so you have to read our stories,’ we try to get a sense of how can we adapt to your world and your way of living,” Korsgaard said. Zetland spent six months developing the audio component, testing the audio stories in the beginning of 2017 and launching an app for them in June.

Despite their members’ enthusiasm for spoken journalism, the journalists still start out by writing their stories, recording their own out-loud renditions later. Korsgaard said they haven’t changed much of their style or reporting process, and the written content they publish is the same as the audio. Some of the team members have a background in audio — like cofounder Mosbech, who used to host a weekly radio program on the media — but they enlisted the help of a voice coach for training. The Zetland style already gravitates toward a down-to-earth vibe, such as starting a story with “Okay, let’s find out what’s going on with….” Each audio story now begins with a short personal note from the journalist about what the story meant to them before they begin telling it. “It’s some details that tell the listener it’s a person behind the story, not a machine that wrote it,” Korsgaard said.

The experiment appears to be working so far: Members tend to be more loyal and thorough in their Zetland audio consumption than their text consumption, and they seem to be adopting listening to Zetland as part of their daily routine. “We’re definitely not a short-form news outlet,” Korsgaard said. “When we launched, we thought it would be late evening media, something where you would crash on the sofa and read our stories. But we’re definitely more commuter media that we thought.”

Being pleasantly surprised by their members’ desires is a recurring theme for Zetland. In our previous coverage of Zetland, we noted how frequently the organization tries to solicit input from members, like when they asked for suggestions for their newsletter name. (“I totally hated [the name readers chose, Helikopter] to begin with,” CEO and cofounder Jakob Moll said then. “But Mads Olrik, who was running our community at the time, said we can’t ask the questions if we don’t want the answer. It’s been called that since, and of course, it’s perfect.”)

The addition of 1,500 members over the past year helps toss some more voices into the mix. To build their member count (and income), Zetland runs some social media ads, but Korsgaard also said “old school” TV commercials and flyers in Copenhagen’s newspapers have actually helped bring in more members than expected. “It turns out that TV commercials played a much huger role than we would have ever thought,” she said. They’ve run commercials in one of Copenhagen’s evening TV news hours and during the Tour de France. (More than 60 percent of Danes use the country’s two public service TV broadcasters at least weekly, according to the 2017 Reuters Institute Digital News Report.)

On the heels of the audio success, Zetland now also publishes an audio version of that daily newsletter, which aggregates other media organizations’ stories too. And they’re in the early stages of experimenting with video to connect with younger audiences. The company also recently redesigned its website for better navigability — and won the digital Best of Show award from the Best of Nordic News Design competition for its old design the same day it launched the new version.

“If there’s a lesson to learn, it’s really nice to win awards and celebrate when you do, but don’t let that decide how you should develop the site or your content,” Korsgaard said. “It’s your readers and your members who should have the last say in how your product is [done].”