Gannett recently honored nine of its newsrooms for devising creative audience strategies that led to growth.
The winning newsrooms — ranging in size from small town to metropolitan and tackling topics from the county fair to the Kentucky Derby — all had one thing in common: They studied metrics before planning coverage.
Most gave new thought to time-worn beats, while some launched entirely new projects.
We asked the journalists behind those strategies to explain their ideas, share what they learned about audience and revisit their biggest challenges. (Full disclosure: Rob and Anjanette are audience analysts at Gannett, and Rob provided the foundation for the winning Derby strategy in Louisville, Ky.)
Here are the Smart Growth Award winners:
THE COURIER-JOURNAL, LOUISVILLE, Ky.
Looking back to move ahead
Since 1875, The Courier-Journal had hardly changed the way it covers the Kentucky Derby. Sure, over time the staff added some digital elements (photo galleries, especially), but the heart of their coverage remained feature stories on horses, owners, jockeys and more. “Nothing makes a newsroom analyst cringe more than the notion that we have covered the same event the same way for the past 140 years,” audience analyst Rob Gates said. “We knew we could grow the digital Derby audience. We just had to figure out how.” The answer was sitting right there in the newsroom’s historic data: Above all else, the digital audience was interested in betting information.
What they learned about the audience: Their thirst for betting information was unquenchable. More than two dozen videos of experts picking horses multiplied video traffic on race day by 10 times.
Results: In some subject areas, year-over-year traffic (page views and visits) more than tripled. And because they cross-linked feature stories to that wagering information, traffic to those was also higher than in previous years.
Biggest challenge: Anticipated challenges were actually larger than the challenges themselves. “We were concerned that reporters who had been covering Derby the ‘old way’ would not be too receptive of this new strategy, but we found them more willing. This no doubt played a role in our success.”
DETROIT FREE PRESS
Make something popular just that much better
Inside the newsroom at freep.com last year, Ashley Woods and Elissa Robinson noticed a surprising trend in their metrics — advice columns they had been thinking about as mostly a print feature were getting significant traffic from search.
So Robinson, a web editor, and Woods, the consumer experience director, turned their attention to optimizing the columns, replacing writers’ mug shots with stock photography to make them more visual, crafting better headlines and linking to additional advice content. They branded their site with an advice tab, promoted the columns on social media and created a video to raise awareness. They created polls to increase reader engagement.
“The advice columns submission is a winning entry in big part because of its simplicity,” the judges said.
What they learned about the audience: Mothers older than 30 are the ones searching for these columns. They’re opinionated, engaged and increasingly loyal. Social media doesn’t drive much of the audience yet, but Woods said she believes sharing these pieces will eventually build awareness of her site as a source for advice — increasing direct traffic to freep.com in the long run. “Search isn’t a long-term strategy we can rely on,” she said. “So what more can we do to improve our browsing audience awareness of this section?”
Results: Optimizing the advice columns initially doubled their page view traffic, and adding the advice tab pushed the site to the first page of Google search results. Creating branded videos for these columns powered the site’s increase in video views.
Biggest challenge: Finding ways to make their loyal, local readers return for advice.
THE DES MOINES (Iowa) REGISTER
A template take state fairs to the digital audience
State fairs have been a summer staple in Iowa long before anyone had ever heard of a computer, let alone the internet. In 2015, the Register took a whole new approach to coverage of the Iowa State Fair that led to a huge increase in audience. Some of the tactics they used:
- Launching an “Iowa State Fair by the Des Moines Register” Facebook page to serve the fair’s biggest fans. The audience for the page was 78 percent female and 68 percent younger than 44.
- Creating a parody mascot called the Ornery Old Boar on Twitter to engage with new audiences and promote Register fair news.
- Building an experiential quiz to allow readers to find out “How Iowa State Fair Are You?” The quiz was created for mobile devices and winners were awarded fair ribbons to share on social media.
- Built a “Random Fair Food Generator” to help those overwhelmed by the options at the state fair (and to have some fun). The results then linked to the Register’s Food Finder App and online map.
- Launching a series of “Rare Fair” storytelling podcasts from Register columnist Kyle Munson that took readers behind the scenes at the Iowa State Fair. The short audio stories (often under 10 minutes) were intended to provide a break and posted on Soundcloud, Stitcher, Twitter audio card and iTunes.
- Creating a state fair selfie contest.
Consumer Experience Director Nathan Groepper and Storytelling Coach Lisa Rossi led coverage instead of the features editor because they wanted to pursue a true digital-first approach. “Almost all of the new efforts started with the mobile audience as the primary target,” Groepper said. He used Adobe Analytics data from the previous year to help determine what events to cover and what topics might need more resources. Page views grew by 91 percent despite the staff writing fewer stories than the year before because they avoided writing the types of stories people hadn’t read.
What they learned about the audience: The year-over-year traffic increase, especially on mobile, demonstrated that the audience is willing to engage with State Fair content that was presented in a new way that was outside of the traditional features stories and photo galleries.
Results: Social media traffic to fair coverage increased by more than 500 percent. Munson, the columnist, doubled his state fair audience.
Pay attention to voice
Reno devised a newsletter strategy for a younger audience. The key? Humor and consistency. The Reno Memo, which has published three times a week for a year now, features humorous commentary on local news that’s designed to be mobile-friendly and conversational — like your friend explaining a story over beers at a bar. Before launching, they took the time to understand both the medium (email) and audience through focus groups and interviews. They realized they were missing audience by thinking their mobile site or text alerts were reaching them; email could fill that gap.
What they learned about the audience: Voice matters. Assume nothing about your audience. “Snark is easy, but a curated, smart voice to cut through the clutter of news with authority is a bit tougher,” said Executive Editor Kelly Scott. “That’s also the sweet sport for our audience.” Most of Reno’s newsletter readers are new customers. "Overwhelmingly positive” feedback suggested that they had hit a nerve among their target demographic.
Results: Key metrics include the newsletter’s open rate (holding steady at 41 percent), click-thru rate (13 percent) and subscriber count.
Biggest challenges: Ensuring consistent subscriber growth and developing a social strategy around the newsletter. “If the newsletter is the product, then what should our social strategy be?” Scott asked. “At first we tried to drive sign ups and minimize social. Then we tried to use social to create buzz. In the end, we’ve decided to use social as a voice — and that seems to be the most organic use in-line with driving sign ups.”
Tap into a new community
Jodi Schwan, who is both audience analyst and Sioux Falls Business Journal editor, launched "Sioux Falls Made" in late 2014 around the emerging maker movement.
The idea was to broaden Argus Leader Media’s audience for business coverage and make it more accessible to younger readers and women.
The new brand includes frequent coverage of makers in the Sioux Falls Business Journal, the Argus Leader and related digital products. It includes everything from farmers’ market vendors to artists, crafters, chefs and tech entrepreneurs.
Sioux Falls Made has its own presence on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Pinterest. A semi-annual pop-up market of locally made items began in a converted garage in December 2014 with vendors grossing $10,000. When the December 2015 market was announced, the response on Facebook was so overwhelming (more than 7,000 people said they planned to attend) that Sioux Falls Made worked with one of its corporate sponsors to move the event downtown. The market featured work from more than 50 local makers and grossed more than $50,000.
What they learned about the audience: “It is an extremely engaged audience that is eager to share content and interact, both in person and digitally,” Schwan said. “Our most engaged demographic on the Sioux Falls Made Facebook page is females ages 25 to 34 so we feel we hit our target.” We also noticed the Sioux Falls Business Journal audience skewing younger and more female, which suggests that Sioux Falls Made is serving as a gateway to other business content.
Results: The metrics showed clear audience growth. Page views on business coverage in 2015 grew by 79 percent on desktop and 320 percent on mobile. Reach on the December Facebook event was 438,000 (the Sioux Falls metro area population is 250,000). Overall business content ended 2015 with 7 million page views with Schwan as the only full-time content producer.
Biggest challenge: Finding time to fit the brand launch and market project into the workflow.
Draw on expertise in the room
This Minnesota newsroom applied both analytics and additional reporting time to solve the problem of its flagging entertainment section, Up Next. “Readers and advertisers were losing interest,” said Sue Halena, content coach.
They restructured, turning a part-time beat of 16 hours into a full-time beat. Kate Kompas, the entertainment reporter, enlisted her colleagues to help cover subtopics in which they had interest or expertise — food, tech, drink, music, movies, anime, pop culture. They experimented, measured the results (metrics: Twitter and Facebook followers, page views, time spent, unique visitors, return visits) and then experimented again.
What they learned about the audience: “They want to know what they can do with free time,” Halena said. “They want ‘true gossip,’ such as little details about venues or performers or restaurants. They want variety.” Strong response to a social media post, though, didn’t necessarily mean those readers would become regulars.
Results: Kompas grew her own page views by 84 percent in a single quarter. Page views for one of those niche entertainment columns are 10 times higher now than before the change. The main Up Next Twitter account doubled its followers in a year, and social media accounts associated with that brand (movies, etc.) grew by 13-16 percent in a quarter.
Biggest challenge: “Consistency of content” from those drafted to support Kompas, Halena said. “Some columns are scuttled when staffers are forced to focus on higher priorities tied to their beat.”
Give ‘em a month of football
Preseason coverage of high school football used to be an annual print tabloid at the end of August in Lafayette, but moving the coverage online and spreading it out throughout the month made it more immediate, engaging and financially successful.
“While I still love the concept of the football tab from an anticipation and football-nerd readership aspect, it always bugged me that we’d worked so hard for that one big bang at the end of August and had so little actual high school football coverage each day throughout August,” said Kevin Foote, sports engagement editor.
This extended online coverage, reflected in print each day, focused on a single school. “We didn’t run a huge story on it, but instead broke each team’s prospects down into 3-4 categories that were a lot more readable.”
The staff also used its archives to reinforce its authority, publishing shots from football picture days 10, 15, 20 or even 30 years ago “to remind everybody exactly how far back we go in covering high school sports in our area,” Foote said.
What they learned about the audience: While some readers are “still stuck in the old ways of doing things,” more of them said they enjoyed not having to wait for the end of the month and getting more information on their school.
Results: More page views. “We always struggled with how to present the football tab online,” Foote said.
Biggest challenge: Being ready with a new school every day.
Take advantage of your archives
Coverage of an annual event can become rote, but this Pennsylvania newsroom used analytics to retool its York Fair strategy and focus on quality, not quantity. “I was really focused on not doing the status quo,” said Kate Harmon, then the paper’s dayside metro editor.
She and Joel Shannon, the innovation editor, studied the data to prove a theory — that stories about hot-dog races and tractor pulls, those daily features that pulled a rotating schedule of reporters away from their beats, weren’t getting read but more in-depth fair stories were. They were right. “For years, our coverage had been extensive, routine and low-impact,” Shannon said. “Once we recognized this, we had a strong desire to use data to update our approach — to give our readers more of what they did want and less of what they didn’t.” Harmon focused a single reporter on two or three larger stories and let photographers handle the rest for a fresh approach that paid off.
What they learned about the audience: Fair readers valued news and information they can use. They wanted stories with emotion, stories that surprised. Anything other than that wasn’t worth the investment, Shannon said. Readers who seemed to value “fair news for the sake of fair news” were actually nostalgic and loved the historic photo galleries the newsroom produced instead.
Results: The number of page views per story improved. “We cut the number of bylines in half and doubled the number of page views,” Shannon said. “We worked less and got more results by only writing stories we knew our audience wanted to read.”
Biggest challenge: Planning. “This could never have happened if we didn’t conduct the analysis and work to assemble the galleries weeks in advance,” Shannon said. That, though, is key to York winning the company’s Smart Growth award. “Analyzing audience metrics takes time that some newsrooms, large and small, sometimes feel they can’t afford,” the judges said. Clearly, though, that time can pay off. “I've always tried to look at work and life that way,” said Harmon, who now works in nonprofit marketing. “Not everything needs to be done better, or can be done better. But I really believe that you have to stop and take a look at how and why you're doing things often. The world and people are always changing and we have to adapt to keep up.”
Reporter finds that politics is social
Greg Hilburn, Gannett’s Louisiana political reporter based at the News Star in Monroe, expanded his reach by sharing stories to social media pages of topical interest. “In a story I did about the warming relationship between the United States and Cuba and the possible benefits to future trade – Louisiana rice, Cuban cigars, etc. – I shared the link at least 15 times on Facebook, from the Louisiana Farm Bureau to national and state rice industry groups to cigar lovers,” Hilburn said. “It drove thousands of readers to our website, where we try to keep them there with other related links. I’ve had similar success with many other stories.”
What they learned about the audience: “There is a great demand for our work, but we can no longer expect the audience to find us,” Hillburn said. “We have to find the audience in the platform they frequent, then coax them to spend more time with us. “
Results: Hillburn said he was surprised by the effectiveness of such a simple strategy. “Success is measured not just by the additional people who read the story I’m promoting, but the amount of time I can engage them in our site once attracting them there,” he said.
Biggest challenge: Taking the time to find the social audiences to target. “I might spend a few hours reporting and writing the story and an almost equal amount of time (sharing) it,” Hillburn said.