Glancing back over the past year before we stride into the next

When we were writing our takeaways of 2020 a year ago, we never imagined that the pandemic would still have such a big effect on the publishing industry in 2021. The news cycle may look like it’s stuck in a loop, and the front pages may seem depressingly familiar, but there have been some interesting developments behind the scenes in the newsroom.

Our takeaways this year are actually actionable tips, and those stem from what we think has been the most important focal point for publishers in 2021:

“In order to become more relevant, you need to put your audience at the centre of everything you do”

User needs and reader behaviour have occupied our thoughts a lot this year, but it’s not just our obsession: more and more publishers have recognised the value in putting the audience first, so it’s been fascinating and timely to see this approach rolling out.

So, our end of year summary is really an actionable checklist. Don’t worry about ticking them off this minute: go forth and be festive. Just consider this to be an aid to jump start 2022. Let’s hope we’re all talking about something other than Covid this time next year, eh?

  1. Understanding the needs of your users is essential for bringing value to your readers
  2. Write fewer stories, but make them more relevant
  3. Retain your readers with personalised news
  4. Build a strategy that’s more subscription-based
  5. Creating engaging content is key
  6. Invest in building a loyal audience
  7. Collecting data is pointless if you don’t have a plan to make it actionable
  8. The newsroom needs a culture change
  9. Build your audience on your own platforms
  10. And finally, bring your analytics strategy to the next level (aka What We Did Next)

1. Understanding the needs of your users is essential for bringing value to your readers

The fact is that in 2021 people don’t consume the news the way they did twenty years ago. Heck, we don’t even consume the news the way we did a decade ago. Digital technology has changed the way news is disseminated and the way it’s produced - but it’s also altered the way the audience consumes it. It follows, then, that if publishers want to stay relevant, they must listen attentively to their audience’s needs.

The User Needs approach has been deployed by a number of publishers and newsrooms, and many of these have been based on the work of Dmitry Shishkin for the BBC. Recognising the value of this approach and seeing how it fit seamlessly into our ethos, over the course of 2021 smartocto worked with Dmitry to develop a user needs model that’s applicable to every newsroom, easy to initiate, monitor and action - and the results have been groundbreaking.

It’s all well and good for us to say that, but our enthusiasm in this approach is increasingly being shared across the industry - and it’s getting a higher priority in many newsrooms.

2. Write fewer stories, but make them more relevant

All this brings us to a related point: that of relevancy. We all have access to so much information, all the time, that it’s becoming hard to filter out what we actually want or need to read. This presents a big opportunity for newsrooms. There are major gains to be had by creating less content, but more relevant content.

You see, this may be information that you’d rather not know, but the majority of your readers are only actually interested in 20% of your content. Over the past twelve months, more and more newsrooms have taken it upon themselves to cast a critical eye over what interests and engages their readers, and have used this analysis to produce content which is more relevant to their audience.

  • Fact-finding mission: what’s in your 20%? What stories do your audience actually read? Where is engagement particularly high? Is there a correlation between what you commission and what’s actually read?

The right headline will get your audience to read your story

There’s an important role here for headlines here as well. With the right headline, you’ll grab just enough attention in your reader to get them to read your story. A/b tests are the way to get to that best headline, that’s why it’s becoming more prominent in newsrooms these days. There’s also a catch: if you run a headline that’s overly sensational or misleading in any way, your readers are more likely to feel misled or disappointed in the article which follows.

  • A good headline should be clear: it must indicate what the article is about and hint at the user need that the article is responding to
  • A/B tests are easy to do, and they will not only help boost individual articles, but educate you more broadly on what your audience responds to. What’s not to love about them?

Our clients’ data from the past year shows that A/B testing is on the rise.

Data used here is that from clients who had a licence for at least a whole year
Amount of A/B tests performed per week. Data is from clients who used smartocto for at least a whole year.

3. Retain your readers with personalised news

Since the attention span of readers is so low and the potential information overload is so high, more and more newsrooms are getting acquainted with news personalisation. It’s a big opportunity to attract and retain readers. Newsrooms are implementing personalisation in different ways, like readers getting a recommendation page or algorithms working to filter information for them. But they also offer personalisation to their readers, for example in the possibility to subscribe to certain news sections or to enable personalised push notifications.

Every reader is unique and is looking for their unique news interests. But there is also danger in this. When readers only read the news they prefer, it can lead to biased opinions or filter bubbles. So news organisations need to remember that they can’t leave personalisation up to algorithms alone. You always need a human editor making sure that what’s popular isn’t harmful or indecent.

  • Personalisation might look like highly individualised front pages, and those are great, but if your newsroom doesn’t have the budget or the tech for that (or you’re just not quite at that point yet), it still pays to think about your brand DNA and how that should reflect in your news output.

Nurturing your loyal reader base is an investment worth making

4. Build a strategy that’s more subscription-based

We all know that subscription models are the way to live long and prosper as a newsroom. Sustainable growth is highly important for newsrooms in these uncertain times and nurturing your loyal reader base is an investment worth making. Subscriptions and loyalty obviously go hand in hand - and engagement is key, so measure it well.

There are many ways to build a paywall or grow your subscriber base. Badische Zeitung managed to do it by focusing more on their engaging content and we think that’s a very good strategy. By identifying the content which your readers interact with more, you can create more of it and in turn provide more content that your readers actually like. CPI (our Content Performance Indicator score) is one way to measure that - and it’s really easy to understand, though it belies a very complex calculation.

  • Determine your most important KPIs and investigate what drives them - when creating engaging content, this is what you should be focusing on
  • Refresh your memory and get critical: read this article about how we measure reader loyalty

5. Creating engaging content is key

So, focusing on creating more engaging content can really help grow your subscriber base. But engaging content can bring you so much more. There’s a reason why we dedicated a whole month to it (if Smartoctober passed you by, you should definitely go to our LinkedIn posts from October).

When your content is engaging, it can bring you more readers, who are more loyal to you, more likely to subscribe to your channels, all of which increases your brand awareness and business growth.

  • How DO you create engaging content? Well, we created an easy-to-digest guide with our top seven tips. That’s a good place to start.

6. Invest in building a loyal audience

We mentioned loyalty before and you’d be right to think that loyalty, relevancy and engagement are different sides of the same coin (if coins had three sides). Writing more about what your audience actually wants to read will make them come back to you more often.

When it comes to younger generations, it’s getting more difficult to connect them to your brand. We wrote a piece on this in 2020, but we noticed that in the last couple of months it’s becoming our best read article. Numerous studies have demonstrated that millennials and gen Z consume information differently, so newsrooms have to come up with different formats to engage them.

(This is something we’ll probably dive into in the new year, but as a quick aside, it’s worth mentioning that one of our clients recently introduced a podcast platform and they noticed that it has been particularly successful among their younger demographic. So, as the calendar ticks over to another year, it’s worth spending some time thinking about formats and which ones might appeal to your difficult-to-reach audience. As our editor is fond of saying: ‘nostalgia is a shitty business model’ - new issues deserve fresh thinking)

A solid data strategy is a must-have in today’s world

7. Collecting data is pointless if you don’t have a plan to make it actionable

This is kind of becoming our evergreen topic, isn’t it? But we feel like it has to be addressed again, and a lot of others feel the same way (Google even created some e-learning on this).

Most newsrooms acknowledge that having a solid data strategy is a must-have in today’s business world.

However, if you ask them about their plan to go from data to action, most of the time it stays pretty vague. It’s vital that you know your business strategy and you know which metrics belong to that strategy. Measure what matters and don’t waste your time on data you’re not going to use, but always keep actionability in mind. And don’t forget that data isn’t a one-size-fits-all thing: there are probably different people in your newsroom that need different data.

Then, when you have the right data, find a way to inspire your actions on it. When you have to choose between your gut and your data, most of the time the data is probably right (however hard it may be to accept that). The last step is to evaluate if your actions are yielding the desired results.

  • Get into reports. Create specialised and dedicated reports with insights that focus on the metrics that matter to you and your newsroom. You can’t manage what you don’t measure, after all.

8. The newsroom needs a culture change

So let us make ourselves clear, we know that generally newsrooms are headed in the right direction - and compared to a few years ago, progress is certainly being made. Newsrooms are increasingly data-rich and data-informed. They know that ignoring audience insights is ultimately counterproductive. But while there has been an improvement, there’s still work to be done. Our CEO and CMO spend a lot of time in newsrooms in Europe, and through their various consultancy work they know that the biggest issue for newsrooms is a problem with culture change.

In every newsroom there are still those who feel threatened by data, who worry that their way of working will be proven wrong or those who believe that their gut feeling works better than insights based on numbers.

We’re here to say that data absolutely shouldn’t remove the human side of journalism. Rather, we feel like a data analytics tool should be like a cobot. If journalism and a journalist’s work would benefit from the insights brought by an analytics tool and the ability to automate a lot of things, then why not profit from it?

The only question left - and we admit is a big one - is: how do you implement a data-inspired approach in your newsroom? How do you achieve that culture change? Those are exactly the questions that we tackled in our webinar in December 2021, and you can watch it here.

What will happen when you can no longer rely on third party cookies?

9. Build your audience on your own platforms

Even though Google has postponed the death of the third party cookie until 2023, publishers mustn’t put off thinking about how this will affect them. What will happen when you can no longer rely on third party cookies? How will it change your workflow, strategy and revenue?

Ever the optimists that we are, it’s good to think about the upsides to this change. Collecting first party data will increase trust among your audience, and also bring more safety to your newsroom. As we saw with the major Facebook outage this year, being dependent on another platform can easily backfire and leave you with nothing when the platform or your account goes down. And while our own data doesn’t show a dramatic change in engagement on social platforms, there is a downward trajectory emerging.

Amount of Facebook and Twitter engagement per week.
Amount of Facebook and Twitter engagement per week. Data is from clients who used smartocto for at least a whole year.

So what’s to be done?

  • Build your audience on your own platforms. Create an amazing content marketing strategy that will attract your target audience to visit your own website, where you can measure and understand their behaviour.

10. And finally, bring your analytics strategy to the next level

A little while back we had a thought. What if we flipped the way the publishing industry has historically thought about editorial analytics on its head? What if we doubled down on our central promise of giving newsrooms actionable insights and pure content intelligence?

If we became data agnostic, we reckoned, and plugged right into the data source, it could be possible to create a single report of actionable tips which were perfectly aligned with behavioural patterns, business goals and audience behaviour.

That’s what we’ve been working on over the past couple of months and we think it’s going to be game changing. We’ve called it Smartify. You get to choose which insights you’ll get from our tool. You’ll not only receive smart notifications when smartocto sees an opportunity to take a story to the next level, but you can also let us calculate your own scenario. Do you want to push a story right now, or post a story on Facebook right now? We’ll calculate the best choices for you. And that’s not all. If this has sparked your interest, you know where to find us, and you’ll know what we’ll be up to in 2022.