October isn’t just great, it’s extraoctonary (see what we did there?). While others may be gathering autumnal harvests, we’re gathering thoughts around what we think is one of the most important things for publishers right now: engagement and engaging content.

We’ve noticed something else too. Lots and lots of inspirational quotes. They’re everywhere, and it’s worth spending some time unpicking some of them.

But first, a little disclaimer: I’m not trying to be rude or offend anyone here. It's just that I’ve noticed that so often these quotes have become what we in the Netherlands call ‘tile wisdoms’: great if you need a punchy quote, but a little short on actual substance and actionability. There’s much that needs unpicking and further explanation. Smartoctober seems to be a perfect month to do just that. So here goes.

engagement is one of the most important things for publishers right now

First up: what is engagement, anyway?

Well, here’s what it’s not. It’s not about how many likes you get. It’s not all about shares. It’s not about whether or not your page impressions are on the increase.

And in this context it doesn’t come packaged in a Tiffany-blue box either.

To be clear, engagement is a broad term, but for the purposes of this article, I’m thinking in terms of how much the audience reacted positively to what a publisher publishes; if they stuck around; if they thought it was worth sharing; if they came back the next day; if they liked what they read, watched or listened to.

The common thread here is about connection. Think about your newsroom. Are the stories you’re publishing resonating with your audience? Does your audience feel a kinship with your brand? Does audience behaviour show that their interest was piqued enough to get stuck in, to comment, to share, to start conversations? Is your audience interested? And, do they show this in their reading behaviour?

Why should you care about it?

Apart from the above, because it’s critical to publishers in this post-advertising landscape. Reader revenue increasingly forms a key part of publishers’ business plans, and whether you’re pursuing subscriptions, membership or trying more dynamic advertising models, the content is the key to peoples investment - be it monetary or emotional.

Is Engagement always the holy grail?

No, but between Exposure, Engagement and Loyalty (the three measures we use in our CPI model) it’s engagement that is the object of most people’s focus right now. Looking at engagement is never time wasted.

So, I get all this, but what does engaging content look like?

Well, this could be a very long list, but we often hear things like:

  • … it’s something which is able to grab and hold a person’s attention
  • … it’s something that’s so appealing and interesting you want to learn more
  • … it’s informative and entertaining, well-written and good quality
  • … it’s share-worthy
  • … it reaches the reader on an emotional level, triggering conscious and unconscious reactions
  • … it offers readers a new or different perspective, is inspirational, funny or entertaining

What’s confusing is that when it comes to pinpointing what makes content engaging, all of this could be true - or none of it.

There’s a simpler filter that you can use, and it’s called the user needs approach. We’ve done a lot of work on this in the past year (there’s even a whitepaper you can download), and it’s a framework to help publishers think beyond the typical ‘update me’ format - there are, simply put, many reasons people seek out information, and many content creators aren’t fully aware of them because they’re not as engaged with their audience as they should be.

Employing a user needs framework ensures that you’re being responsive as well as reactive. Analytics (and in our case our notification system as well) can act as an extra layer of communication to help make sure that you’re connecting, interacting and engaging with your audience at the optimum level.

Right, so let’s dig in. Forks at the ready

You can't buy engagement. You have to build engagement

Of course Tara-Nicholle Nelson has a point here, but there’s quite a bit worth unpicking here. So, why don’t we?

How do you actually build engagement?

Well, let’s say this: she’s not wrong. Let’s start off there.

‘Buying’ engagement makes just about as much sense as buying a friend does: sure, it *might* turn out ok, but generally robust relationships are built, not acquired - and that takes time, focus and attention.

Here’s what we’d do:

1. Go back to your brand DNA, and think carefully about your audience

Understand that you have to take a step back to get anywhere. Start with your brand, and your mission. What do you stand for? What are your values? What’s your perspective? How about your target market? How well do you know them? How does your brand intersect with your audience? Although this might sound like publishing 101, this is a conversation we always have whenever we’re consulting with new newsrooms - and by and large it almost always needs time spent on.

2. Know that engagement comes from understanding, so commit

If the central part of a publisher’s job is to serve the audience content that’s relevant, exciting and useful to them, you need to delve into what they need. Luckily for you, we’ve just spent ages working on a project called News Needs Notifications, which addresses exactly this issue. User Needs is something that’s starting to be talked about in ever widening circles, and it’s a great time to get into the conversation.

3. Pay attention to feedback - both personal and robotic

One of the biggest problems with newsrooms today is the workflow. It simply hasn’t changed a great deal since the print era. Journalists are assigned beats and stories, they’re researched, written, published and then…… they start the process again. This is a huge missed opportunity. Why? Well, simply because the audience can now tell us when they want follow up stories or information. Surely it’s a no-brainer to listen and respond?

Activate your fans. Don't just collect them like baseball cards

Jay Baer knows what he’s talking about, so we’re not casting aspersions here (and we’ve quoted him ourselves on numerous occasions), but we do need to talk about how to activate (or reanimate) the audience. For me, the obvious question is:

Engagement is active, not passive. So exactly how do you enliven your fans?

Back in the days when I was still working at a large public broadcaster, we defined 3 types of online visitors. We called it the 3F-model and it looks something like this:

  • Fly-bys - those who occasionally visit your website, click on some articles or watch some videos they like (mostly very topic-specific) and they will not return at all, or at least for a very long time.
  • Friends - these visitors are a bit more interested in what you do and have to say (online). They come more often each month (let’s say once a week) and they browse around - they seem to be interested in more than one single topic. Their attention time is higher than with fly-bys and they might also start following you on one or more channels.
  • Fans (or brand ambassadors) - this is the most important group of people because they are the ones who are very connected to your brand. They like your product, your service or whatever it is that makes your brand (story) unique. They are willing to spend money on you, follow you on multiple channels, subscribe to your newsletter, and most importantly, they communicate with you (like and share content - which is a proof of appreciation - but also start to comment on certain messages and will convince others to get involved with everything about your brand). And of course they visit you on multiple channels and at least 3 times a week.

Why is it important to activate them?

Moving from ‘fly-by’ to ‘fan’ isn’t something that happens overnight. It takes time and investment - just like any relationship. So, you need to understand when someone moves up a ‘stage’; you need to understand the metrics that signal that someone is becoming more connected with you - and you need to do this actively and with great care.

The best way to get engagement on social media is to be engaging on social media

Another candidate for the ‘no shit, Sherlock’ award. That said, we totally agree with this - and it’s something that needs to be restated often, because social media is still being used as a way to link back to a main website. No one likes the carbon copy.

Channel dynamics - write for each channel, don’t just copy and paste

We like to believe that the party is at the bus stop, which means you need to be relevant on the channel you want to get in touch with your audience on. Don’t just use Instagram as a link factory: make each social media platform count for something.

Then, of course, there’s the issue that algorithms that determine engagement differ from one social media platform to the next - what Facebook values, Instagram may not. And, who’s to say what they prize this month will be the same six months’ from now?

  • Understand why your audience visits different platforms, and create content that’s appropriate for the intersection between audience and channel
  • Deliver what the platform likes: if you don’t have great pictures, Pinterest or Instagram are not your channels. If you’re not willing to actually communicate, stay away from Twitter, if you don’t have attractive video-content to share, YouTube is not your playground.
  • Set a strategy, goals and monitor your success and progress.

In summary…

Know your audience, know your brand, know the channels you’re working with, and understand the user needs that are relevant to you.

If we could package all this in a Tiffany-blue box, we would, but hopefully this blog post is valuable in its own way.