5 years ago, the user needs model for news was developed by BBC World Service and Dmitry Shishkin. Together with Dmitry, we then started working on a smartocto user needs project and we quickly realised that 'the follow-up', where editors cover the facts from a different perspective and keep their readers engaged for longer, is absolutely key. That's why we created a smart notification system to help editors choose the right editorial approach for their next stories. In this guest blog, Dmitry takes us on a trip down memory lane and describes the impact the model has had ever since it came into existence.

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User needs in content publishing: the slide that started it all, five years later

Meaningful and sustainable growth opportunities in digital publishing come when newsrooms satisfy their audiences’ distinctive content user needs by properly understanding and utilising their market role and purpose. In this piece, I go back to the original case study from 2016 and the slide that started it all. I always wanted to see what happened since. It’s been fascinating - read on to find more.    

News needs. Audience needs. Content user needs. Different words that describe the same concept. A significant trend in the publishing sector is at the core of its engagement problem. In short, you tell a story you want to tell, but you do it from the angle your audience values - as simple as that.  

Those newsrooms that adopted a user needs-based content strategy to their work  (I wrote about the concept here, here and here) are more effective internally and distinctive externally. They produce less unneeded content, gain more audience, and engage it better -  in short, they really utilise their product-market fit. Media organisations that are aware of why they exist in the market, what their USP is, and how to serve their niche audience better win, and those that don’t first drift and ultimately lose.

some of the industry headlines about user needs from the last few months.
Some of the industry headlines about user needs from the last few months.

I did not know anything about any of this five years ago when the BBC World Service Audience team pioneered the user needs concept, as its digital development editor, I run with it. Since leaving the BBC 3 years ago I collected about a dozen other models, broadly based on the original one and helped shape many of them myself. Suddenly every conference talk and many newsroom conversations I have been having, either touched or were centred around the user needs approach.     

I wanted to recreate the slide (using the recent data) that made a user needs model so widely known, the one that actually made a huge impact on my career. The slide that really started it all was first shown publicly in Vienna, at the Global Editors Network summit in 2017. It demonstrated the crucial importance of user needs centricity in newsroom work and highlighted the disbalance between what audiences want from news and what newsrooms actually produce. As a consultant, since then I’ve seen many similar cases in other newsrooms. Our sector has a lot of work to do. 

So, what happened to the transformational editorial change I was once a part of? The research conducted by the BBC in 2016 had taught us that audiences expect much more from newsrooms - they want to be updated, yes, but they also want to be educated, kept on trend, inspired, amused and given perspective, all on the key news topics of the day. See the slide below. Here is that initial slide.

The initial BBC slide from 2016

In short, that newsroom was overdoing ‘Update me’ user need stories and not producing enough other angles. As effectively an internal consultant at the time, together with my team, we recommended BBC News Russian to address that imbalance by covering the news agenda through more analysis, context, explainers, original reporting, and cutting on the superficial noise. 

So what’s it like now, five years later? Did the change stick? Did the then editors, more of whom are still there, use the system for their day to day work? What have the long term learnings been? Did the newsroom build on more effective, but then largely ignored, yet important user needs? 

The timing was perfect. The initial sample of stories was gathered from Aug-Dec 2016. I’ve gone back to my old friends and asked them to do a similar report based on Aug-Dec 2021 data.  The original slide was created in spring 2017, so it’s fitting to unveil it in spring 2022. The same time period, the same team, the same site, the same user needs, but five years apart. 

Drums roll. The new slide.

User needs BBC case study

Quick insights on a five-year comparison

1. The changes in output are staggering: while the team cut down the total number of published stories by 60%, all average metrics per story per user need category grew, and the overall audience tripled. Compare relative numbers for yourselves in the table below.

User needs number 2016 en 2021 compared

2. This suggests a much better planning and commissioning process of stories that resonate, matter and make a difference, with much less waste. This also suggests consistency, the strategy behind tactics and creative execution, and above all, understanding your niche and your role in the market.

3. In 2016, ‘Keep me on trend’, ‘Give me perspective’ and ‘Educate me’ user needs were in demand, but not enough of them were created - it was a clear missed opportunity. The team listened, amended the output, the audience reacted positively, and five years later, the average page views per story in those categories respectively grew by 84%, 250% and 277% (the slide below shows a relative change of user need impact across 5 years).

The relative change of user need impact across 5 years

4. Let’s not forget the ‘Update me’ user need though - ignore it at your peril! - the Russian political and social situation changed so drastically, that need is very much alive. While the team cut down on absolute volumes, on average an ‘Update me’ story was read not 4000 like five years ago, but 22000 times, a 450% growth. Overall, the slide below suggests that the audience appreciates the new strategy.

average page views per user need story

5. Of course, lots of engagement metrics should be analysed further - my aim here was to compare a specific one. Do some user needs impact on audience retention and recirculation better? (Yes, they do). Can some specific user needs stories be packaged in new editorial products? (Of course). Do some user needs convert better for subscriptions? (Naturally!). All of the answers here are from my work with other publishers elsewhere.

I am very grateful to my BBC colleagues for allowing me to do this basic comparison for the wider public service good in the journalism profession. BBC News Russian News editor Famil Ismailov has a few insights into other newsrooms on how to apply user needs concept successfully:

Insight 1. User needs = storytelling  

“By definition, the newsroom is always thinking about ‘content first’ and ‘product second’, i.e. the story should be out there as soon as possible. User needs are not something obvious (unless it becomes part of the curriculum in a journalism degree), and it needs to be part of a training course. Stats that show which stories have done well are the best demonstration of the point: user needs help to focus the story on a particular way of style, structure, and format - e.g. the way of storytelling. And journalists love to hear about storytelling techniques.”

Insight 2. News items get different user needs treatment 

"Event-driven topics always start as short, ‘Update me’ stories. Then, after more detail and background are added, they become ‘Keep me on trend’ or ‘Give me perspective’ stories. If a story (especially a video) has an emotional element, it might turn into an ‘Inspire me’ or ‘Divert me’ story. Long term planning involves stories timed to a particular event or a historic date, especially explainers, and usually work as ‘Educate me’ stories. I more often hear now editors setting their tasks with words like “well, I see it as a [user need] story, and journalists seem to understand exactly what is required of them’."

Insight 3. Persistence and patience 

“When introducing a user need model, you have to be persistent but not patronising, patient but not a pushover. You warn your team that the results won’t be immediate, but they will be noticeable. Digital journalism has gone way beyond great writing (which is also important). Publishing a story is just the beginning of the journey to the hearts and minds of the audiences. Algorithms will help you to find those hearts, and user needs will make sure you are a match with the state of their minds."

Insight 4. Think about the tagging 

“There were two main hurdles to overcome: to sell the idea to the editorial team and to make it as easy as possible to use in the content production system. Both were essential. If journalists do not understand what benefits adding user needs brings, they won’t use them. If adding tags involves several steps (“open this tab, click this drop-down menu, etc.), they will struggle to remember to use them. Finally, when the routine has been established - do not change it!"

Other content organisations (not only news ones, but lifestyle, financial, travel etc) continue applying and experimenting with user needs concepts in their work. I am sharing some of the more recent ones below. It’s great to see different needs used, different types of newsrooms involved, and all of their insights work supported by research and audience testing. 

The Atlantic published its model recently

User needs project of The Atlantic

So did The Conversation (specifically for its climate change articles).

user needs model of The Conversation

More models are being created globally, and more on this soon. 

Thank you for your attention. If you have questions about user needs models or would like me to help your company with them, please get in touch. If you have a model I might be missing, please let me know, too. 

You can reach me either here or on Twitter @dmitryshishkin - I am interested in content creation, digital products, innovation, digital transformation, synthetic media, the developing world, leadership in the global setting, and other exciting things this decade is so rich of.