Do you want to generate high audience engagement on your news stories and form a bond with loyal readers? Then you've come to the right place: the user needs based storytelling concept was developed to achieve just that. Let's face it: digital technology has forced the role of the newsroom to change, and the function of news has changed with it. As have audience behaviours and news consumption patterns. Nowadays, different people need different things from news content. If you want to connect to the audience, you'd better listen to them.

Fortunately, these past years the publishing sector has been learning a lot about this, through audience research, ‘growth hacks’ and constant content iteration. Several models of 'news user needs' have been created in the last few years, many of them built on the groundbreaking work introduced by BBC World Service. Their research revealed six specific needs that global audiences expect to be satisfied when it comes to news coverage.

Dmitry Shishkin was one the first advocates of the model at the BBC and oversaw its adoption at their different newsrooms around the world. He has been partnering with us on the Triple N project, and shares his tips and experience here: "The 'news needs approach' covers six different editorial treatments of a news event. By focusing on other details of the story besides the cold, hard facts, the story can offer more value to the reader, which has been proven on many occasions in various settings."

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Why should you adopt the news needs approach?

Consider this: when you're covering a big event, chances are that people have stumbled upon that piece of news somewhere already. You don't want to do the exact same type of coverage as everyone else, that would make you irrelevant. The user needs perspectives are a great way to differentiate yourself from other online publishers. Dmitry: "I believe that the concept makes sense for everyone, even though the circumstances and the user needs might be a little bit different. I'm not saying that you suddenly should stop writing about what has happened, only you'll get to engage your audience in a much stronger way with other user needs rather than 'what has happened'."

Dmitry Shishkin on user needs: "You'll get to engage your audience in a much stronger way"

Creative news coverage is not as hard as you think

Chances are that some of your content already fits the user needs model, because, as Dmitry says, "The four user needs 'Update me', 'Divert me', 'Keep me on trend' and 'Give me perspective' are something that newsrooms tend to do, anyway." Your opportunities for growth might be with 'Educate me' and 'Inspire me', so direct your time and attention towards those. "Ultimately - the BBC model has been proven to fit almost any market or surroundings, I'd say, with an 80% match. It's wise (and advisable) to ask the audience directly about what they need from your brand, but I am yet to see a push back where the established needs were not applicable to a large degree."

how do you cover news in a user needs way?

Dmitry explains: "You take a piece of news, and then you try and see how it can be covered for the audience answering six different user needs. It's almost always possible to do so. Just take one piece of news in the morning, and ask your team to go away from the newsroom meeting and come back with ideas reflecting all these user needs about one particular piece of news."

Getting started

Before you start, make sure you have a clear picture of your present performance with a user needs analysis. Evaluate 3 months worth of content and flag your existing stories by user need. How many user needs are you already covering? How is your audience responding to them? How is the content performing overall? Once you have your 'zero measure' in place, you can start experimenting. Build on your successes, and add the needs that you're not currently covering. You can start with a pilot with one need, see how it goes, and expand along the way. 'Educate me' is a good user need to start with, because most newsrooms tend to overlook it. After that, 'Inspire me' is a good one.

listen to your audience and use their response as a guide

Dmitry: "If you want to do it right, then start with establishing your own user needs model by doing face to face interviews with your audience. Always let them explain why they consume news and after a while a clear picture will emerge. As I said, my prediction is that you’ll be following the BBC model about 80% of the time or so, so the majority of needs are quite universal.

Think creatively. How can you write that article differently? Instead of explaining the same piece of news with just a news article, explore new possibilities. Why not have a Q&A on what it means, or - with the help of experts and columnists - explore how it might develop in the future?"

Explore our user needs how to-guides:

Most newsrooms will find that they are overproducing content that is not performing. Focus on performance and put your efforts toward that type of content. But always make sure that it stays balanced. Keep an eye on the data, but let it advise you, not dictate your actions.

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Discover how a user needs project changed the workflows, output and engagement of 3 newsrooms.

Making it a success

The whole newsroom needs to be on board in order to make a real transformation happen. But don't let that put you off - even small changes can make a difference. Change is hard and people are generally very change-averse. It's ok. You could start with one reporter piloting the user needs approach. Once they start showing success, more will become interested and start experimenting for themselves. Just be sure you have proof that it's working. Have the numbers and data ready to compare your results against your previous performance.

But, "Take your time - any change management process takes from 3 to 9 months up to a year. And it's an ongoing process really, you learn along the way. I'd rather have a hundred small changes to the product, rather than one huge change. One huge change never works, because you will likely be pissing off your loyal audience who are going to be disappointed." That's Dmitry speaking from experience!

Dmitry Shishkin on the 'user needs approach': "I believe in making many small changes"

Dmitry: "It helps to have a multidisciplinary team, or even just one person, involved in the project. They can bridge the gap between data and the newsroom, making clear why you're doing this and how it's paying off. That's why we have seen an important trend of establishing Audience Engagement teams across global newsrooms over the last 5 years or so. Audience Engagement specialists - with an editorial, data and project management background - help organise growth hacks, launch new editorial products, address underperformance of certain genres or topics and many more similar things.

Also, always remember that nothing is set in stone. One user need might be a flop in a text format, but do wonderfully in visually-orientated content.

One user need could be a perfect fit for one subject, but not for another

As markets and competitors develop, your brand's user needs will change too, so it's important to keep having ongoing conversations with your users and your audience development specialists.

Applying data is crucial - and it’s hard to put it better than the legendary US engineer William Edwards Deming, who famously said: “A person without data is just another person with an opinion".

In other words, less gut feeling, more user needs!

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