The user needs model has been with us for a few years now and many organisations - international, national, regional, local, and niche - have been building on the work that BBC World Service pioneered in 2016-17. Dmitry Shishkin, an independent digital consultant and enthusiastic evangeliser of the model, recently looked at what has happened to the overall output and performance of content at the first place this model was applied - BBC News Russian. In short? It’s been transformative.

We’re often asked how a user-needs approach actually works. There are two principle ways it does:

  1. By reducing the amount of articles you create (of course there’s a caveat: read on)
  2. By creating stories which cover a broader spread of user needs (not just the obvious ‘update me’ ones)

The most striking result is that over a period of five years BBC News Russian managed to create 60% fewer articles (a decrease of 5099 articles April-December 2016, to 1999 during the same nine months in 2021) but at the same time generated almost 190% more pageviews (a mindblowing increase of 8833 average pageviews per article in 2016 to 25500 in 2021).

That means that while optimising content is one thing, stopping making content that your audience doesn’t need (or at least doesn’t need in such large quantities is another (we wrote about that here). And maybe the latter point is more powerful than we would like to think.

Write less. Win more.

Of course, there’s a caveat. And it’s a pretty big one.

The headline is irresistible: ‘BBC News Russian reduces number of articles they publish, see huge uptick in engagement’.

But that would be oversimplification. It's super important to stress that it’s not the quantity of what you publish that has likely been the issue and it won’t be the solution either. Reducing your publishing output won’t mean that your audience suddenly becomes supercharged.

What made BBC News Russian’s experience such a noteworthy success was that they reduced their output while simultaneously strategising and refining their content planning process. They were able to consider what their audience needed - and they responded by creating articles that addressed those things. For them, that meant reducing the number of a certain kind of article quite drastically and redirecting their time and effort into content that would yield better results - for the audience and the newsroom.

This is where a user needs model becomes indispensable. Analysis can show what audiences are reading, how they’re reading it, and how this relates to their general behaviour on your news site. This information can (and should) then help steer any editorial planning decisions. It may be - as was the case at BBC News Russian - that you’ve been overproducing ‘update me’ articles (evidenced by low engagement data), but achieving much higher engagement in articles tagged under other user needs such as ‘educate me’ or ‘give me perspective’. If this is the case, it shows the balance of what’s being produced, versus what’s being actually read is ‘off’, and you can adjust accordingly.

Often reducing Update me stories from your output does make a lot of sense - experience shows that a lot of newsrooms tend to overinflate the value of that specific audience need when covering the news agenda. However, it all depends on the role your organisation plays in your market and if you do go for an Update me proposition, then why not? Your user needs model is directly linked to your product market fit, it all depends on your brand value, your business model.

Dmitry Shishkin independent digital consultant

The Quadrant Model: the next phase in user needs

The Quadrant Model

But how do you figure this all out and incorporate it into newsrooms simply and frictionlessly? We want to make this as accessible and as easy-to-understand as humanly possible, so recently we’ve been developing a Quadrant Model - based on the shared insights we got working with DPG Media, who first developed this approach. If it’s used in conjunction with our foundational work on user needs and the results Dmitry reported, it could be a game-changer.

Quadrant model in the tool
The Quadrant Model in smartocto Insights

This model helps newsrooms to understand (at a glance) which topics, stories, sections and user needs perform well - and which don’t. In the model you’re able to define two axes (for example, one could be Reach and the other Engagement). Once you’ve done that, four quadrants will appear (see illustration) where you have either low engagement and low reach (your no-go area), low reach and high engagement (niche), low engagement and high reach (Reach Champions) and high engagement and high reach (pure win). These quadrants can help you to make decisions on what NOT to make anymore.

It’s easy to set up, easy to understand, and easy to incorporate into your workflow.

“If I had more time, I would have written a shorter letter” - Marcus Tullius Cicero

Cicero wasn’t wrong. Sometimes it’s easier to write more, produce more, publish more. But there’s huge power in reducing or editing, and at smartocto, in our constant search to make newsrooms more effective, efficient and (let’s face it) profitable, we think it’s something worth spending time on. So we have, and we are.

So that’s the idea. If you’re after more of a technical deep dive, stay tuned for our Q&A on the blog with Dragutin Miletic, where he’ll explain how all this works in practice. Dmitry Shishkin and I will also be in conversation, chatting about the results soon in an upcoming vodcast. The best way to make sure you don’t miss any of these golden nuggets, is to sign up to our newsletter. If you have already, a gold star for you. If not, click here!