If you read our blogs (and of course you do), you’ll know that we’ve done a project exploring the user needs approach to content strategy and creation.

It’s compelling stuff. Not only has it been shown to work - and at the BBC, no less - but it’s also a useful framework to start discussing and auditing established practice at newsrooms - whatever they look like.

One of the most quotable stats we’ve come across thus far is this:

70% of content produced at one BBC World Service hub fell into the ‘update me’* category, yet drove only 7% of traffic.

It’s striking. This could be an argument that newsrooms should reduce this kind of content, but nuance is our friend, and here’s why that’s not quite the conclusion you should draw.

*The ‘Update me’ user need does exactly what it says: it’s a regular news story that tells you what happened. You can read more about these categories here.

'update' wasn't always synonymous with 'instant'

‘Update me’ news is breaking news. And, breaking news is kind of the point of news, isn’t it?

Updating readers is what news is commonly about. Before the world got mobile-centric, these updates happened via hourly bulletins on the radio, or during the evening news on tv, or on the front page of the newspaper. ‘Update’ wasn’t synonymous with ‘instant’. Timeframes were longer.

But with the mobile now accounting for around 70% of news traffic, the nature of these updates has changed too.

The fact is, many of us get these updates as if by osmosis: they come organically, effortlessly through social media, via personal messages and - in normal circumstances - through conversation with real-live people, in real-live settings.

The reliance on media outlets to be the providers of this information isn’t as pressing as it once was. There are many ways to stay up to date.

But if ‘first to breaking news’ is still the rallying cry for publishers, it follows that the battle hotly fought right now is for the space on your home screen. This sacred space is rightly coveted. It’s the ultimate in visibility.

it's one thing to break that news, but audiences need more

News bulletins are generally the core business of most newsrooms

All this brings us onto a simple truth: bulletins form the basis of content for the majority of news organisations. Sure there are some who’ve struck out to take a ‘slow’ view (Tortoise, Delayed Gratification - who proudly proclaim that they’re ‘last to breaking news’ - and Zetland spring to mind), but those businesses are predicated on the understanding that their users are vociferous news consumers and probably have other sources providing the ‘update me’ function.

So, for most newsrooms, credibility is directly related to their ability to report the news quickly and efficiently.

It’s necessary to be fast and accurate, but that’s only one facet of what newsrooms do. Our own data analysis has broadly confirmed the findings of that BBC World Service study: our research found that 70% of content drove only 20% of traffic, so while it’s not as dramatic as those other figures, it shows that this is a trend, not an anomaly. It’s one thing to break that news, but audiences need more. They need context, elaboration, details, inspiration. A headline is one thing, but that 70% shows that it’s only part of the story. Audiences want more. They’re asking for it. Who’s listening?

When should ‘update me’ not be ‘update me’?

The short answer is: when it’s done out of laziness, or lack of time or interest, or because “it’s what we’ve always done”. Nostalgia is a shitty business model. ‘Just because’ wins no plaudits.

No, ‘Update me’ is absolutely fine - and it’s essential - but it’s best thought of as being part of a broader array of content. Sales and marketing folks talk about the funnel, and that’s a reasonable analogy here too: update me is right at the top, but that kind of content alone won’t be sufficient when you’re thinking about conversion or retention of readers. Other approaches are necessary too.

Mobile has created a culture where we’re all walking around with a news ticker. News travels fast. Unfortunately, the flip side of this is that it leaves quickly too.

Traffic time 2019 vs. 2020

Since the start of January 2019 our own data shows that traffic has been slumping. It’s something that is evident on desktop and mobile, but the broad trend is that engagement metrics (read depth, page depth, attention time) are significantly lower on mobile.

Attention time 2019 vs. 2020

This isn’t surprising. ‘Snackable’ content fits well into this kind of pattern of consumption, and while we’re all happily munching on headlines and breaking news, it pays to think about how to tempt readers to sit down to consume something more substantial - or at least something different.

too many articles end up as 'orphans'

At smartocto we talk about content creation in terms of a Story Life Cycle - a continuous process where the values of the company and reader feed into how and why content is created, published and read. Those learnings inform subsequent content creation and distribution. We’d argue there’s something to be said for thinking of ‘update me’ as being part of that cycle: while sometimes a news bulletin will only ever necessitate a bulletin, we’d argue that often it warrants a follow up of some description. It’s part of how you ‘discover’ new ways to communicate stories and information.

Too many articles end up as ‘orphans’ - content floating around without connection or relevant context, and usually not related to specific audience needs either. Your publication likely relies on metrics like time on page and attention time to ascertain how well it’s doing, so an approach of creating connected content makes sense. Those update me bulletins likely warrant further exploration or expansion - and that’s where the other user needs come into their own.

Of course, all this necessitates keeping a close eye on what is happening to those alerts and stories.

  • Are they generating any engagement?
  • If it’s on social media, what’s the conversation cropping up around them?
  • Are there questions being posed that you’re in a position to answer?
  • Is clarity required?
  • Is there more engagement on one channel than another?

The onus is on editorial teams and journalists to watch what’s happening here. With a dashboard like smartocto’s, this is simple. In fact, we’re working on a way to deliver notifications that will alert you to when an update me story qualifies for, well, an update. We’re also looking at finding out what percentage of these stories that warrant an update aren’t getting them. These kinds of reports might not always be the most comfortable to read, but hey: as journalists you’re used to speaking truth to power. Applying the same kind of scrutiny upon ourselves is no bad thing.

'update me' is only ever the starting point

If you’ve skipped to the end for a summary, you’re in luck. It’s this:

The Update Me story is integral to the newsroom. It forms the framework. If you’re building a house you wouldn’t stop at the foundations. It’s only ever the starting point. It’s what you do next that makes the difference.

So, Update Me should absolutely be used if:

  • It’s breaking news, but there’s more to come
  • It’s a news update necessitating no further clarification or follow up

If it doesn’t fall into these two categories, perhaps the way the story is told would fit better into another of the User Needs types?

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But if the news does fit into an ‘update me’ mould, then notifications may form a vital service to help maximise your readers’ engagement. To give an example of how this might work with a tool like ours…

User needs notifications

Let’s say you’re a large regional publisher who’s pursuing a subscription-based strategy. You’re going to be interested in bolstering engagement and loyalty both to increase conversions, but also to prevent churn by providing content that continues to be relevant and engaging.

So, how might user needs notifications work for you?

Let’s say something significant has happened. Your news desk are on it. They’re fast and speedy and the bulletin is fired out, shared on various social channels, and within minutes there are a million mobile devices buzzing with a push notification, fulfilling at least part of that ‘update me’ user need. What’s next?

  1. You might get a notification alerting you that, based on current reader behaviour, it’s time to publish a follow up - but from a specific user need perspective. Maybe readers are suggesting they want some perspective or further context?
  2. News alerts are important, but how can you ensure that what you’re publishing is in line with your business targets? Whether it’s reach, engagement, loyalty or conversion (or a combination), wouldn’t it be great if we could calculate what user need performs best for each of those targets? For the example above, where growing subscriptions is the goal, we can fire a notification that has this in mind. ‘To get more engagement right now, you should consider writing more Educate Me pieces - especially in the human interest section’.
  3. We can make very specific predictions (based on historical data, fueled by smartocto insights) on authors, sections, topics, channels in relation to the desired business outcomes. In practice this would look something like: “In order to increase your conversion rate, you should write more ‘keep me on trend’ articles today!”

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If you’re interested in the data science behind these notifications, this article about how the team developed them might be of interest to you

Think of this as a note. Our work on the Triple N project came from realising there were unanswered questions and untapped publishing opportunities in the newsroom. We’re learning all the time too. Share your thoughts with us. They might form the basis of the next iteration of this solution. That’s how we all get places.

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