For clients embracing the User Needs Model 2.0, we often notice an overproduction of 'Update me' stories. It's important to recognise that sometimes creating these stories is unavoidable, and that's perfectly alright.

Few tidbits of data analysis are as discussion-worthy as this one, which was revealed in the early stages of BBC’s user needs for news journey. 70% of its output fell into the ‘Update me’ category, but that 70% of content only accounted for 7% of its audience’s attention. The conclusion? Stop making these kinds of articles. Right?

It’s striking, yes. But here’s why that’s not quite the conclusion you should draw.

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

Updates have long been synonymous with news. But that was when bulletins were found hourly on the radio, or during the evening news on TV, or on the front page of the evening edition of the newspaper. When print, radio or TV was the delivery mechanism, updates and ‘the news’ were one and the same.

Now, though? Not so much.

Today, most of us are party to a relentless news cycle. We no longer have to wait for the 10pm news programme to find out what’s going on; if something’s happened, your phone will likely ping you a notification within seconds of it coming down the wire. News finds you - wherever you are.

The battle for attention - for whose breaking news bulletins and updates get seen - is now being fought for the hallowed space of your lock screen. Only our most trusted information and services are permitted to sit here.

So, if the function of ‘Update me’ is being fulfilled with notifications, lock screen alerts and via social media channels, what’s happening to all those digital column inches?

News bulletins are still generally the core business of most newsrooms

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

It’s one thing to break that news, but that alone isn’t enough - and that’s only one facet of what newsrooms can and should do in 2024, and different approaches are going to be what fills those column inches. If you’re after quality engagement this is vital to acknowledge - because you’re simply not going to get it from Update me articles by themselves.

Our own data analysis has broadly confirmed the findings of that BBC World Service study: our research found that 70% of content fell into this ‘Update me’ category, but drove only 20% of traffic. While it’s not as dramatic as those other figures, it shows that the imbalanced relationship between production and consumption is fairly widespread.

Audiences need context, elaboration, details, inspiration. They’re asking for it. Who’s listening? Who’s answering?

How to decide when to do an Update me story

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 crappy business model. ‘Just because’ wins no plaudits.

We have a decision matrix for you.

If it’s a ‘high impact’ story on an essential topic, it’s totally fine to create an ‘Update me’ piece. You should own the story, push it to your users, and maybe start a folder to plan upcoming follow-ups or a liveblog to really claim the topic.

If the topic is trivial but it has a high impact, you should find the essence of the story before you create an Update me. For example: if the parking prices are rising in the city centre, the topic of ‘parking your car’ feels a bit trivial. But if the prices have doubled in two years, people are using city centres less, and shopkeepers are afraid they won’t have enough customers to stay afloat, the angle might shift to a more essential topic. So always refer back to the question ‘what is the story’ in the top left quadrant.

When we look in the bottom right, you’ll see stories that are essential, but have low impact on your readers. A perfect example would be a big earthquake killing people on the other side of the world. It has low impact on your local audience, but it’s essential to cover. These kind of stories are best covered from another user needs perspective because it will almost certainly engage your audience more effectively.

If it’s a trivial topic without impact, you should question whether it’s a story at all.

Let’s be clear: ‘Update me’ can be absolutely fine - and it is often essential - but it’s best thought of as being a kind of triage for the rest of the newsroom and news service. 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.

What the data tells us about how readers read

Mobile has created a culture where news is able to travel fast. Unfortunately, the flip side of this is that it leaves quickly too.

There’s been a steady decline in reads on desktop since 2019, with a corresponding increase on mobile. The flip side of this is that engagement metrics (read depth, page depth, attention time) lag on mobile. There has been a bump since Covid, but attention spans are proving to be shorter on mobile devices - and more people are avoiding the news altogether as well.

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.

The solution: for long term growth, think in cycles, not bulletins

Alongside user needs, 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.

‘Update me’ is an integral part of that cycle. Sure, sometimes a news bulletin will only ever necessitate a bulletin, but often it warrants a follow up of some description. User needs help balance out the coverage, and ensure that all angles of a story are covered, and all means of communicating it are too. It’s part of how you ‘discover’ new ways to communicate stories and information, and how readers develop a solid relationship with your brand.

Too many articles end up as ‘orphans’ - content floating around without being anchored to anything else on the news site, lacking 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 content that connects with other content makes sense. Those Update me bulletins likely warrant further exploration or expansion if they’re going to add value to you and your readers - and that’s where the other user needs come into their own.

This is why it’s so important to keep 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. With a dashboard and an array of notifications like smartocto’s, this is simple. These kinds of reports might not always be the most comfortable to read, but hey: as journalists you’re in the game of speaking truth to power. Applying the same kind of scrutiny upon ourselves is no bad thing, and in fact the feedback loop sharpens focus and accuracy.

Rutger Verhoeven, CMO @ smartocto

Rutger Verhoeven CMO @ smartocto

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, but just like building a house, you wouldn’t stop at the foundations. It’s what you do next that makes the difference. That’s where the engagement gold lies. That’s where your conversions, your success, your plaudits are found.

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? There’s loads more information to be found here if you’re interested in this.


The ‘Update me’ user need does exactly what it says: it’s a regular news story that tells you what happened.

Delve into the whitepaper.