Ever since smartocto introduced the idea of user needs as a way to both plan and analyse content, media outlets have had questions. It's not surprising: it's a new approach, and probably one that's different to the norm. But how do we support those implementing it? It all starts with education.

Media face a problem

In 2017, BBC World Service introduced a groundbreaking method for addressing the news needs of its users. Their research revealed that online articles tended to be written from the standpoint of updating readers about global events. These ‘Update me’ stories were shown to be overproduced and under-engaged with, while articles catering to other needs such as ‘Inspire me’ and ‘Give me perspective’ performed much better in terms of reach, engagement, and loyalty.

Journalism consultant Dmitry Shishkin, who was working as an editor during the original research, revisited this issue during a smartocto workshop in Hilversum, the Netherlands:

"We as a sector are creating the wrong stories for the wrong audiences. This is because, as journalists, we tend to satisfy our own thirst for information. Many people don't know what inflation means. You don't need to be patronising, but also don't ignore that fact. You need to explain or contextualise."

Additionally, we are so familiar with the products we create that we primarily think about the format we use: “Oh, I'll turn this story about the economy into an interview”.

Dmitry suggests a different approach altogether. "First, think about the user need, and then you'll have four different angles to choose from. There will always be one that feels better than what your intuition initially suggested. Moreover, by applying the user needs approach, you can align better with the strategy of the news brand you work for. You can incorporate your employer's mission into your daily work."

Do you want us to tell you how user needs can help you? Please get in touch or check out our user needs packages.


The players

We first rolled out smartocto Academy to DPG Media. Their editors are now able to learn about user needs from our own experts. The regional broadcasters in the Netherlands purchased an additional ‘user needs’ course package. In six sessions led by Rutger Verhoeven and Dmitry Shishkin, editors at these news outlets were guided through a sample strategic approach that put the needs of news consumers front and centre. There were some participants already using this approach, and they were able to share their own experiences and notes.


The flexibility of an eLearning platform allows our journalists to update their knowledge at their own pace. It empowers them to extract the maximum potential from their stories, complementing the personalised coaching provided by our editorial analysts.

Thomas Boeschoten

Thomas Boeschoten lead news analytics team @ DPG Media

How the smartocto tool can help

Omroep Gelderland, Omroep Brabant, and RTV Utrecht have already implemented user needs in their workflows. This means that when producing a new article or segment, they determine whether it predominantly focuses on helping visitors (Help me), explaining a topic (Educate me), or simply informing visitors (Update me). To learn more about how user needs shape the creative process at Omroep Gelderland, read this piece.

Through this approach, smartocto can help in three significant ways:

  1. Delivering notifications based on user needs: These notifications appear in the inbox set up by the editorial teams themselves. They assist editors in making choices that align with the medium's strategy.
  2. Plotting user needs in the Quadrant Model: This is extremely useful for deeper analyses of a publication's performance. It provides a quick and clear overview of which articles perform well in terms of reach and engagement, which ones excel in one metric but not the other, and which ones perform poorly. Users can even zoom in on specific topics and sections to see which user needs work best for economic stories or tech-related articles.
  3. Building user needs-related dashboards in smartocto's Waves and Goals features: customers can create dashboards that show, for example, the top 10 best-performing ‘Inspire me’ stories or set simple targets for the editorial team, such as creating three ‘Help me’ articles today.
Goals on user needs
Our feature Goals can show the targets you have related to user needs.

Smartocto Academy and user needs

Ensuring that stories are appropriately tagged requires time and effort. It's not a simple task since editors may have different ideas about which dominant need is being addressed.

At smartocto, the realisation dawned on us that it's not enough to include user needs in our tool. It is crucial that the people on the ground - the editors - understand how to tag their stories and embrace the user needs approach.

Therefore, we recently launched our own eLearning program: smartocto Academy. It includes a module specifically dedicated to user needs. In videos, user needs experts explain how to identify user needs. Editors can go through the program, answer quiz questions to assess their understanding, and gain the following knowledge from the module:

  • Explanation of why user needs are important for journalism
  • Explanation and interpretation of User Needs Model 2.0
  • In-depth analysis and explanation of all eight user needs
  • Demos showcasing the use of smartocto features related to user needs

"Of course, it requires an investment of time for editorial teams to grasp the user needs approach," says Rutger Verhoeven, project manager for the eLearning program. "However, it is an essential investment for media outlets that prioritise their audience. Not every editor needs to extensively follow the user needs module of the smartocto Academy, but when a few editors do take it up, we see it spread like wildfire. It helps that participants can learn at their own pace."

Dmitry Shishkin in smartocto Academy
In smartocto Academy, amongst others, Dmitry Shishkin explains why user needs are so important for journalists.

In the video below, you can hear the experiences of participants from a previous user needs course.

In this video, journalists tell what they learned about user needs.

During the final session, participants had the opportunity to ask questions. Since the participants' questions are inherently valuable, we have gathered them below along with their respective answers.

How do you implement user needs during your morning newsroom meeting?

It all starts with a shared idea about what the strategy of your organisation is. Which user needs are important? Why do they align with the brand? It is crucial that you know this before incorporating user needs into your daily routine.

Once you know it, you can brainstorm based on user needs. For example, write topics on a board and ask the attending editors what approach would be good, one that fits the news need 'Inspire me', for instance. The question then becomes: How can we create an inspiring story about this topic?

What do you do with colleagues who are unwilling to use this user need approach?

The reason we're here with you is because your bosses have said that this is the approach embraced by the organisation. Essentially, you could refer to that agreement. Your organisation thinks this is important.

However, let it also be an opportunity to discuss matters that are not often talked about in an editorial setting. There is a strong temptation to quickly move on to the next topic when something new is mentioned. Is the audience waiting for that? Or did the audience have a need that the editorial team overlooked? The use of the user needs model is nothing more than language that expresses these kinds of important questions. Dmitry Shishkin: “User needs are about choosing the right angle for your next story. Try to keep it simple for your colleagues."

Talking about successes but also failures helps a lot. Firstly you’ll learn from those insights but also you indirectly show to the organisation that user needs approach matters and it’s here to stay. Newsrooms should talk more about the results - for better and for worse.

For us it’s important to find a regional hook in every story. How does that combine with user needs?

In fact, it doesn't matter whether a story has a regional focus or if it's a national or international topic. User needs go beyond the desire to"tell me something about my surroundings." The user need ‘Connect me’ is indeed a user need that can be very important for regional broadcasters: ‘Connect me to the area I live in.’ However, it takes more than just providing information about the region. Take a look here to see what ‘Connect me’ entails, along with examples.

Take the dashboarding case of DPG, where regional newspapers are monitored by AD (the big national newspaper - the mothership). Once regional articles go big, they are republished on the AD.nl site. This might work for the regional broadcasters of the RPO as well. i.e. if Omroep Gelderland has Veluwe, Achterhoek, Gelderse Vallei and Rijk van Nijmegen as key sections - editors might put super local articles on those ‘homepages’, monitor how they perform and based on success criteria decide if and when to place those articles on the OmroepGelderland.nl home. This kind of careful monitoring will help achieve the kind of results they're after.

How can you implement user needs for radio and TV?

Collaboration between websites, radio, and television works better when user needs are implemented broadly. You can certainly send a TV reporter on an assignment to capture different perspectives on camera (Give me perspective). It is risky to send a reporter out without clear instructions and then say afterwards: "This is not really what we needed."

Omroep Brabant follows an online-first strategy, which means that TV items do not duplicate the content already created by the online editorial team. This approach ensures that visuals become a true enhancement to the content rather than more of the same. It makes it easier to serve all channels effectively.

What are good user needs for sports?

The Atlantic has some very specific sports related user needs, such as ‘Help me discover new ideas’. ‘Make me feel nostalgic’ is another user need which would be good for sports. But it’s hard: different types of sports have different kinds of user needs. Rutger explains his view in a sheet (see below). Remember that publishing regular news about sports - when your brand is not the most dominant, prominent or trustworthy platform - will probably mean that your results will not be great. Turning to an alternative user needs approach and mastering its execution can bring a lot more relevant results for your brand.

This sheet explains that different sports could have different types of user needs.

What is the right user need for a specific topic?

You really need to keep in mind that user needs are not tied to specific topics. We explicitly state that it doesn't mean you should stop covering certain topics, but rather question whether the format you choose aligns with the needs of news consumers. The usual workflow is that a topic comes your way, and then you can think about which news need should be fulfilled. Subsequently, you choose a format that best expresses it. By analysing content based on the combination of topic, user needs, and format, you can reach the most interesting conclusions. Also the moment of the day, the channel, the format, the media you choose will all play a part in reaching your desired audience in the most effective way. Check out the sheets on moments of the day for guidelines to make your own ‘timing table’.

How do you connect user needs to social media?

It is important to realise which target audiences are present on the social media platforms you use - and what the characteristics of each platform are. Take ‘Cooking’ for example: while YouTube extensively showcases the creation process, on Instagram, it is more important to present the end result in a beautiful way - just to give an example.

'Update me' does not inherently fit well with social media because it takes time for an algorithm to pick up and amplify something. 'Help me' and other emotion-driven user needs generally fit better with social media, although NOS Stories has proven that 'Educate me' videos can also build a large reach with their NOS stories: over 1 million followers on Instagram.