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How to listen to your audience and learn from them

In between the projects that often fuel engagement efforts, there are other opportunities for journalists to listen. The phrase “Grow bigger ears” has become a popular one in public relations and social media circles. It suggests that the best way to respond to a world where more people are talking is to find smart ways to learn from what they say.

Here, we’ll discuss five broad ways publishers can listen to and learn from their communities:

  • Be accessible
  • Be responsive
  • Be present
  • Check in
  • Deliver (and capture) new value

Be accessible

A simple step newsrooms can take to “grow bigger ears” is to make themselves more accessible to their readers in more ways. Many journalists publish their email addresses, phone numbers and social media accounts. Not all journalists and newsrooms, however, make this information easy to find, or themselves easy to reach. Staff directories might be buried in website menus. Social media messages might go unanswered for days.

A newly powerful way for newsrooms to grow their audiences, engaged journalists say, is to be accessible and approachable when others are not. You want it to be easy to speak to your community. But you also want it to be easy for your community to speak to you. That takes being responsive and present on more of the channels through which the people you serve communicate.

In many cases, publicizing and staying responsive on just a couple channels, such as a central email account and a Twitter account, make more sense than trying to be available everywhere, especially if you’re just one journalist. The key is to communicate expectations clearly and follow through.

“Thank you for contacting the public editor,” reads an auto-reply message from Margaret Sullivan, who was then New York Times public editor. “My assistant and I read every message that we receive. … Due to the number of emails that we receive on a daily basis, we are not able to respond personally to everyone who writes.”

Few journalists can rely on an assistant to help them sort through audience messages. But few need to. The journalists who have the most to gain from opening more channels to their communities are journalists who serve smaller, more defined niches, such as those in local markets.

Be responsive

The West Seattle Blog credits its success in competing with the longstanding neighborhood newspaper, The West Seattle Herald, to its commitment to respond to neighbors.

“We’re living proof that a disruptor may come along, and if they’re more responsive, suddenly your 90-year-old audience is gone,” said editor Tracy Record. “If I’m still getting emails, crime watching tips and things, that’s how we know we’re still alive.”

West Seattle Blog’s contact page lists a phone number at the top, “answered 24/7 — if breaking news, you’re welcome to text, too!” the site explains. It also lists email addresses for the blog, for Record and her co-founder Patrick Sand, along with their social media channels — where they remain responsive — and specific tips about when to contact who for what and how best to format certain emails:

engagement west seattle

Record and Sand mean it when they say they answer their phone 24/7. That’s how they get some of their best tips, they said, helping them scoop other media in town. “One third of the time, they call us before they call the police,” Record said.

Even when what they hear is less urgent, Record and Sand consider it valuable to make a direct connection with their core audience of neighbors over the phone or via text.

Be present

Another way to listen to your communities is to join them in the spaces they gather — especially when you don’t have a particular story to report. This goes for both online and offline spaces, whether it’s an online forum, a Facebook page, a community meeting or a civic event. Turn up because you have a story to write and you show you value the story. Turn up because you want to get to know people and you show you value the community.

Becoming a familiar presence in the communities you serve has straightforward advantages. You position yourself to have more direct insight into a community’s evolving interests and needs. When you request something of a community that already knows you, they’re more than willing provide it. And when they have a story they want told, they’re more likely to come to you.

Some journalists can commit huge chunks of their workweek to establishing a powerful presence in their community. Not everyone could commit that kind of time, or would want to. What all journalists can do is think strategically about where they could benefit from establishing a reliable presence.

Is there an online space where people trade ideas around your beat? Are there meetup groups or mixers you could visit? Where do the the people who most influence your beat show up — at a local event, a blog, a group on social media?

Being alert to what’s said in your own channels can give powerful cues. When Boston Globe digital projects editor Laura Amico saw the subject of an in-depth feature answer a reader’s question in the story’s comments, she scheduled a live online chat with him readers appreciated.

Check in

Is your work connecting with a community? What could you be doing better? The best way to find out is to check in with your audiences and communities, and listen carefully to what they say.

Surveys are one way to ask your community for feedback on your own work. The New York Times has a customer insight team that regularly designs surveys for its news products. Users of the organization’s mobile news app NYTNow see a survey once every couple months.

The survey aims to understand what users value about the app and what keeps them coming back. App editors and product developers meet to discuss the results of the surveys, among other feedback, every couple weeks as they work to improve the app.

engagement nytnow

Of course, you don’t need anything as official as a survey to ask users for feedback. Soon after the NYTNow app began offering its “morning briefing” — a roundup of the day’s top stories — it included an email address at the bottom of the list and invited feedback. When the team developed an evening briefing, it put out the same invitation for readers to share what they thought.

“In an email someone said, ‘I’m desperate for news, and I don’t have time in my day for it. Thank you for giving me a way to the news.’ That was the theme of the response,” said Michael Owen, editor of NYTNow. “These are things we wouldn’t know from our user testing panels, or from metrics in our CMS.”

Chalkbeat, the education publisher, goes one step further when it comes to hearing its readers’ feedback. Its New York and Colorado bureaus have put together reader advisory boards that meet regularly to advise the bureau’s reporters on how their stories can better connect with the education community.

The concept took hold after founder Liz Green talked with someone in the education community about the site’s mission to cover the issue. The person got excited and wanted to help. From there, Green began to put together a group of community influencers the site would consult as it grew, such as teachers engaged in policy discussions or people who had spent time in the education nonprofit sector.

Among the things Chalkbeat’s reader advisory boards have done when they meet is a “read along.” Members of the advisory board will take turns reading Chalkbeat stories out loud, stopping to note when things seem unclear to them. “We could easily spend half an hour on one story,” former Chalkbeat director of product Anika Anand said.

For one advisory board meeting, Chalkbeat asked its advisory board members to come prepared to talk about three published Chalkbeat stories. One woman on the board arrived with a matrix chart she’d drawn with feedback so rich and thoughtful it stunned the staff.

“For readers to be that engaged, give that kind of feedback, why wouldn’t we tap into that?” Anand said.

Deliver (and capture) new value

The most common way publishers deliver value to their communities is through their news content. To find other ways to deliver value, it helps to get to know those communities, learn what they want, and be the one to give it to them — even if it sometimes seems counterintuitive.

NYTNow hypothesized that busy mobile news readers wanted an easy way to access the news that mattered, no matter who produced it. So when it launched, the app offered users a core stream of New York Times stories as well as a second stream of standout stories from other sites, which drove traffic to the Times’ competitors. When a new version of the app went live in 2015, the two streams merged.

“If we were going to be your guide to the news, we had to be your guide to all of it,” Owen explained. “Most people in the newsroom understand that we don’t have a monopoly on our readers’ attention in the first place — which means there’s even more value in getting people to engage with us consistently. Being a filter — helping people figure out what is worth paying attention to — is one of the best ways to keep them coming back.”

Essentially, the value NYTNow delivers its users is not just The New York Times’ news, but the New York Times’ perspective on all the news. The strategy appears to be working: Editor Michael Owen reported a “persistent rise in our monthly active users and in their engagement” since the merger of the two streams of content, as well as an increase in the number of non-subscribers using the app.

Events are another way some news publishers deliver value to their communities. Events give communities a space to connect with each other in person around their interests. They also deliver value to merchants and sponsors who want to reach those communities. At a sufficient scale, events can grow to become significant sources of revenue for news providers, while also delivering other benefits.

Seattle-based technology news site GeekWire draws 40 percent of its revenue from events. These range from its annual conferences, the GeekWire Summit and GeekWire StartupDay, and its holiday party for local startups, the GeekWire Gala, to a host of meetups, mixers and editorial events throughout the year.

The annual GeekWire Awards event delivers value to the region’s tech community in a particularly powerful way: It gives the members of that community a way to celebrate, on a regular schedule, what they’ve achieved.

geekwireawards

More than 900 people attended the ticketed 2015 GeekWire Awards, and more than 25,000 readers voted for winners in categories like CEO of the Year, Newcomer of the Year, and Geekiest Office Space. Hosting the awards event benefits GeekWire in three ways, editor John Cook explained. It brings people in the community together, it generates new story ideas and it brings in revenue.

GeekWire monetizes the growing awards event through more than just ticket sales. Each of the 13 categories in the 2015 awards had a presenting sponsor — a company or service provider that wanted to reach GeekWire’s audience. The sponsors’ names appeared next to the category title online. At the event, a representative from each company handed the award to the winner.

GeekWire’s highly photographed and tweeted events have helped the company make a strong case to advertisers and site sponsors that it commands the attention of a highly engaged community, Cook said. Their numbers suggest that influential tech workers engage around their brand. Their pictures prove it.

“We’re a convener online already,” Cook said. “If we can extend that to new experiences, that gets beyond online chatter to a real-world connection.”

Cook cautioned, however, that events take lots of work to do right. “Don’t go into it lightly,” he said.

Acting on its understanding of its community, GeekWire has also found other ways to monetize its most popular content. Earlier in this study I mentioned its live directory of Seattle engineering centers. Another live directory it manages is the GeekWire 200, a ranked index of the top 200 Pacific Northwest startups. The directory, which uses “publicly available data to identify the tech companies most popular and trending among key online communities,” has become a frequently visited and cited resource in the tech scene. Knowing that the leaders of the companies on the directory are searching for top tech talent, GeekWire started offering companies the opportunity to buy “We’re Hiring” buttons on the page that linked to the companies’ job postings.

engagement geekwire hiring

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